Mushers Wanted: Less Willing To Make Financial Commitment
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Any NPR listeners might note that while we may not cover the NFL as much as a lot of news organizations, there's not a dogsled race in America that doesn't get the NPR treatment. We've done portraits of dogs, racers, sledders, mushers and the vets who care for all of them. So here is a worrisome audience news. Musher numbers are dwindling.
Tomorrow, 30 mushers and their teams of sled dogs will hit the trail for the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon in northern Minnesota. It's the longest sled dog race in the lower 48 states. Maybe what they need is a song from BJ Leiderman, who writes our theme music. Beargrease - he could do that. This race attracts fewer than half the number of mushers it did about a decade ago. Dan Kraker of Minnesota Public Radio explains why.
DAN KRAKER, BYLINE: Three years ago, just before the start of the 2014 Beargrease, musher Drew Groeneveld decided he had had enough, enough of sled dogs, enough or racing.
DREW GROENEVELD: That's when I made the decision. And yeah, I was just ready to do some different things in life.
KRAKER: Groeneveld owned a 63-dog kennel in the woods about 30 miles outside Duluth. But he says the time spent on chores like cutting up meat for his dogs, it all caught up with him.
GROENEVELD: When it's 90 degrees in the summer and you're processing a bunch of frozen fish and there's bugs flying in your face, that's part of it too. It's not just crossing the finish line and knowing that you did a great thing with you and your dogs.
KRAKER: To run long races like the 350-mile Beargrease, mushers need to raise 30 or more dogs. Beargrease organizer Jason Rice says there just aren't as many large kennels in the Midwest as there used to be.
JASON RICE: It's not that there are necessarily less people mushing. There's less people who are choosing to financially make the commitment to have a kennel that big and do it just for racing purposes.
KRAKER: So races are trying to adapt. They're recruiting mushers from Canada and adding shorter distances that require fewer dogs.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOGS BARKING)
KRAKER: But there are still those who are utterly devoted to raising sled dogs to compete in long races like the Beargrease.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOGS BARKING AND HOWLING)
COLLEEN WALLIN: Hi, Muskie (ph). Hi, Chachi (ph).
KRAKER: It's before dawn, and Colleen Wallin is preparing her team for a 43-mile training run.
COLLEEN WALLIN: All right, guys. Let's go. All right.
KRAKER: Once the dogs are gone, Wallin's husband, Ward, offers a glimpse behind the scenes of Silver Creek Sled Dogs.
WARD WALLIN: I tell people that the amount of time we're actually racing sometimes is maybe 20 percent if you think about cutting meat, Colleen sewing booties, working on trails, working on sleds, fixing harnesses.
KRAKER: Inside this walk-in freezer, Wallin estimates he has three or four tons of meat for the dogs.
WARD WALLIN: A lot of mink and beaver, a bunch of bear fat. We've got beaver carcasses that we chunk up and feed whole.
KRAKER: And how much does that freezer itself cost?
WARD WALLIN: I don't really want to know what my costs are (laughter).
KRAKER: The Wallins do have sponsors to help offset some costs. There's also prize money. Winners of the two dozen or so longer distance races can take him $5,000 or more, but winnings cover just a fraction of costs. Still, despite the money, the stress of balancing dogs with kids and work, Ward Wallin says, it's totally worth it.
WARD WALLIN: Everybody has, you know, hustle and bustle in their day, and just getting behind a dog team, especially at night when there's just you and the team and a little beam of light in front of you, it's truly magical, truly magical.
COLLEEN WALLIN: Good job. Good job, everyone.
KRAKER: Five hours later, Colleen Wallin leads her team of panting dogs to the end of the training run.
COLLEEN WALLIN: We did it.
KRAKER: This is the exact spot where she plans to cross the Beargrease finish line later this week, hopefully in first place.
For NPR News, I'm Dan Kraker in Duluth.
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