MUSH LAKE, Minn. — Rather than use a four-wheel drive truck, an ATV, snowmobile, snowshoes or good boots to get around in the winter, Erin Altemus and her husband, Matt Schmidt, use a dog team and sled.
The couple and their 20-month-old daughter, Sylvia, live what some would say is the ultimate outdoor lifestyle, centered around sled dogs, mushing and heating their water with a wood stove in the heart of the Superior National Forest in northern Minnesota.
“When you aren’t digging yourself out of a snowbank, it’s an amazing place to live with dogs,” Erin said as she hooked up a team of dogs for a practice run.
Erin, 40, is one of a dozen mushers entered in the 35th John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, the longest sled dog race in the lower 48, scheduled for Jan. 27-30. Matt, 39, was set to run in the middistance 120-mile Beargrease race but pulled out at the last minute with his kennel short on veteran dogs.
They are relative newcomers, to the northland and competitive mushing and have jumped into the lifestyle full-force.
Erin is from Wisconsin. Matt’s from Minnesota. They met 15 years ago at YMCA Camp Menogyn, located on a strip of land surrounded by small lakes in northeastern Minnesota.
A winter mushing program at Menogyn “was my first contact with sled dogs ever. I just absolutely fell in love with it,” Erin said.
Just six years ago the couple was living on her Wisconsin family farm trying to develop a sled-dog kennel and struggling to find enough trails or, some years, enough snow.
They headed north and got help from the mushing community in the region.
Five years ago they found 43 acres with a cabin for sale in the woods. In the middle of nowhere. No electricity. No phone. No road access.
“It was kind of serendipitous that it was on Mush Lake,” Erin said. “It really is the perfect place to live if you want to run dogs. We’ve got great trails right out the door.”
There’s no one to complain if the dogs howl. The nearest neighbor is about 10 miles away.
This year was the first full winter they had a drivable road in, after they improved a Forest Service logging trail. More than 3 feet of snow since Christmas had them snowed in earlier this month. Their plow truck sits, dead, halfway out to the road.
On the day some visitors arrived, the couple had hired a local contractor with a skid-steer to try and spread their snowbanks apart to make the last mile of driveway passable again.
“One of the joys of living out here,” Matt said.
The northeastern tip of Minnesota is among the snowiest places in the state, with high altitude to scrape the most snow out of the clouds and not far from Lake Superior’s usual snowstorm enhancement. It’s the perfect place for dog sledding.
“I’ve never not wanted snow before. Now, it can stop, please,” Erin said.
The snow blocked her first-ever missed day at North Shore Health, the hospital in Grand Marais where she works as a nurse.
Trying to get Sylvia to and from day care has been a logistics problem. The addition of a toddler to their work and training schedule has been a challenge. Then there are the daily chores of life in the woods, like pumping water, feeding the dogs and cleaning up poop.
“It’s been rough. I’m not going to lie,” Erin said. “It’s been a juggling act.”
The dogs, in the end, offer a redemptive value, on the trail, where they were born and bred to run. Erin said she wouldn’t otherwise go outside on a zero-degree day with a biting, below-zero wind chill. The dogs want to go; she does, too.
“They make you stop thinking about anything else going on in your life,” Erin said. “Their forward drive is unending.”
Good dogs, fast races
Erin and Matt have been mushing for more than a decade and racing their dog teams for about eight years, with some success.
Erin’s top finishes include fourth place and rookie of the year in the 2015 John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon.
Last March, Erin came in fourth and was the first female and first American to cross the finish line in the Can-Am Crown International Sled Dog Race in Maine. Matt finished fourth in the Beargrease Marathon in 2017, third in the Can Am 250 in 2017 and second in the Gunflint Mail Run in 2016 and 2017.
They have bred, raised and trained very fast Alaskan huskies.
“It’s a great lifestyle if you can put up with it,” Erin said, comparing her relationship with her dogs with any pet owner’s love of their dog or cat. “It’s like that, only magnified.”
Plenty of training, hoping for success
This year the first snows came early, allowing more training than usual.
“It’s been a pretty good winter. We’ve been on sleds since Nov. 15, although it wasn’t great the first few weeks,” Matt said. “Now, we maybe have too much snow.”
The couple generally race in the same events but not in the same race. Now, Erin is running the larger, more experienced team and doing the longer races while Matt is working with younger dogs and a smaller team. They decided to make sure Erin had enough dogs to compete well in the marathon when deciding to pull Matt out of the Beargrease 120.
After finishing a disappointing 11th in the Gunflint Mail Run earlier this month, Erin is eager to do well.
“We have been lucky enough to have some success pretty early on, and you kind of get used to getting that check,” she said of cash prizes for placing high in races. “It helps to pay some of the expenses of doing a race, and maybe buy some dog food.”
The Beargrease marathon will bring the mushers down a snowmobile trail just a mile or 2 from the couple’s deep woods home. Erin’s hoping she’s the first one to get there.
“I have to make sure we practice going on by that turn so they keep going on the race trail,” Erin said. “I don’t want them turning off the trail like we’re going home.”