Dog sledding, a historic form of transportation is also a fun way to get out and enjoy the winter months. With more than 2,000 miles of dog sledding trails, 11,000 frozen inland lakes and a number of snow-covered national forests, Michigan is a great destination for a dog sledding adventure.
With dog sledding being one of the activities in the Pure Michigan winter video series, we spoke with Tasha Stielstra of Nature’s Kennel Iditarod Sled Dog Racing and Adventures to learn more. See her answers below and be sure to check out the video at the bottom of the post!
For more information or to plan your winter vacation, visit michigan.org/winter.
A: Ed and I have owned sled dogs for about 20 years and have been operating our touring and racing kennel on a full time basis for 10 years. Ed got into the sport with a family friend just after college (at MSU) and I met Ed while I was working in Ludington one summer. Neither of our families owned or worked with sled dogs. Needless to say, they have been very patient through all our crazy adventures as we quit our full time careers, raced sled dogs around the world, and built a successful touring business. We’ve grown in ways we’ve never imagined and now have a full time winter staff of four guides in addition to ourselves, 160 sled dogs, and a successful Iditarod racing team. It’s a lot of hard work and long days, but we would not have it any other way!
Q: Why do you love dog sledding?
A: We, of course, we like working with and training the dogs. Now that our business has really grown, we almost spend more time managing dogs and staff and entertaining guests than actually getting to run dogs. One reason Ed likes to run the Iditarod is that he’s alone with his dogs for 1,000 miles for 10 days and does not have to deal with any of the day to day concerns of the kennel while he is on the trail. We also like teaching new people about mushing. There’s something magical about watching a novice learn the sport and fell so good about what they have accomplished.
Q: Describe the experience for someone who has never tried dog sledding.
A: The experience can be for anyone of any age. Children need to be 10 years old and over to drive their own sled, and there is not an age cut off. We just had one client who was 77 complete one of our overnight trips where he drove his own team. There’s really no experience to compare this to. There’s a sudden rush when the dogs first take off, there’s the serenity of moving under dog power along the trail, there’s the crisp feel of cool weather, and there’s the affection of the dogs who are so excited to see new people every day.
Q: Are there any dogsled races or events in Michigan?
A: Yes, there are many MI races and events. One of the largest distance races outside of Alaska is the UP 200 in Marquette, MI, which takes place on the third weekend in February. This is a 260 mile race that runs round trip from Marquette to Grand Marais. There is also a race near us in Newberry, the Tahquamenon Country Sled Dog Race which is the first weekend in January. There is also the Copper Dog 150 mile Race in Calumet the first weekend of March. There’s also a new race, the Ironline taking place in Iron River, MI on February 8-9th. All of the races are very spectator friendly and great family events. I highly recommend watching a sled dog race in person. There is also a group in Michigan called MUSH that has events throughout the winter and fall for recreational mushers.
Q: Where are some great places in Michigan to dog sled?
A: Of course we are biased to dog sledding in the UP. The trails are fantastic up here, the snow is great, and the scenery spectacular. We simply have more reliable snowfall than Lower Michigan which means our season is much longer. The UP is also much less populated which means we have access to long distance touring and training trails and we don’t have any neighbors who live close by would be bothered by 160 dogs singing their good night song. We are also trying something new in the UP this year, and that is giving people rides to view the lower falls of the Tahquamenon River. There are some places up here that just are not accessible in the winter time, and the lower falls are one of them. We have a new agreement with the DNR that we will take people in by dog team to view these spectacular water falls! Now, after all the hype about the UP, we also love our relationship with Boyne Highlands near Harbor Springs. Boyne is also in a great location for reliable snow and we transport our dogs there every weekend for sled dog rides. It’s nice to have this option for guests as it’s a bit closer to home for many people and the resort is a great place for many winter activities. We give rides only at Boyne, we don’t offer the drive-your-own team option.
Q: Is there anything that people don’t realize about dog sledding?
A: People who come to our place are commonly surprised at how small and friendly the dogs are. We have Alaskan Huskies and they all look very different from each other but all are very social and loving. Many of our dogs we use for tours are our retired racing dogs or dogs who will be the next generation of superstars. Dog sledding is something that people of all ages and abilities can participate in. We’ve given rides to children as young as six months and adults as old as 90. We can also lift people into our sleds if they have difficulty walking or have other limitations.
Q: What are sled dogs like? How are they the same and how are they different than a family pet?
A: They are not different from family pets. The love attention, they want to be scratched behind the ears, they love to eat, and if you let them, they will sleep on the couch. BUT, they also LOVE to pull. It’s something they are born and bred to do. It’s very instinctual, like a beagle that chases rabbits. We retire our dogs into family homes at about 7-8 years old and they make great family pets.
Q: What advice do you have for someone who might want to try dog sledding?
A: Find an outfitter that you trust and give it a try. I’d highly suggest driving your own team as that is the “true” experience. However, also be honest with yourself and if that just seems a bit too intimidating, then take a ride with the dogs. Like I said, be sure to ask a lot of questions like: “If I drive my own team, is there a guide in front and how many dogs would I have?” “If I ride in the sled, will the guide be driving the sled?” “What is the maximum number of guests you have with each guide?” “Do you provide any gear if I’m unsure if my clothing is adequate?”
Q: What do you love about a Michigan winter?
A: Snow, of course! Our lives would be miserable without it!
Q: What is your favorite thing to do after dog sledding?
A: Share the experience and stories with others.
Learn more in Dog Sledding | A Pure Michigan Winter below, from the Pure Michigan winter video series.
Tasha Stielstra is co-owner of Nature’s Kennel Iditarod Sled Dog Racing and Adventures in McMillan, MI. Her husband, Ed is a 7-time Iditarod finisher. They own nearly 160 Alaskan Huskies and two small children, Fern and Nate. Tasha does the marketing and managing for their touring business, chases puppies down the trail, and spends a great deal of time playing with monster trucks (with 2-year old Nate). Nature’s Kennel can be found online at www.natureskennel.com or on Facebook at Nature’s Kennel.