Race history shared

Annual event has become mid-winter favorite

Ward Christopher Wallin and his team of sled dogs cross the finish line third in the U.P. 200 race last year at Lakenenland. (Journal photo by Jess Makela)

MARQUETTE — The Upper Peninsula 200 Sled Dog Championship, now approaching its 29th running, is an event many Yoopers and others look forward to each year.

On Tuesday evening at the Superior Dome, Pat Torreano, historian for the U.P. 200 and former president of the U.P. Sled Dog Association, presented “Evolution of the U.P. 200 Sled Dog Races,” hosted by the Northern Center for Lifelong Learning. While Torreano said the U.P. 200 is now the highest-attended U.P. winter event, coordinated by a board of directors and over 700 volunteers, it began with a few area individuals who had a passion for sled dog racing.

“(We started) from one telephone, one fax machine, white trail markers — which are pretty hard to see in the snow — one judge, one vet and a $10,000 budget,” Torreano said. “We’ve grown into a race organization with nine board members, a secretary, treasurer, computers at each checkpoint, 84 ham radio operators, (a budget) of $120,000, 14 vets, eight vet technicians, four judges, plus the countless, countless volunteers — oh, and colored trail markers.”

She emphasized the importance of volunteers in the growth and success of the U.P. 200, noting “there would be nothing without our volunteers.”

Torreano spoke about unusual situations, changes, challenges and triumphs that have occurred over the years, and said “a race is like a play — it will never run the same way twice.” With a smile, she told stories of a kindly man handing out hot pasties to mushers on the frozen Ford River, an entrant with a team of Irish setters, the bond between mushers and dogs, and the unusual practice of moving snow to West Washington Street in Marquette during the winter.

When it started in 1990, the U.P. 200 took mushers and their teams on a trail beginning in downtown Marquette, through Chatham and Rapid River to Escanaba, and back to Marquette via Gwinn.

A major change for the race occurred during the unusually warm winter of 2003. Due to lack of snow on the Escanaba-area trail, organizers scrambled to find an alternate route in the weeks before the event.

Fortunately, the eastern U.P. offered plenty of snow and the community of Grand Marais welcomed the idea of the U.P. 200 coming to their town.

Community members rallied together to volunteer their time and skills, making the route change possible. Since 2003, the U.P. 200 has continued to run the eastern route to Grand Marais, where locals and spectators greet mushers on the second day of the race.

The total winnings purse has been increased this year, thanks to increased sponsorship from area businesses. This change has already drawn a higher-than-usual number of mushers to register, according to Torreano. Seventeen teams are currently signed up, with a wide range of experience levels.

The U.P. 200 will be held Feb. 16-18 this year. The opening ceremony will be held in downtown Marquette at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 16. The U.P. 200 headquarters, based at the Holiday Inn of Marquette, will open 9 a.m. on Feb. 14, with a silent auction beginning at that time.

The public is encouraged to attend events such as the Pre-Race Banquet and Bib Draw, at 6:30 p.m. on Feb. 15, and the Musher’s Brunch, from 10 a.m. – 1 p.m. on Feb. 16. Handicap-accessible areas to watch the U.P. 200 include the Welcome Center in Harvey and the Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Chocolay Township. Torreano and the UPSDA urge community members to leave pets at home when attending the race, as they create safety concerns for both sled dogs and pets.

Cecilia Brown can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 248. Her email address is cbrown@miningjournal.net.