A massive committment

CALUMET – Copper Dog 150 musher Lisa Dietzen of Team Evergreen Kennel, in Skandia, had just returned from a training run with her dog team and sled when interviewed Friday, and it hadn’t been one of the easier runs of the season.

“We broke trail for 22 miles, and they did really good,” she said. But nearing the end of the route one dog pulled up, and soon after that the sled broke.

“We made the last two miles with a broken sled and a dog in the sled,” she said.

What would normally have been a two hour run, fit in among her job, college classes and the rest of her life, turned into four hours, plus whatever time she might need to spend with her injured pup.

Thursday presented other challenges

“Yesterday I just ordered $780 worth of booties,” she said, referring to the footwear used to keep the dogs feet from icing up on the trail.

Only a handful of mushers in North America make a living off the sport, according to those who don’t. While the rest may offset expenses through sponsorships, dog sled tours, race prize money and breeding, they generally pour a lot of their own money and huge amounts of time into their teams, for the love of the dogs and the sport.

“It’s really the pursuit of a feeling,” said Roy Bauer, 17, who finished ninth in last year’s Copper Dog 150 as musher for the Otter River Sled Dog Training Center and Wilderness Adventures near Tapiola.

“When you’re on the trail and it’s silent,” he added, “and all you can hear are the runners and the dogs feet, you’re there just before dawn at the end of a run and the sun peeks up over a hill … it’s just a feeling and in the end it’s worth it.”

Bauer said his father Tom is the driving force behind the kennel, but he’s been around long enough to recognize the truth of something he heard from a world-class musher while visiting a kennel during a trip to Alaska.

To run a successful kennel, “You need experience, a lot of time and a lot of money,” the man had said.

That time commitment isn’t just for the racing season, Dietzen pointed out, with dogs needing food, exercise and human bonding year round.

“It’s not like snowboarding. You can’t just put dogs away for the season,” she said.

In the peak of the racing season, Dietzen said, she’ll run her dogs as far as 60 miles a stretch – that’s six to seven hours behind the sled – with runs of various lengths as often as five times a week.

Training continues year round at a less intense pace, with dogs running behind an ATV.

In the winter, trainers can commit entire days to back-to-back runs as long as 50 miles each, with a few hours in between, to simulate stage racing.

Last year, Bauer remembered, he worked through one 24-hr. period that truly tested his endurance, with school, training and running a dogsled tour to recoup expenses for the kennel.

“I stepped off the school bus at 4:30, started on a run, and went straight through to 7 a.m.,” he remembered. “I crashed on the couch for about half an hour and then had to get up and do a tour.”

There isn’t much training in the summer as it’s not safe for the dogs to run in temperatures above 50 to 60 degrees. Dietzen said Team Evergreen is lucky enough to be situated on a 160-acre property, and dogs are often allowed to run free, at their own safe pace, in summertime.

Bauer said the 45-dog Otter River team spends from about six hours a week training dogs in the summer to about 36 in the winter, but that’s probably the smaller part of the work involved in keeping a team running. He guesses family members and one volunteer helper spend about two hours a day, every day, taking care of the dogs.

But not all of that commitment falls on the musher, according to Dietzen.

“People forget the musher can’t get there without the handling crew,” she said. “They’re very important during training. It’s not usually a one-person game.”

As the veterans told Bauer, running a kennel doesn’t come cheap. Dog booties are the least of the expenses. The biggest, according to Dietzen, is dog food.

Team Evergreen has 22 dogs, she said. Fourteen of them race actively, and eat considerably more than the eight retired dogs.

Total annual dog food bill? About $5,000, she said. She estimated total expenses at around $7,500, and noted that many kennels have more than twice the number of active dogs.

One significant expense is buying the dogs themselves. While some kennels breed dogs for their own teams and to sell, others practice canine birth control to keep kennels more manageable.

Calumet musher Jerry Trudell, who runs …Sharks Came Racing kennel, recently bought two young, trained dogs from last year’s Copper Dog 150 winner, Bruce Magnusson.

Trudell didn’t name the price of those dogs, but said most trained one- to two-year-olds cost from about $500 to about $2,500.

“It’s mostly about the bloodlines,” he said.