Pulling as a Team: Husband-and-Wife Mushing Duo Takes on the Trail

Emily Haavik

December 15, 2014 11:01 PM

Mushing is a team sport — something no one knows better than Erin Altemus and Matt Schmidt.

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The husband-and-wife racing duo goes by the name of Mush Lake Racing.

"Matt and I switch off every race," Altemus said.

One challenge of partnering with your husband, she said, is deciding who gets to race and who gets to be the handler. But Schmidt said it's not that complicated.

"Usually Erin tells me what races she's going to do, and then I do the rest," he said with a laugh.

This year, Altemus chose to take on the Gunflint Mail Run. The race first started in 1977, but in 1980 was morphed into the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon. The Mail Run resurfaced briefly when there wasn't enough snow for the Beargrease. Now, organizers on the Gunflint Trail are reviving it once again.

"The Gunflint Trail people and the Grand Marais people have a certain ownership of the name and ownership of the race that can't be beat," said Jack Stone, co-director of the race and owner of Stone Harbor Wilderness Supply.

In fact, the race is right in the mushers' backyard.

"It's interesting that for us, this race is literally going right by our kennel," Altemus said.

That's a good thing and a bad thing.

"The challenge will be to get them to go straight ahead and not turn into our property," Schmidt said. "We'll have to practice going by."

The Gunflint Mail Run goes from Trail Center down to Devil Track Lake, and back up again. That's a 50-mile loop. Then the dogs rest for six hours at Trail Center, and do the whole thing again.

Altemus and Schmidt are using this backyard race to train their dogs for longer distances.

"We've had two litters of puppies over the last couple of years and that's the majority of our race team," Schmidt said. "They're a pretty young team, two- and three-year-olds, but they're kind of just coming into their prime. ... They've got the genetics to do longer runs. And we're going to ask a lot of them, but I think they can do it."

Some of the distance runs in the team's future are the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, and possibly the UP 200 and the Can-Am Crown, a 250-mile race in Maine.

"I guess what brought us together is kind of our love of adventure," Altemus said.

They met 10 years ago on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Little did they know, they had gone to college together in Montana.

"We graduated on the same day!" Altemus said. "And we knew a few of the same people, but just never crossed paths."

That changed at YMCA Camp Menogyn.

"She was actually the musher at Camp Menogyn," Schmidt said. "And I went up to her kind of hit on her."

The rest is history. The pair now owns 23 dogs and they've competed in about 15 races in the last few years.

"It's kind of a slippery slope," Schmidt said. "But you start getting into it, and you kind of have to go all in."

And whatever they take on now, they take on as a team.

"I can't imagine doing this alone," Altemus said.

The pair will be competing in the Gunflint Mail Run Jan. 3-4, 2015, with Altemus racing and Schmidt handling for her.

Spectators can watch from Trail Center or Devil Track Lake. A silent auction runs from Dec. 26 to Jan. 4. Watch for updates on the Facebook page.


Emily Haavik

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