MARQUETTE - With just nine mushers registered to compete in the U.P. 200 as of press time this morning, race organizers are beginning to think they may have to make some changes to keep the sled dog race going.
"Young mushers are trying this race and, quite frankly, older mushers are dwindling away. Our numbers are lower in the U.P. 200, but they have been lower across the country," said Upper Peninsula Sled Dog Association President Pat Torreano in a Tuesday interview. "We know there should be five more coming to the U.P. 200 within the next couple of days. They were all doing test runs and so on at different races this week to see what conditions their dogs are in."
Torreano attributed the low number of mushers to two factors - an interest from younger mushers in shorter competitions or in stage races that separate the legs of a long race over a period of days, as well as the high cost of running a large kennel.
Bruce Langmaid of Kearney, Ont. Canada, mushes his sled dog team along the U.P. 200 race route about one mile from the Grand Marais checkpoint in this 2013 photo. (Photo courtesy of Aladino Mandoli)
"These 12-dog long-distance races are expensive," Torreano said. "You have to have a kennel of dogs where you can trade out 10 or 12 as you're working with them and training them. Huge kennels, they don't exist right now.
"The more popular kind of race now it seems are what they call stage races," Torreano added. "The Copper Dog's an example. They race one day, spend the night in a hotel, race the second day."
The Copper Dog 150 and Copper Dog 40 are run in the Keweenaw Peninsula and will take place this year from Feb. 28 through March 2.
The Copper Dog 150 is a three-stage race run over a period of three days.
The U.P. 200, while it does have checkpoints and mandatory rest time, can be run by mushers at anytime over the weekend and is not separated into stages.
Torreano said the U.P. 200 - begun 25 years ago by Jeffrey Mann, an avid sled dog racer - had remained thus far true to its roots and to Mann's vision, but that the declining number of mushers may mean changes in the coming years.
"Our board has been very faithful to those desires and dreams of Jeffrey's and we don't know, we don't know what the future holds for that type of race," Torreano said. "We have to really look at reinventing the wheel...
"But for now, we're happy," she said. "I'm not thrilled with the numbers, but we're happy with the numbers because other races, the Tahquamenon (Country Sled Dog Race) had seven in their long-distance race, so that's just the trend. And how we go about changing that I think will be seen in the next couple of years, without a doubt."
The Tahquamenon race website shows four mushers registered for the 12-dog race. The eight-dog race had 21 mushers, the six-dog had 15 mushers and the four-dog race had 17 mushers.
Torreano said she did not believe numbers were down because of an accident in 2013's U.P. 200 in which a team of sled dogs run by musher Frank Moe, of Bemidji, Minn., was struck by a pick-up truck as the team made its way across M-28, having just left the Wetmore checkpoint.
According to information provided by the UPSDA just after the accident occurred, Moe was running with a team of 12 freshly rested dogs and was unable to stop the team when he saw the vehicle approaching.
One of Moe's dogs was killed and two others seriously injured as a result of the crash.
"I've spoken to many, many, many of the mushers, those who haven't signed up yet, those who have, they say accidents happen and they say in the long run, the musher has to be in control of their team," Torreano said. "But I don't want to ever cast anything on Frank Moe because he is an excellent musher. But they feel that we weren't negligent. It was an accident."
Following an investigation into the incident, Michigan State Police found no one was at fault and no citations were issued.
Torreano said the Wetmore checkpoint has now been moved across the street, from the Cherrywood Lodge to Hiawatha Log Homes. Mushers will be timed in on one side of the highway, will be escorted across the road, then have their time restarted once they safely reach the other side.
Torreano said a trooper from the Sault Ste. Marie Michigan State Police post will also be on hand to stop traffic, should the need arise.
"It's a hard lesson to learn, but we've worked very hard on this and I think we've taken out all of the kinks of that whole kind of a situation happening again," Torreano said.
Jackie Stark can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242.