The Commercial-News, Danville, IL

February 25, 2014

Winter wonders on land

Bismarck man trains sled team

The Commercial-News

---- — While many people cringe at the thought of snow after this winter, Mike Payne of Bismarck relishes the thought of another snow storm coming in. It was, therefore, a perfect day Feb. 20 for Payne to hitch up his dog sled team and head for Kennekuk County Park to work with his dogs.

With snow flakes falling at about an inch an hour, I ventured out to the park in search of a story about a man trying to learn a skill that few people in this part of the country attempt to learn. With a book to read and information from the Internet, Payne began his venture about a year ago, first purchasing one and now owning five Siberian huskies.

The dogs were ready to run as Payne let down the trailer door to hook each dog to the harnesses. The anxious sounds of the dogs eagerly waiting their turn made it evident that they were ready and wanting to go.

Once the dogs were hooked up in their places, Payne and the dogs headed from the Lake Mingo boat ramp to the park entrance, a distance of about three miles.

All of the dogs in Payne’s four-dog team are yearlings and all seem to enjoy the adventure as much as Payne, who told me, “Once I had one dog, they just grew on me.”

His goal is to own a six-dog team and to run in the Copper 500 in Michigan or the Big Sky 300 in Montana. Both of these dog sled races are qualifiers for the Alaskan Iditarod, a race covering 1,000 miles of the most rugged and beautiful scenery on earth. Payne, however, does not have his sights set on this race.

Payne’s food bill runs $160 a month to feed his five dogs.

“The dogs come first,” Payne said. “A person has to dedicate his or her life to feeding, exercising, and cleaning up after the dogs, and you have to be a little bit of a veterinarian at times. You can’t let them get bored or they can be a little destructive around the house; you always have to keep finding something for them to do.”

Siberian huskies take about three years to learn voice commands and Payne spends an additional two hours a day training and running his dogs.

“When they are pulling the sled the dogs can’t look back,” Payne said. “It is important they learn all the voice commands necessary to run the team in the direction they need to go.”

Huskies live 16-18 years with a working life span of 2-10 years for sled purposes.

Payne uses a Prairie Bilt Sled for his dogs to pull, one of the best in the sled industry. In the spring and fall, he uses a go-cart type vehicle with tires to ride. The temperature must be below 65 degrees for pulling.

The harness used for the dogs is an X-Buck harness, which is the most friendly and safest for the dogs. These are cut to specific lengths so they do not affect the dogs’ backs or hind legs. Payne’s wife makes booties for the dogs so their feet are protected when running.

Payne runs his dogs at Kennekuk County Park, Lake Vermilion, Kickapoo State Park and around the Bismarck area. His biggest problem, like many running young dogs, is the fact that they sometimes get tangled up, which slows down the process.

Payne runs his dogs for about three hours. Once the dogs have returned to the trailer they are much more quiet and obedient than before they run and, once home, each falls asleep on his or her own rug.

“A tired husky is a happy husky!” Payne explained.

With names like Bandit — the lead dog — Moon Dance, Wile E and Neeko, Payne continues to work his dogs and learn his trade.

“My main goal above all is to have fun and enjoy what I do and to let my dogs do what they enjoy doing.” he added. “It’s not so much about me as it is my dogs!”