The cool March air fills the nose. The dogs are whining and yelping. They're ready to go. They almost seem like they need to go. They're waiting for that all important word. And then, like a spark to a fire, the word "MUSH!" sends them flying down the trail. An ancient tradition lives on.
On a snowy hill in Duluth, removed from the vestiges of civilization, stands the Snowflake Nordic Center. Every year they host events for dog sledding and skijoring, which is being pulled by your dog while on skis. Jim Benson, president of the Midwest Skijorers Club, explains that it's been around for about 20 years in Minnesota.
"I was a skijorer and a musher," said Benson.
Benson says that the word "skijoring" came from a Norwegian word called "hundekjoring", which translates as "dog driving". He says that the idea probably sprung up anywhere there were draft animals and snow. "And maybe alcohol," he joked.
Jim explains that while the sport began in Minnesota in 1990 with a race in Cannon Falls, it wasn't until around 1999 that the Midwest Skijorers Club was created, originally as an informal club and then, one year later, as a non-profit organization.
"We are your dogs' advocate and we are the progressive dog powered sports advocate," the Midwest Skijorers Club website says.
Saturday, March 2 was part of a two-day event at the Snowflake Nordic Center. Vicki Valeri, one of the organizers, remarks on the size of this year's event. She says it is smaller than it normally is due to other dog racing events being held in nearby areas. Usually, she says, there can be up to 30 different teams lined up at the start.
Mike Schultenover, one of the skijorers, says he has been doing it for around four years. He was looking to adopt a dog and, soon enough, one thing led to another.
"My dog got me into it," Schultenover said.
He owns two Siberian Huskies, although he started with only one when he first became interested in the sport. His first race was the Ham Lake Race down in the Twin Cities area.
"I started out and I actually crashed," Schultenover said.
He says that once he picked himself back up and kept going, he had a blast. Last year was the first time he has raced up at the Snowflake here in Duluth. Having no kids of his own, Schultenover explains that, to him, his dogs feel like his children.
"What's better than running out in the woods with your dog?" Schultenover said.
Ricq Pattay tells a similar story.
"Winter just always fascinated me," said Pattay.
Sitting down with his wife, Melanie, in the small wooden ski lodge on the hill, Ricq explains that he moved to Minnesota and started dog sledding in 2001. Ricq also started with only one dog before finding another. "Much to my wife's chagrin," he jokes, while Melanie rolls her eyes.
They are the proud owners of Samoyeds, a breed of dog originally found in northern Russia and brought here to America around 100 years ago.
"They're bred to be very efficient," said Melanie.
Ricq says he started up here at Snowflake around 2006 or 2007. He says he has always treated the sport as a recreational activity rather than a competitive one.
According to Ricq, his favorite thing about the sport has to be the moments when he is alone on the trail with his dogs. He loves that feeling.
"It's also very quiet on the trail," his wife adds.
Both Schultenover and the Pattays show no signs of slowing down or quitting.
"I'll come every day," Schultenover said, and adds that he will continue coming to Snowflake.
"It's all about the dogs," Valeri said.