Bringing Back a History

MARQUETTE — The history of the U.P. 200 is a story of creativity, adaptability and resilience in the face of challenge.

Formed by sled dog mushers Jeffrey Mann, Scott and Elyse Bunce, Tom and Sarah Lindstrom, and Lou Ann Balding, who had a dream of creating a race in the Upper Peninsula, the inaugural U.P. 200 and Midnight Run began on a Friday evening in February of 1990. This is now year 29 for the races.

Much has changed since the first racers set off, marking the beginning of a historical event. These changes include starting locations, routes, technology and even the addition of a third race, the Jack Pine 30.

The U.P. 200 originally left from Marquette heading southeast to Chatham, south to Rapid River and Escanaba, looping back up through Gwinn and finishing in Marquette. In 2003 this route changed.

“That year there was really no way to get through Escanaba and up the Ford River,” said former Upper Peninsula Sled Dog Association President Pat Torreano. “Open water on the Ford River, you know, that’s what they ran.”

The organizers knew all too well what could happen if open water was a factor in the race after the tragic death of musher William “Billy” Orazietti and eight of his dogs in 1994. Orazietti became disoriented in the snowy winds on the ice of Little Bay de Noc, straying off course and into open water. That accident was “one of the major reasons to get off the Bay,” said Torreano. Now the route runs from Marquette to Grand Marais and Back.

In honor of Orazietti, bib number 11 was retired from the race henceforth and a statue of him and two of his dogs was erected in Sault Ste. Marie, Canada, where he was from.

“The Orazietti family has continued to support the race, and this year–as in several years past–Al Orazietti, his son, is our head judge,” said Torreano.

Another harsh blow came in 2013 when Frank Moe of Bemidji, Minnesota, was leaving the Wetmore checkpoint in the early morning and his team was hit by a pickup truck while crossing M-28. One of his dogs was killed and two were injured.

Events like these push the UPSDA to continually adapt to create the safest possible conditions for racing.

“The adaptability is incredible,” Torreano said. “You cannot have leadership in this organization unless they are people who can think on their feet and make fast, quick, safe decisions. I’ve called meetings of the board during a race at four in the morning and they all show up.”

On the other hand, many positive things have come out of the U.P. 200 as well.

“This race has gathered together a group of people who have become friends, real friends, over this period of time. This group of people always welcomes new folks, and especially younger folks into our group, because we have one heck of a good time,” said Torreano.

The Midnight Run and Jack Pine 30 have had their own changes over the years.

Originally, when it first began in 1990, the Midnight Run was a six-dog race that departed from Chatham and went to Escanaba. In 2005 it was changed to an eight-dog maximum, and in 2014, the trail was changed to start in Marquette, with Chatham as the turnaround point and Marquette as the finish.

The Jack Pine 30 is a young race, said Torreano, which started as a club called the Jack Pine Mushers in Gwinn led by current UPSDA President Darlene Walch. The group often used UPSDA trails for their 30-mile runs, and in 2003 this race was formally taken on by the UPSDA as the Jack Pine 30. Walch said after the Midnight Run was moved to Marquette the Jack Pine 30 trail was altered to eliminate two crossings at major roadways, leaving only three road-crossings on smaller roads.

“We go way back with sled racing in this community, and actually in the entire U.P.,” Torreano said. “Many times that was a mode of transportation. It brought back a history. Marquette, they wrap themselves around this race.”

Rachel Oakley can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 243. Her email address is roakley@miningjournal.net.