MARQUETTE, Michigan — The air is a tepid 30 degrees, and the emcee talks scornfully of the balmy weather, against a background of barking dogs and cheering children.
“How many people can feel their toes out there?” said Frida Warren, a local realtor who doubles as one of the coordinators of the Upper Peninusla’s signature event, the UP 200 Dog Sled Race.
“That’s too bad,” she added when most of the crowd asserted that they still had command of their digits.
It was the kickoff off the UP 200, something that the residents of this remote outpost wait for all year long. People come from as far away as “downstate” although the UP slang for anyone who has to cross the Mackinaw Bridge to get to this frozen finger of land that protrudes into Lake Superior is “trolls” — those who “live below the bridge.”
By any measure, it’s been a strange year for the UP. The streets of Marquette are bare, the snow piles just a few inches high. According to some long-time “Yew-Pers” by this time of year the banks should top six feet.
They are not happy.
“People love their snow up here,” said Kathleen Faulkner, a long-time Michigan resident.
For the UP 200, a qualifying event for Alaska’s more famous Iditarod, the teams take about three days to cover 240 miles. This year the route had to be changed to accommodate the lack of snow.
Oh yes — and the starting ceremony, in which more than 30 teams of six-dogs and a “musher” roar off from the center of Marquette, had to be almost entirely manufactured. Due to the bare streets, snow was trucked in from South Dakota.
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“Just think of it — importing snow into the UP,” said one local resident in disgust.
The crowds were pretty thin for the usually boisterous event, which blocked off the major arteries of this bustling metropolis. There are about 22,000 residents in Marquette, not counting the 9,000 or so students at Northern Michigan University, which perches on the outskirts.
“It’s not the real start, that’s why hardly anyone’s here,” said one observer, who identified himself as “Chuck Norris,” although his friends called him “Paul.”
But what they lacked in numbers the spectators more than made up for in enthusiasm. They cheered approval as the emcee read off the biographies of the “mushers” — the humans who direct the teams — as if they were Olympic finalists.
There was Michelle Hogan, from Tomahawk, Minnesota, a mother of seven home-schooled children who also runs a dog farm. Nancy Johnson of Devil’s Lake, North Dakota is a grandmother of six, and says two of her grandchildren are already running dog teams at the age of five. “When she is not training or raising pups, she enjoys reading and playing the piano” said her profile.
Odin Jorgensen, from Grand Marais, Michigan, was born into mushing, and divides his time between dog racing and building sleds. He and his wife Betsy will take turns racing this winter.
People up here love the races, and “Chuck Norris” said it was something he had always wanted to do — when he was not teaching sociology at a nearby university, that is.
“It’s in my blood,” he said.
Chuck professed himself an avid “Yew-Per” and said his dream was to move back to Marquette from neighboring Minnesota.
“This is the best place on earth,” he said.
People in the UP are proud of their beautiful wilderness, which doubles as the playground for the rest of the state. Tourism is a big industry here — one of the few.
The other is mining.
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The main sponsor of the UP200 is Rio Tinto, a UK-based mining giant that is planning to open a major copper and nickel works on the Yellow Dog Plain west of Marquette within the next few years.
The project is controversial. Environmentalists say it will cause acidic runoff that could damage the Lake Superior watershed. But with an unemployment rate in some parts of Michigan approaching 25 percent, the UP-ers are hoping that something comes of it.
The mushers all wore “Rio Tinto” jackets, while the dogs had to content themselves with little red or green booties that protect their paws from the ice.
After the kickoff in Marquette, the teams repaired to nearby Chatham, where the first leg of the three-day race was due to start a bit later in the evening.
With the first teams duly sent on their way, the spectators began to disperse. Small children bundled up against the (relatively) cold perched upon their fathers’ shoulders; strollers full of sleepy children were trundled up the hilly streets.
There is a loose-limbed openness to UP residents that hints at their Scandinavian ancestry.
But the surface accessibility is a bit misleading — Yew-Pers can be a very private bunch. Recent “immigrants” say that they have a hard time interacting with the indigenous folk, and manufacture their social circles out of newcomers like themselves.
And the enthusiasm for dog sled racing does not seem to extend to politics.
Michigan will be the site of an important primary on February 28 — the next big battle between former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and his latest challenger, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum.
Santorum is ahead in the polls, which could be very bad news for Romney. The presumptive frontrunner grew up in Michigan, where his father was a well-respected governor. But Romney is having a hard time wooing Michigan’s staunch social conservatives, and he alienated many desperate Michiganders with his hardline position against the federal bailout of General Motors.
With GM now showing record profits and Detroit slowly emerging from its Doomsday period, Romney may live to regret his stance.
But Romney still has the bucks, and the organization, to give Santorum a very hard time over the next, crucial week.
None of this was uppermost on the minds of the UP-ers Friday night, however.
“We don’t talk much about politics,” said one race observer, who said his name was Ken. He did not want to be indentified further, due to his position in the community.
“I think people are afraid to say what they believe — they do not want to be seen as too liberal or too conservative,” he added.
For the dogs running over thinly blanketed tracks, and politicians trying to mobilize a skeptical population, 2012 is proving to be an uphill race.
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