By Pete Wurdock
A new tourist destination just 13 miles north of Newberry on M-123 has quickly become one of the greatest “feel good” attractions in the entire Upper Peninsula.
It is called MI Dog, Michigan’s Summer Sled Dog Center and it is home to some of the world’s greatest athletes: long distance sled dogs. Spoiler alert: It’s also home to some extremely cute puppies.
Owner Laura Neese is a four-time 1,000-mile sled dog musher who has finished two Iditarods—the world’s most famous sled dog race from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska. She has also finished two Yukon Quests, another grueling race from Whitehorse, Alaska to Yukon Territory in Canada.
“The reason I love these races so much is the bond that I form with my dogs,” she said. “And when the race is over I feel a sense of accomplishment that is massive.”
Her love for the sport and her dogs is felt from the moment you enter MI Dog, a 28-acre property that took two and a half years to develop. At MI Dog, guests meet her team of Alaskan Huskies and the newest litter of pups. During the tours attendees learn what it takes to raise, train, and compete in sled dog racing. Visitors are free to roam the main cabin which has items for sale and some of Laura’s racing memorabilia on display.
Visitors to MI Dog will learn about sleds, race distances, the different breeds of competitive dogs, what happens during a race, what it is like to traverse through harsh conditions of snow and below zero temperatures and how much her team eats during a distance race—more than 1,500 pounds of food!
Her dogs are more than pets. They are her family and livelihood, and she treats them like kids.
Touching and petting the dogs is encouraged. Her 10.5-year-old “Fantastic Four” – Maple, Elmer, Winkle, and Baker – have retired now but logged more than 87,000 miles when they were the core of her sled team.
Neese has an easy-going, inviting manner, and she generously shares time with her guests. She loves sharing her stories.
“Maple is the best lead dog I’ve ever run,” Neese said. “She’s my soulmate and has led the team through storms where I was trusting her with my life.”
Sled dogs and sled races have captivated her since she was 9 years old and followed the Iditarod as a homeschool project.
“That was enough for me to say I want to do this; to be around these dogs and travel across Alaska,” she said.
She was only 14 when she started a sled dog kennel in Ohio, where she grew up. As a teenager she participated in shorter races in the Upper Peninsula.
Neese was only 18 when she completed her qualifying race and was 19 for her first 1000-mile race. Endurance races require determination, guts, patience, composure, and grit—and a tolerance for sleep deprivation.
In a 1,000-mile race, the 14 dogs, gang line, and sled are about as long as a typical semi-truck and trailer. “There are no reins coming back to the sled. I have no physical control of where the dogs are going,” Laura explained. “Every communication I have with them as they run is by a voice command.”
Aubrey Juckette, 12, from Dundee, Mich., is spending her second summer in the U.P. as an intern for Neese. Juckette has two of her own dogs in the compound and has completed some 30-40 mile races herself. “Taking care of my dogs and being outside is something I love,” Juckette said. “And I absolutely love being here.”
One of Neese’s greatest joys is watching families leave MI Dog full of excitement and sharing her love for her beloved team.
“And the bonus in all of this is that I feel very well loved every day,” Neese said.