Local musher Erin Altemus prepares to depart for Alaska to race in Iditarod
Matthew Baxley
Outdoor News

Local musher Erin Altemus prepares to depart for Alaska to race in Iditarod

In two weeks, Erin Altemus, owner of Sawtooth Racing in Grand Marais, will fly to Alaska to train and prepare to race in the upcoming 52nd anniversary of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. 

Training for the infamous Alaskan sled dog race has looked different for many mushers in the lower 48 this year, including Altemus. 

“Weather conditions in the region could be considered a worst-case scenario for the sled dog racing season,” she said. “We didn’t get a sled run in until last week, which was mid-January.”

Minimal snow and poor winter conditions have led to the cancellation of the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon and, more recently, the Gunflint Mail Run. With the lack of snow across the Northland, many mushers have reverted to running dogs with ATVs well into January. 

Altemus said training with the ATV has proven challenging and only allows the team to run a certain number of miles.

“It’s hard to do longer runs because they can only run so fast. It kind of changes their gait, their rhythm,” she said. “We’ve never had to train so long on the ATV before. So I feel like it was a new territory that I’ve never been in before.”

Altemus and her husband, Matt Schmidt, have been racing sled dog teams in northern Minnesota for the past thirteen years. Each has competed in local and regional races like the Gunflint Mail Run, John Beargrease, UP200, and the Can-Am. 

In 2023, Schmidt won the Gunflint Mail Run 12-dog race, and Altemus took first place in the shorter-distance eight-dog race. 

Given the cancellation of the John Beargrease and lack of snow for training, Schmidt departed for Alaska weeks ago with the team of sled dogs. Altemus stayed in Grand Marais to care for their daughter and finish final details and logistical planning. 

“We could kind of see that coming before they even announced the decision, and we started making plans to just take off to Alaska early in hopes of running a race up in Alaska,” Altemus said. Luckily, Schmidt found snow in Alaska, and last week, took the sled dog team out for their first Alaskan training run. 

The teams go on their first Alaska training run – Photo by Sawtooth Racing

Despite the added challenges and poor winter conditions, Altemus remains hopeful about racing in the Iditarod. After years of training and racing experience, she said, “It seemed like a good year to take it on.” 

In addition, Altemus said, “I wanted to do it with my friend Anna.”

Anna Hennessy worked and trained with Altemus and Sawtooth Racing in Grand Marais from 2018 to 2021. She moved to Alaska in 2022 to race and train for the Iditarod with Kathy Frederick’s kennel, Shameless Huskies. Hennessy will be running a 14-dog team in the upcoming Iditarod. 

Altemus will fly to Alaska on Feb. 12 and, two days later, will complete the Iditarod bag drops in Anchorage. Then, she will spend the next two weeks training on snow before pulling the hook on Mar. 2. 

WTIP’s Matthew Baxley visited Erin Altemus at her home. Video & longer-audio interview with Altemus is below.