CALUMET - Safety has been the highest priority for the fourth annual CopperDog 150, and organizers are confident in their preparations for the March 1-3 sled dog race. However, a tragic accident last weekend at the U.P. 200 in Marquette is bringing more intense scrutiny to the subject.
One dog was killed and two others injured when the team of musher Frank Moe, of Bemidji, Minn. was struck by a pickup truck at about 5:30 Sunday morning at an M-28 road crossing in Wetmore. Michigan State Police investigated and determined nobody was at fault.
CopperDog organizers wasted no time responding to the incident, posting a note of condolence later that day to their website, copperdog150.com, entitled "Thinking of Frank." On Monday, CopperDog 150 Executive/Race Director Todd Brassard posted a much longer post called "How we approach safety."
"Although it is impossible to remove all the risk from events like sled dog races, with clear focus and persistence it is possible to minimize risk through excellent planning, effective communication, innovative tools and hands-on volunteer training," Brassard said in the post.
Each of those facets is examined in detail below for the CopperDog 150.
CopperDog organizers almost had to learn the hard way the importance of safety after the year's inaugural event. In 2010, rain threatened the race and only after tense deliberations was a shortened final leg agreed to. Some mushers left with the intention of not returning.
From then on, Brassard introduced, popularized and embodied the concept "happy healthy dogs, happy healthy mushers" as the event's motto.
"It's important to understand that safety is not a side consideration at CopperDog 150," Brassard said in a Daily Mining Gazette interview. "Safety considerations are fundamental to our planning process and every element of our event has its safety considerations."
It all starts well before race weekend when the CD trails committee scouts trails and chooses a manageable route. All trail crossings and potential navigation hazards are identified and assigned a difficulty rating of one to five, one meaning low risk.
Race/assistant/volunteer directors establish a crossing schedule, identify the number of volunteers needed at each location and determine which crossings require fire/police vehicles, flashing lights or other needs.
"We're trying to be proactive in making sure we can provide the best, safest race we can," said Ann Gasperich, who is filling a newly created safety coordinator position for the CopperDog.
Brassard previously performed the duties in addition to a wealth of other race management responsibilities. The safety coordinator position was created in January.
"It's too important of a job to have someone who's overseeing the whole race being in charge of safety, too," she said.
Gasperich was the Houghton County emergency management coordinator from 1989-99 and 911 director from 1999-2005, and she currently works with zoning, building codes and equalization in Keweenaw County.
"We're not going to change what we do, because we are always looking to improve our safety procedures," she said, "but what happens because of a devastating accident like they had (in the U.P. 200) is it increases the awareness."
Organizers, mushers and volunteers all need to be aware of the potential dangers, but so do spectators and drivers who may be crossing paths with the CopperDog route.
Three of the 24 crossings on March 1 (the only night leg of the race) have garnered a five (high-risk) rating:
In Lake Linden there's a crossing zone from Kevin's Self Storage to Gregory and 9th streets. The snowmobile trail runs parallel to the road for a stretch, in a relatively high-traffic area in which vehicles are coming off a blind curve from Bootjack.
Just north of Calumet near the Trailside Lodge, the trail crosses U.S. 41 in a high-traffic area in which vehicles travel at a fairly high rate of speed.
In Phoenix, U.S. 41 intersects with M-26 and the trail to the east of the intersection runs parallel with the road for a while. In all the above instances, and at all the other crossings, communication is vital.
In Phoenix, for example, three Ahmeek Village Fire Department units will be assisting; one south of the crossing on U.S. 41, one north on U.S. 41, one west on M-26 and one east on the snowmobile trail.
"If somebody is coming from any direction, we'll know it," said Dick Powers, one of two net controllers, or radio coordinators, for the race.
He will be based in Copper Harbor, while Bill LaBelle will work from Calumet. They are authorized by Keweenaw County Sheriff Ron Lahti to operate on the 800 Mhz state of Michigan system, with designated call signs. They also network with what CopperDog Volunteer Coordinator Brian Donnelly called a "small army of HAM radio operators sprinkled through the race" using the local 315 repeater.
Currently 32 radio positions, 23 of which report times, are set up for immediate communications between crossings or with headquarters. With mushers being tracked during the race, not only can race fans follow the race, but crossing personnel can be more prepared.
The following fire departments are involved at various crossings: Allouez Township, Ahmeek Village, Copper Harbor, Eagle Harbor, Lac La Belle and Sherman Township - all Keweenaw County units - and Calumet Fire and Rescue and Lake Linden Village from Houghton County.
At each crossing, any number of communication exchanges will take place. A volunteer will be strategically placed on the trail, and at night, he or she will use scuba diving signals with a flashlight - a slow circle means go through; a quick back-and-forth motion means stop.
During the day, a large card is displayed, on one side red for stop, and the other green for go.
"We have an early warning system built in place," Lahti said. "On a scale of one to ten in terms of preparedness, it's as close to a ten as it can be. A lot of details go into preparing these crossings. Generally as a rule, we'll stop the dogs, depending on the circumstances."
Police and some firefighters are authorized to stop traffic, and if a string of dog teams is approaching a crossing, vehicles may be stopped. Otherwise, vehicles have the right of way, and CopperDog volunteers are not permitted to stop traffic.
"Each intersection is unique," Gasperich said. "The biggest problem we have is cars will want to stop and see what's going on. That causes more confusion."
It is a race, after all, but personnel at crossings are instructed to give very direct guidance to vehicles and mushers alike.
The CopperDog has an array of tools, on the ground and in cyberspace, to manage and follow the race.
Each crossing volunteer coordinator is supplied with a box of safety vests, volunteer waivers, signaling devices, clipboards, markers and timing logs.
During the race, all the data from each crossing will be conveyed to the CopperDog Calumet headquarters via radio and entered into a database.
"Customized software will use this information to track and even predict the position of mushers during the race," Brassard said. "This information is used for safety and keeping track of teams, but is also pushed to Facebook, Twitter and our website so people can follow the race while it's in progress."
The event also relies on a high level of volunteer coordination, a process handled entirely online through a volunteer management system, designed by Brassard-owned Brassard Media. Volunteer shifts are open to the public.
While some training sessions have already been conducted, volunteers may still sign up at copperdog150.com, and the final "Official CopperDog 150 Volunteer Training Session" will take place from 1 to 3 p.m. Sunday behind the Public Schools of Calumet, Laurium & Keweenaw.
It will involve 45 minutes of indoor training, demonstration and discussion, followed by 45 minutes of outdoor hands-on training - all with safety as the primary focus.
"Safety is in the DNA of the CopperDog," Donnelly said. "Our volunteers are pretty dedicated, and they're pretty confident in the safety of our race. Our No. 1 goal is to make sure all crossings are staffed appropriately first."
It takes a complex network of people to ensure a safe race for everybody, namely the mushers and dogs (for a detailed look at safety from a veterinary care standpoint, see the Feb. 2 Daily Mining Gazette article entitled "Happy healthy dogs, happy healthy mushers," which is part of a weekly CopperDog series appearing Saturdays).
Perfection is never guaranteed - with so many law enforcement and emergency personnel available, a quick response is assured even in the worst-case scenario - but safeguards are in place at the CopperDog 150.
"It's not that accidents couldn't happen, but we take every possible measure possible to ensure they don't," Lahti said. "Especially at highway crossings, where we see higher-speed traffic, we make sure we have law enforcement and fire departments at critical crossings. All the volunteers who work with the CopperDog take safety very seriously."