Mathis enjoys adventure of dog sledding

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Kevin Mathis, who lives near Monona, has participated in dog sledding races for two seasons. Here, he nears the finish line of a race in Duluth, Minn., last winter. (Submitted photo)

Mathis currently has 13 dogs, who are all Alaskan Huskies, like Mini (shown here). (Photo by Audrey Posten)

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times Editor

As the temperature rose last weekend, Kevin Mathis was one of the few who mourned the loss of the snow. Its absence puts a damper on dog sledding, a pastime he’s enjoyed for the last two years.

Mathis said he’s always had an interest in dog sledding, but finally decided to give it a try when one of his sons became intrigued after watching a movie.

“It seemed like a challenge,” Mathis said. “I like the outdoors and adventure.”

So he went about procuring a sled and other equipment and, of course, dogs.

He currently owns 13 dogs of various ages, all Alaskan Huskies with champion bloodlines for distance.

“They’re bred for racing,” he said. “They are high-energy and love to run.”

Unlike the Siberian Husky that often comes to people’s minds, Mathis said Alaskan Huskies display different traits and no set pattern in their coloring. Just like people, each dog has its own personality, he noted.

“Different dogs run better at different positions,” he explained. “You can’t tell, until you get enough miles on them, where they fit best and how far they’ll run.”

Dogs begin racing as early as age 2, Mathis said, and some run past the age of 10. This past year, he said, his 10-year-old displayed the most energy.

Mathis and his dogs competed in two races last year—one in Duluth, Minn., and another in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. This year they raced in just one, in Michigan. He planned to do more, but the weather did not cooperate.

“Here, you fight with a lack of snow,” he said. “The trouble is training. I didn’t go to a race I planned on because I didn’t feel the dogs were in shape.”

Mathis noted that the sled can run on less snow; it’s stopping that’s the difficult part. Without a good snow base, he said, he can’t set the snow hooks in order to keep the sled and team in place in case he needs to stop.

When training the dogs, Mathis starts at a low mileage and works them up to larger stretches.

“You go from one to three miles, to five, to seven,” he said, eventually reaching 10 and 20 miles. He’s even done some 50-mile runs.

Mathis lives north of Monona and said some private land owners have let him use their land for training. The trek is 8.5 miles out and back, he said, a route he’d like to extend in order to break up the monotony for both him and the dogs.

“It’s good to work up to the miles of the race,” Mathis explained of the training schedule. “You want to imitate the race pattern after you build up the muscle in the dogs.”

Mathis said the race he participated in this year was mid-distance, at 90 miles. A maximum of eight dogs and a minimum of five were used for this race, he said; the number of dogs increases with the number of miles.

The 90-mile race was split into two sections, running 45 miles first, then taking around a five-hour break at a checkpoint before finishing out the remaining 45 miles, Mathis explained. 

During the checkpoint, with the help of a handler, the dogs are fed and bedded down. A vet comes around and checks  their heart rates, feet, joints and hydration. Time is also spent preparing the dogs to head back out, as their feet are re-bootied and they are properly hydrated.

For the checkpoint and the race, “everything revolves around the dogs,” Mathis said. Their feeding schedule is especially important, he added, because each dog burns 9,000 calories per day when racing. Their meals are high-calorie, high-protein and high-fat.

Mathis said he likes to average 10 miles per hour when racing, but that there are different variables that affect speed. He said he was happy with the dogs’ performance this year.

Moving forward, Mathis said he’d like to groom in a new team leader and keep updating equipment. He will also continue to pick up knowledge.

“It’s constant learning,” he said.

Although there is one man who lives near Waukon who used to race, and Mathis has gotten some equipment and information from him, Mathis said nearby dog sledding resources are scarce.

He relies on picking up pointers and knowledge from other participants at the races he attends. He finds a lot of resources online, as well.

“But, for a lot of it, you just have to do it,” he said.

And just doing it is a pretty rewarding experience.

“I enjoy the solitude and being out there with the dogs,” Mathis explained. “The dogs are doing what they love to do and you’re going through a canopy forest. There’s no noise, just the runners of the sled.”

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