MARQUETTE - The 25th annual U.P. 200 got under way Friday evening as 13 dog teams took off through a large, cheering crowd that packed Washington Street in downtown Marquette.
The teams are scheduled to arrive in Grand Marais Saturday for a layover, then return to Marquette where the first mushers are expected to arrive at about noon Sunday.
The Midnight Run, which goes from Marquette to Chatham and back, also got under way and is expected to finish today. The Jack Pine 30, which begins and ends in Gwinn, was to begin this morning at Larry's Family Foods and finish at First Baptist Church of Gwinn.
Tasha Stielstra of McMillan and her dog team leave the gate at the start of the 25th running of the U.P. 200 Friday evening in Downtown Marquette. (Journal photo by Adelle Whitefoot)
Crowds lining Washington were heavy and the dogs noisy and excited at the start, as is usually the case.
Pat Torreano, president of the Upper Peninsula Sled Dog Association, said race conditions were excellent.
"Temperatures are great," Torreano said. "Trails are great, wind has calmed down. We're hoping there's less drifting."
This year's U.P. 200 had a new technological element: live tracking of the mushers using GPS units.
Race fans will be able to follow the progress of their favorite mushers in real time via SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger, tracking the racers' way along the 240-mile course.
The mushers' locations will be displayed on an enhanced Google map, with viewers being able to access the map via a link on the UPSDA website at www.up200.org.
Each musher will carry a small SPOT Messenger device placed inside a dog bootie, which is pinned to the sled. The device will send location-based signals via the Globalstar satellite network.
"They're going to be great for race fans because they're going to be able to track racers in real time," said Kent Koehn, UPSDA board member.
Koehn said each device will have a 911 button if a musher needs assistance. If a racer does need help, race organizers can pinpoint his or her exact location and can response there quickly, he noted.
Fans can view current musher position and race course checkpoint updates provided by Trackleaders LLC, which focuses on web-based tracking solutions specializing in integrating SPOT technology.
Tasha Stielstra, a musher from McMillan, said of the GPS devices: "Races are starting to use them. It's great for people at home,"
Musher Ryan Redington of Knik, Alaska, said: "I think it will help tremendously for volunteers, and it's a win-win for fans."
James Riedel of Gaithersburg, Md., also said carrying the devices will help fans, families and friends track mushers' progress, as well as increasing musher safety.
"That'll definitely help us, getting us assistance if we need it out there," Riedel said
The tracking system will be used this year for the U.P. 200 with the potential to expand it to the Midnight Run in 2015.
The GPS tracking is made possible through the sponsorship of Dr. Tim's Premium Pet Foods. Dr. Tim Hunt, a veterinarian at Bayshore Veterinary Hospital in Harvey, also is a musher in this year's U.P. 200.
HAM radio operators also are a part of the U.P. 200 and Midnight Run.
According to Paul Racine, a member of the Hiawatha Amateur Radio Association and coordinator of the U.P. 200 HAM radio team, said anywhere from 50 to 60 amateur radio operators throughout Marquette and Alger counties park themselves on the trail to keep track of the mushers.
This year, the operators will share space at race headquarters in the YMCA of Marquette County with race officials.
Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org