This article was originally published in the 2009-2010 edition of the Ely Winter Times.
In 1970 a group of ambitious Ely citizens put together a winter event that was to become as big a draw in winter as the Blueberry Festival has become in summer. The booklet for the first race explained, “It is our hope that dog sled racing will take a place in our list of winter activities… Sled dogs are not new to Ely. Many years ago sled dogs played an important role in the winter transportation within the wilderness. After many years of absence, it is a welcome sight to see the return of sled dogs.” Even those optimistic folks could not have known how big a part sled dogs were to play in Ely’s future.
Although temperatures for the next two years dipped to 50-something below during race weekend, the flow of traffic into town was even heavier than for fishing opener. People competed for having the warmest fashions. Clunky but warm boots and big, hooded fur jackets with frosty ruffs were the rage. (This was before Wintergreen and Steger Mukluks.)
In 1971, with over 1,000 sled dogs in town for the races, Mayor Grahek proclaimed Ely “The Sled Dog Capitol of America.” Although someplace in Alaska might have contested that, no one ever did, and Ely came to deserve the designation. The races were dubbed the “All-American Sled Dog Races,” and they attracted the most competitive mushers in the US. George Attla, a top racer in the circuit at the time and a native of Alaska, chose Ely as the setting for parts of the 1978 movie about his life Spirit of the Wind.
In the early years the races started behind the old depot, near the present day Trezona Trail parking lot, and ran down the railroad bed, today’s Miners Drive. There were races with various distances and numbers of dogs, and many Ely people joined the sport either as mushes or as manufacturers of gear.
Steve Starkovich, who had a woodworking shop in his garage on Central Avenue, crafted beautiful sleds that are still in use today. Dan and Vicki Kondos started out as racers and ended up making some of the most popular harnesses in the mushing world, leading to their business as Kondos Outdoors, which also makes some of the best canoe packs. Will Steger and Paul Schurke kept Ely on the map as “Sled Dog Capitol” as they trained and prepared for their North Pole expedition in the mid-80s. Wintergreen and Steger Mukluks grew out of that effort, and have been showpieces of entrepreneurial success in Ely ever since.
The last “All-American” race was held in 1989. By then, Ely had lived up to Dr. Grahek’s proclamation by having more sled dog kennels than any other town in the US. But instead of racing, most of these dogs were pulling freight — people who wanted to venture into the winter wilderness on a dog sled. Today there are at least eight businesses that offer a variety of dog sledding adventures from half-day tours to week-long winter camping expeditions. The lodge-to-lodge (or yurt) trips are among the most popular, combining the thrill of a day with dogs and the luxury of a warm bed and a delicious meal at one of Ely’s outstanding winter resorts.
Now racing is making a comeback in Ely. Up to 85 dog teams will begin to arrive in Ely late Friday afternoon, March 5th. The first order of businesses, starting Saturday morning, is for each of the more than 600 canine athletes to have a comprehensive physical examination by a veterinarian. This is a great opportunity for the public to meet the dogs and the mushers, get up close and take photos. The vet checks will take place along Miners Drive — at the exact site of the starting line of the All-American races 40 years ago.
On Saturday evening the Adventurer’s Gala will be held at Grand Ely Lodge. All the competing mushers, race officials, and volunteers, plus as many of the public as can get tickets for the limited seating, will enjoy dinner and an informal evening of “Tales from the Trails” by returning race winners.
The dogs will be the stars of the show by bright and early Sunday morning as they prepare for the start. Anyone who’s never been around a team of sled dogs eager to get started shouldn’t miss this. The excitement can be heard blocks away as hundreds of huskies are harnessed, hooked up, and held back by their handlers until it’s their turn to leave the chute and fly down the trail. The 6-dog, 30-mile race starts at 9am on Miners Drive, near the Trezona Trail parking lot. It follows the Taconite Trail to the finish line at The Depot in downtown Tower.
At 3:00pm Sunday the 10-dog teams start the longest race ever held in Ely. This new race follows the Taconite Trail to Tower, then heads to Cook and returns to Ely along the same route. Part of the strategy of this race is when and where to use the required 8-hour rest time. The first time is expected to arrive at the finish line in Ely about 7am Monday.
The All-American races of the 70s and 80s were sprint races, covering distances of less than 20 miles. There were several classes, varying in distance and team size, but all were over within a few hours. The 10-dog Wolf Track Classic is Ely’s first mid-distance race and it will attract top races who look forward to a late-season chance at a good-sized purse, and one more night of the challenge and magic that is the heart of sled dog racing.
The race requires 250 volunteers, including the “guardian angels,” as one racer calls those who stop traffic to make road crossings safe for the teams, as well as “dog crews” who get up close and personal with the dogs, handling the teams at the start and at checkpoints. Others are needed to set up fences and signs, manage parking, direct traffic, and — the real thankless volunteer job — clean up when it’s over.
This is an ideal family event. It’s free, outdoors, and involves great role models — both human and canine — for would-be athletes. To be more than a spectator, volunteer or plan a sled dog ride or trip. Ely still has the most sled dog kennels of any place in the US, some of the best trails and lake routes, a long snow season (in 2008 schools had a snow day in May!) — in short, Ely is still The Sled Dog Capitol of America.
For up-to-date race info, past results, or to volunteer visit www.wolftrackclassic.com.
Editor’s note: The 2021 Wolf Track Classic sled dog races will still be held in Ely this winter. Sadly, the organizers have announced that due to Covid-19 there won’t be public participation in vet checks, the start and finish lines, or the mushers dinner, but fans can follow the race virtually. See https://wolftrackclassic.com for more details.