Amanda Vogel, founder of Snomad Racing
You may think you love dogs, but you’re probably not as passionate as Amanda Vogel. This Michigan native moved to the extreme cold of Northern Minnesota to immerse herself in the sport of dog sledding. Today she runs a 14-pup team on mid-distance races that test human and canine grit, spirit and strength.
Amanda was not allowed to have a dog growing up. In 2003 when she had finished college, completed grad school and bought her own home she decided to take the leap. She got a Malamute and a German Shepherd, large working dogs that need a lot of exercise. To keep the pups healthy and happy, she began dog sledding through a recreational club. Amanda also trained the canines for shows, as well as search and rescue.
“The dog sledding was just so much fun! And the dogs loved it. It all ‘snowballed’ from there…” she joked.
Today, the musher runs her own kennel called Snomad Racing. When the team began it was “just some dogs” that had a blast pulling Amanda around on a kiddie sled.
“After that, it takes lots of dedication, hard work, money and sponsorships, and a tough head balanced with a love of dogs,” she noted.
Today, Snomad Racing is one of the top mid-distance racing competitors in the lower 48 states. The team’s most impressive accomplishments include placing 4th in the almost 400-mile John Beargrease Marathon in 2013. Amanda and the team qualified for the Iditarod, the world’s longest sled dog race which covers over 1,000 miles of tough Alaskan terrain every March.
“It is challenging every possible way it can be… physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. It’s never the same,” Amanda shared. “I enjoy traveling and meeting new and interesting people. The dog life has given me these things along with many life lessons.”
Training for success
Not every moment is spent flying across frozen tundra, especially during the winter of 2015-2016. This year the snow fell late near the Minnesota-Canada border where Snomads Racing is based. The normally white-covered miles of logging trails and frozen lakes were missing the treads of cross country skis and snowshoes. Instead, if you walked the paths you’d find imprints from Amanda’s four wheeler and the fourteen dogs that lead the ATV.
When conditions aren’t yet optimal for running the entire team behind the sled, the musher hooks them up to her four wheeler for training. Sometimes she takes smaller groups of the dogs on the sled so long as the ground permits the proper traction.
Canine teams and their mushers train year-round to stay in shape and because they love what they do.
“Training for a 400 mile race [like the John Beargrease] takes lots of miles behind the dogs and trying to make sure those miles are full of multiple leaders, behavior management and different trail conditions,” Amanda noted.
Each trail run is completely different based on the order the dogs are arranged on the gangline, the set of harnesses that hook up to the sled. The weather conditions and the attitudes of both musher and dogs also greatly affect every outing. And, training isn’t just running the dogs, the team practices going over different terrain as well as doing checkpoint, camping and rest practice.
The canine athletes must also rotate their positions, a practice that may come into play during a race. Tired dogs or those who are injured may be moved from their place in the line. The veteran pups lead the pack with younger future leaders in position directly behind them. The canines at the back, closest to the sled, are called “wheels” as they help pull the sled up hills and steer around trees. Amanda also shared that it’s important to match the dogs in pairs with similar gaits so they run at comparable speeds.
“Sometimes it simply comes down to group dynamics,” Amanda added. In theory, it’s like wrangling a bunch of toddlers who really want to run. You’ve got to put the right duos together or you’ll have hair pulling, biting and a serious pile up on the gangline, causing the sled to potentially tip and even injure musher or dogs.
On the trails
When racing, there’s a lot to think about. Between making sure to follow trail markers to searching for obstacles like fallen trees, Amanda watches out for herself and the health of her entire team. Through over a decade of racing, the musher has not yet become “completely” lost.
“I’ve taken a wrong turn or two! At that point, you have to turn your team around (try doing that on a tight trail with 14 excited dogs!) and re-enter the race trail where you exited,” Amanda quipped.
The trails are well-marked, with reflective signs for turns and areas that require extra caution. If you’re racing in a bad storm, though, these markers may fall down or be too hard to see due to blowing snow. The dogs may opt to follow the scent of any teams who have gone before them. Amanda notes that’s not always a good idea as the previous team may have taken a wrong turn.
For anyone who wonders about the safety and wellbeing of these dogs, fear not. Sledding canines have some of the most devoted owners on the planet. The breeds that run in sled races, typically Huskies, Malamutes, German shepherds and mixes of these combinations, love to run and are incredibly well cared for.
During a race, Snowmad pups eat every two hours to keep fueled. Their meals consist of ground beaver with water, another meat (usually mink or beef) plus a high-quality kibble that has a lot of protein and fat. Amanda adds a supplement to the mix to aid in the dogs muscle repair. Feeding 14 dogs can get expensive, so many mushers choose to get and make their own dog food. Alaskan teams often eat salmon that their owners catch and store just for the winter. Sponsorship for dog sledding teams often includes a dog food company that provides some of the many calories these canine competitors need to excel in front of a sled.
“From the outside it must look like near chaos leading up to the starting line,” Amanda shared when asked to describe a day during a race.
“On the inside it’s focus, preparation, planning, preventing. It’s a million things packed into what feels like a very short amount of time.”
The musher spends much of the race concentrating on the dogs, making sure they are performing, eating and drinking, sleeping and moving as they should be. A simple change in the canines body movements can signify their needs or potential issues.
The dogs have plenty of fur to keep warm as they curl into little balls with their noses protected by their fluffy tails. Amanda is not so naturally prepared. Instead, she relies on serious cold weather gear. She swears by the Shoreline Fleece hooded jacket and long johns from one of her sponsors, Duluth Trading Company. They supply most of her gear, all of which is highly technical in terms of warmth but still comfortable and movable. It’s important for Amanda to be able to easily maneuver to care for the dogs at race checkpoints while in full snow gear.
Taking off her layers for even a minute could result in frost bite and scratching, or dropping out, from the competition. Amanda also dons a fur ruff to protect her face from the wind, another major factor in cold-related injuries. Not sure what a ruff is? If you have a down coat with a hood you may have a little fur along the hood edge. A ruff is like the supersized version of that liner. It’s many times thicker and provides tons of warmth.
“It’s cold, it’s challenging, it can be scary and wondrous,” Amanda explained. “The ferocity of Mother Nature is something that can’t be understood unless you’ve battled and experienced it.”
Off the trails
During the summer, Amanda works at Northern Lights Resort and Outfitting on Lake Kabetogama in Voyageurs National Park. The Minnesota company is another team sponsor. Businesses aren’t Snomad Racing’s only fans, Amanda has made and met some great people through competing, gear testing and speaking engagements.
“It’s really appreciated to have the support of folks when things go well and as when they don’t go as planned. It can inadvertently feel like you let them down if things don’t go well,” Amanda admitted.
The dogs depend on Amanda to maintain a positive attitude while still being able to make realistic and difficult decisions that focus on the safety and health of the team.
“If my head or any of their heads get soft, it’ll bleed down the team so we have to encourage each other throughout,” She added.
Working and training in Minnesota’s Northwoods allows Amanda to enjoy the beauty of the wilderness all year round. She makes the best of her locale by swimming, biking, running and hiking when she’s not taking care of dog chores and related projects.
“The woods, the waters, the peace and serenity… I love everything out of doors. And sometimes the relaxing peace and quiet of home,” she adds.
Although she planned to compete in the 2016 John Beargrease Marathon which occurred January 31st, Amanda chose to sit this one out. Her current team is transitioning from old hats to young pups and needs a little more practice and learning. Retiring even one member of the team entirely changes the group dynamic, so this is not something that occurs overnight or is taken lightly.
With names like Yogi, Preston, Breaker and Zwicky, it’s pretty hard to not be a fan of the Snomad dogs and their awesome musher. Watching a video of the team zipping along old logging trails in the snow may even make you want to get a team together.
“Don’t do it. It’s addicting!” Amanda joked.
The musher recommends trying dog sledding by going through a touring company that can give you good instruction like Chilly Dogs out of Ely, Mn. There you can meet the dogs, ride in a sled or drive your own team.
“You’ll leave amazed at what the dogs can do and how much they love it!” Amanda shared.
And check out her Real Women Models shots for Snowmad Racing sponsor Duluth Trading Company.