HOUGHTON - Becky Bean got involved with dog sledding just last winter, working as a dog handler for Aspirus Keweenaw colleague Kelly Jo Engle at Kelly Jo's Solitaire kennel in Stanton Township.
Taking care of the dogs between races and prepping them at the starting gate, she soon got the itch to ride behind the dogs and become more involved in the competition. So this winter, she's doing so, training a six-dog team from the Solitaire kennel to run in the CopperDog 40 and other single-day races in the region.
Bean admits she might not be quite ready for 10-dog team, multi-stage races like the pro-class CopperDog 150, but said recreational-class races like the 40 mile CopperDog are the perfect intro into competition.
"It's good to do this first to begin with; getting the feel is really important," she said. "Once I feel comfortable doing that I can start doing it with a bigger team. It's a big jump from six dogs to 10 dogs when you're behind the sled."
The CopperDog 40 will be run simultaneously with the first stage of the CopperDog 150 Feb. 28th. Both races will start easterly from Calumet then circle north and west to cross US-41 near Phoenix. From there, the 40-mile-race will split off toward its close-to-midnight finish in Eagle River while the pro-class race turns north to end its first stage in Eagle Harbor.
While the 40-mile-race isn't the main event and results don't carry the same weight among top competitive mushers, it's definitely worth the extra effort involved in putting it on, said CopperDog 150 Executive Director Abbey Green. The one-day race, she said, helps to grow the sport by providing a venue for mushers without the resources for the three-stage race.
"The 40 is about mushers who do not have large kennels or large teams," she said, as well as "a training ground for young mushers, or an opportunity for older mushers or teams that can't run the full race."
"We feel like the professional racers started somewhere," Green added.
There has also been no lack of participants, she noted. All 15 slots available for teams were filled just a few weeks after registration opened.
CopperDog Assistant Race Director and Checkpoint Coordinator Kim Pici said the 40-mile-race also gives Eagle River a chance to show off its hospitality.
The hospitality starts at the top, she said, with Keweenaw County Sheriff Ron Lahti opening up the jail garage to serve as a triage station for race veterinarians. It continues with an official finish line that confirms mushers' sense of accomplishment, a community potluck that can run deep into the morning if mushers struggle in slowly, and residents opening their homes to any mushers that need a place to stay.
CopperDog board member and Eagle River resident Lesley DuTemple is in charge of the finish line and serves as the organization's liaison with the village, though she gives Dar and Jim Huovinen the credit for organizing the mushers' warm reception, which includes a trail of candles from the finish to the community center potluck and an outdoor bonfire.
DuTemple said Eagle Harbor doesn't get the influx of visitors other CopperDog host sites do since teams don't start arriving until about 11:30 p.m. and there's no corresponding daylight start the next day. But residents are still proud, and with no restaurants open in the winter they want to show the mushers the village's best face.
"They're tired and hungry and there's nothing open for them," she said.
DuTemple and others have to stay up until the last team has come in and been fed, she said. When things go well for the mushers, like last year, volunteers get home to their guests at about two or three in the morning. A few years ago, the last musher didn't finish until close to 5 a.m.
"We can't leave until the last musher comes in," she said.
This year's CopperDog 150 runs Feb. 28 - March 2. To learn more, go to www.copperdog150.com.