Couple builds life around mushing at remote Minnesota home

Erin Altemus leaves home for a quick run with a team of six dogs recently. Altemus and musher husband Matt Schmidt have 40 sled dogs at their home three miles off the Gunflint Trail. Altemus is competing in this year’s John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service
Erin Altemus leaves home for a quick run with a team of six dogs recently. Altemus and musher husband Matt Schmidt have 40 sled dogs at their home three miles off the Gunflint Trail. Altemus is competing in this year’s John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon. Steve Kuchera / Forum News ServiceSteve Kuchera / Forum News Service

GRAND MARAIS, Minn. — It’s 3 miles off the Gunflint Trail to get here, and depending on the season, you may need a four-wheel drive truck, an ATV, a snowmobile, snowshoes or good boots.

Or you can do what Erin Altemus and her husband Matt Schmidt do sometimes and use a dog team and sled.

The couple and their 20-month-old daughter, Sylvia, live what some people would say is the ultimate outdoor lifestyle centered around sled dogs and mushing, taking their water from Mush Lake, heating with a wood stove and tending to 38 dogs in their yard in the heart of the Superior National Forest.

“When you aren't digging yourself out of a snowbank, it’s an amazing place to live with dogs,’’ Altemus said as she was hooking up a team for a practice run — huskies Beezus and Buddha up front with Figaro and Happy in the middle and Houdini and Dinah in the rear.

Altemus, 40, is one of a dozen mushers entered in next weekend’s 35th John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon. Schmidt , 39, had been set to run in the mid-distance 120-mile Beargrease race but pulled out at the last minute with their kennel short on veteran dogs.

They are relative newcomers, both to the Northland and competitive mushing. But they have jumped into the lifestyle full-force.

Altemus is originally from western Wisconsin. Schmidt is from Bemidji by way of West Fargo. They met 15 years ago at YMCA Camp Menogyn, on West Bearskin Lake just up the Gunflint Trail, where Schmidt now works as site manager. A winter mushing program at Menogyn “was my first contact with sled dogs ever. I just absolutely fell in love with it,” Altemus said.

Just six years ago the couple was living on her Wisconsin family farm trying to develop a sled dog kennel and having trouble finding enough trails or, some years, enough snow.

So they headed north and got help from the famed mushing community in and around Grand Marais, especially Odin and Betty Jorgenson. Five years ago they found 43 acres with a 20 x 24 cabin for sale in the woods. In the middle of nowhere. No electricity. No phone. No road access.

“It was kind of serendipitous that it was on Mush Lake,” Altemus said with a smile. “It really is the perfect place to live if you want to run dogs. We’ve got great trails right out the door.”

And there’s no one to complain if the dogs howl. The nearest neighbor is about 10 miles away.

This year was the first full winter they had a drivable road all the way in after they improved a Forest Service logging trail. But more than three feet of snow since Christmas had them literally snowed in earlier this month. Their plow truck sits, dead, halfway out to the road. On the day some visitors arrived, the couple had hired a local contractor with a skid-steer to try and spread their snowbanks apart to make the last mile of driveway passable again.

“One of the joys of living out here,’’ Schmidt said, still smiling.

The mid-section of the Gunflint Trail is among the snowiest places in Minnesota, with high altitude to scrape the most snow out of the clouds and not far from Lake Superior’s usual snowstorm enhancement. It’s the perfect place for dog sledding. But enough is enough, Altemus said.

“I’ve never not wanted snow before. Now, it can stop, please,’’ Altemus said. The snow blocked her first-ever missed day at North Shore Health, the hospital in Grand Marais where she works as a nurse.

Trying to get little Sylvia to and from daycare also has been a logistics problem. And the addition of a toddler to their work and training schedule has been a challenge. Then there are the daily chores of life in the woods, like pumping water, feeding the dogs and cleaning up poop.

“It’s been rough. I’m not going to lie,’’ Altemus said of the family's life off the grid. “It’s been a juggling act.”

But the dogs, in the end, offer a redemptive value on the trail, where they were born and bred to run. Altemus said she wouldn’t otherwise go outside on a zero-degree day with a biting, below-zero wind chill. But the dogs want to go “so then I do, too.”

“They make you stop thinking about anything else going on in your life,’’ Altemus said. “Their forward drive is unending.”

Good dogs, fast races

Altemus and Schmidt have been mushing for more than a decade and racing their dog teams for about eight years, with some pretty good success.

Altemus’ top finishes include fourth place and rookie of the year in the 2015 John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon. Last March she came in fourth and was the first female and first American to cross the finish line in the Can-Am Crown International Sled Dog Race in Maine. Schmidt finished fourth in the Beargrease Marathon in 2017, third in the Can Am 250 in 2017 and second in the Gunflint Mail Run in 2016 and 2017.

They have bred, raised and trained very fast Alaskan huskies in what becomes as much vacation as an avocation.

“It’s a great lifestyle if you can put up with it,’’ Altemus said, comparing her relationship with her dogs with any pet owner’s love for their dog or cat. “It’s like that, only magnified.”

The Jorgensens said they met Schmidt and Altemus at Camp Menogyn and became friends.

“We kind of lost touch with them for a while when they were in Wisconsin. But when they wanted to come up and get serious about dogs, we tried to help them out,” Odin Jorgensen said. “They did some really good breedings right from the start and had some great dogs. … They (Altemus and Schmidt ) make a great team together. They really put in the work. They’re diligent about training and they’re good to their dogs. Plus, they were both athletes, and they bring that athlete work ethic.”

But he said Altemus and Schmidt also have an intangible quality, namely their ability to relate to their dogs.

“Your dogs need to believe in you and trust you if you are going to succeed” at mushing, Odin Jorgensen said. “There has to be a bond between them (mushers and dogs) to make it happen, and they have that.”

Lots of training, hoping for success

This year the first snows came early, allowing more trail training than usual.

“It’s been a pretty good winter. We've been on sleds since Nov. 15, although it wasn't great the first few weeks,’’ Schmidt said. “Now, we maybe have too much snow.”

The couple generally race in the same events but not in the same race. Now, Altemus is running the larger, more experienced team and doing the longer races while Schmidt is working with younger dogs and a smaller team. They decided to make sure Altemus had enough dogs to compete well in the marathon when deciding to pull Schmidt out of the Beargrease 120.

After finishing a disappointing 11th in the Gunflint Mail Run earlier this month and out of the prize money, Altemus is eager to do well in the Beargrease.

“We have been lucky enough to have some success pretty early on, and you kind of get used to getting that check,” she said of cash prizes for placing high in races. “It helps to pay some of the expenses of doing a race, and maybe buy some dog food.”

Both Schmidt and Altemus say they like the camaraderie and socializing that races afford to mushers who otherwise rarely see each other while training.

“Mushing is a pretty solitary thing. You spend a lot of time in your own head ... right up until you get to the race. Then it’s pretty social, and that’s a fun change of pace from being alone on the trail so much,’’ Altemus said. “We have some young dogs now that, when they get to a race, that will be the first time they have ever seen a dog that’s not one of ours.”

The Beargrease marathon will bring the mushers down a snowmobile trail just a mile or two from the couple’s deep woods home. Altemus is hoping she’s the first one to get there.

“I have to make sure we practice going on by that turn, so they keep going on the race trail,” she said. “I don’t want them turning off the trail like we’re going home.”