Mushers Erin Altemus and Matt Schmidt have a lot of mouths to feed and miles to track from their remote spot up-country. But theirs are lives in sync with the season like others in the dogsledding community, some of whom still remember when dog teams were a means of travel and work.
The couple and their young daughter, Sylvia, 3, live with 30 Alaskan huskies 3 miles deep in forest, well off the Gunflint Trail and northeast of Devil Track Lake. Reaching their cabin and kennel isn't a lock, depending on snowfall. Still, the location is a gateway for the family, which operates its Mush Lake Racing kennel, and has been raising and racing dogs Up North for about seven years.
Few days are "typical," said Altemus, 42, who also is a nurse at North Shore Health and Care Center, the hospital in Grand Marais.
In early January, Altemus was waiting to see how her body responded to her second COVID-19 vaccination. Her mind also was on a possible 50-mile-plus training run with her handler and training partner Anna Hennessy and two teams of dogs later in the day if all went well. The Beargrease was approaching, but dogsledding has seen its stride impeded by weather and a pandemic. Too, Schmidt is recuperating from health challenges that have kept him off a sled.
"This year has been so odd," said Altemus. They ran their dogs behind ATVs until a week before Christmas because of the dearth of snow, and COVID-19 continues to cancel races everywhere. The Gunflint Mail Run, a forerunner to the Beargrease where Schmidt's twice placed second, was a no-go last month, and the couple's plans for Race to the Sky in Montana this month are dead. The Canadian border closure hasn't helped either.
Schmidt and Altemus started dating in 2003, having met at the YMCA's Camp Menogyn on West Bearskin Lake, where they both guided young campers.
Their Gunflint story isn't all that original in that regard. "People always joked that if you didn't find your partner at Menogyn, you were pretty much out of luck," Altemus said, with a laugh.
On a bracing afternoon last month, long shadows slanted across their property in the dying day. They and their charges were recovering from a 100-plus mile training run well into a morning of little sleep. Altemus and Hennessy had each led a team, picking up a snowmobile trail nearby that connects with other snowmobile trails and, in time, forest roads, as they racked up the wilderness miles.
Around that, there are dogs to keep well-fed, new straw bedding to put down, and poop to pick up from the multiple dog houses that make up a little enclave.
"I don't know what is typical," said Altemus, when asked about their routine, "because our work life is kind of crazy. It's tough to maintain a super-consistent schedule."
Still, for all their physical isolation, they look forward to events, like the dogsled races that culturally and historically connect so many people on the Gunflint Trail. Schmidt, who turns 42 on Saturday, said his health challenges have helped widen their circle. He is a volunteer at the Gunflint Volunteer Fire Department, and he said many in the community have offered support and help in recent months.
"I think the irony of the Gunflint is that a lot of the people who live up here, I don't know if they value isolation but people are kind of isolated," Altemus said. "But then there are these events that bring everyone together. For us, I'd say the dog races are the big part of connecting."
They've noticed that there are more people at cabins during the pandemic — more people on the trail than normal during these stark winter months — some of whom probably are working remotely. And, as long time seasonal workers years ago, they anticipate summer and fall will reel in thousands more. They're OK with that. They know it's a necessity in their far-off part of Minnesota, and the impact has been a small region with considerable opportunities, from the arts to recreation.
"I think most of the Gunflint Trail currently needs tourism to survive. It's not like 100 years ago when logging was a big driver for the economy. Most of the people who live up here year-round rely on the tourism, and people know that," Altemus said.
As for the Beargrease, Altemus and her team went on to lead a few legs close to home, and finished a strong fourth Feb. 2 — a satisfying result. (Coincidentally, Schmidt finished fourth in 2017.)
"I had a lot of Cook County cheering for us," Altemus said.