An Interview with Bayfield Mushers John and Mary Thiel – A Two-Part Series
PART I of II
John and Mary Theil operate Wolfsong Adventures in Mushing in Bayfield, Wisconsin. In addition to caring for 40+ sled dogs, John, Mary, and their team also make fabulous outdoor clothing under the name Wolfsong Outerwear (available at Howl in Bayfield or online). In the summer, their mushing team continues work in another part of their business: Dreamcatcher Sailing. For John and Mary, the variety in these businesses allows them to enjoy the best of what the Bayfield area has to offer, all while raising their family and contributing to a vibrant community.
Want to try your hand at this winter adventure? Find more information about Old Rittenhouse Inn Dogsled Packages.
Old Rittenhouse Inn: How did you get into the mushing business initially?
John and Mary: We brought home a Siberian Husky being retired from a racing kennel as a pet and got to know and really like the breed. We then took a ride with a friend who ran dogs, and immediately decided it was something we both wanted to do. We had a small team at first, then two. Every time we took friends or family out with us, they absolutely loved it, so we thought it would be a great experience to share with people as a tour business. Thus, Wolfsong Adventures in Mushing was born.
ORI: Where are your dogs bred?
Thiels: We have a fairly specific bloodline of racing Siberian Huskies descended from Leonard Seppalas famous dogs (heroes of the “serum run” in Alaska). They vary in coat color and appearance, but are consistent in their friendly personalities, even temperament, great athletic ability and build, as well as good coats and paws We’ve developed relationships with a few racers over the years and have obtained dogs from them periodically. Approximately 2/3 of our kennel were bred, born and raised by us, however we do not breed to sell – all of our dogs stay their whole lives in the Wolfsong kennel, living and working together with their siblings.
ORI: We understand you employ a unique system for naming the dogs. How do you decide what to name the dogs?
Thiels: As with many larger kennels, Wolfsong names litters by category so it’s easier to keep track of siblings. Over the years we’ve had the “steak litter” – Porterhouse, T-Bone and Minnie; the “Dr. Seuss litter” – Green Eggs, Sam, Horton, Cindy Lou; the “Norwegian litter” – Lutefisk, Lefse, Sundbakkle (Sunny) and Krumkakke; the “classic country” litter – Waylon, Willie, Johnny Cash, June Carter-Cash, Dolly and Patsy; the “cheap beer litter” – Hamms, Leinie, Blatz, Schlitz, Ol’ Millie … you get the idea! It’s always fun to come up with new ideas for litter names.
ORI: Do you have a favorite dog?
Thiels: No good parent claims a favorite (right?!), but Waylon is pretty handsome and charming, and a good kisser too, so he always wins people over, and is a crowd favorite. He’s an amazing lead dog too!
ORI: Where does the word ‘mushing’ come from?
Thiels: We have heard it comes from the French “marche” (to walk) which apparently French dog drivers in Northeastern Canada in the 1800s commanded to get their dogs to pull sled full of supplies. No musher we’ve ever met actually uses that command to get their dogs running (except maybe Yukon Cornelius in Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer). The dogs love to run so much you don’t really have to say anything to them to get them started, but most mushers say “let’s go” or “hike”!
ORI: What is the ideal temperature for mushing?
Thiels: In order for training runs to start, temperatures must be below 50 degrees. The dogs are probably happiest in winter right around zero degrees, but anything from 20 degrees below zero to 20 degrees above zero is ideal. We always make sure guests are properly outfitted for trips, so everyone stays comfortable and has fun in any sort of weather.
ORI: What is the one thing you enjoy most about mushing?
Thiels: The joy and excitement of the dogs is contagious – they absolutely LOVE what they do, and it is impossible not to be happy around that positive energy. One of my (Mary) favorite moments is when, after all the noisy barking and chaos and excitement of hooking up a full team, you pull the release snap and they instantly speed down the trail in silence, with just the sound of their breath and the sled runners on the snow. It’s amazing.
ORI: What kind of feedback do you get from those who have taken day trips with you and your teams?
Thiels: We’ve heard things like “That was the most amazing thing I’ve ever done!” or “that was the most fun I’ve ever had in winter!” People are really blown away by the experience. The dogs are much more friendly and social than many people expect, I think, so they are won over by them. The whole experience is really exhilarating.
Check out part 2 of this special interview and join us this winter to try this spectacular adventure for yourself!