MANISTIQUE, Mich. (WJMN) – Behind the scenes of the UP200 Sled Dog Race is a dedicated team that works together to put on one of the Upper Peninsula’s iconic winter events. When Escanaba native Tom Gustafson moved back to the UP early in his career, his role on the veterinarian team developed not long after the race’s origin in the early 1990s.
“When I first came back here and was working at the Newberry practice, there were some mushers that had settled into that area and occasionally they’d come in. I hadn’t really, you know, encountered sled dogs before,” Gustafson said. “And then I heard about the UP200 when it first started up, and I think after the third year I approached one of the veterinarians that was on the team to see if they needed any extra help. They were gracious enough to invite me to be part of the veterinary team.”
After getting introduced to the UP’s sled dog racing community, Gustafson says the experience of working with dogs and their caretakers provided a unique look into what it takes to train and care for an animal athlete.
“The people that I ended up working with at the sled dog races have always fun to be around. Interesting, sharp people. And I was just kind of sucked into the sport since then,” Gustafson said. “I enjoy being around the mushers. Working with sled dogs is a unique opportunity to practice sports medicine since these dogs are phenomenal athletes. Their ability to, you know, use calories and convert it to energy, how they dissipate heat, how they’re able to maintain a steady pace over a long period of time. It seems so unique in the animal world and, like I said, these are pretty amazing animals.”
As the race continues to grow, a major benefit Gustafson has identified is improvement in community knowledge, leading to better quality of conditioning and care for the dogs.
“The quality of dog care and the level of knowledge that the mushers bring to the race as it has grown exponentially, their focus on making certain their dogs get proper nutrition, proper training, proper equipment, all that’s expanded over time,” Gustafson said. “Nutrition for these for these athletes has really expanded, so they’re really sharp on that.”
While the mushers, dogs, and vets were afforded the opportunity to take part in the race in 2023, looking forward to the best parts of the UP200 experience will keep the team coming back in the future.
“It’s fun to get together with colleagues again. It’s also a great way to meet new colleagues,” Gustafson said. “We do always have new blood coming into the veterinary team. People that are interested in learning about sled dog racing is a good entry point. So we get to meet a bunch of new people. It’s like a family reunion, in effect, for the veterinary team, so I enjoy getting together with them. Once the race starts, yeah, we have our job to do but we like to have fun doing it. You know, we get tired. The nights are long, but everyone’s up for it. We don’t complain. We look at as a great opportunity and appreciate the ability to be able to work with these dogs and the mushers.”