A look at the start of the CopperDog 150

CALUMET – Jerry Mitchell was home in Cedar Bay with his wife Sandy when he heard a noise that made him look out the window. He didn’t see what he thought he’d heard, but he did see ten dogs, a sled and a musher slide through. When his wife Sandy came to the window, there were more, this time a six-dog team. Finally, a woman on skis, dragged along by a single dog.

A few weeks later, Mitchell remembers, he met one of the mushers, Truman Obermeyer, and they started to chat. Obermeyer knew something about dog sled racing, and said yes, he’d be interested in helping start a local race.

The two organized a meeting, recruited Main Street Calumet to administer the finances, and with lots of sweat and elbow grease and dozens of volunteers, the CopperDog 150 was born.

“I thought we’d get 500, 600 people to come out the first year; we got 3,000,” Mitchell said Friday. “Now it’s the biggest weekend event in Calumet.”

Going into the final stage of that inaugural 2010 CopperDog, unseasonably warm weather had left large dirt patches on the trail into Calumet. Then a relatively frigid night had frozen remaining snow into sharp, slippery chunks. Bruce Magnusson and some of the other mushers didn’t think the trails were safe for their dogs.

The race director, a musher himself, dismissed their concerns, though he eventually ended the race several miles shy of the intended downtown Calumet finish line.

Magnusson had been running third going into that final stage, but pulled out rather than risk injury to his dogs. At a symposium with CopperDog organizers later that night, he couldn’t honestly say he expected to return, when asked.

But then, “We talked for two and a half hours and they convinced me they were going to improve it,” the Novi- and Cheboygan-based musher, and last year’s winner, remembers.

They came through, he said, and he’s since become one of the biggest advocates of the race and its leadership corps.

“They want what’s in the best interests of the dog and of the race, and they listen to everybody,” Magnusson said in a phone interview Friday. “They’re the best organization that I’ve had the pleasure to race with.”

Magnusson said he’ll be back for this year’s race, Feb. 28 to March 2, to attempt to become the first back-to-back winner.

One of the leaders Magnusson cites is CopperDog 150 Board Chair Doug Herrer. Herrer, a Calumet village councilman, admits he knew nothing about dog sled racing when the organizers of the first race asked for someone from the council to sit on the board. At the time, his main focus was how the race could benefit Calumet economically.

But once the first race day came around, he knew he’d be staying involved for more personal reasons.

“Anyone who sees a race for the first time, it’s hard not to fall in love with the dogs and what they do,” he said. “For me, even though I’m not a musher, it’s the love of the sport. Listening to the dogs howling as they’re coming to the line, getting ready to go, that’s very exciting.”

Of course, economics are still a focus, with the approximately 2,500-3,000 people expected downtown at this year’s Feb. 28 evening start and another large crowd for the finish on March 2, it’s a shot in the arm for Calumet’s economy. There’s been no economic impact study, but the number of faces on the street and reports from local business owners are positive, Herrer said, adding that he expects the race’s popularity to grow, and to eventually receive national attention.

“My goal someday is to see us on ESPN,” he said.