Tourists assist at Apostle Isle sled dog races

We know we are in the right place because tire tracks over fresh snow lead only one way, to the Echo Valley gravel pit, and because the howling is incessant. It’s the sound of impatience and high energy.

Fifteen miles from Bayfield, near the northern peak of Wisconsin, dozens of eager dogs and their mushers wait to begin a powdery romp through pristine fields and forests. Here it all begins. Six- and eight-dog teams from Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan run along 20- to 40-mile snow trails that leave spectators behind in a flash.

In the crowd are no-nonsense mushers with decades of experience, but my eyes settle on Emma Thiel, a 10-year-old who is running a team of Siberian huskies for the fourth year in a row, in the 6- to 8-mile family-rec and youth divisions. Her family has operated a Bayfield dog sledding tourism business since before she was born.

Near the freckle-faced little girl is her dad, John Thiel, who with volunteers hitch the team and maneuver it toward the starting line. Chatter is minimal and the level of concentration feels as thick as the layers of fleece and wool most everyone seems to wear.

This is the way it goes with each participant: ready-to-bolt canines, fixated navigators, staggered starts, growing crowd anticipation.

More than 100 volunteers help pull off the annual Apostle Islands Sled Dog Race, which typically draws at least 60 competitors and their dog teams. The workers are a mix of locals and tourists who want to learn more about mushing and winter rhythms in northern Wisconsin.

In the work crew this year will be Dennis Tande and Mary Manering of Madison, who also volunteered for the 2010 event with daughter Libby Tande.

Why revisit? “A part of it is that it’s such a beautiful setting and we love to see working dogs doing what they love best,” Mary says.

Dog team hookers and handlers keep order at the frenzied event. Other volunteers are timers, checkpoint communicators and assistants to veterinarians who look over the animals before they begin. Each dog wears booties, each racer wears a numbered bib, each sled carries a first aid kit, compass, map and other equipment.

Spectators congregate, first at the starting line or to watch the teams prepare for racing. Then, like a marathon for two-footed creatures, fans jump into their cars and meet up with their favorite pack – typically driving a few miles to the edge of Sportsman’s Loop, a key cheering spot. Online maps show the way.

This year’s added attraction: four-time (1993, 1996, 1998, 2006) Iditarod champion Jeff King of Alaska, who keynotes a Feb. 5 dinner and mixer for mushers, volunteers and others willing to pay the $8 admission. Order tickets online; location of the Bayfield presentation will depend upon the number of tickets sold.

For more about the Apostle Islands Sled Dog Race, Feb. 4-6, and tourism in Bayfield: www.bayfield.org, 800-447-4094. A voluntourism package for $350 per couple includes two nights of lodging with breakfast, supper with the mushers on two nights and volunteer shifts during the races.

What else happens in Bayfield during the annual dog sled races? Make room and time for Red Wine Weekend at the Old Rittenhouse Inn, 301 Rittenhouse Ave., which begins with a tasting and reception ($45) from 7-9 p.m. Feb. 4, a wine seminar and tastings ($45) from 1-3 p.m. Feb. 5 and a six-course dinner with matching wines ($75) at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 5.

Attend all or one event. Add a room or suite at the inn to complete the package. Traveling with a group? Book the Rittenhouse Cottage, which sleeps six and is a block from the main lodge.

Red Wine Weekend is repeated April 8-9. Reservations required. For more: www.rittenhouseinn.com, 715-779-5111. The cozy Victorian accommodations include continental breakfast; consider paying $12 to upgrade to add a hot entrée and side. On the menu, also open to the public, are conventional choices, plus whitefish fillets and beef tenderloin tip hash.

Wolfsong Adventures in Mushing, 88265 Happy Hollow Rd., Bayfield, offers 2.5- and four-hour (with lunch) dog sledding excursions for all ages. Mushing experience is not necessary; visitors can opt to ride with a guide or learn to drive a dog sled team.

Although spots often are reserved far in advance, last-minute openings sometimes occur and are noted on the Web site for Wolfsong. Dog sledding is not scheduled during the dog sled race weekend because Wolfsong operators John and Mary Thiel help coordinate the events.

Excursions start at $155 per person. Also possible: two days of mushing and one night of winter camping on selected dates in March for $595, including meals and equipment.

For more: www.wolfsongadventures.com, 800-681-9746.

“Roads Traveled” is the result of anonymous travel, independent travel, press trips and travel journalism conferences. What we choose to cover is not contingent on subsidized or complimentary travel.