The rise of dryland ‘mushing’ in Minnesota
“Never in my life did I think I’d be letting my dog pull me on a bicycle,” laughed recreational musher Jenny LaBelle.
She and several members of a growing dryland dog-powered sports community in the Twin Cities met with 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS at Lake Elmo Reserve Park Sunday for a demonstration of bikejoring.
LaBelle and her rescue canine companion Sota started the sport about a year ago to better both of their well-being.
“He’s a pandemic puppy,” she said. “Being a nurse and working through the pandemic, it was also a very stressful time for me.”
The sport has eased Sota’s fears of people and other dogs, LaBelle said.
“I needed somebody else to take care of and somebody else to spend some time and be outside with, and I’ve got that and much, much more from him,” she shared.
“I’ve learned a ton from him. He’s not an easy dog. And I would not be doing this today if it wasn’t for him. So I almost cry, but yes,” she said, adding her thanks to the community of mushers and dogs she’s become close to.
The pair is part of a growing dryland dog-powered sports community across the state, according to Renee Casey, who said it comes in tandem with a decline in winter dog-powered sports — like dogsledding, something Casey has loved to do for decades.
“Things just kind of fizzled out,” she said. “About 2014, there just seemed to be this big reduction in races, as was the issue with just winters not being what they were used to be with foot on foot of snow.”
Casey founded Mush Minnesota LLC in 2016, which began as a Facebook forum to educate, create meetups and show people that dog-powered sports go far beyond the winter.
“It’s kind of been a reinvigoration of the sport, I think, altogether,” she said.
Bikejoring, as demonstrated at the park on Sunday, can range from one dog leading its owner on a traditional bike to a dryland cart — which Casey described as “an oversized tricycle, other than you stand on it versus sitting” — led by four dogs.
Even 20-pound chihuahua mix Chip got a kick out of leading his owner, Gabbi Sparby, around the trails.
“He just loves to pull and hang out with his friends,” Sparby said.
Other sports include canicross, running led by a dog, scooterjoring, riding behind a dog on a scooter, and the list goes on.
“It’s just anything where the dog is doing the majority of the work, and we’re like along for the ride,” dog-powered sports store Jack and the Pack owner AJ explained with a laugh.
Beyond having a dog and a bike, all you need is an antenna, an elastic line and a harness, she said.
“Just like any activity or sport, you can spend more money. But I would say to get started, you could get a harness for probably like $30, a line for about $30, and then you can just use any old bike to start,” AJ continued.
It wasn’t that simple when she picked up bikejoring with her first dog, and her store’s namesake, in 2017, she said.
“I had a really tough time finding good harnesses for Jack because he’s a bully breed,” AJ explained.
“I really struggled. I spent a lot of money and nothing was quite working.”
That motivated her to start Jack and the Pack. The St. Paul storefront officially opened its doors last week.
“I said, ‘Well, why isn’t there a store?’ ‘Why isn’t there somebody that can help with this more easily?'” AJ continued.
Back at Lake Elmo, it took no more than a mile or two to wear out six dogs, especially when they’re competing alongside one another.
“They get amped to go and then there’s kind of like a leader,” AJ shared. “Dogs are like, ‘Let’s catch up,’ and it gets them ready to compete if they want to do that in races. And if they don’t want to, it just gets them in shape. So either way, it’s a win.”
“It doesn’t matter what size your dog is; they all can benefit,” Sparby added.
Dryland dog-powered sports can be done in winter, spring, fall or particularly cool summer mornings, like Sunday in the Twin Cities.
“Obviously, we’re just doing a demo today. It was a very short jaunt around the park, but this is definitely a sport that we’d like to focus on more in the fall through winter and cooler temperatures,” Casey stressed.
“We don’t want to risk overheating, things like that.”