UP 200 Sled Dog Race
Originally Posted February 27, 2005
My Grandfather was the seventh son, of the seventh son, raised in a family of lumberjacks in Newberry, Michigan. My grandmother grew up less then ten miles away in McMillan, Michigan, but the two never met until after his discharge from World War II and going to Alma for collage. The reason, I am told, that they started dating with grandpa's pick up line "because we are both from the U.P." Driving to Marquette for a long weekend of sled dog racing I am reminded of this and many other stories that are the building blocks of my life.
The four hours to the bridge are also full of memories that surround land marks like the 45th parallel – half way between the equator and the North Pole, the Call of the Wild "museum", Sea Shell City (because there are so many Sea Shells in the middle of Michigan) with the small towns of Gaylord and Wolverine leading right up tothe Mighty Mac. There are now two giant wind mills at the bridge, last year there was only one. Which means that progress is paving over my childhood and youthful memories and that spinning at top speed (windmills generating electricity) crossing the Mac is more fun then usual. Of course half way across I remember my freshman year at Northern Michigan in Marquette, and the last time a person was blown off the bridge – or the summer as kids we opened all the windows and lost all of the view master slides and a good "Ernie"hat.
An hour and a half later I am in Newberry, now known as the Moose Capitol of Northern Michigan. There is a radio station that I have been tuned into for some time that listed all of the "students of the week, K – 12." Keep in mind that the graduating class last year was 28, and they name a student of the week each week. I am thinking that everyone in town gets a little ego boost as mom and dad take you to the pizza shop for doing a good job. The school building is the same one that my grandfather and his 11 siblings went to. A place where they still celebrate Red Erickson day by wearing red (Red was my grandfather's older brother and local football hero.) It's a quick ride to McMillan, where grandma grew up. So fast I wonder how they never knew each other. While she died when I had just turned one, I do know that my grandmother came from a family that owned the lumber mill, and her father was a state senator. McMillan does not have a stop sign, flashing light, or McDonalds and I almost blow by it.
Between Manistee and Marquette route 28 follows the lake and sees daily white out conditions on the roads. It was a great reminder of winter. You see, we don't really get winter in south eastern Michigan. We get the tease of a few inches here and there, some colder days; but in Marquette the bitter cold cuts past the heater on full blast. Snow is measured in feet because the inches aren't enough to worry about. Asphalt roads are stained red by the dirt thrown down for traction or run in strips of green where the sub-zero crunchy stuff that looks like salt is pitched to melt the whitestuff.
After checking in at the Motel I head to the Holiday Inn, the official headquarters of the U.P. 200 dog sled race. Not a parking space in the lot so I make my own and head in. As a rule of thumb, I always order "the special" when traveling. The local food will win or fail on its own, but you have to take the chances. The Holiday Inn special tonight was a soup, and my lord I forgot how good the local soup was. About as thick as a stew or a hearty chilly, it is made with fresh and filling ingredients. I drag myself away from the table and my waitress, Boots, who finds me to be a good listener in an empty restaurant. In the ballroom next door is where the real action is at. All of the race teams have gathered for a banquette before drawing the order of the race. As they finish I head to the souvenir table to buy a pair of $30 gloves made in the eastern side of the U.P. from a deer that was shot last fall. The woman who sells them to me gives me her card and tells me about the business she and her husband run. He hunts and makes the hats (skunk, raccoon, beaver, bear and the like) while she sews the gloves and makes thejewelry. After preaching to the choir about the economy and environmentalists I head back in to the ballroom to watch the names get drawn for race order.
My first night at the Imperial Motel sends me to Target in the morning for long underwear after breakfast at the House of Pancakes. The House of Pancakes is less then a year old and has already out grown itself. "The House is much better then the Lamplight" my northern neighbor tells me and my waitress who just switched jobs from there to here "the food is better and not so greasy." On the full stomach and a fresh reminder of how friendly the people of this area are, I buy long johns for $2.99, an extra 12 pack of thick socks for $3, and a winter cap for $1.88. This is the cleanest and most organized Target I have ever seen in my life. One of the girls stocking the shelves fills me in on the story – Wal-Mart opened a few months ago across the street and is always busy. But I hate Wal-Mart and am happy to see the worlds cleanest Target.
I spend the afternoon talking with Peggy, the owner of the first coffee house. She is delighted to see so many people driving in to see the race. "We always get a good crowd, as the parking out front is free and usually full by race time." The coffee here is the best I have tasted in weeks and I savior every cup. Peggy's long house dress and short slipper boots remind me of a blonde girl I kissed inthe winter of 1990. She had pale skin, rosy cheeks and an average smile just like Peggy. We kissed in an audition for a part in a play. Later we drank tea and she told me about growing up as a Mennonite. However when I later told the story to my mother - about this great girl who I met that was a Hematite – well I can still hear my mom laugh about that in my mind (Mennonite is a religion similar to the Amish and Hematite's are rocks as well as the mascot of the Ishpeming High school.) Peggy could very well have been that girl I kissed over fifteen years ago; she was the right age andbuild.
At 6:00 that night I am on Main Street walking the line of sled teams as they prep. In the center of Main is the second coffee house (the first is Peggy's which is one block down and has better coffee, but this one allows for smokers) where they keep huge sacks of coffee beans in the store. The fresh air vents sweep the smell of coffee down Main and is a wonderful way to market the place. The row of dog teams is an over whelming foul stench of fresh dog poo. Thinking about it, I shouldn't have been surprised, but I was. Team 28 is who I watched the closest. The team leader hooks all his dogs to a chain that surrounds his truck which looks like a messenger pigeon truck. A wooden house built where the truck bed should be with rows of small doors on top of one another keep the peeping eyes of dogs at bay. One at a time he pulls them from their warm straw beds, connects the collar to the chain and repeats it with the next dog. After they are all out he fills the food bowls with a bloody chicken chum that has more protein then any body builder powder drink.
By 6:45 the street is nearly full and I have found my space on the line near the start. Our fine Governor is being interviewed by the Green Bay sports and weather man. As she walks away I say rather loud "Governor – why wear a red jacket in a blue jacket state?" She turns half way and smiles coyly. I could have said worse but we were all there to have fun. Being a "shy introvert" myself, I have won overall of my neighbors and built a solid fan base for the race. Packed in tight to see the dogs, things start to warm up from body heat. Our anticipation peeking we hardy notice the bitter night that has come with the setting of the sun. A snowmobile runs down the street and back one last time to pack the snow, the anthems of Canada and theUnited States have been sung, and at 7:10 on the mark the first team races by. Pulling at the reigns in frenzy the sound of the gun releases the dogs in to the night every two minutes.
After the third team runs I head down the street to the turn. I hear that the real NASCAR fans watch the turn, where a few years back there were roll-overs and injury, the real reason we watch. The turn is a twenty degree down slop that my car had trouble getting up the previous day. At the bottom of this steep grade is a right angle that, if missed, would throw you in to Lake Superior. The three story parking structure has fans of all ages hanging over the edge with cheers and the muffled clapping of mittens. Bankers have taken their daughters (and other family members) to work to show off the best view over looking this part of the course. I make friends withsome students at the line. Both want to teach. He was from Warren and she a small town up north. Both confirm that Northern is still a witness relocation program for the socially and academically challenged to reinvent themselves.
By this point in the evening no small town hottie can warm my spirits so I head over to "Up Front" where the after party is being held. An old refurbished lake front building that now holds a nice restaurant along with private function rooms, Up Front also has a large ballroom and bar with balcony over looking the lake and part of the course. With a fresh cup of coffee in hand I watch from the balcony the last half of the starters. After the dogs have run I head back inside and make a few new friends while Jim and Ray play. Jim and Ray were the long established hippies that played cover tunes at Vango's on Thursday nights when I went to Northern. Fifteen years later, hair still in pony tails, playing the same covers, Jim and Ray are the most famous musicians in Marquette. There is not an event that happens with out them. I spend an hour talking with the super intended of Marquette schools. She points out what has been obvious to me since arriving. There are lots of people who live here under the age of 24, and even more over the age of 50. The few people between those ages are married with 2.5 children. Marquette is missing a whole generation of people, and she tells me it is due to the lack of jobs. While the Governor has a good idea with the cool city initiative, she fails to see that Marquette was named one of the top 50 small cities to live in last 2003. Yeah, it's cool to snowboard, and ski, see sled dogs, ice fish, snow shoe, snowmobile, eat pasties, drink Peggy's good coffee, snuggle with your very attractive small town girlfriend under the sheets and raise a family, there are still not enough jobs. And until she can lower taxes and bring incentives to draw in business – it's just going to be cool, not hot. But that was just the superintendent.
With a clear and beautiful Saturday I bought a couple pasties from Mary-Jean and drove the 28 miles and back to Big Bay. The dirt covered packed snow they call roads twist through the mountains carved pushed and dumped by the last ice age. Snowmobiles are more common here then bicycles in Beijing. The trails are full and well groomed. Big Bay is just what it sounds like. Unlike the rest of Lake Superior, Big Bay freezes over in the winter drawing hundreds of ice fishers. It a slower paced day driving the 56 miles where the radio gives updates of the teams for the 200. Back in town the Mid-night run is coming to a close as a few of the faithful wait for their loved ones at the finish line. Presque Isle is holding an ice sculpture contest.
A musher from Montana won the U.P. 200 on Sunday, Rick Larson. Twenty-six seconds behind him was Tasha Stielstra from McMillian who took second. Last year she took fourth. I am betting money on her for next year, then on to the Iditarod.
Driving home Sunday I took 52, the short cut around Christmas Michigan that does not get the lake effect white out. 28 is the Sceney Stretch, a 32 mile long and straight road that follows train tracks, and is as dull as the desert. Down 117 at McMillian, over 2 to the bridge I am making record time. Just south of Wolverine the snow starts and traffic stops. I watch as a large truck that was pulling a snowmobile trailer went over the side of the road in to a fifty foot ditch between north and south bond I-75. They had unloaded the snowmobiles, tied them to the front of the truck, and began to try to pull the truck and trailer out of the ravine. It wasn't going to work, but it was amusing to watch while traffic slowed down. Seven hours and five inches of snow later I am back in Ann Arbor - a placewhere I live and work between tradeshows and conferences.