Celebrating the Spirit and Adventure of Sled Dog Racing
All-American Championship Sled Dog Race
Searching for a way to promote winter recreation in Ely, a group of individuals and organizations joined together in 1969 to discuss options. This group included resort owners Bob & Shirley Klaesges and Berna & August Seliskar, US Forest Supervisor Brian Stout, business owners Russ Robertson and Dick Marsh, and resident Helen Wegner. The group contacted North Star Sled Dog Club based out of the Twin Cities, who provided seasoned experts Ozzie Bayer, John Cooper and Gary Lilie as consultants. Ely’s first sled dog race was set for January 17-18, 1970 with a purse of $3000 and three race classes. Thus, the All-American Championship Sled Dog Race was born.
By 1971, the All American had grown to 77 teams and over 1000 dogs competing in the race for a purse of $4250.00. Spectators numbering from 18 to 20 thousand lined Sheridan Street and the race course to cheer the energized teams on. The race was quickly becoming the largest sled dog race in the Midwest.
Cold temperatures greeted mushers in 1972, as early morning broke to 48 degrees below zero. By race time the thermometer had risen to 35 below zero. All 109 teams braved the bitter cold as they vied for the $5000 purse. A new award was added to the race – the Mayor’s Cup – which recognized the team who achieved the fastest single day trail time.
The All American kicked off with a Torchlight Parade to the high school, followed by a variety of pre-race events. The Ely Kiwanis Club provided a Pancake Breakfast on Saturday morning and the Rotary Club hosted the Saturday evening Mushers Banquet. Of course, the post race Awards Banquet was the highlight of the race weekend with awards now including a Governor’s Cup and the Mayor’s Trophy.
The All-American ran from 1970 to the early 1990s. By 1990 the race had six classes for a purse totaling $10,000. Entry fees ranged from $20 for the 3-dog class to $80 for the marathon. Snow sculptures were sponsored by Northern Lakes Art Association, Wally Fendt provided sleigh rides, a mutt race, sled dog weight pull, and sled dog movie “Spirit of the Wind” were also highlighted weekend activities.
History of the Sled Dog
Ely has a long, rich history of dog sledding as winter work and travel were accomplished with the help of man’s best friend. Sled dog breeds are large and strong. They generally have a double coat of thick fur that lies over an inner, insulating layer, thick paws and furry ears, so they are comfortable at 20 below and hot when it gets above 50 degrees—they thrive in Ely winters!
For thousands of years, sled dogs were working dogs, important for transportation and hauling supplies for people in northern climates, helping them to reach areas that were not accessible due to snow and ice. Very early, single dogs were used to pull small cargo such as firewood. Over time as the need arose to move larger loads over longer distances, teams of dogs were used to distribute the effort of the work. They were even used to deliver mail!
Today dog sledding is popular as a way to give people an experience they will not forget. A dog sled excursion is an exhilarating adventure deep into the wilderness – no experience required! Ely area sled dog outfitters teach you everything you need to know, from how to harness the dogs to how to guide a sled. Trips range from family-friendly guided day outings or overnight lodge-to-lodge treks to more challenging camping trips for the true adventurer.
Sled dog racing is also a popular sport which, as many historical accounts portray, had its origins through work. There are early stories of races between voyageurs as they moved cargo from place to place and even a famous race, the Iditarod, attributes itself as a commemorative tribute to the working dog.
Sled dog racing has long been popular in Ely as well. From 1970 to the early 1990’s, the Ely All American Race made its way into sled dog history. In its inaugural year, the race boasted 46 entries vying for a $3000 purse. The following year, the entries almost doubled and it continued to grow throughout the years, bringing thousands of mushers and spectators to the small town at the end of the road. In 1979 it had grown in such popularity that the then Mayor of Ely, Dr. J.P. Grahek, issued a proclamation naming Ely as the Sled Dog Capital of America.
The WolfTrack Classic Sled Dog Race was conceived in 2006, when a small group of avid sled dog fans decided to bring sled dog racing back to a community that was very supportive of this great family event. After two years of planning, the first race was run on March 2, 2008. It was a huge success with 60 mushers and 420 dogs from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and Canada coming to compete. The WolfTrack Classic continues to be a popular mid-distance race among mushers.