Lifelong passion proves successful for Irma woman
Of the many, races she has competed in and won over the years, none was more meaningful for Erin Schouweiler of Irma, than her championship triumph at the John Beargrease 107 mile mid-distance sled dog race on Jan. 27, ending in Tofte, Minn.
Just before 6 a.m on the morning of Monday, Jan. 27, Schouweiler arrived at the trail center just south of the U.S-Canadian border in Minnesota. Her trail time was 9 hours and 6 minutes, placing 45 minutes ahead of 2nd place Rita Wehseler of Minnesota and the rest of the 30-team field. Aside from the accomplishment of winning one of the premier dog-sled races in the lower 48-states, the win really brought Erin’s two-decades of sled dog racing full-circle; as the Beargrease Mid-Distance was the very first race she ever competed in, at the age of 14.
“Winning the Beargrease Mid-Distance this year was a dream come true since I was a little girl, and first heard of the Beargrease,” the St. James, Minn. native explains.
“To win, racing as a family-run kennel (Otter Run Kennel of Irma) with my husband, our infant son, and my mother in-law Martha-made it all the more special.”
As she alluded to, Schouweiler has spent a majority of her life enjoying a profound passion for the sport, also known as “mushing.”
Entering into her 20th year as a musher, Schouweiler’s racing roots date back to her childhood, and a particular day spending time with her grandfather.
“As an 8-year old sitting at my grandpa Mick Davis’ workbench we would eat oreos and milk and read through the National Geographic. One afternoon, the article we found was about Susan Butcher and the Iditarod. As soon as I saw a girl like me running her dogs in a race I was adamant that that was something I needed to do!” Schouweiler explains.
“He and I got to work building a sled, or what we thought was a sled, out of old wooden xc skis and scrap lumber in his wood shop. Being a good southern Minnesota farmer, we had to paint it John Deere green and I spent that winter having the farm dog Diesel pull me around the yard on it. We had horses and a rat terrier at the time, so my parents mostly assumed it was a phase that would pass and all I wanted was a puppy. “
After a year saving money from chores to purchase a sled dog, the summer of 1999 would prove to be a key point in Schouweiler’s journey to become a professional musher.
“After a year of saving my chore money and allowance, and refusing to spend it on anything else but my sled dog my parents started to take me more seriously,” she adds.
“We took a family vacation to Duluth the summer of 1999 and on the way home they took the “scenic route” to a local musher’s house. It was there that I got my first two sled dogs, a brother sister pair.
“Really that musher from Warba, Minn. and his family took the time to get a little girl invested in the sport in a big way. What started with two leaders to teach me, expanded into a mentorship and friendship I cherish. Vern and Cindy Schroeder (parents of 4-time Beargrease Marathon Champion Nathan Schroeder) really helped mentor me. My parents weren’t sled dog people, no one in my family had any idea what we were doing so to have a veteran musher sell a little girl two good dogs was key.
“My first winter of racing I was 10. I ran 3-4 dog sprint races with my two original dogs, a third incredible leader gifted to me by the Schroeders, and a fluffy house pet Siberian Husky who I adopted from a family in town who no longer had the time for her. Sprint races were fun, and they got me hooked but I really wanted to be out there longer longer with every race.
“By the time I was 13 going on 14 I knew I wanted to do longer races but there really weren’t any geared towards junio- mushers. The John Beargrease Mid Distance class (120 mile race with 8 dogs) had a rule that you could be 14 with the recommendation of two veteran mushers. Thanks to the belief in me that my mentors had, I was,-at the time-the youngest person to ever finish the Beargrease Mid-Distance race in 2005.
“I had just enough dogs to field a team and one extra who I never thought would make it; Dusty. He was half of my original two sled dogs who was 8-years old at the time. The season prior Dusty had semi-retired himself by making it known to all he didn’t want a harness on anymore, so we let him be a house dog. Well, he must have realized I was going to do something big that winter, as come fall training he unretired himself and wanted to be with on every single run. He not only made the team, but he led me across the finish line. ”
While races can entail anywhere from 2-14 dogs, the mid-distance races Schouweiler and Otter Run Kennels focus on, can range anywhere from 6-10 dogs. Breeds can also vary, but Schouweiler and her team’s preference are Alaskan Huskies.
“You could ask six different musher’s of their idea of the most ideal breed for a sled-dog and they would all say something different. Ideal for us is the Alaskan husky. While not considered a purebred dog they have been purpose-bred meticulously for generations to be athletic, fast, great eaters, incredible endurance, and most importantly love to run.”
About Otter Run Kennel of Irma and the Schouweiler racing team:
Otter Run Kennel is a family run kennel. Erin, her husband Chad and her mother-in-law Martha are a team when it comes to our racing. “Grandpa Mark is instrumental in helping us wrangle our 1-year old so we can do what we need to do with the sled dogs,” Schouweiler jokes. Martha is a 4-time Beargrease Mid-Distance Champion, winning four consecutive years 2015-18. She is also a two-time CopperDog 150 Champion
“We just came home from our second-win two weeks ago,” Erin adds.
“Chad is the chief trainer. He plans the runs, strategizes, formulates the perfect race diet and trains our pups 100% of the runs with Martha and I assisting. With both of us having full-time jobs it really is a team effort for our “doggy lifestyle.”