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Across Northwoods, Sports are Going to the Dogs

March 11, 2019

Brandon Kieper

Antigo Daily Journal, March 2019 Prime Time Edition

You don’t have to be a musher to know that these dogs are ready for action. 

A cacophony of howls and barks fills the snowy air near the Doty Town Hall on a February Sunday afternoon. Dozens of hounds lend their voices, spurred not by people, not by animals, but by the moment.

The anticipation of engaging is the singular thrill that defines their existence, the moment when nothing else matters. Nothing but running and pulling. These are sled dogs, and they are about to race.

The mushers might not exhibit the same audible excitement, but the feeling trembles just beneath the surface. This is not some weekend hobby for them. The dedication to this endeavor helps to define their existences as well.

It’s common to hear folks say they love dogs, to call them members of the family. But for mushers and their dogs, the relationship is something more. These dogs are teammates.

The cumulative scene is impressive. Rigs of all shapes and sizes have gathered on this usually isolated field and forest, carrying families who have traveled from near and far, with dog teams that vary in composition as well.

There are pickup trucks with handcrafted wooden structures rising from the beds, trailers designed for the express purpose of safely and snugly transporting dogs and gear, even a converted minibus that now bears the logo of a Siberian Husky racing team. License plates show plenty of Wisconsin and Minnesota teams, but also Virginia, Colorado, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Pennsylvania, New York, even Quebec.

The real stories here, outside of Mountain, just past the Langlade County line, are not the weather or the rigs. It’s the dogs and the drivers, and the passion that becomes so clearly evident as a team is preparing for the starting line.

The story is Jamie Johnson, a professional musher from Boone, Iowa, beaming with pride when asked to describe the personalities of her dogs. The story is Beth and Ken Castaldi, longtime mushers from nearby Elton, and their young apprentice Michaela Marquardt from Deerbrook, carefully slipping booties on a team of older Eurohounds as they prepare.

The story is Trinity Evans, a 17- year-old driver hailing from Irma, running her first season with her very own four-dog team. Trinity has been racing for several years, but only recently acquired her own team, Alaskan Huskies with bloodlines that trace to Iditarod racers. One by one, Archie, Flo Jo, Irma, and Chubby emerge from the boxes on the back of a truck and slip into their harnesses.

Trinity looks like a teenager in any number of extreme sports, equipped with a camera strapped atop her helmet as she guides the team toward the starting line. The five of them are about to rip through the 4.1 mile race trail in less than 17 minutes. That is if she can see the trail through the thickening snow.

That’s where the teamwork comes into play. Trinity says that when she can’t quite see the trail, she trusts her dogs to keep the sled on track.

“The trails are a lot easier to see when it’s not snowing, but the dogs can see a lot better, so you really just have to depend on them,” Trinity explains. “They are very smart, they remember from the day before, even years prior, exactly where to go.”

The idea of sled dog racing conjures images of classic Siberian Huskies for most people, and this is largely still true for long distance races like the Iditarod, as these dogs are endurance runners, with a dual coat that allows them to withstand the elements. 

The Doty Dog Days of Winter event is a more varied canine spectacle. Over the past few decades, breeders have sought to develop faster dogs for these sprint-style races. The general shift began with Alaskan Huskies, which are part Siberian Husky, purpose bred mutts. These Alaskans were then bred with various pointer breeds, creating a mix commonly known as Eurohounds.

This shift in philosophy has turbo-charged the sport. Experienced dog sledders say that while a team of five Siberian Huskies might average about seven miles per hour, a team of just two Eurohounds can travel as fast as 15 miles per hour.

Beth Castaldi began her racing career with Siberian Huskies over four decades ago, and progressed to Alaskan Huskies when she introduced Ken to the sport 30 years back. Now the Castaldis primarily run with Eurohounds. 

Their young driver Michaela ran in the four dog class at Doty with a team of older hounds, with the lead dog Taco blazing a trail at 11  years of age.

While some drivers are very much in it to win, Michaela is learning the craft and on the trails for the sheer joy of it.

“Michaela is all about the dogs,” Beth Castaldi said. “She wants to give them the opportunity to do what they love while enjoying the trail and being with others who are passionate about sled dogs.”

Taco and his teammates, Sadie, Jake, and Brogue, proved to be no slouches though, as they pulled Michaela to a solid seventh place finish in the four dog speed class.

At a weekend event such as the Doty races, sanctioned by the International Sled Dog Racing Association and sponsored by the Wisconsin Trailblazers, teams run the same course on both Saturday and Sunday, with the two times combined for the final standings.

Trinity Evans raced to the fourth place finish, while Jamie Johnson placed second.

Jamie had a simple review of the race immediately after crossing the finish line.

“Absolutely amazing!” she shouted. “My dogs did great!”

The four dog class was won by Jay Olmstead, who brought his team from Sinclairsville, New York.

The four dog race is just one class in a full two days of events, including varying distances for classes of 10 dog, six dog, and two dog teams. Many of the mushers had previously competed in events in Kinross, Michigan, and Land O’ Lakes in recent weeks, and would remain in the area for the Pine River run event near Merrill the next weekend.

Ken Castaldi raced his team to third place in the six dog speed class, covering 11.8 miles in under 39 minutes.

He believes the Doty event is a great example of why this area of  Wisconsin is such a popular home to some, and destination for many, sled dog racers.

“The community support and a number of volunteers are apparent for the Doty race,” he says. “They are willing to do what it takes to present a quality event. The racers and their helpers are grateful for the safe trail and all the extras such as the unique trophies, making for an excellent and fun race.”

Another professional Langlade County musher joined Castaldi in a great weekend of racing at Doty. Kim Scharmer Ruhl of Bryant took first in the adult registered breed four dog speed class and second in the registered breed six dog class.

Braving the snow and cold is well worth it to enjoy a sled dog event. The athleticism, beauty and outspokenness of the dogs and the passion of the drivers are impossible to overlook. 

When they are not racing, or telling everyone around they are about to, most of the dogs hanging around the event are happy to soak up love and attention, as Langlade County Sled Dog Club president Jamie Van de Walle was quick to point out.

“Because we have so many dogs in such close proximity, you are going to find dogs that are well socialized, happy, very amicable, really good with children, and very easy to work with,” Van de Walle says.

It is the sense of community however, that seems to envelop the entire experience.

“We truly are a community, extremely supportive of each other,” Beth Castaldi explains. “We’re competitive on the trail but it’s really all about sharing information, enjoying everybody’s company, talking about dogs and what happened on the trail.”

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