I live in Mondovi, a city along the Buffalo River in western Wisconsin. I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and often would listen to radio programs and watch television shows about dogs, like ‘Lassie’, ‘Rin Tin Tin’ and ‘Sergeant Preston of the Yukon.’ That kind of dovetailed into my dog sled racing interest. 

Photos courtesy of Howard Johnson

Howard Thompson | Mondovi, WI

At the age of sixteen, I was working in the summer at a factory in Cicero, Illinois, and became friends with a young man about my age. We shared the same interest in dogs, so he invited me to his parent’s place and showed me their large Alaskan Malamute dog, and it looked like a big timber wolf. This thing looked kind of fearsome, but to my surprise, it was one of the friendliest dogs I had ever met. I came to realize later this type of breed was good as a sled dog, and they are friendly with people despite their appearance. I had money from working that summer, went to the same breeder of the Alaskan Malamute dog that my coworker had, and purchased my first sled dog–Keena of Ojibwa was her name. She was my companion and went with me everywhere, sometimes even on dates with my girlfriends. 

Alaskan Malamute sled dogs are not the fastest running type of dog breed in the world. They are known for their power and strength rather than speed. Commonly used by Inuit people, who are a nomadic tribe of hunters and fishermen, Alaskan Malamutes follow the food source wherever it is while pulling their owners and their belongings from one place to another. When the reindeer are moving, they follow the reindeer. When the whales are going through the Bering Sea, they go there, pulling everything–the family and all their belongings–from one place to the other. My team of sled dogs are Alaskan Malamute, which are not the fastest running type of dog breed in the world, but they’re known for their power and strength. 

When I researched the history of the Alaskan Malamute breed, I became interested in a different form of sled dog racing, freight racing. This type of racing is done by distance and adding dead weight. For example, a 10-mile distance with one dog required adding 50 pounds of dead weight on the sled. Or, if you ran a bigger team, like a six-dog team, you put 70 pounds on the sled for every dog in your team, in total the load weight could be more than 400 pounds. I liked this type of dog sledding race so much I helped found the Tri-State Alaskan Malamute Club.

From 1967 to 1972, I served in the Navy. I was a Navy hospital corpsman stationed with the Marine Corps in southern California. The Navy provided the medical personnel for the Marine Corps since at the time they did not have their own medics. I spent three of my four years of active duty with the Marines as their medical personnel. I served in the Vietnam War as a combat medic. 

While I was in southern California, I met my dear wife, Kay in 1969. Kay is an educator and an avid reader. At the time, she read the Los Angeles Times and saw there was a sled dog race just outside of Los Angeles. To me, the thought of having a sled dog race in southern California just didn’t seem like it made a lot of sense because when I hear about California, I think of warm weather. However, there were elevations in mountains around California that had snow. There is a little community called, ‘Big Bear City’, that is located in the San Bernardino Mountains. Kay and I went there and saw over 100 sled dog teams at 7,000 feet of elevation in Big Bear City. This was the first sled dog race I had ever seen, and it blew my mind. It was thrilling. I mean 100 dog teams, just think if there were six dogs on every team. There were hundreds of dogs that were very energetic and excited to be doing this dog sledding race. 

After that, Kay and I went to sled dog races and, before long, I decided I would try my hand at dog sledding. In 1972, I started practicing with Keena, my first Alaskan Malamute dog that I acquired in Huntington Beach and taught her how to pull a bicycle, then a sled. As time went on, Keena and I got better together. I learned someone was trying to give away a sled dog. At the time, I didn’t have a lot of money. I was still going to college, had a family to support, and was working part-time. I asked the owners, ‘How much money would you need for this sled dog?’ They said, ‘Oh, I’m just looking for someone to give it a good home.’ So, I got lucky and easily acquired a second sled dog. Within the year, I was training two sled dogs to pull a bicycle. In 1973, I participated in my first sled dog speed race and continued for the next 20 years until 1993.

Being around sled dogs is a great stress reliever for me. They continue to help me cope with all the trials and tribulations of my work and just overall life challenges.

To me, dog sledding is more of a lifestyle than it is a sport. It has to be in your blood because a tremendous amount of work goes on behind the scenes.

You better be a real animal lover because it’s the work of supporting that team, caring for it, training it, conditioning it, and then traveling. The essence of being a good dog musher is your love for dogs and taking good care of them–feeding them well, keeping them housed and clean, having them exercise, trained, and mentally stimulated. With my team of 16 sled dogs, it is definitely a year-round lifestyle commitment.

In 1973 I participated in my first dog speed race and by 1980 dog sledding took me back to the Midwest, closer to my side of the family. I joined the Wisconsin Trailblazers, a state sled dog club, and did my first Wisconsin sled dog race in Ashland on the shores of Chequamegon Bay. I still recall the temperature high for the day was 20 degrees below zero. The Northwoods backdrop to the frozen lake was absolutely beautiful, and at that moment, I felt like I was in heaven.

In the 1990s, I got interested in doing another form of dog sled racing, which was mid-distance racing. Mid-distance races usually are about 70 miles and are usually completed over two days, which means two 35-mile heats over two consecutive days. I started mid-distance racing in Elton and Solon Springs, doing 40 and 70-mile races. 

Kay and I have three children–one boy and two girls. Out of my children, my son has a hand in the sled dog racing profession. He’s a semi-pro musher, or frontman of his dog sled, and receives sponsorships that pay for his race expenses and upkeep of his dogs. I like to go slow on the sleds. My son, on the other hand, takes it up a few notches. He’s taken me for some pretty thrilling rides. Afterward, I’m thinking, ‘Next time, I’m going to wear my helmet when I go out with you,’ because his dogs run at supersonic speed. 

One daughter loves dogs and has her own as her companion. My other daughter prefers cats! 

I am a retired registered nurse. I was the director of nursing for a nursing home in Mondovi and in pharmaceutical sales before retiring at the age of 55. I asked myself, ‘Now what am I going to do with the rest of my life that’s meaningful?’ Well, as it turns out, I opened up two businesses, which are still in operation. I opened up a business called Paws On Positive Dog Training, which is a puppy obedience training school, and Sno-Trek Sled Dog Adventures, an educational dog sledding venture to teach others about sled dogs and dog sledding.

 At the beginning of class, we talk about what a sled dog is and what makes a sled dog different from other dogs. I dispel myths about dog sledding. Some people think dog sledding is forcing a dog to do something they do not want to do. After having spent so many decades working with sled dogs, I can tell sled dogs love doing what they do. They’re energetic, powerful dogs and need to exert their energy in an activity that they were built to do. 

Snow-Trek Sled Dog Adventures is not a place for thrill rides and games. It’s an educational experience where we want people to leave with a greater level of understanding and appreciation for dogs, specifically sled dogs. We do about three or four offsite programs a year at schools, nature reserves, and state parks and put on free dog sled rides for the community. 

Traditionally, people think of dog sledding as a winter sport, but the advent of wheels for dryland events means it can be extended into the spring, summer, and fall seasons, too. With global warming, the winter seasons can be erratic. Dog sledding is moving into what we call, ’dryland dog sledding,’ where a sled dog or a team of sled dogs pulls people on dry land, usually riding on sleds or some type of mechanism with wheels and high-tech locking features. With the warming temperatures, we’ve had to adapt and use our wheeled rigs, or wheeled sleds. Last winter, we used them 99% of the time because the physical conditions were not adequate with poor snow conditions and warm temperatures. 

In the Northwoods, I love the pine forest and the setting. I like to explore all of that – the waterways, coastlines and woods. Being a dog musher, I have the good fortune to have the companionship of sled dogs to explore. When people come here to experience dog sledding, I semi-jokingly tell them, ’This is a highly addicting activity. So I want to give you that warning right up front. Because once you are exposed to dog sledding and all that goes along with it, I don’t want you to hold me responsible if, at some point down the line, you become addicted to this great outdoor lifestyle.

Howard’s story was produced by Jesse Yang. You can learn more about Sno-Trek Sled Dog Adventures here. 

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