By Stephen Anderson
CALUMET - Many CopperDog 150 spectators will only see the first and last mile of the March 1-3 sled dog race in downtown Calumet, but if it wasn't for well-groomed trails on the other 136 miles in between, the event would never happen.
Race organizers rely heavily on Keweenaw Trails Services, Inc., to make sure the course to Copper Harbor and back is groomed properly, creating a safe, fun environment for mushers, sled dogs - and snowmobilers - alike.
"We are very fortunate to have access to the gorgeous country and trail system that is maintained by Keweenaw Trail Services," CopperDog 150 Executive/Race Director Todd Brassard said. "Our mushers are guests on beautiful snowmobile trails that are funded by the trail permit stickers."
As the local grant sponsor through the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, KTS gets paid a certain dollar amount per miles groomed, and it's no small task staying on top of the largest trail system in Michigan.
The 239-mile trail network stretches as far south as Toivola and north to Copper Harbor.
Grooming that many miles is challenging enough, but combine the needs of snowmobilers and those of mushers on CopperDog 150 weekend, and the task is that much greater.
"We worried about safety of the sled dogs and the teams, and we worried about the safety of snowmobilers, but CopperDog organizers help put up a lot of signs and provide crossing guards," said KTS head groomer and trail boss Larry "Buzzy" Butala. "We coordinate and work together.
"They get to use some of the most beautiful trails in the country, and we're happy to see the dogs have success," Butala added. "In the next 10 years this dog race will probably be the premier dog race in the country besides the Iditarod. We're trying to help them in any way we can."
Butala and his crew, which includes five groomers altogether, are out on the trails 20 hours a day, seven days a week, with typical shifts lasting nine to 11 hours.
Groomers hit the trails by 4 a.m. to keep up with the 400-500 snowmobilers who may use the trails during one shift on a busy weekend.
"This whole area is so fortunate to have groomers who do such a great job," KTS President Ken Stigers said.
This year KTS got a new $220,000 groomer, which is expected to last six to seven years. It's an impressive lifespan considering the 33,000 grooming miles KTS handles during a typical season - sometimes done at a "blistering 12 miles per hour," according to Butala - all while pulling seven tons of equipment. Fuel consumption is the in the range of $80,000 a year.
CopperDog 150 organizers donate $500 each year to help out, in addition to the volunteer task force that works with KTS race weekend to ensure safety all along the course.
"Each year the CopperDog is pleased to donate funds to the KTS to support the amazing trails that KTS maintains, and that people from all over enjoy," Brassard said.
First-year CopperDog 150 Trail Boss Brian Isaksson leads a crew of five people on the racing crew, some who head out on snowmobiles before the race, and others who "sweep" the course after the final team has hit the trails.
Eight people help out putting about 400 signs up the day before the race. Some of those signs direct mushers, others inform snowmobilers, who continue to use the trails they're paying for through CopperDog weekend.
"Snowmobilers, the vast majority of them, really actually appreciate seeing the race. It adds to Keweenaw experience," said Isaksson, who works for Isle Royale National Park during the summer and Michigan Technological University during the winter.
"They tend to pull over and watch dogs go by, slow down and wave. ... If they didn't have helmets on you could see their smiles."
For snowmobilers who would prefer to stay away from the race, alternate routes are available and listed on maps given to businesses in downtown Calumet.
Volunteer crossing guards and race organizers can also help, along with the signs posted along the trail. Sled dog teams train on snowmobile trails, so the dogs are not distracted. Isaksson is responsible for making sure trails are passable and reporting conditions to the CopperDog 150 board, and working with KTS in advance in case weather problems occur. The most common problem in the past has been low snow on Brockway Mountain in Copper Harbor, but organizers don't anticipate that being a problem this year. Alternate routes are pre-planned for worst-case scenarios.
"The trails are in immaculate condition," Isaksson said. "KTS is great, and they're a good asset to the race."
For more information on the CopperDog 150, visit copperdog150.com, and check back to The Daily Mining Gazette every Saturday leading up to the race for more exclusive CopperDog 150 coverage.