Each February, mushers head to the Upper Peninsula to take on the UP200, a nearly 240-mile dog sled race that takes teams from Marquette to Grand Marais and back. The challenging, isolated course passes through near wilderness with creek crossings and deep snow along the way—a true test of skill and stamina.
As a young boy growing up on a farm in the flatlands of southwestern Minnesota, Blake Freking became mesmerized by stories of the Iditarod, the legendary sled dog race that snakes through a 1,000-mile swath of Alaska wilderness every year.
His dream of one day running the long-distance race with his own team of dogs was stoked by fictional and true accounts of the Iditarod, including Gary Paulsen’s “Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod.” Paulsen, an award-winning young adult fiction writer, competed in the grueling race with little mushing experience, learning as he went along, and encountering all kinds of challenges.
“I read that book dozens of times when I was around 15 or 16,” Freking recalls. “It really inspired me. All kinds of primitive stuff including travel appealed to me, and sled dogs in particular … I kind of started mushing on my own. The more I learned, the more I got involved.”
Eventually, Freking made his way to Alaska and completed his first Iditarod in 2000; he ran his last a decade ago. Since then, he’s turned his attention to a lesser-known but still-formidable sled dog race, one closer to home: The UP200.
Photo by Russell Utych
One of the country’s top-notch sled dog races, the UP200 lures about 20 mushers each year from across the United States and Canada. Recently marking three decades, the 12-dog, mid-distance race begins and ends in Marquette, a small city on the shores of Lake Superior that’s considered one of the snowiest places east of the Rocky Mountains.
The 2020 race occurred just before the pandemic forced Michigan to enact stay-at-home orders. In 2021, the race was canceled. At this point, the 2022 race is still on track for Feb. 18–20. (Keep reading for info on how and where you can watch the race.)
“The UP200 is such an interesting race in terms of weather and snow and everything else that goes along with it. There’s always something different,” says Freking, who is now 48 and a civil engineer for the U.S. Forest Service in northern Minnesota. “It’s a great race and well-supported in the community. It’s always a wonderful event, something I’ve really enjoyed.”
Held every February, the UP200 is an energetic, community affair in Marquette, drawing thousands of spectators, who crowd, bundled against the cold, along snow-bombarded Washington Street in the city’s downtown. Blizzards have been known to curtail those crowds, but not enthusiasm for the annual event. Some 900 volunteers help with the multi-race weekend, selling race merchandise, helping with crowd control, staffing road crossings, and grooming trails. Volunteer veterinarians and dog handlers are a part of the community team helping with the dogs; the predominant breed is the Alaskan husky. About half of the volunteers are Northern Michigan University students.
Photo by Russell Utych
Related Read: Searching for more winter activities and adventures? View our Northern Michigan winter page.
The UP200 is one of three races over the course of the February weekend. The others are the Midnight Run and Jack Pine 30, also organized by the Upper Peninsula Sled Dog Association. The Midnight Run is an eight-dog, 90-mile race that heads east from Marquette and then south to Chatham. The Jack Pine 30 is a six-dog, 26-mile race that begins and ends in nearby Gwinn. Most mushers finish in about two-and-a-half hours.
“If you don’t have a lot of racing experience, it’s a great place to start,” says Darlene Walch, a former musher and president of the Upper Peninsula Sled Dog Association who has run the Jack Pine 30 along with other sled dog races in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. “Some people don’t like the longer races. The first musher in the Jack Pine usually gets back a little after noon. It’s a great one for young mushers.”
The UP200, however, is the focal point of the weekend. An Iditarod qualifier, the UP200 traces its beginnings to a transplanted Alaskan (an avid sled dog racer) and other like-minded locals who recognized the potential for a great sled dog trail in the Upper Peninsula. Sled dog racing was once common in the U.P.—the first recorded race was in the 1880s—but the sport all but disappeared by the approach of the 21st century.
During the days leading up to that first race in 1990, warmer-than-usual weather and cold nights created icy conditions, raising concerns about how mushers would fare along the trail. Fortunately, about a foot of snow fell on the day of the race and 14 teams embarked on the 240-mile journey from Marquette to Escanaba (today, the course goes from Marquette to Grand Marais and back).
“Mushers are an interesting crew,” Walch says. “They’re quite the characters. They’re used to being out in the cold weather, running along with their dogs. Sled dog races are solo sports but they’re also team sports. Your team is your dog. There is a real bond there.”
Photo by Russell Utych
The UP200’s Wild Course & The People Who Race It
The UP200 runs nearly parallel to the southern shore of Lake Superior as it veers east. The trail traverses some of the U.P.’s most rugged terrain, a near-wilderness of thick forests, hills, and creek crossings. Wetmore, about 65 miles to the east, is the first race’s first checkpoint. Mushers have a mandatory layover of at least five hours. They rest, feed their teams, consult with vets, and strategize. From there, the trail heads along Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore to Grand Marais, before turning around to return to Marquette. During the course of the race, mushers are required to log 16 hours of rest.
Each musher must carry mandatory safety gear, including a first aid kit, headlamps, arctic sleeping bag, booties for the dogs, food for both the musher and dogs, a dog food cooker, a knife, compass, snowshoes, cable cutters that can cut the ganglines linking the dogs to the sled, and fire-starting equipment. Their sleds, once made of wood, are today lighter and built from plastic and more durable materials, such as aluminum or carbon fiber.
Laura Neese, an Ohio native who lives near Newberry in the Upper Peninsula, ran her initial UP200 in 2015, and the following year completed her first 1,000-mile competition, the Yukon Quest. That race runs every February from Fairbanks, Alaska, east to Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada.
“The UP200 is one of my favorite races out there,” says 25-year-old Neese, who works at Nature’s Kennel Sled Dog Racing and Adventures near Newberry. “There’s no start like it in this sport. It’s so festive with all these people downtown. People ringing cowbells and flashing lights. There’s just a lot of extra happiness and excitement at the start of the race.”
Minnesota’s Freking, who usually runs the race with a team of Siberian huskies, agrees: “One of the really big components that makes the UP200 so absolutely special is the amount of community support. That start in Marquette is just wonderful. All along the way, it’s the same thing. It’s a fun race.”
Photo by Russell Utych
Photo by Sigurd Utych
Fun, for sure, but the Upper Peninsula unleashes its own set of challenges. Walch calls the race a “true test of skill and stamina,” for both mushers and dogs. Competitors sometimes face deep snow, inclement weather, sub-zero temperatures, and isolation.
Snow may be the most formidable obstacle. Too much snow can make the race difficult for mushers and the dogs, slowing their efforts. Two legs of the 1996 race were called off for safety reasons because of white-out conditions. A few years ago, the UP200 was shortened because of melting snow.
“The weather is totally different every year,” says Neese, who races with a team of Alaskan huskies and completed the Jack Pine 30 as a teenager. “You’re either in the middle of a blizzard, with tons of snow, and moving at 5 mph or, in the case of (2020), the trail was phenomenal. It hadn’t snowed too much and the trail crew got it packed down perfectly.”
For Andre Longchamps, who has been a regular in the UP200 since 2015, the challenge is running and maintaining the dogs at a good speed and managing their rest time at each checkpoint. He explains that if you move too fast in the race’s first legs, you’ll finish pretty slow. “You have to keep the same steady speed, but it’s not easy to do,” he says.
The most recent UP200 marked the first time the 51-year-old foreman for a paving contractor competed in the race with his son, Tristan, who was then 18. It was truly a family affair, with his wife, Amelie, serving as the handler of both teams.
“It was the most important moment of all the races in my life,” notes Longchamps, who has competed in other sled dog races in Maine and Quebec.
Neese, Freking and both Longchamps are participating in this year’s UP200.
What’s ahead for the UP200?
Like everything, the UP200 has endured changes over the years.
Trail modifications have included rerouting the course to remain along the Lake Superior shoreline. The race has also embraced technology, and, in 2000, mushers were allowed to use 12 dogs instead of teams of 10.
For many, mushing is a way of life. Mushers eat, breathe and sleep with their dogs. At one point in Paulsen’s “Winterdance,” the author recounts returning home from a lengthy sledding trip and settling the dogs down in their kennel. He can’t bring himself to return to his cabin and leave them. He wants to stay.
It’s not an uncommon sentiment among mushers.
“You can’t tuck your dogs in the closet for six months of the year,” says Neese, who plans to start her own business so she can work with her team regularly all year long.
“The race has become such a successful event,” Walch says, adding, “every musher has their own story to tell—some experience, something went wrong or some goofy thing.”
Those stories, like the UP200, have been woven into the fabric of both the race and life in the Upper Peninsula.
Best Places to Watch the UP200
At the starting line | In Marquette, downtown along Washington Street, at the corner of Fourth Street.
Along the route | In Harvey, at the Welcome Center, to see the mushers before they head into the woods. Food and drinks are provided and restrooms are available. Also, the checkpoint at Wetmore.
At the Finish | Marquette, lower harbor. The first teams could arrive as early as 11 a.m. on Sunday.
Photo by Sigurd Utych