The Call of Iron County

The pull of the IronLine sled dog race is helping a southwest U.P. community gain traction as a winter destination
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Josh Brindle explains why he and his wife, Grace, organized a sled dog race in their hometown of Iron River with two words: “community vitality.”

“If we didn’t do anything for the next five to 10 years, Iron River might be another one of those dying old mining towns,” Brindle says.

Iron River probably isn’t the first place that comes to mind when discussing destination cities in the U.P. — think Marquette, Copper Harbor, or Houghton — but the town of 3,000, no more than 10 miles north of the Wisconsin border, has its appeal. The Brindles merely wanted to add another attraction.

“Iron River is known and on the map for a few different reasons,” Brindle says. “We have great natural resources, we’re right in the middle of five blue ribbon trout streams, we have a great rodeo, and now we have a sled dog race.”

The Brindles originally envisioned the IronLine as a “full-fledged winter carnival-type thing” enjoyable for all, regardless of an interest in mushing. Over time, the race has evolved into something close to that vision, though the event’s raisons d’être remain the 12-mile four-dog race, the 40-mile six-dog race, and the 80-mile 10-dog race. Now, the IronLine also incorporates a 40K/20K fatbike mountain bike race and other activities like ice sculpting.

The IronLine has gained a respectable following among mushers in the Midwest and Canada, growing from 24 race teams in 2013 to almost 30 in 2015. The event’s popularity is due in part, no doubt, to the IronLine’s racer-friendly, two-stage format, which affords dogs and mushers ample time for recovery. But credit also belongs to the residents of Iron River.

Mandatory race gear includes dog harnesses, two working headlamps, a knife, an axe, a first aid kit, and one set of booties per dog. A trailer to transport the racers comes in handy, too.

“The community is awesome,” says Joann Fortier, a 15-year mushing veteran who won the 10-dog race at the 2014 IronLine. “They’re excited that we’re there. The racecourse snakes around a golf course and you’re out on a lake for a few miles, so the whole community, all along the golf course, all along the lake, they’re cheering for you the whole time … It’s a small community, but you feel like you’re royalty when you’re there.”

For rookies, a welcoming community is vital, not only on the trail where the solitude of a race creates its own challenges, but also in the Mushers Village, where racers share their mastery of the sport. The learning curve for a musher is steep and it can take years to collect the proper equipment, grasp the ins and outs of dog care, and acquire the technical know-how to make it through the racing season.

According to Brindle, the IronLine’s relaxed atmosphere helps encourage first-time mushers.

Veterinary staff, typically in green parkas, evaluate each dog’s heart rate, respiratory rate, and hydration status prior to each race.

“We have people that have jumped into the sport that normally wouldn’t,” Brindle says. “A lot of people that are involved in mushing — it’s a very expensive sport — are people that are well established in careers or have a lot of time off in the winters and have the money in the budget. We try to gear a lot of things towards families because a lot of us that started this race are fairly young for the sport. It’s created some fresh blood.”

Fresh blood in the mushing scene can indeed be rare. If a curious sportsman isn’t deterred by the money, travel, and gear requirements, there’s still the time and effort that competitive racing demands.

The first stages of the 10- and 6- dog races take off after sunset.

“If you didn’t love it, you could never do it just because of the work,” Fortier says. “We’re training four to five days a week and the training alone takes over three hours. That’s not even counting getting the team ready. You have to harness (the dogs), bootie them all, hook them all up, and then when you get home and you’re exhausted, you’re checking all the feet to make sure everybody’s OK, checking for any injuries, feeding them all, massaging them all … it’s just endless. My husband says it’s 90 percent work for 10 percent fun.”

The work-to-fun ratio might be unbalanced for the mushers, but for the dogs — the athletes — it’s a different story.

“If you just go to a start line, you can see how excited the dogs are,” says Jeanie Wilcox, a veterinarian who’s spent over 20 years caring for dogs in races throughout the Midwest.

Like any athlete, sled dogs require hours of training. “99.9% of the time, they’re in much better health than our house pets who don’t get adequate exercise,” says Jeanie Wilcox.

“You can’t deny that this is something they love to do; it’s not something they’re made to do,” Wilcox adds. “It’s nice that more people have become educated about the sport of mushing versus the drudgery that they thought it would be for the dogs.”

Lanky bodies, strong feet, and high energy levels make for a strong racer. Evidently, the drudgery of mushing lies with the musher. Still, Fortier says that come race day, the months of training, traveling, and commitment to the sport are worth it.

“It’s exhilarating. You’ve trained these fine-tuned athletes all season, and when you get to the sled, they’re just so powerful,” Fortier explains. “They’re barking and crazy to go when you’re first starting, then everybody’s just silent and it’s just you alone on the trail.”

There’s solitude in being the only human behind the sled, but there are also 10 other team members out front who, in a very real sense, are running the show. Any musher will agree that it would be impossible to win a race without the ability to read, appreciate, and work well with the rest of the team.

“It’s a team sport because it takes a team,” Brindle says. “But it really does take that solitary human to tie it all together.”

The same might be said about organizing the IronLine. It’s taken 100-plus community volunteers to coordinate the IronLine each year, but it’s also taken the Brindles to stand at the back of the sled and direct the team.

Of course, the race they’re running has more at stake than the glory of a first-place finish. “For us, it’s life,” Brindle says. “It’s about revitalizing a town, and this is just one integral piece of that.”

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