Dog sled heroes: Groomers make CopperDog possible

HOUGHTON – During the famous 1925 “Great Race of Mercy,” 20 teams of heroic Alaskan mushers and sled dogs transported a 20-pound package of diphtheria antitoxin from Nenana to Nome to battle a deadly epidemic that was threatening the community, particularly native children without immunity to the disease.

The event was one of the inspirations for the world’s most famous sled dog race, the Iditarod, and without the mushers and teams, the life-saving serum would not have got through.

In the CopperDog 150, sled dog teams race toward less critical ends, and they have different heroes to celebrate. The teams race on the Keweenaw North snowmobile trails groomed and maintained by Keweenaw Trails Services, Inc., and according to Race Director Meredith LaBeau, the race couldn’t go on without them.

“It’s essential,” LaBeau said. “The race wouldn’t exist without the groomed snowmobile trails.”

KTS grooms the trails all winter for snowmobiles, but when it comes to the CopperDog, KTS employees “go above and beyond in meeting with us and helping out,” LaBeau said.

Larry “Buzzy” Butala, Keweenaw Trails Services manager, said his crews are happy to accommodate the CopperDog. He said that while keeping trails groomed for snowmobiles may be their primary mission, all legal, nondestructive trail use benefits the local economy, one of the primary reasons for the trails in the first place.

“We’re happy to work hand-in-hand with the sled dog race,” he said. “They’re really pleased with our efforts, and we’re real pleased with the results. It’s a win-win for everybody.”

Butala said he believes that the race’s annual Friday evening start, when thousands of visitors descend on downtown Calumet, is probably the most important day of the year economically for the village.

Mostly the CopperDog runs on the trails as is, but Butala said KTS is willing to put in a little extra effort to groom small extra sections that make the race go smoother, or adjust grooming schedules to accommodate the running of the race.

That could mean simply keeping groomers off active parts of the course on race day, or running late into the night previous to the race if heavy snowfall threatens racing conditions.

“We try to make it the best race we can,” he said.

Generally, Butala noted, snowmobilers, dogs and mushers get along fine on the trails. Race schedules and routes are publicized so snowmobilers who’d prefer to avoid the race can adjust their routes, but many are happy to simply pull off to the side for a few minutes to watch teams go by.

“The snowmobilers get kudos for being positive about it,” he said. “They like watching the race, and the sled dog folks are also cooperative.”

Along with that cooperative attitude, CopperDog donates $500 each winter to assist KTS with its work. It’s not much in relation to KTS’s operating costs, which include $80,000 annually in fuel alone, but “every little bit helps,” according to an email from CopperDog director of PR and marketing Todd Brassard.

Brassard also acknowledged that mushers and dog teams are “strictly guests on the trail system.”

In total, Butala said KTS is responsible for grooming 232 miles of trail in Houghton and Keweenaw Counties. With five groomers and 15 employees, KTS logs about 4,000 grooming miles a month.

The Keweenaw trails are already the biggest snowmobile trail system in the state, but Butala said he’d like to see it grow even more.

Groomer drivers, all seasonal employees, work in two approximately 9-hour shifts when things are going smoothly, but shifts can run to 12 hours or beyond if weather conditions make it necessary to keep the trails safe.

The system is paid for by the Department of Natural Resources, which pays by miles groomed. Heavy-snow winters like this one are ideal for snowmobiling and increased economic impact, but can be tough on KTS financially, Butala said. Each mile creates more potential challenges, such as fallen trees, than lighter-snow years, he said.

All the money the DNR passes along, he noted, comes from snowmobile and all terrain vehicle user fees.

“I hear people say (trail maintenance) is wasted tax money, but it’s not tax money,” he said.

Mushers, winter and summer bikers and other users of the trails don’t have to pay user fees, but CopperDog organizers are fully aware of the costs, and extremely thankful that the groomed trails are available.

“They’re the backbone of the race,” LaBeau said of the trails.This year’s CopperDog 150 will run Feb. 28 through March 2.

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