by Janice Christensen Photos provided by Door County Sled Dogs Meet & Greet the Door County Sled Dogs! Saturday Feb. 4, 3pm at RRF’s Gateway Park
Here Come the Superstars of Winter! Dress warm and don’t forget your camera! It’s tempting, but always wrong somehow, to ascribe human attributes or emotions to animals. So it would not be right, for example, to talk about the “personalities” of sled dogs.
That said, it’s impossible to stand in the middle of a pack of eleven Huskies – furry, muscular canine athletes all – and not be almost overwhelmed by the sheer dogginess of them. They are so self-assured. They level an appraising stare and there is no hope for snobbish species superiority here. The only question for the human is, “Can I be a good enough dog to be accepted in this pack?”
Because oh, you want to be accepted. This community is made up of strong, likable, attractive individuals who get along and work together with a success level rare in groups of humans. Their doggy dignity can make you a little embarrassed by your nasty reptile-brained monkeyness. Maybe just for a day we could all work and play together as simply and honestly as this bunch of furry friends.
This is the dignity and attractiveness of animals who work for a living. Who – quite literally – pull their own weight.
Actually, according to musher Bonnie Ulrich, sled dogs can pull about twice their own weight.
On certain snowy mornings, if you’re in the right place at the right time, you will see Bonnie and her husband Rick Desotelle, riding in a dog sled down Capitol Drive. Sled dogs are working dogs, and they train every single day.
The Door County Sled Dogs are kenneled at Bonnie and Rick’s home in Fish Creek, where they have three acres fenced to roam around on, and 400 acres nearby where they can train.
“Actually, we say they’re kenneled, but our dogs never actually spend time in a kennel unless they want to,” Bonnie admits. “They stay with us.”
When they’re not in Door County, the whole big happy pack lives in Riverwest.
“I’m a retired MPS art teacher,” Bonnie explains. The dogs stay in her art studio in a heavy industrial district that’s zoned for livestock.
Bonnie’s art studio is pretty amazing in its own right. She shows children’s art at Betty Brinn Museum, urban landscapes in the Chelsea Hotel in New York City, and has a passion for the circus. But there’s nothing cute about her circus art. She shows off a 15-year project, a table full of kinetic pieces made from old record player turntables.
“I do these odd things,” she notes, pointing out Mr. and Mrs. Half Sheep and the Alligator Boy in the tiny freak show display. “I really think the circus mirrors real life – the macabre, mysterious, kind of seedy parts of real life.” The little figures turn around and the music box calliope plays slightly out of tune. She laughs and says, “I’ve heard people say that walking into this place is kind of like walking into a pinball machine.” It’s true.
“But come and meet the pups,” she says, turning away from the table. “Since I’ve gotten involved with the dogs I’ve really started doing different things. I don’t do much in New York anymore. They understand – crazy lady from Wisconsin with the sled dogs.”
We walk through the building to where the dogs are snoozing or playing in the back yard. As soon as the door is opened – and they are invited in – the room is roiling with fuzzy bodies. I’m struggling to catch all the names: George and Dustin, Hootch, Bob, Shadow. Little man, Jellie Mae, Cool dog.
Booboo is also known as the Gentle Giant when he’s working as a therapy dog, and The Beast when he’s pulling the sled.
Here’s Mushka, the puppy everybody wanted because she was the cutest in the litter, but who would have ended up in a shelter because she was so naughty. She needed something to do, so Bonnie and Rick, on the advice of a more experience musher, made her a lead dog before she was 1 year old. She loved it, was good at it, and was no longer bored.
All the dogs in the Door County Sled Dogs are rescues, Bonnie says. “Huskies are notoriously naughty. People want them as pets because they’re so cute, but the dogs are really smart and they get bored and then they get into trouble.
“Mushka knows about 50 commands – some dogs can learn up to 100. You need to form a partnership with them; you need to get them to cooperate with you.”
When Bonnie and Rick adopted three young Huskies, they quickly discovered they needed something for “the pups” to do, to keep them out of mischief. They discovered dog sledding, and never looked back. “We’re urban mushers,” Bonnie stresses. The sport of dog sledding includes racing and other branches, but for Bonnie and Rick it’s about running the streets and county parks and having a great time with the dogs. They also offer rides and educational programs about dog sledding.
They approached the Milwaukee County Parks some four years ago with the idea of using the parks, and a beneficial partnership was formed. The County was looking for ways to get more people to visit the parks in the winter, and the sled dogs were looking for work.
Now they provide dog sled rides and photo opportunities each winter at Whit all Park in Franklin. Rides are $10 for children and $15 adults. “It’s a bargain!” Bonnie says. “People can bring the kids for a birthday party and it will cost less than a movie.”
The dogs also do public appearances at schools to offer education about good pet care and obedience. They run in parades and even show up at Breakfast with Santa.
“I figure with all their paid work, they bring in enough money during the year to keep them about through July,” Bonnie notes. Most of the work with the sled dogs seems to be a labor of love.
Volunteers are a big part of the sled dog project. “We usually have about 20 volunteers,” Bonnie says. “It helps us keep our prices down.
“Some of the people who volunteer with us are interested in getting involved with the sport. A dog doesn’t need to be a Huskie to be a sled dog, and you don’t need a whole team. You only need one dog to mush, it needs to weigh more than 40 pounds, be in good health, and like to pull.”
If mushers Bonnie and Rick have anything to say about it, there are going to be a lot more dog sled people in Milwaukee.
They tell a joke about Huskies – they’re like potato chips, it’s hard to stop at just one.
But as Bonnie says, “Two dogs are easier than one.”
Rick chimes in, “Yeah, but three dogs is a sentence.”
Eleven dogs? They both agree – that’s a lifestyle.
If You Go: River Revitalization Foundation Woolly Bear Fest
Saturday February 4th at Gateway Park on Riverboat Road (off of Commerce St and Humboldt Blvd on the Milwaukee River) Noon to 4pm Sled Dogs will be there by 3pm.
Woolly Bear Fest is free.
Dog sled demonstration and rides are on going at Whitnall Park
Saturdays and Sundays 11 AM -2 PM weather permitting Whitnall Park, 5879 S. 92nd St., Franklin
$10 children/$15 adults All sled dog events are weather-permitting, so check the message on the Sled Dog Hotline: 414.967.9677