ELY — Ely has a lot to live up to when it comes to mushing. After all, it is the “sled dog capital.”
Of the state? The country? The world?
No one knows; it’s simply the sled dog capital — a distinction the town’s mayor proclaimed in the 1970s, when the Ely All-American Sled Dog Race was the largest dog sledding competition in the Lower 48, before the inception of the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon and “pre-Iditarod,” said Ellen Cashman, event coordinator with the Ely Chamber of Commerce.
A sign remains at the chamber office declaring the city’s dog sled capital status, she noted.
Thus, Cashman and others involved in Ely’s WolfTrack Classic Sled Dog Race — which preserved Ely’s competitive sled dog racing in 2008 after the All-American ended in the 1990s — are happy to have the event back to a more “normal” state this winter.
Spectators, unlike last year due to pandemic restrictions, will be allowed at the event, set for Feb. 27.
While the WolfTrack Classic was broadcast virtually last year (and will be this year also), there is nothing quite like witnessing in person the excitement of the sled dogs “barking and howling … in anticipation of blast-off at the start line,” Cashman said. “It’s enjoyable to see how totally excited the dogs get. This is what they live for.”
Depending on weather conditions, the race typically draws around 500 spectators, she said. “This year’s race is projected to be one of the largest in recent history. We anticipate 60 teams.” Fifty have registered so far, from as far away as Washington state, Michigan and Ontario, Canada.
The WolfTrack Classic “is a real boom for the community,” Cashman noted. “Mushers come and buy gas and shop and eat.” Spectators also spend money in town. “It’s a really nice boost for the economy.”
The race, she said, also keeps Ely’s heritage of dog sledding alive, from the days when dog teams took trappers out into the woods and pioneers to ice fishing spots in what is now the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
But the last two years have hit businesses hard financially, and race organizers realized that premier ($8,000) and purse ($5,000) sponsors were not an option.
That’s why they are asking for the community’s help via a “Dollars for Doggies” fundraiser to support the mushers’ purse, which “helps to draw mushers and build the race,” she said.
The first part of the fundraiser is an online auction that runs through Wednesday featuring nearly 30 items donated by area artists and businesses. Bidders can access the site at WolfTrackClassic.com by clicking on “Take Me to the Auction.”
Items range from an Arrowhead Outdoor one-day lake trout ice fishing trip and a Piragis Northwoods Co., canoe trip to historic bibs from the Ely All-American Sled Dog Marathon.
“There’s a cool stay at a rustic log cabin, a half-day sled dog trip, great art by Jim Brandenburg and Nancy Ensley, and an old Bob Cary piece” depicting winter trappers, Cashman said.
“There are smaller items also. A basket of items from the (North American) Bear Center, memorabilia from the WolfTrack Classic, a neat gas grill, and a large photo by Heidi Pinkerton of Axel and Grayson (when they were pups) at the International Wolf Center. There are lots of good pieces. We really need people to get out and bid on those things.”
There are also opportunities for sponsorships ranging from “paper spectators” ($10 each) to mile marker sponsorships at $100 per sign.
The second part of the fundraiser is an in-person event Wednesday at the Grand Ely Lodge. Light appetizers and a cash bar will begin at 6 p.m. There will be live music by Van and the Free Candies from 7 to 9 p.m. Tickets are $20 per person and can be purchased on the WolfTrack Classic website under the “Store” tab.
“It will be the last chance to bid on auction items. There will be a laptop and people there to help with biddng,” Cashman said. Bidding will close at 9 p.m.
“Some of the stars of the WolfTrack Classic” — several of the canine athletes — “will be there to meet folks” at the Gateway entrance, she added.
There are only 100 tickets available. “If we don’t sell out, they will be available at the door.”
The race purse, which will be divided among the top six- and eight-dog teams — with the top three to five teams in each receiving cash prizes — will depend on how much money is raised, Cashman noted.
During past years, the purse has been from $5,000 to $7,000, she said. “We are shooting for higher. We would like to be able to give mushers more.”
The WolfTrack Classic has grown in spectator and participant numbers since its launch when a group of area mushers restored dog sled racing in Ely, Cashman said.
It is known for its spirit of mentoring and inclusiveness, each year supporting first-time and young mushers, along with experienced mushers who compete in the Midwest circuit.
Last year’s WolfTrack, as well as the John Beargrease, which starts in Duluth, were the only two sled dog races in Minnesota, and among only a handful throughout the Midwest, to run in 2021 amid strict pandemic guidelines.
All dog teams start and finish at the Ely Softball Complex, where “there is plenty of parking,” Cashman said. Eight-dog teams will launch at two-minute intervals starting at 9 a.m. on race day, followed by the six-dog teams. “There is constant motion,” she said. “The dogs can not contain their excitement.”
Midco, one of the race sponsors, will provide breakfast sandwiches. Spectators are encouraged to dress for the weather and can warm up and grab lunch in town until the teams come in for the finish.
Teams typically return as early as noon and most are back by around 3 p.m., Cashman said. “It’s pretty exciting when they pop out of the woods.” Often mushers are “working hard to get a nose ahead.”
The race can also be followed live on either iFan Sports or WELY 94.5 FM.
Cashman said the race trail “is not easy. It’s very hilly.”
Six-dog teams run 30 miles on a loop running along the Taconite Trail and up around Purvis Lake. Eight-dog teams run 50 miles, following a similar route that extends into Bear Head Lake State Park.
“People can watch from the warming shelter at Bear Head, but they need a park pass,” Cashman said.
“I am so proud of the support and generosity we have received from our area businesses and artists” for the online auction, she added. “We encourage people to take part in their wonderful event, which takes place right here on the Iron Range. It’s a fun way to celebrate the heartiness of our northern people.”