It’s mush hour! Dog sledding through the Upper Peninsula winter wilderness is an unforgettable Northern Michigan experience.
Deep inside a pair of borrowed ice fishing boots, my toes curl up in apprehension. Or, more optimistically, it’s a fluttering kind of suspense. Ahead of me, five shaggy tails beat decisively back and forth. The dogs’ paws are covered in neon booties that dig and pad on a trail of packed snow in anticipation. It’s not even 9 a.m. and here I am, standing at the helm of a dog sled in the Michigan wilderness. Apart from the panting of the dogs, and my own thoughts, the world is muted in the particular silence of a deep, fresh snow. I tighten my grip on the sled handle—a thin rod I can barely feel through thick (also borrowed) mittens. I’m waiting for the “go” signal. Waiting to see if I can stay attached to the sled when these five dogs tear off into the woods.
I was running late when I arrived at Nature’s Kennel at 7:30 a.m. The dog sledding destination is located in McMillan, near Newberry, in the eastern Upper Peninsula. I stepped out of my car and a man dressed in a burgundy flannel shirt and suspender snow pants inspected my outfit. “We need to fix you up,” he greeted me gruffly, ushering me into a wooden cabin. Then, “Here ya go,” as he handed me first a steaming mug of dark roasted coffee, and then a teetering pile of boots, insulated gloves, thick snow pants and wool socks.
The idea to go dog sledding in Michigan came to me a few months ago. I had just moved back to my home state as an adult. I’d spent the past few years living in England, where everyone loves to talk about the weather, and where I spread my general shtick of “you don’t know winter unless you’re a Michigander.” Within Michigan, though, it’s pretty well known that you don’t know winter unless you’re a Yooper. I wanted to see what a real Yooper winter was all about, and dog sledding seemed the perfect place to start.
Is dog sledding a good fit for you? This is an activity anyone can do! According to Tasha Stielstra, co-owner of Nature’s Kennel, guests regularly include wheelchair users. Last year, they helped a blind man drive a sled, and this year a 95-year-old woman is returning for her fifth ride.
“Yooper,” for the uninitiated, refers to a “U.P.-er,” or someone from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. For those, like myself, from the Lower Peninsula, the term also carries implications of ax-wielding, log cabin-building, snow-plowing people of the land. That morning, the stereotype didn’t seem too far off the mark to me, as my dog sledding guide, Kyle, walked me through rows of sled dogs. I waddled in my tall boots and bulky snow pants trying to keep up. In the row next to our dog team, a boy with strawberry blonde hair, bright green shorts and skinny muscles aggressively shoveled snow off the path … shirtless. It was 14 degrees.
It’s exactly this attitude that makes for a good dog sledder, though. I asked Tasha Stielstra, who co-owns Nature’s Kennel with her husband, Ed, to describe the people of the U.P. to me: Those “who work with their hands and live in the woods,” she explained succinctly. “Our family does the same thing,” she said of Nature’s Kennel, which draws tourists each year hailing from lower Michigan to Slovakia to Thailand. “The U.P. culture is very accepting of this lifestyle. Owning over 200 dogs and living in the woods does not seem ‘normal’ to most people in more urban areas, but up here, it’s just another way of life.”
It’s a way of life that some people dream of. This includes professional musher Laura Neese, who first discovered dog sledding at age 9 while growing up in central Ohio. “My family followed the Iditarod that year,” Laura said. “I knew right away that I wanted to be a professional dog musher when I grew up. I learned everything I could about the sport in the following years, and then started a team of my own when I turned 14.” Laura joined the Nature’s Kennel team in the fall of 2014. Now, at age 24, she is only at the beginning of her professional career in this sport. She’s a finisher of the Iditarod and the UP200—a world-renowned dog sledding race held near Marquette—but she is best known for placing third in the 1,000-mile-long Yukon Quest at age 21.
Laura trains at Nature’s Kennel year-round, working with the dogs alongside Tasha and Ed. Ed started the kennel almost 25 years ago. Like Laura, the couple also had stints as professional mushers. Ed completed the iconic Iditarod race through Alaska eight times, and Ed and Tasha have both won the UP200.
Enjoy even more dog sledding fun by staying overnight in a heated cabin or yurt in Musher’s Village.
But how did they all get here, to a remote snowy woodland cabin flanked by rows of, quite literally, hundreds of malamutes and huskies? It all started in the ‘90s, when a family friend of Ed’s purchased a small dog team and asked Ed to help him train. Soon after, Ed started his own kennel. “I met Ed in Ludington one summer while I was working for the Lake Michigan Car Ferry,” Tasha explained. “He has always had sled dogs since I’ve known him, and we started to slowly build the business after we got married.” And now, with nearly 2,000 yearly visitors, 98 percent of whom come from outside the U.P., Nature’s Kennel has definitely grown. What inspires people from all over the world to make the trek to this secluded place? For a morning or afternoon, Nature’s Kennel helps guests, like myself, experience a slice of the best kind of U.P. life: That of a dog musher.
It’s not just the spirit of its people that makes the U.P. such an ideal place for dog sledding, though. “The eastern U.P. has some of the most consistent snowfall you can find,” Laura told me. This translates to dog sledding season lasting into April, often May, and sometimes even June of each year. Tasha concurs, pointing out the perfect storm of climate and public land access. “The Newberry Field Office-Michigan Department of Natural Resources has been very helpful in supporting our business and helping with trail access,” she said. And with 227 “wagging tails to wake up to,” as Laura fondly refers to the dogs, trail access is important.
These dogs are built for the snow and freezing temperatures, and they’re built to run. Perhaps they’re the canine equivalent of the hearty and heartfelt people who live in the U.P. As a professional musher, Laura speaks of her dogs as her best friends, gushing about the life she has playing outside with them every day.
I’m about to get a feel for that life myself.
In front of me, I can see the dogs’ muscles bunch and quiver in anticipation. One of them gives a happy yet impatient yap—I think it’s Linus? He’s a big, sandy-colored dog, placed in the lead position. His general enthusiasm is meant to inspire the other four dogs. A black and brown pup with perky ears is latched to the middle position, two of his peers ahead and behind him.
“This is Boggle,” my guide Kyle informs me, as I harness the dog. “He’s not really into sledding, but we like to give him a run around every so often.” I observed the happily panting dog.
“Not … into sledding?” I question.
“Yeah, for some dogs, sledding just isn’t their thing,” Kyle says. “They’re not competitive or interested or whatever, like people. So usually we adopt those out. Dog sledding is a career for these guys, so we don’t want to make them do something they’re not into.” Not necessarily an athlete myself, I can relate to Boggle. But this morning, even he’s looking ready.
I almost miss Kyle’s signal from the sled in front of me, but the dogs certainly don’t. They pull their line taut, and the second my foot lifts from the snow-pressed brake, the sled lurches forward. We’re off. We’re dog sledding. Wind rushes into my eyes, my cheeks, my hair. It’s all I can do to hold on as we hurtle around the trail’s first corner. I may be the one driving the sled, but these dogs clearly know what they’re doing.
As the dogs’ paws pound the snowy trail, the bare maple trees and hardy evergreens blend into one another. My thoughts start to blend as well, entering a state of flow that is nearly addictive. The air that just recently felt so cold on my skin is easily forgotten. It’s obvious what Laura, Tasha, Ed and other dog mushers in this region see in the sport. As the dogs, and I, whip along wooded trails, I can’t help but think about the words Laura and Tasha used to describe this sport, and their home up here in the North. Words that seemed contradictory to me at first. Joyful and humbled. Remote and welcoming. How can a sport, and a place, be both things?
But it starts to make sense, as my feet feel firmer on the sled pads, as I tune in to the reins and the running patterns of each dog. I think of the gruff man who greeted me on arrival and then loaded me up with hot coffee and warm clothing. The U.P. is a place of opposites. Just like dog sledding is a sport of push and pull. You need one to have the other, and without the opposition, you don’t have much at all.
Later, back in the log cabin, I peel off my boots and socks. My cheeks are flushed and my nose is running, and I know I have a long drive ahead of me across the snow-bordered Upper Peninsula roads, over an icy Mackinac Bridge and back to my Lower Peninsula home. But for now, the woodstove crackles quietly, surrounded by a crescent of drying boots, socks and mittens. I place my own pair in line. A sled dog, Maple, places her furry chin in my lap. Someone in flannel hands me a hot chocolate. I gratefully slurp, surrounded by the banter of staff and guests from around the world, all sitting in the same warm radius.
What about COVID-19? Nature’s Kennel is planning to offer dog sledding trips in 2021. Dog sledding naturally lends itself to social distancing, but Nature’s Kennel has taken some extra precautions, including distancing and sanitation, to ensure the safety of their guests.
Sarah Bence is a freelance writer and occupational therapist based in Michigan. Follow her travel blog @endlessdistances on Instagram.
You can do this!
- Nature’s Kennel is a sled dog racing kennel in McMillan, Michigan, in the Upper Peninsula
- 10-mile and 20-mile sledding experiences are offered November-April each year, depending on conditions. Guests can drive their own team or sit as a rider. Overnight experiences are also available.
- Nature’s Kennel dogs are well cared for and guests have the opportunity to meet them, hook them up to the sled and feed them after the run. When dogs retire, they’re available for adoption.
To book a dog sledding experience, call 906.748.0513 or email [email protected]
Find this article and more in the January 2021 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine; or subscribe and get Traverse delivered to your door each month.