CHISHOLM - The sky was crystal blue to match the subzero cold, and before the chance to rap on Nathan Schroeder’s door, there came the crunch of boots on snow.
“There’s no warm-up breaks here,” Schroeder said, smiling as he emerged from around the corner of an outbuilding on his 100-year-old spread.
It was 8 a.m. on a weekday in February. Like any other day, there were sled dogs to be fed. Schroeder, his breath like tugboat steam, lugged ice cream pails full of a meaty slurry pulled from a heated thawing closet. The veteran musher led the way to an open-air kennel out back, where there was a carnival of dogs in motion.
There were 40 dogs on a quarter-acre, all yapping and hungry. Only half, those in a peak training period, were fed from Schroeder’s ladle - one of four meals a day. The other half were included in the second course: frozen, skinned mink. Schroeder gets them from a farmer who makes out by not having to pay rendering costs once the pelts are taken.
Schroeder keeps several drums of frozen mink on the property. In the kennel, there’s a pile of them that Schroeder covers with a tarp to stop the crows. He alternated breaking the pile with a splitting maul and halving their elongated bodies with the whack of a sawtoothed machete.
The dogs wouldn’t touch the frozen treats if they were thawed, he said, “but they love these things in the cold.” In spring, Schroeder will roll the drums into a walk-in freezer.
“This is, like, the first thing I do in the morning,” said Schroeder, who was in the midst of a string of 12-hour, hundred-mile runs every day as he prepared his team for a second go at the iconic Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Alaska beginning Saturday. “I don’t want them going all that distance on an empty stomach.”
On this particular day, Schroeder and the team pulled in at 3 a.m. He caught a few hours of sleep before seeing off his wife, Carey, and their three children, Gavin, 5, Sawyer, 2, and Kinley, 1.
He’s no stranger to long days. In the offseason, when Schroeder is busy at work for his primary sponsors, Millwrights Local 1348 in Virginia and the larger North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters, he easily can put in 300 hours in a month, he said.
While feeding the dogs with the family’s house canine, Brumby, busy at his feet, Schroeder ducked away from a sudden northerly gust of wind.
“It got cold, didn’t it?” Schroeder asked. “Never point your nose north.”
A touch of frostbite on the tip of his nose during last year’s Iditarod has left him sensitive there. Sensing a hint of weakness exposed, Schroeder corrected for toughness.
“That’s just a whisper in your ear compared to the 40- and 50-mile winds you see in Alaska,” he said. “It just keeps blowing and blowing.”
After finishing the mink distribution, everything got quiet. The dogs were mostly lying down and satisfied. Across the kennel, crows assembled on the mink pile. Schroeder noted he forgot to replace the tarp.
To Togo and back
Schroeder was 12 years old and in elementary school in Warba when a substitute teacher presented sled dogs at the school and started a riot in the young boy’s heart.
Now 37, Schroeder said he overcame the guilt of the expense and, with the help of his mom and dad, Cindy and Vern, built the teams he’s been caring for and running ever since. First it was malamutes and then Siberian huskies before finally arriving at his gold standard, the Alaskan husky.
Three wins in the past five runnings of the local John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon and 2014’s Rookie-of-the-Year finish at the Iditarod have put the Schroeder farm - his wife’s family’s original homestead - on the star map of Northland mushers.
It’s not unusual for people to drop by his home if they see his dually pickup truck in the yard. He shops only as often as he has to, finding it difficult to get in and out of the store in a timely way. The previous day, Schroeder was forced to visit the Wal-Mart Supercenter in Hibbing. He fit himself for a pair of Dr. Scholl’s insoles. His feet can ache from standing on sled runners for hours at time.
The halfway point on a there-and-back from Schroeder’s place is Togo. It’s 47 miles across one windswept deer field after another to a heated outpost at the confluence of wooded trails belonging to the only four-time Beargrease champion, Jamie Nelson.
Nelson, 66, keeps the wood stove stoked and prepares a quick snack in the form of a frozen pizza or leftover fried chicken. The layover is short.
“The idea is to make a fairly continuous run,” said Nelson, herself a three-time Iditarod finisher. “It’s good for the dogs to lie down for a short time in the snow, with no straw, and get up and go again. They have to learn to go through the wall.”
Nelson likes Schroeder. She’s known him throughout his 25 years in racing. She said he’s gone his own way for a long time but that their friendship is one in which she can offer help and have it received in the right way.
“I know a lot of the things he’s going through,” she said. “He’s coaching his dogs to become marathon athletes, able to do a 1,000-mile race. We talk about lots of little things.”
Schroeder described how the details multiply the deeper he gets into the sport.
“It’s a bad addiction,” he said, before later explaining. “There’s not enough time in the day to do everything I want to do.”
He’s constantly thinking about ways to refine his kennel, his feeding, his practices, his race preparation, everything. This year, he sent his Iditarod supplies - including 1,600 dog booties, thousands of pounds of beef, chicken and kibble and extra longjohns and wool socks for every checkpoint - to Alaska in advance aboard a long-haul truck. He learned last year that towing it all along bogged down his five-day drive northwest across the continent.
After a second-place finish at Beargrease in January, Schroeder used February to regroup and prepare for Alaska.
“At Beargrease, I’m looking for speed,” said Schroeder, who added that his team lacked the zip necessary to catch his friend and victor Ryan Anderson of Ray in the 2015 race. “At Iditarod, you want the consistency - long runs where they’re not breaking stride. They’re doing real well.”
Off to Alaska
Out on the trail, Schroeder has seen moose, deer (of course), fishers and missed seeing a bobcat that his dad noticed from another sled. The wild encounters a musher and his team face contribute to the sport’s allure.
“It’s very much a community of people who all have that common ground of loving dogs and loving to be outside in open, wild places,” said Ely’s Andy Levar, a recreational musher and friend to Schroeder.
Schroeder recalled once running a trail north of Nashwauk and coming upon a wolf pack in the middle of the trail; one wolf stood stock-still as Schroeder’s dogs bore down on the pack.
“I was kind of panicking,” Schroeder said. “No knife. No gun. No ax. There were six or eight others jumping back and forth waiting for the one to make a move. I ran up to my leaders and spun ’em around. They never followed me.”
The Iditarod is as wild as it gets. On trail, Schroeder’s focus is on the dogs and not the daunting mileage, believing in every step as one step closer to the finish. He said he thinks he’ll see temperatures dip to 45 degrees below zero during this upcoming race. At times like that, he said his mind can jump from, “Boy, the dogs look nice,” to, “Boy, this sucks,” and round and round like that.
Race officials announced in February that the Iditarod would use an alternate route for just the second time, starting in Fairbanks and ending in Nome while covering 968 miles. Poor snow conditions knocked the race from its traditional course.
“I don’t like it,” Schroeder said. “Too much river. Big and wide and boring.”
Schroeder may like the wild best when it encroaches on the trail, but the Yukon River will play a prominent role this time around, including one 119-mile stretch between checkpoints that’s the race’s longest single stitch. The race also will skip the notorious Dalzell Gorge, a harrowing descent that took all he and his team could muster a year ago.
The snow cover was spotty then, too, exposing sharp rocks and other treachery. Schroeder’s description played like a Johnny Cash song.
“Down and down and down,” he said. “Thirteen miles downhill. I was hot and sweating. I’d never had that happen before, but I was scared.”
If that moment defined the trust and symbiosis between man and beast, then so does a mere stroll around his kennel.
He talked fondly about Coors, a sire to nine of his current dogs and a beloved dog he put down last year after 15 years. He pointed out Achilles, the kennel’s mightiest sire now, with eight or nine of his pups in play.
There’s Madonna, a member of all three Beargrease championship teams, and Chevy, a Coors pup who is an up-and-comer.
“Part of the addiction,” Levar explained, “is training the different dogs and learning about them. Inevitably you keep adding dogs because you want more challenges and more diversity. Racing at his level, you need a pool of dogs to draw from.”
Levar, 51, owns a small team of dogs and runs them, in part, to get around the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness while ice fishing. He said he will follow Schroeder throughout the Iditarod on the race’s website. A tracking chip will show where Schroeder is along the trail.
The technology irks some mushers for its potential to give away race strategy, but it serves Levar and other fans well. He said he’ll get up in the middle of the night, see where Schroeder is and in five minutes be back asleep.
After feeding the dogs, when Schroeder finally went inside to warm up, the heat melted him like he was a snowman. He slouched in his chair at the kitchen table and struggled to keep his eyes open. He would wait for it to warm a bit before heading out again for another 12-hour, 100-mile training day.
Schroeder talked with admiration about Levar’s kennel situation and said he saw himself one day settling into a life with fewer dogs, shorter miles and no checkpoints.
Between ages 19 and 25, Schroeder explained, he had one foot into his dogs and one foot out. Then he made the decision to race.
“You gotta want it,” he said. “I decided I was in.”