As Snow Disappears, A Family Of Dogsled Racers Can't Agree Why
As dog musher Mel Omernick slipped nylon harnesses over her Alaskan huskies' lithe bodies, the dogs were already straining with forward momentum. Pogo pressed her paws into the ground below, the sound of her yelps joining with those of the three other dogs that Mel and her husband, Keith, were hooking up to their tuglines. The cries melded with the barking of a hundred other dogs at the Redpaws Dirty Dog Dryland Derby in northern Wisconsin.
It was the first weekend of November, and race participants had come from all over Wisconsin and neighboring states, and as far away as New Hampshire and Quebec, to run their dogs. All year, they had fed and watered and trained and cleaned up after their teams, awaiting the moment they could let their dogs loose across the starting line.
Now the race weekend had finally arrived, though it had gotten off to a rocky start. Once again, the weather was to blame.
Northern Wisconsin is still a frigid place come winter. But as the state has warmed, the certainty of snow gradually vanished, leaving the traditional winter dogsledding races frequently canceled for lack of good powder. Organizers responded by adapting the sport itself, from dogsledding to "dryland" racing.
The Dirty Dog Derby was the first of its kind in the area, started in 2006 to extend the racing season into spring and fall so that mushers like Mel and Keith could have more chances to compete, and dogs like Pogo more chances to run. Swapping out sleds, dogs instead pull mushers on unmotorized rigs or a cart with four to 10 dogs or modified bicycles (bikejoring) pulled by two dogs: in some cases, a single musher simply lashes herself by bungee cord to a single dog and runs behind him in an event called canicross. Dryland variations tend to be shorter events, sprints of a few miles instead of the hundreds of miles of the iconic long-distance sled races often associated with the sport.
In the weeks before their race, the Dirty Dog organizers had been worried they'd have to cancel it if the warm weather they were experiencing into late October — still hitting 70 on some days — continued. Since dogs can't sweat — the only means they have to release heat from their bodies is through their tongues and the pads of their paws — mushers won't run their dogs if there's a risk they'll get "fried" by overheating.
But by the time the derby arrived on Nov. 4, race organizers were pining for a little heat. The race grounds — and the carefully groomed trails — were blanketed in nearly three inches of snow. The day's races were cancelled.
Mushers kept their spirits up but weren't finding much humor in the irony: a dryland race, the sport's creative solution to a paucity of snowfall, cancelled because of snow. Some mushers loaded up their trailers with their pent-up dogs and made their way back home, while others — usually those who had traveled greater distances — hung around, eating chili from the Dirty Dog Diner set up in the open-air lodge and taking shifts by the fireplace as they waited to see if the weather would change.
By the second day, the snow had melted just enough to turn the trails into a muddy, but navigable, quagmire. When the organizers announced early Sunday morning that the race was on, the grounds erupted in excitement and movement. Mel and Keith headed to their truck to get the team hooked up, and soon the dogs were pulling on their lines, amped to do what they seemed born to do: run.
Dogsledding, without the sleds
Today, dogsledding is undergoing a transformation. Or threat, depending on your viewpoint.
The first hit came with the advent of snowmobiles in the 1960s, when dogsledding began slipping away as the standard form of transportation for many of the world's northernmost inhabitants. Instead it became recreational, one of those activities that meld sport, hobby and lifestyle into one expensive, obsessive pastime.
Now the ideal image of dogs, humans and a sled careening silently across snow is facing a new challenge as the climate warms and the weather weirds. The Iditarod, a thousand-mile race across Alaska that is the most famous of sled dog races, had to be rerouted two of the last three years as its organizers chased snow-covered terrain. In Wisconsin, since 2001, about one-third of the sled races failed to happen, primarily because of lack of snow.
"I definitely see a trend where things are not like they used to be," said Jan Bootz-Dittmar, a champion sprint musher on snow and dry land who's been running dogs for 40 years. Last year, insufficient snowfall caused half of the snow races in Wisconsin to be canceled.
"That affects me," she said in the cafe as she munched on potato chips in lieu of lunch, "and it pisses me off."
The accidental life
Mel races drylands, but skijoring is what she loves most: the quiet "shwooosh shwooosh" of her skis gliding through a snow-silenced world but for the sound of her dog's movement.
She lives in Lincoln County, in north-central Wisconsin, and we were talking in the kitchen of the home she and Keith share, a long green metal building divided into a utilitarian shop and a capacious, wood-ceilinged living space with a wall of windows looking out upon a stand of trees. Her parents' home lies just beyond.
Mel, 40, sees both of her parents nearly daily, but when it comes to dogsledding, she's closer to her father, Ron Behm, who is approaching 70. The kennel of Alaskan huskies and hounds that was once Ron's is now cared for by Mel and Keith, and they all train the dogs together.
Father and daughter have been running sled dogs for more than 25 years, since they entered the sport by an accident of canine lust. Mel was still in junior high when the neighbor's Malamute wandered over and found their Labrador mix, which was Ron's hunting dog. One lone pup was the result, and they kept him and named him Tiny. He was no bird dog, but Mel and her three siblings kept him running all the time. When the neighbor's dog got loose again the next year and a litter of four was born, the Behm kids had a team. The family was friends with Jan Bootz-Dittmar, who gave them some harnesses to try out.
Mel and her two younger brothers hooked up Tiny and the team to their red Radio Flyer wagon, and the boys would take turns riding while Mel, who was a gymnast at the time and wanted the exercise, darted in front, leading the dog. As the dogs grew, they swapped out the wagon with an old lawn mower, engine removed. Mel's older sister Ginnie, daunted by the speed, would cheer them on, snapping photographs. Ron mowed a path through the grass so the children could holler "gee!" for right and "haw!" for left as the dogs learned commands.
Mel's brother Adam was the first to enter a formal dogsledding race, with Ron joining him a few years later. By the time she was in college, Mel had quit gymnastics and started racing, too. Mel's mother, Gail, stitched harnesses and kept the mushers supplied with baked goods and the fresh perch she caught while ice fishing, her preferred sport.
Dynamics of differing
Despite all this family togetherness, there was one crucial split in the Behm household: politics.
At first, Mel told me, she was a Republican because her father was. "I didn't pay attention to politics," she said. But that changed when she became an emergency room nurse. Working 12-hour shifts with people in crisis, she suddenly realized that "some of the decisions that politicians were making were affecting my patients."
She also saw how not just politics but also science affected them, from the medicines she could offer them to how their bodies responded. She saw science in her sport, too, where the principles of genetics were used to breed dogs for speed, endurance and tougher paws.
"I love science," she said, "and I believe in evolution." Evolution was one of the science-based subjects she'd argued with her dad about most fiercely when she was in college. "I feel like we're an example of it, and our sled dogs are too. So, it's logical. It just makes sense ... our planet is changing."
These were not conversations Mel and Ron had easily, or often. Usually they just avoided politics — and science — altogether, focusing on the thing that bound them, their love of dogs and dogsledding, their family life.
Within the contained world of dog mushers, there's a similar hesitation to talk about potentially divisive issues. The entire political spectrum finds representation at the Dirty Dog Dryland Derby, from the young women showing up in a Prius with two dogs tucked in back, to the Trump supporter in a trailer emblazoned with "To the victor the spoils." But as with Mel and her father, conversations among the mushers veer away from the political, to the point that many mushers don't even know each other's leanings or affiliations. Better to talk dogs than politics, and weather before climate. Even Ron, once I pressed him, was adamant that he was a "constitutionalist," not a Republican. That was a distinction even his own daughter didn't know.
Just a blade of grass
The second weekend in November, a second dryland derby was scheduled. Ron was slated to be a race marshal for that one, known as the Willow Springs Round Barn Fall Rally, and Keith was scheduled to compete; Mel planned to swing by after an all-night ER shift. But the skies stayed heavy most of the week, and, looking at the forecast of more snow, organizers cancelled the race by Tuesday night.
With his weekend freed up, Ron was willing to continue a conversation we'd started earlier in the week about what was happening to the climate and the sport he and his daughter both loved. Instead of race marshaling, he joined me at Mel's house, laying down his coyote fur cap upon the kitchen table as Mel fixed coffee after her 12-hour shift.
Sitting side by side, Mel and Ron are two generations delighted in the world. Ron is still fit from his 30 years as a mail carrier, from which he retired in 2012; he now devotes himself to the Wisconsin Trailblazers race dog club, the Lions and a one-acre market garden that he tends with his wife. His white beard is trimmed, and Mel's blonde hair is cut in a bob that falls in soft curls. They both default to easy smiles, even when their viewpoints clash.
Which they do, when it comes to climate change.
Mel feels that the winters of her youth are gone. Where was ice skating at Thanksgiving, like she remembers from her grandma's when she was a kid?
"It always seemed harsh in the winter," she said. But Ron had an explanation that had nothing to do with climate change. A trick of perception, he said as Mel listened respectfully, since in those days there was none of the high-tech clothing and efficient snow plows of today. He likened it to other mythic stories about one's childhood, à la walking to school, uphill, both ways.
"Probably that was a part of it," Mel responded, nodding thoughtfully, both of them disagreeing in a way that was unfailingly polite.
There are 19 dogs out in the kennel, but six are allowed in the house, and they periodically came up to Mel and Ron, who stroked their heads. One dog took a brief interest in Ron's coyote-skin hat — it's roadkill, Ron told me — before venturing off again.
"One thing about weather," Ron said, "we can all comment about it, but we can't change it." He sees climate changes as cyclical, pointing to the fact that long before humans were contributing any sort of emissions to the atmosphere, the state had "gone through three major warming trends, and also, three major freezing trends." He mentioned the nearby Ice Age Trail that marks the edge of the last glaciation, 10,000 years ago.
But even as he referred to deep time and geological history, Ron expressed his strong skepticism of science. He trusts the Old Farmer's Almanac before the weather report. Weather is cyclical, he insisted, listing off a catalog of counter-arguments to climate science I've heard around the country, including from many of the Dirty Dog mushers. The current warming can be attributed to volcanoes, they've said. And sunspots. And solar winds. And the media doesn't report these things. None acknowledged that climate scientists account for these variables in their studies and readily accept the planet's natural climate fluctuations.
What the planet has not seen is as rapid a rise in temperatures, predicted to become warmer than they've been for millions of years, long before humans settled into their spaces and their sports.
"I still don't believe that man has been given the ability, no matter how proud they think of themselves, to completely control something that they're only on its surface for a very short time," Ron told me. "We're here, a blade-of-grass scenario," meaning that there might be seven billion of us, but we simply cannot have the impact that climate scientists are saying we have.
But while Mel politely agreed with her father that her recollection of colder winters in the past might be a trick of the mind, the truth is, data backs up her belief that Wisconsin winters are objectively milder than they used to be.
Starting in the 1980s, the frequency of winter freezes that plunged the thermometer below average was declining. By the mid-1990s, when Ron and his kids were running with the Radio Flyer and Tiny's team, the cold autumnal spikes had nearly vanished.
Ed Hopkins, Wisconsin's assistant state climatologist, said winters continue to be highly variable, with lots of snow some years and bare ground others, but he recently tallied up the length of the frost-free season since 1971 and found that in some parts of the state, it's increased by as much as three weeks.
And now, a word from…
Dogsledding in Wisconsin has been changing for the past two decades for reasons aside from weather: the cost of dog food, the difficulty of finding long trail systems unimpeded by development or liability-averse landowners, the cost of fuel for the trucks to haul large teams. And one additional, significant change: the loss of sponsorship. It was sponsorship that had been keeping the races afloat, but sponsors started falling away as early as the late 1990s — often for weather-related reasons.
Ron spoke of one sponsor, the North Star Mohican Casino Resort over in Bowler, Wisconsin, that sponsored a dogsled race with a huge purse. "Then someone says ... we can make more money with a polka band," he said. "Bowler started to bring in live entertainment at the casino, instead of doing the race."
How infinitely appealing an indoor, climate-controlled event must be for a sponsor. The complete opposite of the iffy one-day mudfest that ended up being the Dirty Dog Derby this year.
"This is a weather sport," Ron said. "Your sponsors are expecting this much viewing of their product name, and if the weather is not conducive to that, you don't get the viewership."
"So if it's too cold, too windy, rainy," Mel continued, their conversation fluidly moving between them, "there are no spectators."
The prizes for the long-distance snow sled races can still be substantial — the Iditarod winner takes home $75,000 — but as the purses have shrunk, sprint mushers are lucky if they win enough for gas money home.
The move from dogsledding to dryland racing to casino polkas is enough to make you wonder if the United States is doomed to become an indoor nation, seeking collective escape from an unpredictable world.
Many sports are suffering from the extremes in weather. Just as the sled dogs have their window where they can comfortably and safely compete, so do we two-legged athletes. It's difficult to play tennis when it's so hot your sneakers are melting on the court or you start hallucinating that you've seen Snoopy, as happened at the Australian Open a couple of years back.
A study by the University of Waterloo's Interdisciplinary Centre on Climate Change found that, unless carbon use plummets soon, a third of past Winter Olympics cities will be unable to host the event in the future because they won't get cold enough. Winter recreation sports are estimated to be a $12 billion industry in the U.S.
Loss of sponsorship and other factors are contributing to the decline in snow mushing in Wisconsin, but the greatest factor seems to be climate change. How long can the sport survive when the specter of uncertain weather is added to all the others? What is the fate of this sport — a healthy, life-affirming sport that people play instead of watch, that involves working in concert with animals instead of against them? Did the founders of the Iditarod think about the double meaning of their tag line, the "Last Great Race on Earth"?
Mel and Ron and I had talked enough. There were dogs outside, eager in waiting. Ron donned his coyote fur hat, its tail draped between his shoulder blades as the rest of it blended with the color and cut of his beard. Mel slipped on her Carhartt jacket and we headed out to the kennel where Keith had been setting out the lines to run the dogs with an ATV. It was too snowy for a cart and not snowy enough for a sled, so a motor would have to suffice. The dogs were rowdy with expectation, fervent to bound through the whitened forest, past Ron and Gail's garden, so recently put to bed, past the neat lines of the neighbor's fields, crisp in sepia tones.
"I love to watch them run, and run with them," Mel had said expectantly before we headed out. "To have them pull me and to be part of that team. And we're out there in nature, whether it's a beautiful sunny day, 20 below, raining, icing. We're appreciating what the planet has given us, and God's blessings that we're healthy enough to do this."
She was proving what her father had told me earlier about dog racing. "Nostalgia," Ron had said, "is a big part of this sport."
Editor's note: InsideClimate News is a non-profit, non-partisan national news outlet that covers climate, energy and the environment. This article was originally published on Dec. 21, 2017, and is included in the publication's "Finding Middle Ground" series, which explores the different ways Americans are confronting the changing climate.
This report is the copyright © of its original publisher. It is reproduced with permission by WisContext, a partnership between Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television and the University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension.