The sun is setting over the old copper-mining town of Calumet – in Michigan's northernmost peninsula jutting into Lake Superior.
It’s cold and quiet.
Then suddenly an explosion of barking and yelping. All it takes is one sled dog getting harnessed for every dog in town to start going crazy. People from all over the country are walking around bundled up in heavy coats and snow boots.
That includes 26 year-old Laura Neese and her team of 12 Alaskan Huskies.
They make their way to the starting line. The dogs hop in place and foam at the mouth. They’ve been waiting hours to run the 50-mile stretch of trails just ahead. The crowd is cheering all around them, loud speakers come to life, and the countdown begins.
Five, four, three, two, one!
That’s when Laura lets the dogs hear their favorite words: “Let’s go!”
Producer: Michael Livingston
Host: Dan Wanschura
Editor: Morgan Springer
Additional Editing: Dan Wanschura
Music: Hans Troost
LAURA NEESE: Are we ready?
MICHAEL LIVINGSTON, BYLINE: I’m ready!
NEESE: Alrighty. You guys ready? Let’s go!
LIVINGSTON: Whoa! Ok!
DAN WANSCHURA, HOST: That’s reporter Michael Livingston and Laura Neese being pulled by a team of six Alaskan Huskies.
They're on a ride through the woods in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
LIVINGSTON: Alright we’re off!
WANSCHURA: Even with two people in the sled, these dogs can hit speeds up to 15 miles per hour.
NEESE: Chi Chi. Nice guys, good.
WANSCHURA: Laura just used one of her voice commands. Chi for a right hand turn. Hoffer is for a left. It is pretty insane how smart these dogs are.
LAURA: Their trail memory is amazing. They can run a 1,000 mile race once and come back to it a couple years later and know exactly where the trail is supposed to go.
WANSCHURA: Laura is a professional musher. Someone who trains dogs and drives the sled. She spends most of her days on the trails with these guys to get them ready for long-distance races all over North America. And she says she wouldn’t have it any other way.
NEESE: Whoa! Good boys, fellas.
WANSCHURA: This is Points North, a show about the land, water, and inhabitants of the Great Lakes. I’m Dan Wanschura. In today’s episode, we’re gonna put you in the sled. Follow Laura through the CopperDog 150 – a three-day race in Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula – and learn how mushing became her life.
Michael Livingston is gonna take it from here. He’s walking around the town of Calumet, Michigan, and the CopperDog kick-off is only an hour away.
LIVINGSTON: People from all over the country are here for the CopperDog. They stomp around in heavy snow boots, bundled up in warm layers. There’s a beautiful sunset over the historic copper-mining town, and the temperature is dropping. The first leg of the 150-mile race will take place in total darkness.
(Neese talking to dogs)
There’s Laura and her team waiting in a nearby parking lot. She pulls out this heaping bag of raw meat from the truck. She’s going to whip up some broth to get the team some energy..
NEESE: Basically a light meal for ‘em. It’s beef, water, and I’ll put a little kibble in there too.
LIVINGSTON: Laura’s 26, and she’s already taken some of these guys to the biggest sled dog races in North America. When it's finally time to harness up, they all know it's time. All it takes is one dog getting hooked up to the sled for every single dog in town to start going crazy.
(Sound of dogs barking)
At the starting line, the dogs hop in place and foam at the mouth. Laura stands on the sled in layers of coats, snow pants, and boots. She has a headlamp strapped to her forehead and she’ll need it to guide her through the dark. All of a sudden, speakers crackle to life.
PUBLIC ADDRESS ANNOUNCER: Six, five, four, three, two, one, go! Have a good run Laura!
LIVINGSTON: One second they’re at the starting line, then they're gone – speeding down the street into the woods ahead. It’s going to take over three hours for her to finish this first leg. But on the trail Laura is in her element. She’s passing other mushers, many of whom she knows from previous races.
NEESE: Have a great run, Ryan!
LIVINGSTON: The further she gets from Calumet, the quieter it all becomes until all you can hear are the dogs panting and the wind blowing through the trees.
Laura's fascination with dog sledding goes back to when she was nine years-old. She grew up on a 20 acre farm in Newark, Ohio, which if you didn’t know…
NEESE: Not, not a popular place for dog sports.
LIVINGSTON: But she had seen the movie “Balto” as a girl. It’s about a half-wolf dog that runs the Iditarod Trail to save a remote Alaskan community from a deadly diphtheria epidemic. And after seeing it, Laura became obsessed with following the Iditarod – a real sled dog race in Southern Alaska.
NEESE: Yeah, it was a homeschool project to follow the Iditarod. And my mom thought it would be a one year thing of just a way to learn. I always loved dogs, always loved winter. So she thought just bringing those interests in and get me excited for learning and little did she know it was gonna be my life. From nine years-old to 14, I read every book I could find on sled dogs.
LIVINGSTON: She kept tracking the Iditarod every year imagining herself racing it. But all she needed was her own sled dog.
NEESE: I printed this ad out and I brought it over to my dad and I remember just saying, “Dad, this is all I want for my birthday. You know you don't even have to get me anything for the rest of my life for my birthday. I just want one Alaskan husky.”
LIVINGSTON: And Laura got her wish. Her parents took her to a nearby kennel to pick out her first dog – an Alaskan husky named Acadia.
NEESE: I remember when I met her…she was a super sweet dog. And she was just one of those, she crawls in your pocket and instantly grabs hold of your heart, so.
LIVINGSTON: Acadia grabbed her parents' hearts too. Only a couple of months later, the family bought seven more sled dogs, then let Laura breed a litter bringing the total up to 18.
Before she was old enough to drive a car, Laura was running around her neighbor's cornfield with a full-fledged team.
NEESE: Pretty much every day, I would just load up my books in the backpack, and head out, feed the dogs, and then just spend the whole day doing school out in the kennel.
LIVINGSTON: It didn’t take long for Laura to start entering short-distance races in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. At 18, she moved there, and got a job at Nature’s Kennel in McMillan. It’s one of the largest family-owned kennels in the Great Lakes region.
Laura has managed its race teams for almost a decade. The dogs she’s racing right now are trained there.
(Sounds of Laura finishing the first leg of race)
It’s just past midnight – below freezing – and Laura glides into the finish line at Eagle Harbor with a smile even though her face is bright red from the cold. Once all the dogs make it back to the truck, hugs and kisses all around.
There's Fusion, Monkey Boy, Comet, Smile, Ace, Champ, Chilly, Woodstove, Wag, and Puff.
NEESE: You guys were awesome! Nice job! Woosker-doodle! Comet!
LIVINGSTON: They got about nine hours to rest before the second leg of the race. Although, most of them look like they could run another 50 miles right now. Only Comet is looking worse for wear.
NEESE: There’s a little swelling…There's some soreness from a race about a month ago. So, I’m doing preventative massage and wrapping.
LIVINGSTON: She’ll need to keep a close eye on Comet moving forward. Laura never pushes the dogs further than they can go. She always keeps a watchful eye on them like they’re her children. Because, for her, racing is as much about the dog's enjoyment as her own.
Day two starts before sunrise in Eagle Harbor. The crew got maybe three or four hours of sleep. That was expected. What wasn’t expected was Laura’s stomach bug. She’ll have to race anyway.
But the biggest problem today is the warmth. It’s supposed to be sunny and in the mid 30’s.That’s hot for racing. Monkey Boy is panting before he’s even harnessed, plus the trails could get slushy.
There’s even some talk among volunteers the race should start earlier in the morning to beat the heat. But everything moves forward as planned.
With a quick pep talk to her team, Laura takes off.
This second leg of the race is a beautiful stretch of trails with stunning views of Lake Superior.
Laura says she rarely ever gets nervous before a race. And for a big league musher like her, the CopperDog is kind of a lap around the dog park.
Laura’s taken dog teams all over North America to compete in long-distance races. She even did the Iditarod in 2017, the race she dreamed about as a kid.
NEESE: It was pretty awesome.
LIVINGSTON: And she’s finished the Yukon Quest twice, a race through 1,000 miles of Alaskan Wilderness. But she has faced adversity.
It was during her 2018 race in the Yukon Quest, she ran into her first major test as a musher.
NEESE: For four days in a row, it didn't get above 40 below. It was 40 to 60 degrees below zero. And I hit a point in that race, in that cold spell, where it was hard on me. Like, I was tired of being cold.
LIVINGSTON: She remembers being huddled up in her sleeping bag feeling miserable. But she decided to let the dogs off the harness and go for a quick walk.
NEESE: I saw dogs running around at 40 below zero, 450 miles into a race running around playing acting like it was the greatest day ever. And that quickly brought me to my senses. And that ended up being, I mean, the greatest race ever. It was incredible.
LIVINGSTON: Laura won third place in that race. One of her greatest accomplishments. And in moments like those, Laura says she remembers what dogsledding is about – working as a team.
NEESE: If I had stayed in that sleeping bag and let myself go further and further into that hole of negative thinking. I can guarantee that when I woke the team up to leave that rest, they would have been feeling that they would have fed off of me and they wouldn't – wouldn't have been as happy.
LIVINGSTON: While Laura’s racing, another part of her team is hard at work at the end of the second leg in Copper Harbor.
Katie Kunze and Jayne Roohr are shoveling snow to make a bed for the dogs. When the team returns, they’ll need a nice cool place to rest. Katie and Jayne are fellow mushers, dog lovers, and some of Laura’s closest friends.
KUNZE: Yes, once you pull out of the line, it's just you and your team, but you have to have that support network back at your kennel, your truck, wherever you're at with your team.
LIVINGSTON: As they’re shoveling, the snow keeps melting and turning into slush. That has Katie and Jayne worried as they chat with other spectators. They’re concerned the heat will slow Laura down.
KUNZE: No I'm just not seeing her making that time to get in. Monkey was hot on the line this morning.
SPECTATOR: She won’t push her dogs, especially not in this heat.
ROOHR: No, no, no. She won't do that.
KUNZE: I don't see a 1:03 I see closer to two o'clock at the earliest.
SPECTATOR: I agree.
(Sounds of Laura finishing second leg)
LIVINGSTON: Here’s Laura rolling into the finish line. She is a bit later than expected but the dogs ran even faster than the first leg. A few of the dogs collapse in the snow pile – they look exhausted – but not overheated.
LIVINGSTON: Can I ask you how you’re feeling before you take off?
LIVINGSTON: The final day of the CopperDog 150 is a mountainous trek back to Eagle Harbor.
Laura is not as talkative this morning, despite getting a little bit more sleep than the night before. Her attention is fully on her team. After yesterday’s run, Comet’s sore leg had gotten worse. Laura decides to bench her for the final stretch so her injury doesn’t get worse.
The rules are you can’t sub in another dog. So Laura is down a dog. The team will need all of its strength in this last leg to race through some hard and fast elevation changes.
As Laura and the crew stare down the starting line one last time. The familiar speaker comes on.
ANNOUNCER: Five, four, three, two, one, go!
LIVINGSTON: Each musher gets to choose their own exit music. Laura chose this one. Maple Syrup on Flapjacks by Hobo Jim. She sometimes sings it to Maple, one of her retired dogs. It’s just another example of how Laura sees these dogs as more than just athletes. She’s raised and trained dozens but she remembers every single team she’s completed a race with.
In the same way that the dogs were bred and trained for this, Laura feels like her destiny was to be a musher.
NEESE: It's definitely a very different lifestyle than anything else. And it takes a unique breed of person to, to want to be out in the middle of nowhere with their dogs.
LIVINGSTON: Out on the trail, Laura and the dogs are running fast – faster than they have this entire weekend – even in the warmer weather and without Comet. They make it back to Eagle Harbor, welcomed by a cheering crowd.
Laura finishes 14th overall – her last race of the season. Now that the off-season has begun, Laura and the dogs will continue to train. Last year, she started her own business, a summertime sled dog center called MiDog where people can meet and play with her teams.
NEESE: My favorite part to see is just for the people to see how loved the dogs are. And that they're not only the greatest athletes on the planet, but also really incredible friends.
LIVINGSTON: Racing may be Laura’s passion but sharing the dogs with others is just as rewarding.