Dog Sledding for Rookie Mushers

Unless you’ve been living under a rock (or a snowbank!), you’ve probably noticed that dog sledding is hot in Upper Michigan. Sure, the UP200 Sled Dog Championship has been going since 1990 in the central Upper Peninsula, but the Keweenaw is rocking its own race with the CopperDog. Now in its 6th year, the CopperDog 150 has take the region by storm. That race is run with mushers leading teams of ten dogs a distance of 150 miles over three days. It’s great fun to watch, but you don’t have to be a professional to do it—you can try it out for yourself not too far from home!

We Went Dogsledding

It’s hard to describe the sound of thirty-some barking sled dogs as anything but loud.

It’s terrifically loud when we arrive for our dogsled adventure, with each dog trying to bark, yip, and howl louder than the next in hopes of being picked to go on the day’s ride.

Three dog sleds lay waiting amongst the dogs, geared up and only needing dogs and riders. Sally Bauer grabs the harnesses, while her husband, Tom, tells us what to expect.

Each person will have their own sled. Tom in front, then me, then my husband in the back. It’s been cold and hasn’t snowed much, so conditions are fast. We’ll take four dogs each instead of the usual six—unless, that is, we’re really wanting some action.

We’re not.

We’re complete rookies, and just here to have a good time and see what this dog sledding thing is all about. We signed up for a 6-mile tour through the woods and are curious to see what the afternoon has in store. Tom and Sally run Otter River Sled Dog Training Center & Wilderness Adventures from their home in Tapiola, offering rides and camping trips in the wild woods of the western UP.

They coach us through the basics. You stand on foot boards on the tops of the sled’s skis and hold onto the handlebar—just like in the movies. To keep from going too fast, there is a rubber mat between the skis of the sled. Standing on the mat creates friction and helps to slow things down. There’s also a foot brake between the skis, which drives spikes down into ground to stop the sled against the pull of the dogs. And, lastly, there’s a snow hook that serves the role of an emergency brake out on the trail. It’s a large metal hook on the end of a rope that helps keep the sled in place should the musher need to get off—or fall off.


Nest, we start harnessing up our teams. Tom puts the teams together: Gwen goes in one of the lead positions on my sleds, Daffodil on the other. One by one, we harness the dogs that will go out with us and hitch them to the different sleds. Once all the dogs are in place, it’s time to go.

We step onto our sleds and get into position. Tom takes off first and then it’s my turn. Sally unhooks the sled from the post it’s attached to while I remove the snow hook and set it in the sled. My sled starts to move and my nervous excitement grows. The dogs pull, and we’re on our way.

My first few minutes are admittedly a bit clumsy as I get the hang of it. I test out how much pressure is needed to apply to the mat and the brake to stay in control on the fast, crusty snow at the beginning of the trail. My husband’s team is faster than mine and passes me early on. That’s probably for the better, since I was struggled a bit in getting around the first and most difficult corner—fortunately, Sally was staged there, ready to help out and give me a few pointers before I catch up with the sleds a head of me.

After that, it was easy to get the hang of it. The dogs pull, while I ride behind and take it all in. I stand on the skis to go faster and keep up with the others, and put weight on the mat if I want slow down. The dogs in my team follow the lead sled, making the turns and keeping a comfortable pace without any direction needed.

We wind around on trails through the woods. Although I know the general area, I don’t try to keep track of where we are and instead just let the dogs (and Tom) do the navigation. It feels relaxed and enjoyable, but I have the sense it would have been harder with six dogs.

To run ten dogs, like they do in the races—or even more than that—seems unimaginable. Or, perhaps, unimaginably awesome.

When we return, the cacophony starts back up, the dogs at home welcoming our return. We use the ice hooks to secure the sleds, but the dogs on our sleds are not as eager to pull as they were earlier. We unhook them from the sleds, and remove the harnesses. Many of the dogs are happy to walk back to their particular doghouse on their own to curl up and relax in their beds.

They seem pretty content after the day’s adventure and so are we.


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