The loudest sound Ashley Thaemert hears in the heart of the forest are the metal runners of her sled scraping the snow. In front of her plays a steady orchestra of rhythmic thwacks of paws hitting the frozen trail. The barks and squeals of excitement have quieted now, with all eight members of Thaemert's Alaskan husky team doing what they love. They are content, working in concert as she taught them. It is sweet music to her ears.
"Geeeee," she calls out above the steady patter, instructing her lead dogs to turn right. "Gooood dogs."
About 25 miles into her first mid-distance sled dog race, the Beargrease 120 in Minnesota's arrowhead, Thaemert feels fulfilled. Her team is running across a postcard-perfect frozen landscape of rolling hills, paper birch and tall pines flocked with fresh white snow and shimmery silver frost. She has cared for and bonded with each dog in front of her, raising several of them as pups. Watching them run in harmony is her favorite thing in the world.
"It's quiet and it's peaceful," she says. "It's just the solitude of you and the dogs."
Deep inside, she is a little nervous about how her first race will go, but Thaemert remains calm. She wants her athlete dogs to sense only confidence and leadership. She doesn't expect to win anything. She just wants to finish with happy, healthy dogs. "Good dogs," she tells them. "Yes, everybody."
She learned everything on her own
It has taken Ashley most of her 24 years to prepare to compete in Minnesota's premier dog sled event. With no family in the sport — not even close friends — Thaemert learned everything from scratch.
Her parents thought it was cute, at first, when their oldest child took a liking to canines. As a toddler, she took dolls out of her doll house and put toy dogs in there instead. Around age 5, she opened an educational book and spied a photograph of dogs harnessed to a sled. Her parents found her staring at it, entranced.
Soon, she started asking — cajoling, really — to get a sled dog. Her parents thought it was a phase, but the begging went on for years even as they indulged her with trips to a local wolf center and a visit to the starting line of the Beargrease, where she could see the teams and pet dogs.
Her interest only grew.
When Ashley was 10, her grandpa steamed and bent layers of thin wood into a dog sled. They bought a harness at a shop in New Germany, Minn., and hooked up the family's Australian shepherd, Barron.
Barron didn't much care for mushing, though. A herding breed, he would only pull the sled if Ashley was in front of him, not standing on the sled behind him. It was an immediate lesson that some dogs want to run and some dogs don't.
Ashley made the best of it and led him and the sled around her family's acreage in Forest Lake to get firewood and do other chores.
Meanwhile she kept reading books about how to raise sled dog teams. She studied breeds and figured out where she could get them. She saved up money from birthdays, holidays and chores. Every Christmas, to nobody's surprise, she put "sled dog" at the top of her wish list.
Finally, at age 13, her parents relented. Ashley had always been drawn to the big, furry dogs with more brute strength than speed. She found a rambunctious eight-week-old malamute puppy from a woman in Princeton, Minn., and her parents let her buy it for about $600. Ashley named it Suka, a name derived from Inuit that means fast.
But Suka ended up being quite the opposite, Ashley recalls; he grew into a "ginormous, floppy-eared dog that did not go any faster than he wanted to."
Weeks later, her dad made a deal to trade an old four-wheeler for more dogs, and Ashley got Suka's brother London and yet-to-be-born pups Saffron and Echo, which are still part of her kennel.
It made for an unusual life for an exurban teenager. "I didn't have a big social life," she says.
Throughout high school, while other kids played sports and met friends at parties, Ashley did chores. She fed the dogs in the morning before school. After classes or drumline practice, she rushed home to feed the dogs again, do her homework and then run them. She paid for their food and care by working at a pet food store. Her schedule was so busy that sometimes she ran them into the wee hours of the morning.
"She really regimented herself," her mother, Mary Kaye Schleper, recalls. "It was more of a passion. It wasn't a chore."
For Ashley, mushing was a respite. As her parents struggled through marriage difficulties that ended in divorce, Ashley relished hitting the winter trails with her happy canines.
"It was my time with the dogs. I didn't have to deal with any people. I could just kind of get lost in my thoughts," Ashley says. "Having that kept me moving forward. I didn't have time to focus on the bad.
"Dogs don't ask you questions. They don't really care," she continues. "They don't ask you if you want to talk about things. But you can talk to them as much as you want. … They kind of mind their own business."
Staying calm amid the chaos
The dogs are more than ready to go at the Sunday morning start of the Beargrease. Considered a premier race in all of North America, it pays homage to John Beargrease, an Anishinabe man who delivered mail along the North Shore of Lake Superior using sled dogs, considered pivotal in the development of communities there.
Ashley's dogs are tugging and barking and prancing, their tongues hanging out with excitement.
She stands behind a canvas sled bag stuffed with dog food, water and mandatory supplies including a compass, matches, sleeping bag and extra dog booties. Just after noon, she moves the team slowly toward the starting line, the sled hooked to an all-terrain vehicle to hold the rambunctious team back until they can be released to run.
It is warm for a January day — in the mid-20s. Ideal sled dog running temperature for Ashley's dogs is about zero degrees, and she wonders whether they will get too hot.
Leading in front are Maya, who is steady and serious, and Zephyr, a goofy and driven veteran who had come from another musher and had run the race before. The chosen leaders complement each other: Maya stays focused and carefully follows direction while Zephyr sparks enthusiasm for the whole team. Maya is the thinker and Zephyr is the doer.
Second are Missy, who is shy, and Willie, who is decidedly not.
Gravy and Finka, yearling sisters, are third in line. Finka can't stop howling, her jaw tipped skyward as she lets the world know they're about to take off. Gravy — a fluffy pile of affection — is focused when she's hooked to the line.
And in the back, in the "wheel" positions right in front of the sled, are Abaddon (Abby for short) and Eli. Eli can't stop jumping straight up as if he has springs in his feet. He tangles the ropes as Abby stands ready nearby.
Through the chaos, Ashley, in her hooded parka, steadies herself. "You don't wanna hype them up more than they already are," she says.
Ashley gets a hug from her dad before the team approaches the starting line near a bar in a wooded section of Duluth. She smiles at the spectators lining the path.
"Good dogs!" she calls out to reassure her excited team. "Good dogs!"
Unleashed as an announcer calls out Ashley's name over a loudspeaker, all eight dogs suddenly mean business, sprinting, and bounding with excitement.
In truth, the first 10 miles are a bit of a "shit show," Ashley concedes. The dogs are ecstatic and they all have to go to the bathroom shortly after starting. Several lose booties in the thick, churned-up snow.
By the time they reach the first of two checkpoints near a highway crossing in Lake County, about four hours and 35 miles into it, the dogs have found their rhythm. Ashley is smiling behind them as she checks in with volunteers, then spots her personal team of handlers ready to usher the dogs to a small camp they set up in the parking lot. Beargrease rules mandate that dogs must rest a minimum of eight hours at two race checkpoints, the time divided however the musher sees fit.
The handlers, good friend Mike Tam, sister Carissa Thaemert and friend Cam Halverson, are excited and relieved to see the team. The official race GPS tracking Ashley on the internet had failed and they worried she had run into trouble in the middle of the woods. Now that they see everyone is fine, they spring into action, pulling harnesses and booties off the dogs and chaining them just out of reach of one another around a trailer, each near a bed of clean straw.
Ashley and the crew massage their paws with essential oils and lotions. Ashley checks each dog for signs of sore joints or illness, but sees nothing concerning.
The handlers then ladle a warm stew of beaver and turkey meat, kibble and supplements into each dog's dish. The right mix of food and frequency of feeding is key because dog metabolisms work differently from humans', turning ingested protein almost directly into energy, she explains.
Willie, the group's best eater, attacks the stew and laps it up within seconds, bits flying from his fast-moving jaw. Missy, the team's fussiest, takes a couple of slurps before lying down, uninterested.
After dinner, Eli, the friskiest canine on the team, repeatedly lurches toward Abaddon.
"I don't know how you have the energy for that, after all that running," Ashley tells him, shaking her head, then explaining that "he'll hump anything that moves."
When all the dogs are satisfied, Ashley yawns, cracks open a Mountain Dew and gulps some chocolates from a heart-shaped box of Russell Stover candies she bought at Walmart the night before. She unwraps a convenience store ham and cheese sandwich and puts it on a heater inside a tent where her crew had set up a cot and sleeping bag for her, in the hopes that she can catch a few winks while the dogs nap. The sandwich soon burns, but Ashley eats it anyway.
"Tastes like campfire," she laughs. And when a piece of ham hits the ground, she picks it up. "Maybe Missy will eat it," she says, offering it to the fussy dog.
Zephyr, 10 years old, was among the first dogs to curl up on his straw bed. As a veteran of the race, he wasn't rattled by the other teams and all the hubbub around him. He fell quickly into a power nap.
Living and loving life off the grid
Ashley had trained her dogs on land where she lives off-grid in the woods of northern Minnesota.
It wasn't always her plan. Accepted at the University of Minnesota, she was going to take a gap year or two after high school to work for a dog sledding tour company in Colorado.
She ended up staying five.
She decided to live her dream and hatched a plan with her tour company co-worker Mike to buy 40 acres outside the town of Tower. They built houses for dogs before they each moved a camper onto the land to house themselves. Ashley lives simply, without a television and just a cellular hot spot for internet service.
Working as a bartender in town to pay the bills, Ashley kept accumulating dogs from other kennels and raising puppies of her own, housing 30 canines by the time she entered Beargrease.
It's a labor of love. At just 5 foot 1 and 105 pounds, the brute physical tasks are challenging. She fills a water tank near her camper to wash dishes, shower and flush. She fills a gas generator twice a day for power. She shovels snow in the winter.
And then there are dog chores, of course. Lots of dog chores.
Feeding. Watering. Exercising. Training. Grooming.
"I think there's a lot more that goes into it than people realize," Ashley says as she organizes bags of raw meat, supplements and other dog food in a shed. "I don't think there's really anything you can do to prepare yourself for the amount of work."
She learned early that every dog has a different personality; some want to go long distances on teams and some simply don't. She doesn't force it on the pups that aren't interested.
But all the dogs need a daily energy release: whether it's pulling sleds in winter or running and swimming in nearby lakes in the summer.
For most of the dogs, "it's hard to get them to rest enough," she says. "They really want to run."
Panic strikes on the course
It's 11 p.m. when Ashley glides into the next checkpoint.
"Welcome to Finland!" a volunteer cheerfully bellows amid flood lights and a cacophony of humming generators and barking from other teams.
But Ashley's face is pained.
A quick look at her team reveals why: Only seven dogs — not eight — are harnessed to her sled.
"It's Zephyr," she tells her support team, her voice hinting at panic. "He's in the bag."
Mike and the other handlers shepherd the team toward their parking lot camping spot as Ashley unzips the canvas sled bag and Zephyr, curled up inside, lifts his buttery gold face up to look at her.
"Hi, Buddy!" Ashley coos as she starts to lift him out with Mike's help. Zephyr yelps. "He has an injury on this leg. He, like, hit a hole or something," she says.
It had happened about halfway through the second section of the race — about 20 miles in, Ashley explained. Alone and in the dark, she had struggled to unhook Zephyr and lift him into the safety of the sled bag as he squawked and nipped, stressing the other dogs who sensed something was wrong.
"When your emotions start fluctuating, they pick up on that," she explains later. "If you're calm, they mirror calm and do their thing."
Now at the checkpoint, Ashley sees Zephyr's leg has swollen and she figures it is a broken bone. A team of veterinarians comes to examine him.
"He wiped out on the shoulder," Ashley says as a vet tenderly moves Zephyr's front left leg and the dog yowls again. Ashley, kneeling on the cold ground, continues to stroke Zephyr's ears.
"Good boy," she says, over and over. "He's a good boy."
The painkillers that vets have on-site will help, but they can get stronger medicine at an emergency vet in Duluth, they tell her. Zephyr also needs X-rays before they can truly diagnose him.
Ashley is heartbroken. Should she quit? She wants to comfort Zephyr all the way to Duluth, but if she leaves the course, she and her team are disqualified. What about all the people who are there helping her? All the training the other dogs have gone through? All the sponsors who have funded her team? The other dogs were still in very good shape.
Ashley's handlers and other teams tell her to keep going.
Mike and Carissa persuade Ashley to let them take Zephyr to get X-rays in Duluth. A vet helps them wrap Zephyr in a blanket and carry the dog to the truck safely.
"This makes me sad and upset and frustrated," Ashley concedes. Though she knows it's a freak accident, "I just kinda want to be done and not risk anybody else getting injured."
Cam says there's chili for racers inside the warm auditorium nearby, and encourages her to go in.
"I'm not really hungry," Ashley tells him.
Later, all alone in her tent, Ashley cries about Zephyr.
"I feel like I failed him," she says later. "I'm responsible for him."
Her dogs are like family
Ashley's bond with her dogs is deep. She gets to know each dog's personality, temperament, likes and dislikes. Alaskan huskies are not purebred but a mixture of several breeds for optimal sled racing. Most are just 40 to 60 pounds, according to the American Kennel Club.
Ashley has bred dogs three times, and when the puppies are born she becomes part of their pack. She watches them take their first breath. She listens to them make their first sounds. She holds them every day so they know her scent and her voice. Ashley won't sell puppies — she's not trying to make money — but will give them to other mushers who she knows will treat them well.
But she bonded so much with the first two litters that she couldn't bring herself to give any away.
"It's really hard. They become kind of like kids," Ashley says. "I like seeing them born and grow up and do really incredible things."
She knows each of her dog's running gaits. Most are trotters. A few are lopers. Abby is a pacer, with both legs on each side moving parallel.
Out on the trail, Ashley constantly scans their cadences for small changes, knowing it could signal distress.
Wearing a headlamp on the trail in the darkness of the night, she hadn't seen any signs of distress in Zephyr. With him, it was a sudden fall and a yelp. She didn't see it coming.
Exhaustion, excitement and smiles
Ashley hadn't slept much when, at 3:30 a.m., Mike and Carissa return without Zephyr. His upper humerus was broken, they report.
Ashley is resolute in trying to finish the race "so this isn't all for nothing," she says.
The handlers feed the dogs frozen tilapia, which has high water content and is easy for them to digest, before they hit the trail for the last 38 miles, just seven dogs instead of eight. Replacement dogs aren't allowed.
"I feel OK," Ashley tells the group. But she looks exhausted and sad.
"I'm ready to be done," she admits. "Even if Zephyr hadn't broken his leg I think I'd be ready to be done."
Racing takes a toll on mushers, perhaps as much as the dogs; they are responsible for following a long list of rules, they are trying to make sure every dog is happy, they often run several miles alongside the teams, making it easier for dogs to pull an empty sled uphill, for instance.
As they harness up the dogs, Ashley decides to put Willie in front with Maya, going on a hunch that they'll work well together. Missy starts squeal barking again, out of excitement. Eli tries to hump another dog.
"Come on, Eli," Ashley says. "Let's put that to good work."
At 22 degrees, it's still warm but cloudy. Just a few more hours and the race will be over.
"Good job, team!" Ashley tells the group before heading out. "I love you!"
The next few hours are a slog. With one fewer dog and a hilly course, Ashley finds herself running alongside the sled a lot more than she had trained to do, trying to make sure her dogs have the strength to finish well.
But as they progress and faint signs of daylight appear through the trees, Ashley feels assured that all the remaining dogs are happily cruising along. It lifts her spirits.
About 10 miles from the finish line, Ashley stops, knowing there are no other teams nearby and she can take a minute to rest her dogs and give them praise.
She hops off the sled and rubs each dog's ears and gives them kisses as she says their names aloud.
Within a couple of minutes, the dogs start to pull and lunge, eager to run again, just a few miles left.
Ashley is heartbroken about Zephyr, but she has to let go of some of the guilt. She doesn't yet know that his leg is so badly damaged that amputation would be the best choice to give the otherwise strong dog a happy, pain-free retirement on three legs at her kennel. Right now, she's watching her remaining team run, in unison, doing what they were born and bred to do. She begins to feel a mixture of elation and relief.
Just before 8 a.m. on a humid winter morning, Ashley and her team come down a hill toward the mid-distance finish line at the Trestle Inn, a restaurant and bar deep in the woods northwest of Schroeder. The forest is covered in silver frost, enveloping every conifer needle as well as the dogs' whiskers and Ashley's blonde hair sticking out from under her turquoise cap.
She is all smiles, and the dogs seem to smile, too. After nearly 11 ½ hours on the trail and more than 8 hours and 15 minutes of rest, they finish in 12th place, and Ashley is grateful.
"The dogs did good," she tells her team as she beams with pride. "Really, really good."