NEAR TOGO, MINN. – There is no Little League in mushing. Public school districts don’t sanction it as an extracurricular activity. Most teammates aren’t human. During races, girls and boys compete against each other on equal ground. The kid on the sled runners also is the team coach. And twice a day, those mushers feed their teammates. It’s care and affection with no offseason. That’s the shortlist of how mushing differs from other youth athletics.
Fortunately, dedicated mentors from outside a formal setting are willing to teach young people their passion for dogs, winter recreation, and the life lessons therein.
Four-time Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon champion Jamie Nelson developed her Mushing Boot Camp about 20 years ago to teach people the tools of running dogs. More recently, she began conducting kids camps designed to take junior mushers as far as they’d like to go in mushing. She said interacting with dogs is an education that will last them a lifetime.
“Kids need to be given some freedom to do what they think. You can direct them, but they also need to find their way,” said Nelson, 69. “One of the things I try and instill in the kids is the satisfaction of doing it themselves.”
Peter McClelland owns White Wilderness Sled Dog Adventures outside of Ely and has a lengthy competition résumé, including a third-place finish in the Beargrease. He’s been working with a group of junior mushers for about three years. They’ve competed in notable races such as the Junior Beargrease, the Apostle Islands Sled Dog Race and the WolfTrack Classic, among others.
McClelland’s commitment to teaching isn’t primarily about competitions. He said he fears partnerships between humans and animals are getting lost. Junior mushers learn bonding, teamwork, self-reliance and self-confidence — as important to their growth as training techniques.
“The biggest thing is just focusing on how to be safe, how to set up for success of finishing strong and happy, as opposed to trying to do this as fast as I can and risk problems,” he said.
Nelson and McClelland, 48, have known each other for years and discuss training often. Many of their junior mushers attended an annual gathering at the Button Box Campground on Oct. 19-22 near Togo, Minn.
Jasper Johnston, 14, of Ely said he likes meeting other mushers and seeing the potential within each dog. After dealing with dog personalities — from the skittish to the crazy — he’s learned to tailor his behavior toward them dog to dog.
“It’s really challenging at times, getting a dog to do what you want or teaching a new leader. It takes a lot of perseverance and that will pay off later,” he said.
Jasper’s mother, Molly Johnston, said she appreciates how McClelland presents opportunities for the children to problem-solve and improvise during training runs so they’re prepared on-trail. But she admits she’s still a parent.
“As a mom, it was a little nerve-racking to watch as [Jasper] headed back out on the Beargrease trail after a rest stop and the light from his headlamp disappeared into the dark at the first turn,” she said.
Nicole Grangroth, 15, and her sister, Brenna, 14, from Menahga, Minn., said their reasons for running sometimes transcend preparation and technique. Even during the heart of a competition, they find quiet beauty just by being with their team surrounded by snow-caked landscape.
“It’s relaxing,” Nicole said. “We run down the trail and all you can hear are the dogs running, and sometimes the gangline is jingling a little bit with the sled pushing into the snow.”
Her sister punctuated the sentiment. “Magical,” Brenna said.
Talia Martens of Brule, Wis., is 17 and in her last year of eligibility for the Jr. Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Alaska. She said that depending on the race, sometimes she likes to compete, sometimes she’s in it for the scenery. The Jr. Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race offers both. So she and her family launched a fundraising campaign to get her there.
Her mother, Janet, said Talia’s care for the dogs comes first, but the trade-off has been a diminished social life. Talia withdrew from other sports to focus on mushing and doesn’t have a typical relationship with classmates.
“She’s more of an independent operator,” her mother said. “She has a lot of friends and fans at school. All you have to mention is Alaska, and Talia and everybody knows who she is. [But] she’s doing something different.”
Peter McClelland’s daughter, Morgan, 12, also isn’t one to back down from a challenge and she’s well aware of the Jr. Iditarod. “I’d like to try it at least once just to see what it’s like because some people say it’s super hard,” she said.
At 15 years old, Julia Cross, from Thunder Bay, Ont., has designs on being the first Canadian to win both the Iditarod and the Beargrease. “Dream big!” she said.
During a time when the mushing world is being tested with controversy, goals and dreams for these young mushers can be as pure and deep as unbroken trail.
Scott Stowell is a freelance writer and photographer from Ely. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.