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A long-running sled dog race in the UP makes tough decision to cancel this year’s run

Courtesy of Darlene Walch

From the ski slopes to the snow trails, decreased snowfall and heightened risk of COVID-19 has made this winter season a strange one for many Michiganders hoping to enjoy their favorite cold-weather pastimes. That means that in the Marquette area of the Upper Peninsula, this particular February won’t bring its annual major sled dog races — or the crowd of spectators, mushers, and dogs that usually attend the events.

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Normally, three races — the UP200, the Midnight Run, and the Jack Pine 30 — take place in the middle of the month, drawing about 5,000 spectators to the downtown Marquette area in a highly festive atmosphere, says Darlene Walch, president of the U.P. Sled Dog Association (UPSDA). She says this year would’ve been the races’ thirty-second year running, but due to the pandemic, the association made the difficult decision to cancel the events.

“It was quite disappointing to have to make this step,” Walch said. “But we felt we could not keep all of those competitors, all of the volunteers, all of our race officials, our veterinarians, and our spectators safe during this very odd year.”

Credit Courtesy of Darlene Walch
Walch says the events usually draw in about 5,000 spectators to Marquette’s downtown area on the Friday evening of race week. “The bottom line is, even if you're outdoors, when you have that many people gathering for an event, it's just not the right time,” she said.

At 238 miles, the UP200 — one of the qualifying races for the Iditarod — is the longest race of the week, running from Marquette to Grand Marais and back again. In other years, about 45 mushers — plus their dogs — usually participate in the three contests, each of which is coordinated with the help of organizers, veterinarian crews, and about 900 volunteers. And then there are the locals and tourists who come to cheer on the contestants.

“We are talking thousands of people,” Walch said. “We also have volunteers who make the trek to the U.P. every year from Wisconsin, the Chicago area, as well as downstate Michigan. Some of our volunteers have come here every year for the last 20, 25 years.”

Because mushers are generally spread out on the trail, the UPSDA board wasn’t as concerned about social distancing and COVID-19 safety for competitors, she says.

“The main challenge that we faced was not being able to have any spectators,” Walch said. “We really were not sure, in such a public venue as what we have in the Marquette area, how we would be able to monitor that.”

She says the association also considered what a cancellation — or carrying on — would mean for businesses in the Marquette region, many of which sponsor the competitions. UPSDA found that the events usually bring just under $2 million in economic impact in the Marquette and Alger County area, Walch says. But, she points out, this has been a tough year for business owners.

“We were worried about small businesses, whether or not our funding would be in place, and whether that was even reasonable to expect,” she said. “So the economic impact is kind of a double-edged sword, because we know it brings in income, but it also requires us to ask people for donations. And that gets difficult when, you know, people's businesses have been suffering.”

They also considered judges and competitors who usually come to the U.P. from Canada, who would face difficulty crossing into or out of the country this year due to travel restrictions, Walch adds.

Credit Courtesy of Darlene Walch
Walch is also a musher. She’s pictured here with her team at the start of the Tahquamenon Country Sled Dog Race, which was also canceled for 2021.

Walch has been a competitor herself, and she says she knows the cancellation must have been a letdown for mushers, who often train with their teams of dogs well in advance of races.

“You have your team of dogs, you've been building these teams. Sometimes you run into a scenario where this may be the last year for a particular dog. So it's very disappointing,” she said. “But you can also flip to say, well, this is the recreational year. Time to regroup, time to get our team all together.”

She says UPSDA is taking this time to regroup, too.

“On [this year’s] merchandise, we have ‘2021,’ and then we have the saying, ‘running on by to 2022.’ ‘On by’ is a mushing term,” Walch said. “When you want your dog team to move ahead and pass any type of distraction, you tell them to go ‘on by.’ So we are running on by 2021, heading toward 2022.”

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Nell Ovitt.

Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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