Dying breed? Costs, commitment take a toll on Minnesota sled dog racers

Dogs howl and jump in anticipation of a run.
Dogs howl and jump around in anticipation for a practice run last week at Colleen and Ward Wallin's Silver Creek Sled Dogs operation near Two Harbors, Minn.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

"Hi Muskie! Hi Taxi! You wanna go Miss K?"

The question doesn't need an answer. There's no doubt all of Colleen Wallin's dogs want to go. Now.

In the predawn darkness outside of Two Harbors, Wallin harnesses her excited team for a training run, a 43-mile romp through the woods that will end hours later in Duluth at a site she expects to see again in a few days — the finish line of the John Beargrease sled dog race.

She acknowledges prepping for the Beargrease marathon takes a ton of effort but says "the minute it becomes work," she'll "no longer be a musher."

Wallin, though, may be among a vanishing breed in the North Woods.

On Sunday, 30 mushers will take off with their teams of sled dogs for the 32nd running of the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon. That's a far cry from the 74 mushers who competed back in 2004. While there are still lots of people raising sled dogs, there are fewer Midwestern mushers putting in the time and money required to run long races like the Beargrease.

A rare moment of calm before a run.
In a rare moment of calm, one of Colleen and Ward Wallin's dogs sits before a training run.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Racers who've hung up the sled cite the huge financial burdens and personal costs of training and keeping a competitive team and the relatively small payouts, even for winners. While the adrenaline rush is real on race day, the road to get there is a steep climb all year.

Three years ago, just before the start of the 2014 Beargrease, musher Drew Groeneveld of Two Harbors decided he had had enough. Enough of sled dogs, enough of racing.

"That's when I made the decision, I was just ready to do some different things in life," he recalled.

Groeneveld owned a well-respected, 63-dog kennel. But he said the time spent on chores like cutting up meat for his dogs all caught up with him.

Troy and Katie Groeneveld at their supply business
Troy and Katie Groeneveld talk about their business selling supplies to the sled dog industry.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

"When it's 90 degrees in the summer, and you're processing a bunch of frozen fish, and there's bugs flying in your face, that's part of it too," he said. "It's not just crossing the finish line and knowing that you did a great thing with you and your dogs and your team that's involved with you."

Groeneveld understands the romance, the tradition of sled dog racing. Take the Beargrease. It commemorates an Ojibwe musher who delivered mail via dog sled up and down the North Shore of Lake Superior in the late 1800s.

But Groeneveld, who now runs a company called 10 Squared Racing that manufactures and sells sled dog gear, said much goes into being a successful musher that most people don't see.

"Every day you have to be thinking of your next litter, your vaccination program, your worming program, your meat preparation, then booking hotels for races, cutting up different trail snacks for races, putting them in bags, all the logistics," he said. "I can't even begin to tell you what it's like."

Then there's the expense. Two-time Beargrease winner John Stetson of Duluth quit in 2010 right after he won a prestigious and grueling race called the Hudson Bay Quest.

"If I would have run the lottery last week with the $1.5 billion I'd get back into dog racing, but it's so much time and so much money that it's not really sustainable," Stetson said. "You have to be so devoted to the lifestyle of everyday with the dogs."

Consider dog booties. Sled dogs wear them to protect their feet. They cost $1 a piece. But to complete the Beargrease, the dogs need new ones, for each foot, at all seven checkpoints. So, for one race, that's nearly $400. Just for booties.

Many mushers do earn money guiding tourists. Some have sponsors. And there's prize money. In the two dozen or so long-distance races, many in Alaska and Canada, winners can take home around $5,000, sometimes more.

But prize money rarely covers expenses, said Beargrease board member Jason Rice.

"Having a kennel of sled dogs is kind of akin to farming, except without the income," he said.

Troy Groeneveld stands next to sled dog supplies.
Troy Groeneveld stands next to a large bag of dog supplements.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Rice says he's seeing a decline in the number of larger kennels in the Midwest, those kennels large enough to raise the 30 or more dogs needed to run bigger races like the Beargrease.

"It's a lot like having a football team," said Stetson. "You have the pee wee leagues, and those are the puppies," he said. Yearlings are like high school players, and it takes the best of the best to win competitive sled dog races, he added.

"It's not necessarily that there are less people mushing," said the Beargrease's Rice. "There's less people who are choosing to financially make the commitment to have a kennel that big and do it just for racing purposes," he said.

A couple new races have even popped up offering shorter distances. Jack Stone, who co-directs the Gunflint Mail Run outside Grand Marais, said they added a 70-mile, eight-dog race this year "because that's the type of kennels that we're starting to get up here. It's so expensive to have a kennel of 50, 60 dogs."

Ron Hewson, who directs The UP 200 in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, said his numbers are up from last year but only by recruiting mushers from the Canadian province of Quebec.

"A lot of what's missing is the local mushers," Hewson said. "When we would fill the race with 40, there might be 20 of those that lived within 100 miles. That's really no longer the case."

What's missing is a large contingent of young mushers coming up and taking over kennels from those getting out of the industry, he added.

"Ideally, someone would retire from the sport, and their dogs would go to someone who was just getting started, that person would be glad to help out someone just getting started in the industry," he said. "But we don't always see that."

Colleen Wallin finishes a practice run.
Colleen Wallin smiles as she finishes a practice run with her dogs last week near Billy's Bar in Duluth.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

But there are still those who, despite the time and money, remain devoted to raising dogs to compete in races like the Beargrease.

That includes Wallin and her husband Ward.

"I tell people that the amount of time we're actually racing, sometimes, is maybe 20 percent if you think about cutting meat, Colleen sewing booties, working on trails, working on sleds, fixing harnesses," Ward Wallin said after Colleen took the dogs out and the air was suddenly quiet.

Beaver paws await hungry dogs.
Beaver paws await hungry dogs at Silver Creek Sled Dogs property near Two Harbors, Minn.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Wallin walks a visitor into the freezer at Silver Creek Sled Dogs. He estimates he has 3 or 4 tons of meat for the dogs.

"A lot of mink and beaver, a lot of bear fat, beaver carcasses that we chunk up and feed whole," he said.

Wallin grinds the meat up and freezes it into 50 pound blocks. He uses a commercial band saw to cut it into chunks.

Despite the cost and the stress of raising dogs while shuffling their kids to hockey and theater, and maintaining two full-time jobs, Wallin says it's totally worth it.

"Everybody has hustle and bustle in their day," he said. "Just getting behind a dog team, especially at night, when it's just you and the team and a little beam of light in front of you. It's truly magical, truly magical."

You can see that about five hours later, when Colleen Wallin leads her team of panting dogs to the end of the training run in Duluth.

"We did it! We won!" she calls to the dogs. "Good job, you guys."

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.