Milwaukeeans who want to experience an authentic sled-dog ride may be surprised to learn they don't have to travel outside the city.
They need only go to McKinley Marina this weekend for their final chance to buy a ride from the Door County Sled Dogs, a group of recreational mushers and volunteers and their 30-odd pet huskies.
Every winter, the sled dogs come down to the city from their summer home, a 3.5-acre family farm in Door County. Once here, they give rides to the public at Whitnall Park and McKinley Marina, as part of a seven-year-old partnership with the Milwaukee County Parks.
But first, the Alaskan and Siberian huskies have to train, which they do at Milwaukee's Kletzsch Park in the fall.
"We have to train like any good athlete; they have to get strong and ready," says executive director Bonnie Ulrich, who co-founded the group with Rick Desotelle.
It's good exercise for dogs who were bred to run and pull weight.
"Because they are such a high energy level, and because this is what they were bred to do, this is really the only good way to burn their energy," says musher Danni Krueger of Waukesha. "Just taking them to the dog park, and letting them run around for a couple hours is not gonna do it. Taking them for a 30-minute walk is not gonna do it."
Plus, musher Judy Akerley says it's fun for the dogs - and the drivers.
"It’s a dream to be in Wisconsin, southern Wisconsin, to be a musher," she says. "People look me at, 'You do what? You do that in Wisconsin, down here? I thought they only did it in Alaska.'"
Likewise, the training isn’t just for the dogs – the mushers need to learn how to control their teams and give commands.
Dennis Schmid of Cudahy is just learning how to give these signals to the dogs. Even though he’s volunteered for years, this is his first season driving a sled.
"If you want to go right, you say 'Gee!' If you want to go left, you say, 'Ha!' 'Whoa' is to slow down," he says. "As a musher, we don’t say mush – we say, 'Hike,' means go.'"
It's not just about educating would-be mushers; it's also about teaching the public, from school groups to scouts, about huskies, pet care and what Ulrich calls “dog-powered sports.”
A former educator, Ulrich says supporting pet rescues are also important. While not a rescue organization itself, Door County Sled Dogs has re-homed more than 60 huskies, thanks to its outreach.
But these outreach efforts, and the dogs' training, have been put on hold in the past, thanks to Mother Nature.
This year, the group has added a secret weapon to make sure the dogs can pull sleds even if there isn’t snow on the ground. It’s essentially a modified, all-terrain golf cart called the "Tundra Tracker."
It's a lot like riding on the traditional sled.
“It’s an authentic ride. It’s like poetry in motion," Ulrich says.
If you want to try out the Tundra Tracker yourself, you can get a ride for $15 from the Door County Sled Dogs this Saturday and Sunday from 11 AM to 1 PM only at McKinley Marina.