Photography by Russell Utych
Anyone who spends significant time Up North realizes that one must do more than just come to terms with the long, frigid winters to fully appreciate its beauty. Outdoor enthusiasts embrace skiing, snowmobiling, ice fishing, sledding, tubing, skating, snowshoeing—even fat tire biking. But little can match the sheer exhilaration of being silently, and quickly propelled through a breathtaking, snow-covered boreal forest by a team of hard-driving Alaskan huskies.
A Dog-Gone Good Time
Although mushing is not usually the first winter sport most people associate with the lower 48, Nature’s Kennel Sled Dog Racing & Adventures in McMillan, in the eastern Upper Peninsula, is proving that you don’t need to head to Alaska, or be a tough, bearded, seasoned adventurer who isn’t afraid of a little frostbite, to enjoy dog sledding. For 16 years, owners Ed and Tasha Stielstra have expertly shared their passion for mushing with people of all ages and abilities. Both have competed in countless regional races, and Ed has finished the Iditarod, the 1,100-mile sled dog event in Alaska known as “The Last Great Race on Earth,” an incredible eight times.
Full disclosure: As a photographer who lives in the U.P. and specializes in capturing wildlife, nature and mushing, I’ve had the privilege of photographing the dogs and humans of Nature’s Kennel for 10 years, and have gotten to know the Stielstras and their staff well. And I’ve learned that many of their guests who intend to experience a sled dog ride just once, become hooked and fall into the “frequent flyer” category, like Carol Ruhter, owner of Trailbound Trips in the Chicago area. She organizes outdoor adventures for women across the U.S., and brings a group to Nature’s Kennel every February. “This is our most popular trip,” she says. “We have offered it every year, and this is our seventh year. We always feel like we’re coming home.”
Nature’s Kennel offers half- and full-day trips for all ages, with the option of driving your own team (for ages 10 and up) or riding along with an experienced guide.
On the overnight adventure, you learn to care for your sled dog team, pack your sled, take the reins and head out on the trail to Musher’s Village, where you’ll tuck into a cozy cabin for the night.
I had the opportunity to see the sled dog action from the other side of the camera when I tagged along on an overnight trip last February with Bruce and Sharon Campbell, of southern Michigan.
A word of advice before you hit the road for the seven-hour drive from Chicago: Do NOT rely on your car’s GPS or whatever technology helps you to navigate. Nature’s Kennel is in the wilderness, and once you’re in the vicinity, it’s safest just to follow M-28 to the blinker light in McMillan, turn north and watch for the kennel sign.
There’s no question when you’re at the right place; it’s hard to mistake the sound of 150 howling, yipping huskies. They know what it means when a car full of guests roll in. These dogs are literally “born to run.”
Let’s clear up a possible misconception you may have about sled dogs. I’ve met a few people, over the years, who were afraid to try mushing because they heard from their friend, uncle or mother-in-law that the dogs are tough and mean, or “part wolf.” Wrong! Over the years, I’ve rubbed noses with hundreds of these furry athletes, with names such as Enzo, Sherman, Riff, Slapshot, Punchy, Art and Roger, and they’re among the friendliest “people dogs” I’ve ever met. They have to be, to work effectively with their teammates and humans.
The Adventure Begins
In the main lodge we made introductions and checked that we had the cold weather gear necessary to keep things fun. Outside, enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide Matti gave us a brief, but thorough, lesson in rigging, equipment, safety and running. We were active participants in the whole, exciting process, and it’s where we got the first of many opportunities to “bond” with our dogs. Trust me, it was a highlight of their day. If you don’t have lightning fast reflexes, your nose will get kissed.
After last-minute instructions and safety checks, the teams were ready to go. The dogs intuitively sense the state of readiness, with barking and howling rapidly increasing to near deafening levels. This was a riot to experience and we hadn’t even gone anywhere yet! Matti gave the signal and the dogs lunged forward with a startling jolt.
Suddenly you understand how much power is out front, whisking you along. Although I often hang out with these dogs, I am always impressed by how difficult it is to keep even a few of them in one place if they are ready to run. We soon settled in to a steady, trotting rhythm, and both canines and humans relaxed and entered their “quiet zones.” There’s no method of winter travel that compares to dog sledding for making you feel like you’re a part of the wilderness, instead of a noisy interloper.
The frosty, fresh air froze our nose hairs as we glided along the trail through the snow laden balsam fir, spruce and pine forest. The dogs easily tackled our 20-mile run in a couple of hours, and we arrived at Musher’s Village for the afternoon and evening. We met the dogs’ needs first, by helping to feed and bed them down for the night.
The off-grid Musher’s Village consists of clean and comfortable, rustic cabins; a yurt; sauna; and cook shack. Over a hobo dinner of fish and veggies cooked to perfection over a fire, we humans became acquainted with new friends and recapped the day’s adventures. The grand finale was an incredible panorama of stars, planets and moon. Sleep came easy in the warm, snug cabins.
Morning began with breakfast for the dogs, of course. After another great meal, we hooked up our teams for the journey back to the main kennel, where the Campbells summarized their adventure. “The guides are A-plus, super capable, and fun,” says Sharon. “It was a blast!” adds Bruce. “Everyone has to do this at least once in their lifetime, and more if you can.”
It’s an exhilarating experience to remember and cherish. I hope to see you on the trail. I’ll be the old greybeard hunkered down in the snow with my camera aimed at your passing team.
Nature’s Kennel accommodates singles and groups of up to 16. Find details at natureskennel.com.
This article originally appeared in the 2018 fall/winter issue of Experience Michigan magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
No portion of this article or magazine may be reproduced without prior written permission by the publisher.