By Mark Wilcox, Michigan Technological University
HOUGHTON, Mich. — When Michigan Technological University student Adam Schmidt led his six-dog team in the CopperDog 80, on Feb. 26, 2016, it marked the latest chapter in a love affair with sled dog racing that began at Park Community Charter School in Kaukauna more than a decade ago.
The CopperDog 80, is a two- day race made up of two 40 mile segments, held as part of the CopperDog 150 weekend. When Schmidt was a fourth-grader at Park, librarian Mary Vander Loop taught her students a strange new word.
“She introduced us to the Iditarod and dog sledding,” Schmidt recalls. “She would read us books and set up displays with different checkpoints.” When Schmidt heads off into the heart of the Keweenaw Peninsula, no doubt those elementary school memories of following his favorite mushers, Jeff King and Mitch Seavey will come along for the ride.
“We would research the racers and followed them throughout the races,” Schmidt remembers. “The best part of the race season was hearing the Iditarod Song, through the loudspeakers and everyone singing along.,” Schmidt remembers.
Vander Loop says as the years pass, memories of some of her students have faded, but that isn’t the case with Schmidt. “When I learned that Adam Schmidt was experiencing his dream of being a musher, I knew exactly what he looked like in fourth grade,” she says. Vander Loop remembers Schmidt’s stature, his quiet reserve and his eagerness to learn, as well as an adventurous streak. “He was a Vikings fan in Packers territory,.” she recalls.
Vander Loop says Schmidt was not the type of student to stand up and declare “I’m going to be a musher.” But she saw that a spark had been ignited—a spark that would only grow stronger.
“As a teacher, it is always my hope that learning becomes a lifelong adventure,” she says. “A musher must have determination and grit, must be a caring and giving individual, be physically fit and have a love for animals. When a former student aspires to be a musher, it is a tribute to his character. I’m very proud of Adam Schmidt.”
Despite his interest in the Iditarod, becoming a musher didn’t seem like a natural fit for a boy who grew up surrounded by farm animals, but never had a dog.
“Having so many animals helped me understand the work needed for them. We had ducks, turkey ducks, geese, chickens, cows, goats and of course cats.”
Although he is a self-described “cat person,” Schmidt does have admiration for canines.
“For me, dogs are athletes and amazing workers, whether that be with hunting, rescue or dog sledding.”
So how does a young man who says “I don’t even know if I ever will want a dog,” end up training a team and mushing in a prestigious race?
“I didn’t even think about dog sledding when I came up to Tech,” Schmidt says. “But then OAP (Outdoor Adventure Programs) offered dog sled rides at the Otter River Sled Dog Training Center. I was so excited. I talked to the musher, Tom Bauer, and he told me to call him before I came back up to school.”
The following fall Schmidt got a hold ofcontacted Bauer and almost immediately started taking care of the kennel and three sets of puppies. “From the beginning, I was his youth musher, I came out around twice a week to have his dogs pull a truck around the woods and help with the feeding,” Schmidt says.
Helping out around the kennel led to training the team that will compete in the CopperDog. Schmidt says balancing school and his training has been a challenge.
“The kennel is a half hour away (from Houghton), and now that we’re training for the CopperDog, I have had to come out to the kennel four days a week for four to five hours to train my team.” In addition, he is quite involved in campus activities and holds leadership positions in organizations, while and carrying a full course load.
While the 80-mile race is only about half the distance of the CopperDog150, Schmidt says it it is still a major challenge. “I am a little nervous about if the dogs will be able to make it through the full race. There are many changes of elevation and lots of powdery snow,” he says.
Leading up to race cay, Schmidt kept his expectations realistic. “My first priority is keeping my team and myself safe. After that, I expect to finish somewhere near the middle of the pack.”
Due to the closeness of the mushing community, Schmidt hopes to learn from the experience. “I expect many of the mushers to help me learn because that is what they do. This sport creates a family atmosphere with great support and understanding.”
The educational aspect of mushing doesn’t end with the race. As part of a project management class, Schmidt and two other students are creating a project plan, hoping with hopes to create a club and group to build sleds made out of old and broken hockey sticks from Michigan Tech, to donate at future CopperDogs.
“We hope to have the support of local high schools, Michigan Tech groups and local businesses.” Schmidt says He also hopes the club will work with local mushers to help with everything from being dog handlers to puppy walkers and even become becoming a musher like as he did.
Schmidt says he appreciates the support he’s had from and everyone involved.
“Although I’m nervous, my favorite part of being in this race is the support of Michigan Tech, all my friends and the communities around Calumet, Michigan. I cannot wait to have so many people coming out to not only cheer me on, but enjoy the U.P. and dog sledding in general.
Les Cook, Michigan Tech’s vice vice president for affairs and Advancement advancement enthusiastically offered his support to Schmidt’s efforts. “What Adam is doing completely embraces the adventurous spirit of Michigan Tech students,” Cook says. “I am so proud of him, for following his dream, and we all look forward to his race. Although I’m not quite sure of the breed of his team, but a ‘Go Huskies’ would probably be appropriate.”
Schmidt plans to take the support of the University, friends, family and well-wishers with him into the silence of the Copper Country wilderness. “I will do my best and try my hardest to fully represent myself, the kennel, my hometown and Michigan Tech with the best of my ability.”
And with that comes the satisfaction of seeing a dream come true. “After putting in all that time into training, when I came off the starting line of my first race , (the IronLine in Iron River, Michigan last month), I smiled that I was actually doing what had been my dream. I couldn’t believe it.”