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Climate change is causing Michigan dogsledders to shift gears from snow to dry land

Terry Perysian gets his dogs ready to train at Fort Custer Recreation Area in Augusta, Mich. (Rey Del Rio for The Washington Post)
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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Terry Perysian’s first dogsledding race was in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula — a jaunt through the snow called the Wooden Nickel.

As he lined up his young four-dog team at the start, he could tell something was different. The dogs were usually eager to pull his wooden sled, but as they bounced and barked in excitement, he wondered whether they somehow knew they were about to compete.

“We took off out of the starting chute. We were flying faster than I had ever gone,” Perysian said. The sled skipped over early moguls, then turned a corner into a 20-mph wind. The temperature was barely above zero.

“My gloves were not ready for that. My hands were not ready for that. My face was not ready for that,” he said. “That was cold. We probably had 2½ miles straight into that before we turned, and then we went into the woods again.”

Now 30 years later, Perysian tells this story with a veteran’s appreciation for the thrill dogsledding holds for devotees — who, contrary to the sport’s popular image, are not confined to the far Alaskan north. Perysian, 61, lives in southwest Michigan, less than three hours from Chicago. The former Marine with long steel-gray hair is a fierce evangelist for the sport, which has adherents throughout the Upper Midwest.

But like a lot of other Michigan mushers, Perysian has had to adapt to change caused by a warming climate that has eroded Lower Michigan’s winter snowpack. More rain and more melting periods, which can wash away snow or create dangerous ice, mean fewer chances to speed through the woods in near-zero temperatures.

For many mushers, warmer winters bring disappointment. Part of the magic of dogsledding is being out in the quiet, remote cold and crisp wind. Some describe a sense of deep connection and tradition. Perysian calls it “nostalgic.”

The changes also can be harder on dogs that thrive in lower temperatures, such as Siberian huskies and Alaskan Malamutes. Other sled breeds, such as Eurohounds, might need a jacket for the deep cold.

“When I ran that [first] race, they ran faster and better because it was colder,” Perysian said of his dogs, who might have struggled in the heat. “You almost have to picture: They’re wearing a snowmobile suit, running a 10K.”

The warming climate causes problems for sledding organizers chasing the snow, too. Annie Hammond, who manages equipment for Mid-Union Sled Haulers, a Michigan-based dogsledding group, said: “Probably in the late ‘90s, we had eight [racing] weekends to choose from.” Now, the season is much shorter. “Of those four or five even reasonable weekends that we could get to reserve for an event, probably two or three of those might be doable.”

Richard Rood, a professor of climate science at the University of Michigan, said that principally because of man-made climate change, Michigan’s cold seasons are different now — and, in portions of southern parts of the state, winters are often wetter.

Rood pointed to data from the Great Lakes Integrated Sciences and Assessments program, a collaboration between Michigan’s top public universities supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The Great Lakes region’s “frost-free season” grew by 16 days from 1951 to 2017, the group said, with an increase in average temperature of 2.3 degrees and a 14 percent rise in total precipitation.

This may sound like the end of an era, with dogsledding fading away in southern Michigan as the snow edges north. But for the sport’s biggest advocates, it has been a chance to pivot to events featuring dogs pulling scooters, bikes or runners on dry land.

“It’s not doom and gloom in the sense that we’re shifting to dry land — it’s that dry land has earned and deserves a place in the realm of mushing,” Hammond said. “It’s kind of a lucky shift. The timing was right, and clubs were in a place and had decades of experience hosting events. So, shifting to dry land was a natural thing.”

It’s also a good way to open the sport to people who don’t have the time, energy or resources to train big teams of dogs, with activities that often use far fewer of the animals.

Perysian keeps nearly 20 dogs, and his girlfriend, Ruth-Anne Cooke — a longtime musher herself — estimates that they eat 200 to 300 pounds of food per month. Cooke works at an animal shelter, and that helps the couple offset the cost of food and veterinary bills, which could total $600 to $800 each month without the discount.

Perysian works for a pest-control company and takes his vacation time during the winter. He and Cooke give private dogsledding rides and demonstrations, and they visit schools and other public events with their dogs. But they do it for love, not for money: They made less than $1,000 this winter, they said.

Like a lot of mushers, Mandy Collins, 27, gets her dogs ready for the peak of winter racing well before the season starts with intense fall training. Collins, who lives near Mancelona — about 85 miles south of the Mackinac Bridge, which connects Michigan’s peninsulas — said that over her 15 years of dogsledding, she has noticed the snow getting shallower.

A common training method for mushers is hooking up a team to a four-wheeler, throwing it in low gear and letting the dogs share the work. It’s something Collins is prepared to do more often if winters continue to be as warm, she said.

“I’ve gotten into dryland racing so that I can do that if we have a crummy snow year,” she said. “But I try not to think too hard about it, because it’s not like worrying about it is really going to do anything. I just have to adapt as I go. So if I have to train dogs more in quads, then that’s what I’ve got to do.”

Collins, who works in graphic design and social media, discovered mushing after her father, who kept hunting dogs, found Alaskan huskies through a newspaper ad. She has become so invested in the sport that she said she would have traveled to Sweden this year to race had the pandemic not scrambled the flight logistics.

“I would call it a lifestyle,” Collins said. “I don’t make money doing it. It doesn’t pay for itself. It’s just something that I enjoy doing and have just kind of put all my life into doing this.”

Tasha Stielstra, 47, is a co-owner of Nature’s Kennel, near McMillan, Mich., 1½ hours north of the Mackinac Bridge. It’s a professional operation, with nine employees beyond her husband and herself, and about 200 dogs. It’s far enough north that the snow was still waist-deep in early March. There are far fewer concerns about the weather up there.

“When we bought our property 20 years ago in the Upper Peninsula, we knew that this would be the farthest south that we could go and have a kennel this size,” she said. Part of that is zoning; another was snow conditions. “We knew 20 years ago that if we wanted to run a competitive kennel year-round, we could not be in Lower Michigan.”

She and her husband, Ed, are high-level veterans of the sport. Their website boasts a racing team, a summer camp and an adventure immersion business that offers clients a chance to mush in the Michigan wilderness — either for a few hours or during an overnight trip.

The business is going strong, helped along by mid-pandemic cabin fever and social media. “Everybody wants to do something unique,” she said.

Perysian knows all about that. He’s still enthralled by the sport — especially in very low temperatures, the way it used to be.

“When you’re out in the woods in that bitter cold, there’s nothing — no noise,” he said. “All you hear is the runners sliding on the snow, the wind and sometimes the panting of the dogs.”