The Mushing Club at Michigan Technological University runs its first race, the Beargrease 40, in Duluth, Minnesota, on Sunday.
Like the sled dogs integral to the sport, the Michigan Tech club is a unique breed — maybe the only collegiate-level mushing organization in the nation. There are about 30 club members; a core group of 10 heads to the race, which takes place on Sunday. Two mushers will drive teams in the Beargrease: senior chemical engineering major Andrew Watson, of Ann Arbor, Michigan, and second-year forestry major Ben Nicolson, of Duluth, Minnesota.
The Beargrease is in Nicolson's hometown. "I grew up around the culture of sled-dog racing and have always been fascinated by the sport," he said. "But I didn't have much knowledge about dog sledding before I joined the club."
"Tech attracts the kind of students who love to explore and pioneer new ideas, so it came as no surprise to me when I heard a couple of students decided to form this club," Nicolson said. "What better way to explore the Keweenaw than behind a team of sled dogs!"
The couple of students Nicolson refers to are club vice president Claire Hendricks, senior forestry major, and club president Adam Schmidt, senior chemical engineering major, who in 2016 fulfilled his goal to mush competitively — a dream he'd carried since his fourth-grade teacher introduced her students to the Iditarod, the most famous sled-dog race in the world.
Schmidt began his training at the Otter River Sled Dog Training Center after he learned about it through Michigan Tech's Outdoor Adventure Program. The owners, long-time area residents and mushers, Tom and Sally Bauer started working with him. Now, they and their dogs are working with the club, as is Schmidt, who's retired from active mushing and co-founded the club in the hope that Huskies will continue mushing in years to come, finding as much pleasure, skill-building and personal growth in it as he has.
"For me, it's such a unique opportunity to share it with other people," Schmidt said.
Nicolson is grateful for the mentorship, and plans to pay it forward himself. "Adam has been there right along Tom and Sally, showing what it takes to be a musher as well as what will be needed to run the club next year. He has taught proper dog care, sled maintenance, race preparations and so much more."
Setting Goals for the Mushing Club's First Race
The Beargrease, composed of multiple races, is named in honor of John Beargrease (1858-1910), the Anishinaabe man who, with his family, covered the mail route between Two Harbors and Grand Marais, Minnesota, making the trek by dog sled in winter. The Beargrease Marathon is a qualifier for the Iditarod. Other race categories include a mid-distance 120, along with a 120 junior class. Michigan Tech Huskies are entered in the Beargrease 40.
"For our first year, we wanted to stick to recreational-class races," Schmidt explained. "We want to make sure everyone's safe."
Nicolson's expectation is to demonstrate that Michigan Tech students excel at what they do. "My goals for this race are to spread the word about our club as well as build a good reputation for ourselves and our campus through the care and effort that we put into our dog teams."
Musher Watson, who spent almost every day of the holiday break mushing to get ready for the race, is more prosaic: "Not finish last. Don't fall off the sled. Stay warm."
He'll also be depending on his teammates. "Racing and handling is different from the work at the kennel. At the kennel, everyone does chores and runs the dogs. At the race, there is an order to things, and you really need your handlers to quickly get the dogs ready. The race will have spare handlers, but they won't know the dogs' personalities so it is better to have your own people hook the dogs up," he explained. "For this race, it will be a one-shot deal, done in a day. On a longer, multi-leg race, handling is very important. There are checkpoints and mushers will be on the trail for roughly six hours: check in, unharness, feed, do vet care, etc. all while working in their own feeding and sleeping. You need handlers you can trust to help you with all that work, otherwise you'll be too exhausted to finish."
Mushing Requires Time and Effort
"My favorite part about mushing is interacting with the dogs," Nicolson said. "The dogs love visitors and love to get out running and exploring new trails and I love being with them."
Watson, who also leads his Michigan Tech Enterprise Team, said it's been fun getting to know the Bauers and to learn about each of the dogs and their personalities. "They're all different, from looks, to how they react on the sled," he said. "You learn what to look for and what the dogs will do when they have something going on in their heads. Over the course of this winter, we've seen a lot of improvement in the younger dogs."
Students are welcome to be a part of the club, even if they don't have the time to invest in competitive mushing.
"You'll learn a lot about dogs you wouldn't have otherwise," Watson said. "There's always time to casually mush and help with chores, or see the dogs throughout the week and on the weekends. But if you want to race, it takes a lot of work."
"To introduce students and the public to the sport of dog sledding (mushing) while promoting responsibility, dedication, and organization to all and everything involved in the sport and accompanying opportunities. To support student emotional wellbeing by providing time with dogs. To support school spirit by caring for sled dogs."
The Only University Mushing Club in the Nation
The United States Federation of Sleddog Sports, as well as local club organizers here, haven't found any other collegiate-level clubs in the U.S. (If there are, the Michigan Tech group would like to know about them.) The club will make more connections when it runs in upcoming races, including the UP 200, Jack Pine 30 and the CopperDog 25 or 80. Learn more about membership and events on the Mushing Club of Michigan Tech Facebook Page.
Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.