Meet Michael Murphy
Tour Operator / Distance Musher
Wilderness Guide, Rustic Furniture Builder, Dog Sled Builder, Etc. Etc. Etc. "Jack of
all trades type".
I also do a little free lance writing. Anything to keep from getting a real job.
|I am 43 years old. I have a
B.S. degree with a double Major in Wildlife Management and Parks and Recreation from
Central Michigan University. I am an Eagle Scout, a former college and semi pro linebacker
and H.S. football coach.
My wife Cathy and I have been involved in sled dogs for 12 years. and have lived
in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan for 4 years. We own and operate Wolfsong Outfitters Dog Sled Adventures. We
have also offered Guided Horseback riding trips up until now. Currently I build Rustic
Cedar Post Furniture, and also build Economy dog sleds for Frank Hall of Hall's Sleds.
Cathy has a Masters degree
in Counseling and is presently working toward a Veterinary Technician Certificate focusing
on Holistic and Alternative practices. I am a Director at Large of the Michigan Sled Dog
Association (the organization that was formed and led the fight against banishment from
Michigan trails by snowmobilers and the Michigan DNR), and a member of the Great Lakes
Sled Dog Association.
Mike & Tocko
What is your primary
sled dog activity or area of interest?
As I have already mentioned we run a touring business, running approximately 60 trips per
season. We run hour rides, half day trips, whole day trips, and overnight winter camps. We
currently have 43 Alaskan Huskies in our yard, along with 3 cats and 2 horses. All of our
dogs run tours but approximately 24 are also race dogs. Even though touring is our main
business, I also run distance races such as Beargrease,
UP200, and this year Can/Am
250 in Maine.
While running tours is
better than any job I have ever had, (and you can about name it and I've done it), I
really enjoy distance racing. There is nothing like being on the trail for days at a time
behind truly incredible athletes. I believe that you really get to know your dogs in a
distance race. You have to care for and understand each individual dog to truly become a
unit out there. Early in my mushing career I had a very wise and experienced musher tell
me " you're not really a Musher until you've run at least a 150 mile race", (no
offense to sprinters or recreational folks,,,***S***). That stuck with me. Even though I
drove dogs for a living, I never really felt like a musher until I crossed the finish line
of a 200 miler. Our ultimate goal is to run Iditarod
2000. I have been dreaming, planning, and talking about running Iditarod since I got into
dogs. I finally made the decision in 1997 to run the 2000 race. So everything we have done
since then is geared toward that end.
What sparked your
initial interest in sled dogs?
Well, I'm old enough to remember Sergeant Preston Of the Yukon, so I guess that's
what ignited it, but I really believe that each of us that get into sled dogs has a long
forgotten hunger for wildness and adventure buried deep in our souls that originally drew
us to the sport.
If you remember your
very first time behind a team of dogs, tell us about it.
My first solo run was with 6 borrowed dogs. My leader was a pure white Siberian named
Arctic. He was a great leader but a cantankerous SOB. Every time I gave him a command he
turned around and growled at me. We got where we were going but I was pretty intimidated
by my lead dog knowing more than I did. My first lesson from sled dogs.....humility.
Who have been your
I have learned something from almost every musher I have ever met. I believe that
if you ask 10 mushers the same question, you'll get 10 different answers. So I'm kind of a
picker. I picked up this from that person, and that from this person until I felt
confident enough to find my own style of driving, dog care and racing. In other words
there is not just one way to do things. Take what you like and leave the rest. I also
believe that with this sport you need to keep an open mind. You can only take your dogs to
YOUR limits of knowledge regarding training, care etc. You can ALWAYS learn something new.
What size kennel do
We run a kennel of 43 dogs, approximately 24 are race dogs, the rest are strictly
Give us an overview
of your feeding program.
At this time we are feeding Eagle Power
Pack to our race dogs and Eagle Hi-Ration X-Tra to
our tour dogs. We feed dry with water on top of the kibble. We also give baited water in
the morning year round rather than free choice. This teaches the dogs they have to drink
when it's put in front of them. Very important when coming into a check point. We may add
a noon and evening watering when it gets really hot. We do that until we start training
fairly hard then add corn oil and meat.
Each dog receives
approximately 3/4 of a pound of meat (1/2 ground beef, 1/2 Eureka mix). When we add meat,
we mix that with hot water then pour it over the kibble. I also like to use a little zinc
sprinkled over the food if I can get it.
When we are training hard or
racing I like to snack the dogs a lot. We use salmon, turkey fat, heart-lung-liver mix,
liver, or beaver for that. I also like to make up ice cube snacks for warm days or long
stretches on the trail. I boil up a bunch of salmon, add water then freeze in a 2x2foot
tub approximately 2" thick. Then we cut this into 2"x2" squares on the band
saw for snacks. We do the same with liver except we don't cook it, just add warm water to
draw the blood out and freeze. The dogs really love these "popsicles" and it's a
great way to keep them hydrated on the trail. Last year at the UP200 it was 52 degrees when we finished and my dogs came
in in great shape.
Summarize your basic
kennel management style.
I guess our style is like a lot of folks. Take the best care of your dogs as you
possibly can. If there's a choice between whether you buy dog food or pay the phone bill,
there's no choice, you buy dog food, right? Besides, I always thought you only had to pay
the pink phone bills anyway.
Seriously though, we keep
our dog yard clean, scoop daily etc. etc. This gives us a chance to play with and kind of
give each dog the once over every day. I try to "read my dogs" even in the yard.
What's their coat like, their attitude, feet, etc. etc. You can tell a lot about each dog
from just daily interaction with them.
All of our dogs are on 5
1/2' chains on 4' cedar posts. These keep the chains off the ground and basically safer
for the dog. Keeps the snaps from wearing faster also. Some of the posts are situated so
dogs can touch each other and some aren't. It depends on the individual dog on where they
are placed. Some of our dogs get depressed if they don't have a playmate. Some it doesn't
matter to them. We use 55 gal. plastic barrels for houses on 10-12" "bunks"
that keep them off the ground.
Winter time we try to give
them fresh straw weekly and keep the entrances to their houses clear of snow. We also have
a couple of pens for puppies or females in heat. Last year we added a series of outdoor
halogen lights to the dog yard. We run right out of our yard so it makes it really nice
for hooking up for night runs or feeding if we get back from town after dark.
What breed(s) do you
As I already mentioned, we run Alaskans. Our first dog was a Siberian. We named
her Serenity,,,never had a bit of it until we finally found a home for her. I guess that's
why we run Alaskans***G***. While I truly admire people that have the patience to run
Sibes, I prefer the toughness of Alaskans. I know.....some Sibes are tough too.
characteristics do you look for in your dogs?
This is an area I guess I don't get too worked up over. I have my preference as
to how I would like a dog to be built, but I haven't found the perfectly built dog yet. I
like dogs that are a little bigger and leggier, but I also have some excellent dogs in my
yard that are short and light. My up and coming star leader is a 30lb. female that has a
really weird build, but she is smart as a whip, tough as nails and has the sand in her to
go the distance.
I know there are some
physical standards that can make a dog move more efficiently, or faster, or have a
smoother gate, but I haven't found that all of those things are more important than their
What mental or
emotional attributes do you require in your dogs?
I prefer calm dogs. We work a lot of control in our training program. I like dogs
that are intelligent, friendly and respond to me quickly. I believe that a dog that
responds quickly to you, regardless of what you are trying to teach it, makes a better dog
on the trail. I never have liked "High Attitude" dogs. I guess I don't believe
that attitude = speed. I have some very calm dogs in my yard that just sit or lay down at
hook up until I say "all right," then they go like crazy. If a dog is a lunger,
or line chewer or just hyper at the line or stops, we first try and train them to be calm,
if that doesn't work we try to sell or find a home for them.
Tell us about an all
time favorite dog or two.
Would you ask a mother which of her children is her favorite? There have been a
number of very special dogs over the years.
What criteria do you
use for selecting breeding stock?
I'm not a geneticist, so I don't really have any "criteria." Over the
years we have had some very good dogs come from some very average parents so I really
couldn't give you any answers to that. Basically, right or wrong, we try to breed the best
to the best. Our breeding program isn't very scientific, but we've been relatively
successful. We've had very few pups that didn't want to be sled dogs.
Do you use any
pre-training evaluation of puppies?
Not really. I've tried to do that in the past and it didn't work. Pups that I
thought wouldn't work out turned into excellent dogs. Now our pre-training evaluation
What method do you
use for starting pups?
We start "training" our pups the day they are born. We do A LOT of
socialization with our pups. We not only handle them frequently, but we ask visitors to
also. We've had pups come from very shy mothers that were as friendly as can be. We also
like to do a lot of puppy walks, teach them to trust us and have fun when they are out
with us. We teach them "NO" fairly early, and "BACK" to move away from
the puppy pen gate, and "DOWN" to keep them from jumping unless we ask them to.
This carries over to feeding or scooping as adults. I guess we try to expose the pups to
as many different things as we can without scaring them.
One thing I do that I
haven't seen anyone else do, is after they are weaned, I drive the 4 wheeler up to the pen
and sit on it running while talking to the pups. They may shy at first but eventually get
used to it. Gradually I rev the machine as I'm talking and playing with them. The result
of this is we have never had a pup harness break that was afraid of being in front of the
When we do harness break
pups, we only put 2 or 3 in a small team at a time. These runs are designed strictly for
the pups. They are hooked next to an older, calm dog. I have found that if I hook pups
next to a calm dog, they tend to calm down faster than if they are hooked next to a real
excited dog. Pups tend to learn an awful lot from their running partners. We don't push
them, we go very slow to let them figure out what is happening and that it's kind of fun
to run along. We don't care if they are pulling or not at this point, just that they are
not scared or fighting it. We will stop several times on this initial short run and praise
and really fuss them up. They are not only learning to pull, but to be calm at stops and
what "whoa" means. Fortunately, using this method, we haven't had a pup that
wasn't pulling hard by the third run and asking for more when they got in.
What is the most
important thing you look for in a young pup?
Responsiveness first. Like I said I like dogs that respond to me quickly. Also,
curiosity, are they out exploring their surroundings etc. With shy pups we spend a lot
more individual time with them, maybe bring them in the house etc.
What is the
training/racing philosophy of your kennel?
I believe there is a major difference between "training" and
"conditioning". I see many, many, mushers that just basically condition their
dogs. I like to believe that we "train" our dogs. By that I mean we
"teach" them what it is we want them to do, then use repetition, or heaven
forbid, discipline, to get them to do it when we ask for it.
By discipline I do not mean
punishing a dog for doing something wrong. It is a training tool to get them to do
something "right", (the response we are asking for). As soon as they do it
right, we use a lot of praise and fussing. Dogs as a general rule want nothing more than
to please you. But, they have to "understand" what exactly you are asking them
to do. I previously mentioned responsiveness, and "reading" dogs. I believe I
need to be able to read my dogs so I can figure out what works best for that individual to
"understand" what I am asking. Just like people, some dogs respond to
discipline, some respond to praise. We do MUCH more praising than disciplining.
Repetition is also very
important. If that means stopping 8-10 times in a 2 mile run to get them to be calm at
stops then that's what we do. If that means walking the length of the gangline 10 times to
get a leader to "line out" or "hold tight", that's what we do. If that
means stopping 20 times in a quarter mile to train them to "gee over" then
that's what we do.
The hard part of our
training, is training ourselves to be patient, observant, positive, and open minded. We do
a lot of individual leader training walks to teach commands. We also don't run any neck
lines on our leaders. Young leaders seem to pick up commands much faster using this
technique. Many of the training techniques we use I learned from training with Jamie
Nelson. I would HIGHLY recommend her training school or "Boot Camps" to anyone,
regardless of their prior experience.
Do you have specific
training goals for your team(s)?
I would say the most important training goal for me is control. By control, I
mean a dog team that responds to me. A team that is calm at hook ups and stops. A team I
can stop on the trail and calmly walk up to undo a tangle or replace a bootie with out
worrying when they will pull the hook. (In our touring business, I sometimes have to leave
my team to help a customer behind me. I want to be relatively sure they will still be
there when I get back). A team I know is strong enough to break a cable gang line, but
won't because they are trained not to.
While fall training, I will
often physically stop and hold the team on a fairly steep downhill grade. This teaches
them to stop when I want them to. It's saved my bacon several times when I tipped the sled
over going down hill.
For me High Attitude teams
are too stressful. I don't like to worry all the time. I see a lot of mushers that
basically run dogs "scared", (not the dogs, the mushers). By that I mean they
are always afraid of breaking lines, losing teams, getting dragged etc. etc. (don't get me
wrong, I always keep those things in the back of my head). While that certainly adds to
the "adventure" of running sled dogs, that's not fun for me. If I'm nervous,
tense, scared, my dogs pick up on it. If I'm calm and positive, they pick up on that too,
and I believe it makes it more fun for them.
What do you consider
most important to accomplish in training?
Control, and response, see above.
How do you choose
which races to enter?
Like I said, right now our goal is Iditarod
2000 so every race we run is to gain a certain type of experience for me and my dogs.
What are your
strengths as a racer?
Well, I'm not sure if it's a strength or not, but I try and stay positive for the
entire race, no matter what is happening or what kind of a pickle we're in. It can be
extremely difficult some times, but I feel it's necessary, for both me and the dogs. At
the UP200 last year my knee was swollen like a
softball, my finger was swollen
and bleeding, I lost time looking for missing trail markers and spent 14 1/2 hours on the
trail and I took a swim in the creek, but I worked really hard to stay positive.
Another thing I am big on is
courtesy to other mushers, trail help, and check point volunteers. I always thank trail
help when I go by them, just for being there. I also try to thank check point volunteers
and vets for their efforts.
Do you having a
mushing career goal?
Iditarod 2000,,,,,for now!?
What does it take to
Don't have a clue. The way I look at it, if a person has the courage and
determination to train and race and finish ANY distance race, that person is a winner.
What is your vision
of the future of sled dog sports?
I believe the future of the sport is exceptional. In spite of all the efforts by
the animal rights yahoos, we are seeing dog teams everywhere, in magazines, on TV, in
movies, even on David Letterman. The general public is fascinated with these incredible
athletes, and that's SUPER.
Add to that the progress
that's been made in dog care and health and nutrition, it just keeps getting better and
better. The ISDVMA has done some tremendous work along with organizations like MUSH WITH
PRIDE and FOND, not to mention the individual clubs promoting the sport.
We just need to keep our
side of the street clean, take the best care of our animals that we can, police ourselves,
and fight when we have to, and Mushing will continue to grow.
What can individual
mushers do to support and promote the sport?
TAKE CARE OF YOUR DOGS. Remember, the dogs are the drawing card, but many, many
of the general public are not only drawn to the dogs, but also to our lifestyle.
When a non musher talks to
me, they believe they are talking to all mushers. If they like what they see in my dog
yard or on the trail, that will have a definite impact on what they think of you when they
see you. Keep that in mind. Please.
What part do clubs
and organizations play in sport development?
I belong to several organizations and I believe they are very important in the
development of the sport. Particularly when it comes to education of non or new mushers. I
also believe that mushers as a general rule are very individualistic. That's what I like
about the sport, it's just me and my dogs out there. So I guess in my opinion, we need to
find the balance between the two.
What advice would
you give a beginning musher?
GO SLOW. Learn as much about dog care, and nutrition, and racing, and touring,
and feeding and equipment and etc. etc. etc. as you can--from as many mushers as you
can--before you jump in with both feet. Make some choices on what kind of dogs you like,
what kind of mushing you want to do, how many dogs you can afford to take quality care of,
what kind of truck you can afford, where you want to move to up north that can support
your lifestyle....and addiction to mushing. (I'm serious....that'll come***G***) Then GO
FOR IT!!!!!! There is NOTHING like driving sled dogs.
Tell us about one or
two of your most memorable sled dog experiences.
You really don't want to get me started story telling. There'd be more pages on
the Net than the Clinton impeachment papers. You'll have to come and sit by the campfire
comments about sled dog sports?
I guess the thing I love about these dogs is that they are truly REAL. There are
no pretenses with them. They like you or they don't. They're happy or they're sad. They
play, and they fight, there is no difference to the two. They truly have balance. That's
what I strive for in my life.
I guess I want to conclude
this considerably winded interview by relating some of the things I have learned from my
dogs. I have learned patience, and tolerance, and courage. I have learned humility, and
confidence, and peace. I have learned trust, and dependence, and independence. I have seen
through them, in me, compassion, hurt, fear, toughness, excitement, anticipation, joy,
awe, love and serenity. I believe these dogs have a spiritual understanding we humans
can't even comprehend, and I am grateful to God that he has seen fit to let me be a part
of their lives, and they mine.
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