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The North Wind

The North Wind

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Molly Birch
Molly Birch

My name is Molly, and I am in my second year at NMU. I come from Midland, MI, probably one of the most boring places on earth. However, we do have the only Tridge in the world, so that’s pretty nifty...

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The North Wind is an independent student publication serving the Northern Michigan University community. It is partially funded by the Student Activity Fee. The North Wind digital paper is published daily during the fall and winter semesters except on university holidays and during exam weeks. The North Wind Board of Directors is composed of representatives of the student body, faculty, administration and area media.

Students protest against Israel-Hamas war with campus encampment
Students protest against Israel-Hamas war with campus encampment
Dallas WiertellaApril 30, 2024

U.P. 200 over, training begins

This year’s U.P. 200, held the weekend of Feb. 19 through 21, proved to be a tough race due to unseasonably warm weather. It was clear that whether mushers use three-wheel carts, four-wheelers, trips to the Alaskan ice fields, or swim-time in a pool or lake, careful year-round conditioning of their sled dogs is important.
“We use the early fall to build up the dogs strength,” said musher David Balding, who has competed in the 90-mile Midnight Run sled dog race in the Upper Peninsula four times. “And once the snow flies we can safely go from 2-mile runs to 10-mile runs, focusing on endurance.”
In North America, sled dog racing season ends in the spring. Mushers typically rest their teams through the hottest months and resume training for the next season in late summer or early fall, once it is cool enough for the dogs to run comfortably, Balding said.
Tasha Stielstra, the winner of the 2006 U.P. 200 and owner of Nature’s Kennel in McMillan, Mich., said that swimming is a great, low impact way to keep sled dogs in shape during warm weather without risking over heating and while some mushers do have pools, it is a rare commodity.
“You have to have good access to a lake,” Stielstra said.
Temperature plays a large role in the sled dog training schedule. Most mushers will not train their dogs when temperatures are above 50 degrees because the dogs could easily get dehydrated or overheated. It’s dangerous to resume training when the weather is too warm because heatstroke can cause significant health problems for a dog and may even lead to their performance being affected for life.
“To take a mental break and have a couple of months off isn’t a bad thing,” Stielstra said.
Jeanie Wilcox, who served as this year’s head veterinarian in the U.P. 200 and has a practice in Gwinn, Mich, said that she doesn’t see a lot of heatstroke or exhaustion problems during the summer months because mushers make a point not to train their dogs in the heat of the day.
“Start slowly and build them up gradually,” Wilcox said.
Balding said that often mushers will overcompensate for the heat so they don’t put the dogs at risk.
“We’re so careful during the summer and the fall not to overdo it because we’re worried about something like [heatstroke], that it almost never happens,” Balding said. “We end up going in the middle of the night or when it’s raining.”
Once the days grow cooler, it is time for the dogs to begin their training, which is a lot like the regimen of a professional athlete. Gradually the dogs regain strength and muscle fluidity and an increase in lung capacity, Balding said.
Using a four-wheeler in place of a sled, Balding puts the dogs in their harnesses and attaches them to the front of the machine. Keeping the vehicle in first or second gear, depending on the terrain, he allows the dogs to pull him along the trail. This means the dogs are not only pulling him but also the weight of the machine.
Balding’s dogs begin running just short distances of one, two and three miles, with three miles being the absolute farthest they can go before getting worked up in the heat. Once the weather cools down even more the dogs are able to work on distance training, Balding said.
“The fall is like a weightlifter, it’s all building mass and then as soon as winter hits then it’s like a marathon runner, there’s no resistance behind them at that point all it is, run as far as we can as fast as we can and be as efficient as we can,” Balding said.
As a part of training, Stielstra will often take her dogs for tours in Alaska to run the glaciers during the summer months. Armed with a handler, she and her husband load the dogs up in the truck and go, usually taking about 50 dogs but sometimes as many as ninety have gone, Stielstra said.
“We’re always looking to gain a tough edge on competitors.”
While the competitive sled dog season will soon come to a close and the dogs will take a well deserved break, the training cycle will continue throughout summer and fall in the hopes to claim a victory next year.

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