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Looking for the Shush

When the cool winds start to blow and thick sweaters are donned following a season in storage, some Door County dwellers start planning their journey south. But other local residents turn their heads to the wind with growing enthusiasm for the winter months ahead. Their names are Buddy, Mushka, Spirit, Juno and Magic, to name just a few, and they are the sled dogs of Door County.

If temperatures are at 50 degrees or less with a dew point of 50 percent or less, these energetic dogs can run safely and comfortably. Even before the snow flies, there are options for placing them in harness to prepare for pulling a sled.

At Husky Acres on County Highway A in Baileys Harbor, owner Toni Stich is greeted by 22 enthusiastic dogs. Each is eagerly begging to be selected for the team of four that will pull her and a guest around the property on a three-wheeled cart. “They can’t get enough of it,” says Toni, and her smile suggests that she can’t either.

Toni traces her interest in dog sledding back to an experience at 13 years of age when she met Frank Hall, an internationally known maker of dog sleds, at his dog camp in Michigan. She was immediately fascinated and within a few years Toni had a Siberian Husky of her own. The love of the breed quickly became an addiction and by the time she moved to Door County in 1997, Toni had five huskies. It was at that time the thought occurred to her, “With all of this land, I can run these dogs!”

With limited experience and home-rigged equipment, Toni’s early training runs involved some painful trial and error. Getting dragged through the gravel and wrapped up in the trees quickly taught her that control of the dogs was going to be essential if she wanted to enjoy the sport. A significant step forward involved pairing members of her pack with dogs that had experience, knew the commands and had lead qualities. Toni also invested in more technical gear and attended a boot camp in Togo, Minnesota where she and her dogs received intense training.

Toni rides “just for fun,” mostly on her own property as well as in nearby fields and several back-country trails across the county. She is intrigued with traveling from place to place by dogsled and doing increasingly longer distances, as opposed to racing. For her, the focus isn’t on speed; she would rather take advantage of the opportunity to look around and enjoy her surroundings. “You will never see those parts of Door County from the highway,” she remarks.

Like many who work in Door County, Toni is busiest during the summer months. It is during the fall and winter that she finally has time for recreation. A typical cool-weather day will include caring for and playing with the dogs from 6:00 to 9:00 in the morning followed by a sled ride, weather permitting. “Door County is perfect for this activity,” says Toni, and “when the ground is good [I am] out all the time.”

In her numerous experiences offering rides to interested visitors, Toni hasn’t had a single disappointed participant. “They end up hooting and hollering like little kids,” she laughs. Some of her most rewarding activities with the team have involved introducing children to the sport of dog sledding through volunteer programs with 4-H and the Girl Scouts, during which the children learn about dog care and handling. Perhaps recalling her own introduction to the sport, Toni comments, “It is so fun to see the kids’ faces as they interact with the dogs. They are immediately hooked.”

Fellow dog sledding enthusiasts Bonnie Ulrich and her husband Rick Desotelle also appreciate how engaging the topic of dog sledding can be for a young audience. As educators, they have seen children respond positively to lessons in physics, social studies, math, and other topics when drawing on the Iditarod as a theme. As mushers, they consistently find themselves answering questions about their hobby from curious strangers both young and old.

With their primary residence in Milwaukee, much of Bonnie and Rick’s time on the sled is spent giving rides at Veteran’s Park along the Milwaukee lakefront. All 10 dogs in their “pack” have been raised and trained at their Door County home on County Highway F in Fish Creek, where the surrounding 300 acres provides ideal training ground for “The Door County Sled Dogs.” Using their family-owned land and neighbors’ property (with permission) Bonnie and Rick have constructed a winding and wooded “challenge course” where their team of dogs has learned to negotiate difficult terrain. Bonnie remarks, “It can be tricky in the city to find the space, but we don’t have that problem in Door County.” Using a wheeled cart for off-season training is “pure high-powered fun.”

Even in the winter-loving Midwest, dog sledding remains an uncommon hobby and therefore carries the perception of being somewhat inaccessible. But Bonnie and Rick are spreading another message: “You don’t have to go to Alaska, you don’t have to run the 1,150-mile Iditarod.” Bonnie explains, “Dog sledding is a viable activity for anyone.” Whether for competition or recreation, with others or as a solitary pursuit, “it is simply a great way to spend the day,” says Bonnie, “and an activity that really affords you the opportunity to enjoy that [cooler] time of year.”

Bonnie and Rick clarify that the sport can be enjoyed many different ways, with a sled, on skis (skijoring) or hiking hands-free (canicross). Each of these methods involves similar equipment and requires training a dog or multiple dogs on commands, as you work together to generate power and speed. If properly outfitted for the weather, “any dog that instinctively pulls is a sled dog candidate,” they explain, “not just the arctic breeds.”

But don’t count on being able to jump right in and lead a team. Part of enjoying the sport is going through the proper training and connecting with the dog or dogs that are to become your teammates. It is important that the dogs be consistent in their response to commands to keep the sled under control. Taking off at speeds of over 20 miles per hour, and averaging five to 10 miles per hour over longer distances, the musher must maintain communication with their team to ensure everyone’s safety. “It is not as easy as it looks,” says Bonnie, who recommends partnering with an experienced and responsible musher to become educated. She and her husband have traveled to New Hampshire, Michigan and the Canadian border to learn from others. Now they welcome volunteers to join them and their team to learn by doing.

Like any athlete, sled dogs gradually build up their strength and endurance, starting with no more than a quarter-mile run. “You don’t want to hurt your dog by jumping in too quickly. They need to be strong before they can be fast,” says Bonnie. Four days per week and two hours per day is the maximum allowed for their dogs. The sport is physically demanding for the musher, too. “The musher pushes off the sled, and provides power to the team, working as hard as or harder than the dogs,” Rick explains.

Those dedicated to the sport will tell you that it is all about the relationship with the dogs. The most successful mushers are those who take good care of their dogs, and for whom “the dogs come first.” Says Rick, “You may be tired after a long day on the trail, but you don’t take care of yourself until you have attended to the needs of your team.”

It may be hard work, but the rewards are great. Bonnie and Rick laugh that they usually get their tan in the winter from spending so much time outside. Rick recalls a day with fellow mushers when after several hours in the 15- degree air they found themselves remarking to one another, “Isn’t it a beautiful day?”

As Bonnie explains, “Part of the joy of the activity is the quiet; you are with your dogs but otherwise all alone in nature.” It is a sentiment shared by Toni, who recalls a time on the trail when “a deer jumped right over the team and the dogs kept running as if they had no idea.” She continues, “When you are out on the trail, it is just the panting of dogs and the swishing of the sled rails over snow…nothing but the shush-shush.”

To learn more about “The Door County Sled Dogs” and find out where and when they are running, visit their website at www.doorcountysleddogs.com or call the sled dog hotline at (414) 967-9677. For more information about activities at Husky Acres, contact Toni Stich directly at [email protected]