Thursday, February 21, 2013

Going to the dogs

Some people never learn.
Apparently, I'm one of them, as evidenced by a recent round of activities that started with a visit to son Colin and his family near the northwestern edge of Minnesota, just across the icy Red River of the North from frozen Fargo, ND.  In last week's column, I told the story of the blizzard that caught us there, while singing the praises of the stouthearted northerners who worked together to dig out their snowbound city.  You'd think that after that cataclysmic blast of high winds, low temps and oodles and oodles of snow, we'd wise up and head south--way south--before winter grabbed us in its icy grip again.
Yeah, that's what you'd think. But you'd be wrong.
Instead, our next destination had to do with one of the ill-advised "bucket list" items that tumble through my head when I've got nothing better to do or think about.
"Gee, I'd sure like to go see that some day," I mused, while looking at a well-worn sweatshirt I received long ago from my sister. On the front of the garment is a stylized image of a dog running beneath a full moon. Underneath are these words: "Midnight Run Dog Sled Championship."
The Midnight Run is one of three dog sled races held in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan every February. First and foremost is the U.P. 200, an Iditarod qualifying race that's been run since 1990. It's one of  America’s premier 12-dog, mid-distance sled dog races and draws mushers from around the United States and Canada. The race covers approximately 240 miles from Marquette, Michigan to Grand Marais and back on a trail that includes stretches of near-wilderness, creek crossings, hills and valleys, and heavily forested land, along with cheering crowds and warm welcomes at every checkpoint along the way. The Midnight Run is an 80-mile race for top-flight eight-dog teams wanting to compete on a technically challenging trail, while the Jack Pine 30 is, I guess, the 30-mile doggy equivalent of a "fun run" for those hearty mushers and their canine companions.
I was probably somewhere warm, dry and sunny when I declared my desire to check out the races, but nonetheless, the idea stuck in my otherwise-empty head, so we made plans to go that way after our Minnesota visit. For those unfamiliar with northwoods geography, this meant over 600 miles to Minnesota from Galva, then another 500 through the lakes region to Duluth, continuing through upper Wisconsin's South Range, past ski hills, deep woods and mountain ranges, through reservation lands, and via frozen lakefront vistas littered with ice huts and snowmobile trails. After a two-day jaunt, we reached the Iron Range of Marquette, home of both the race and my sister and her family, who have lived their lives along the big lake for decades.  We started our married life in the Upper Peninsula, spending our first winter in a log cabin on the shores of Lake Superior. I've never gotten over my love for that wild, isolated, beautiful part of the world, even in winter, when the landscape is often frozen and stark, though still quite striking. And cold. Very cold, indeed, when the north winds blow.
But the welcome was warm, and soon, the day of the event arrived. Both the "big races"--the UP 200 and the Midnight Run--start in downtown Marquette, with the 200-miler beginning around seven p.m. and the Midnight Run following at nine.  While our main plan was to watch the mushers and their teams as they traveled past the first checkpoint, which is located approximately six miles down the trail at the church my sister and her family attend, we were anxious to see the start of the race, as well. The air temperature was about twelve degrees Fahrenheit when we arrived downtown, with a wind chill that hovered at around five below, leading us to an important discovery: Those boots that serve us well enough in Illinois aren't nearly warm enough for real winter conditions, especially the dressy models she wore, which I laughingly called her "Malibu Barbie Fashion Boots." But despite toes that nearly froze, we saw the exciting start of the first race, which included 30 sled dog teams. In doing so, I also came to realize that my preconceived notion as to the kind of dogs who participate in these grueling wintertime excursions was all wrong.  Admittedly, my prior experience with sled dogs has been limited to movies and repeated TV episodes of "Sergeant Preston of the Yukon," which was a Saturday morning mainstay when I was a kid. Ergo, I expected the dog teams to be made up solely of magnificent Husky and Malamute dogs with names like King, Chief and Rex. And while there were some of those powerful, well-furred beasts present, there were a surprising number of rather ordinary looking, short-haired dogs hitched to sleds as well. Dogs who looked like they probably bore names like Steve, Ralph and Peggy Sue. But that's why you go and see things for yourself. That's how you learn.
After watching the first few teams make their way down the snow-packed city street and onto the trail, we headed for the checkpoint after a quick stop for warmer boots and another layer of clothing. My sister Mary, her husband, Jim, and their three Girl Scout granddaughters were all volunteers, who provided food and warmth to the crowds gathered to watch the teams pass. I thought, perhaps, that some of the teams would stop at that first marker along the route, but it was, of course, much too soon to consider a break from the long, cold trail ahead. A giant bonfire provided warmth for many of the watchers, who gathered along the abandoned railway bed that serves as the trail in that section of the run.  Away from the lights of the city, the only sign of the approaching sled teams were the single headlamps worn by the mushers.
"Clear the track," a race official would call.
Out of the woodsy darkness, each team appeared, running easily after the mad dash at the beginning of the race. Aside from some quiet panting and the jingle of the harness, they made not a sound, in stark contrast to the frenzied barks and excited howls that had preceded the race. Ahead lay darkness and deep woods. Up to ten inches of new snow had fallen up the trail, promising tough sledding and a long night ahead.
Then they were gone.
"Wow," she said. "I'm glad we do these things."
A couple of days later, we finished the last leg of the nearly 1700 mile triangle that had taken us to Minnesota, Upper Michigan and down through Wisconsin and Chicago on the way home. It rained hard for the last hour or so, then quickly turned into a wet, pelting snow that covered the ground almost immediately.  Later that night, the lights flickered several times, then, finally, went out for good.
We crawled into bed, pulling up an extra blanket in case the power stayed out for the entire night. The mad cat Max, who had, once again, sensed our arrival and waited for us, snuggled close between us and purred.  Outside, the wind blew and the snow fell. All was quiet. I thought the same thought to myself.
I'm glad we do these things, too.

No comments:

Post a Comment