That's Ms. Alpha Dog to You

If you take county road 415 north, across the zippered gash of the Wisconsin Central rail line and into a part of Lake Superior State Forest where no power lines care to tread, you’ll eventually come to a small clearing in the woods. There, a green tarp bunkhouse, a hand-built home and a smattering of outbuildings sit next to – on a frigid winter morning in December 2005, anyway – a pitiable sight: row after row of Alaskan huskies standing in the snow, howling with ache and longing at the small figure who’s just shouted "Let’s Go!" to the eight lucky dogs harnessed to her sled, then vanished in a blur of fur and churning powder into the woods.

The disappearing dogsledder is Tasha Stielstra, one of the top female mushers in the Midwest. She and her husband, Ed, also a musher and three-time Iditarod competitor, run Nature’s Kennel, home to more than a hundred Alaskan huskies, each of them bred and trained for a singular purpose: running.

The dogs excluded from this morning’s sprint aren’t shy about their grief. They sling ear-piercing dirges to the chalky sky, clambering atop their straw-filled sleeping barrels, their neck chains rattling, paws scratching. Eventually, one by one, the dogs resign themselves to their fate. A hush trickles along the rows. Some dogs crawl into their barrels. Others nose around their platforms, sniffing at the snow. One raises its back leg and sighs. For nearly an hour, the only sounds in the yard are the occasional clink of a chain and shuffling of straw.

And then something pricks a pinhole through the snowy silence beyond the trees. A dog’s ear twitches. Then another’s. Heads cock left, then right. By the dozens dogs rocket out of their barrels, scramble atop, then jump, shake, scratch and howl in a jubilant cacophony that crescendos toward an instant only they can hear coming: the moment Tasha returns. And with her – gods of canines willing – maybe, just maybe, another chance to run.

There’s a certain magnetism to sled-dog racing. One that neither man nor beast can shake after screaming, even once, across a snow-tufted wilderness. It’s a Jack London tale come to life. Romance. Adventure. The reincarnation of the 1925 Alaskan trek – memorialized by the Iditarod race – where men and dogs raced 674 miles to deliver the diphtheria serum that would save a town of dying people.

Despite its storied mystique, sled-dog racing didn’t tempt Tasha when she met Ed. The dogs – nearly 30 of them then – were simply part of the package when she married him, and their needs for care and feeding were challenge enough. As newlyweds living in Minnesota, the couple would rise each day at 5 a.m., feed the dogs, then head to work – she to the elementary school where she taught 1st grade; he to the foundry where he worked as a production supervisor. When they returned home at night, Tasha would feed and tend to the dogs while Ed ran teams. The couple would finish around midnight, then collapse into bed and start again the next day.

Sometimes Tasha, a petite 5-foot 3-inches, would ride with Ed, a broad-shouldered 6 footer, on the training runs. Or she’d hook a second sled to his. But she didn’t have the guts to run her own team. "Even though I knew the dogs, I knew what they could do," she says – i.e., amass their power into a synchronized animal machine and hurtle down trails at breakneck speeds, transforming the sled they pulled into a wildly guided missile.

And then one March, with Ed gone three weeks for a race in Wyoming, the sky dumped snow for days. Among the tasks Tasha was left to do alone was haul the dog poop from the yard to a trench in the woods. Usually she towed the sled full of buckets by four-wheeler. But when the snow got too deep, she eyed the dogs. "I was like, ‘You know what? You dogs are doing the pooping, you’re pulling it out to the hole.’ So I hooked up four dogs, and they hauled the poop, and that’s how I started running my own team."

Tasha kept her teams small – four or six dogs, as compared with the 16 or 18 Ed usually ran – and exclusively female; they’re smaller. As she grew more comfortable on the training runs, Ed prodded her to enter a race. His motive wasn’t to expand his wife’s horizons, but rather, the dogs’. Huskies live to run. And the more huskies he and Tasha had running races, the more huskies they’d have gaining race experience – key to turning pups into champs.

Tasha started with the Tahquamenon, a 43-mile race – considered short – in the U.P. Then in 2003 she bellied up to the 150-mile Beargrease Marathon in Minnesota. She nabbed seventh place, took home an award for best-kept team and was named rookie of the year. A few weeks later, she entered the 240-mile U.P. 200. Ed raced the A-team, their kennel’s top dogs; Tasha raced the B-team. Ed finished seventh, but despite having the underdogs, Tasha came in just four riders behind him.

After that race Ed told her he wanted her to run the A-team in 2004. Purely logical: women mushers, typically smaller and lighter than their male counterparts, have a natural advantage. Should the lady musher have the skills and athleticism to drive the A-team to its fullest potential, Ed figured, she might do better than he could. She did. That year, Tasha took fourth place in the U.P. 200. And in 2005, she took second – missing the win by only 26 seconds.

Tasha is curled up in a chair at her dining room table, wearing a green fleece sweatshirt embroidered with a canoeing moose, and sipping from a mug that reads "Dogs leave paw prints across your heart." It’s still early December. Tasha doesn’t know it yet, but she will win the 2006 U.P. 200.

It isn’t the U.P. 200 that’s on Tasha’s mind, however. She’s in the midst of packing and planning for La Grande Odyssée, a 14-day, 500-kilometer race through the French and Swiss Alps. She is the only woman in the continental United States who has been invited to compete. She leaves in two weeks, and she’ll be taking a team of 14 of the kennel’s best dogs, all Iditarod veterans. It’s the longest race she will have competed in, and unlike most races she’s competed in, Ed won’t be racing with her or handling the dogs at the checkpoints. Her parents are going to root her on, but otherwise, she’s going it alone.

Is she nervous? She leans down and nuzzles Hop, a husky hobbling about the house with a purple cast on his front paw, his name an unfortunate foreshadowing of a run-in with the four-wheeler. No, not nervous, she says – excited. She’s not going there to win, she’s going there to compete, to have some fun, enjoy some French food and wine, see a part of Europe most visitors miss.

She gestures outside to where Ed is untangling a gang line amidst a gaggle of yipping dogs. "I mean, not only do we work together, but because of the dogs, this is a lifestyle. We’re here all the time together." She leans forward with a grin and whispers, "So it’s kind of nice – it’s half vacation."

And like vacation, it won’t be cheap. Tasha needs $7,500 just to fly the dogs overseas. Add to that the cost of her ticket, 300+ pounds of dog food and meat (all of which must be purchased there), gas for the dog truck that hauls the team to the checkpoints, gear for her and the dogs – booties for 56 paws adds up – and what seems to Tasha like a few billion other incidentals.

"The marketing and the fundraising, that’s the hard part," she says, tugging at her short cropped hair. Ed and Tasha, who quit their jobs in 2002 to move to the U.P. to raise and race dogs full time, gain support by holding presentations at the kennel and traveling with the dogs to schools and parades and events around the Midwest.

They gain income from offering winter dog sledding tours to the public at the kennel and places like Boyne Highlands in Harbor Springs, but the exorbitant costs of racing necessitates sponsorships. To help finance Ed’s and the dogs’ 2005 trek to the Iditarod, they allowed a top sponsor to ride with the team during an opening ceremony run. For La Grande Odyssée, Tasha’s been on the phone day and night, cold calling women-owned businesses and companies that might have an interest in extreme sports.

"Sometimes I get caught up in here and think, this is so selfish. It’s like, what? Give me money so I can run a race? How is that benefiting society?" she asks. But then she says, she thinks back to the moment in 2005 when she crossed the U.P. 200 finish line and learned she had snagged second place. A crowd of 20 little girls surrounded her, wide-eyed and grinning under pink and purple hats, waving sparkly mittens that held programs and papers they begged Tasha to autograph.

"I think that’s when it really hit home for me," she says. "A woman hadn’t placed in the Top 3 in that race for over 10 years. A woman hasn’t won it in the last dozen years. There hasn’t been a female dominating the sport – especially in the Midwest – for a long time. So to see these little girls finally have a female hero, I was like, wow, that’s what it’s about."

That same year, Tasha was invited to the Michigan Women’s Historical Museum for an exhibit titled, "Michigan Women, A to Z." Right across the hall from Madonna – who was listed under "M" for music – stood a small display dedicated to Tasha. It held one of her trophies, a racing dog harness, photos of her with the dogs, and assigned her a letter, too: K. It stood for kick butt.

Lynda Twardowski is travel editor at Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. [email protected]

Note: This article was originally published in December 2006 and was updated for the web February 2008.

Article Comments