EDMORE — Karen Garvey of Edmore has always enjoyed winter sports. When Bradys’ Hills, a downhill ski area near Lakeview, closed during her teenage years, she searched for another wintertime activity.
She tried cross country skiing, but missed the speed. After she and her husband, Dick, attended the Mackinaw Mush in Mackinaw City, they discovered the thrill of speed in dog sledding, one of North America’s oldest winter sports.
In 2005, the Garveys adopted their first sled dogs from a kennel in the Upper Peninsula. They soon learned the dogs were retired from racing, which made training them a challenge. They turned to Ted and Ann Nelson — dog sledding hobbyists and owners of Thunderfeet Kennel in Howard City — who became their mentors and friends.
Dick and Karen Garvey’s first “true” sled dog pups came from the Nelsons. And dog sledding became a family operation in the Garvey household.
“Dog sledding is not typically a one-person operation, especially with 17 dogs,” Karen said. “I dragged the family into the sport with me and they kindly decided to join in.”
Among the 17 dogs in the Garveys’ Winterkist Kennel are two breeds of huskies: the Siberian husky, which is typically black and white with facial markings, and the speedy Seppala Siberian Sled Dog, a long-legged purebred breed brought from Siberia in the early 1900s. They own seven Seppalas (the faster of the two breeds) and have three different racing teams.
“Dick refers to my Siberians as ‘slow boats,’ compared to his Seppala team,” Karen said.
Training, caring for the pack
Training and caring for a pack of hungry dogs isn’t for the faint of heart.
“It’s hard work and takes a lot of patience,” Karen said. “Having a large kennel is almost like having a farm.”
Dogs need feed and kennels cleaned. When they go away, someone has to look after the dogs. Changing seasons bring different chores. In summer, the dogs are kept cool with pools of water for bathing and blocks of ice in their drinking buckets. A water sprinkler atop the kennel offers a refreshing shower on especially hot days.
Proper diet is also important, according to Karen. Sled dogs eat a high-protein food, consuming more in winter and during race season. In winter, they receive slump — a soup-like mixture of cooked meats and vegetable poured over kibble. The amount each dog gets depends on their size and weight.
“We check the dogs once a week by feeling their ribs and back bones and adjust their food amounts accordingly,” Karen said. “We try to give carrots as treats rather than dog biscuits. Biscuits are the ultimate treat.”
Training takes place in fall and early winter. A motorless quad is used on courses where motorized vehicles are prohibited. Other group members have scooters and carts.
Use of no-motor units poses a bit of a control issue, according to Karen.
“Each training session is an adventure,” she said. “Can I keep the cart secured if I have to get off? Can I slow down enough to take the curve? Will they stay on the trail or take off after a squirrel?”
Training begins when the dogs are pups. General commands, such as “come” and “sit” are introduced, followed by “gee” (right), “haw” (left), “on by” and “leave it.” The dogs learn to pull by being led around the yard on leashes while hooked to a tire.
“As much as we try to teach them what they need to know, they learn the best from the older dogs,” Karen said.
Training events prepare dogs for the race season and allow members to practice side passing, head-on passing and trail commands in a race environment, which is beneficial for developing a team, according to Karen. The Garveys attend training in Belding, Clare and Farwell.
Snowy race season
This winter offered an abundance of snow for dog sledding, according to Karen.
“There has been a lot more snow than last year,” she said. “Our group has been able to hold most of the scheduled races, where last year there was only one or two that were held. We sign contracts with our race sites in the fall and cross our fingers and hope for snow.”
Several races are held in Michigan, including qualifiers for the Iditarod — the 1049-mile Alaskan race from Anchorage to Nome. The Garveys belong to Mid Union Sled Haulers (MUSH) — a nonprofit, amateur race association — and compete in three-dog and five-dog sprints of seven to 10 miles.
MUSH hosts events throughout Michigan — including in Atlanta, Alabaster, Clare, Drummond Island and Fort Custer. Races are classified by number of dogs and trail distance, including three-, five- and seven-dog classes and a class for 5- to 11-year-olds. Mushers may have less than the maximum dogs, but never more than the class limit. Distances range from sprints of four to 100 miles, mid distance races of 100 to 300 miles and long distances of more than 300 miles.
During races, dogs are tethered to a stationary object and harnessed and hooked to the gang line. The dogs are in run mode, so members help each other by holding the dogs and walking them to the start line. The musher rides the brake to keep the team going slowly. Once at the start line, helpers let go and the musher waits for the start signal. After races, the tired dogs are guided to the truck to be unhooked and given a drink of water.
The dogs do fairly well, even in the cold, Karen said. However, snow and ice accumulates between their feet pads and can cause cuts.
“Some of the dogs have thinner coat so we keep an eye on them, but all dogs need their feet watched,” Karen said. “If we see them holding up a leg, dancing or limping, it’s time to check their feet and put them in the trailer to warm up.”
She says going to the races is easier than it used to be since Dick converted a snowmobile trailer into two sections, one for the dogs and one for the family.
“Two years ago, we had dogs in eight boxes and four dogs in the back of the truck,” she said. “We decided to make the jump into an enclosed dog trailer so we could stay overnight at the races.”