SWEETWATER TWP. — Within minutes of each racing event, the excited yapping of dogs could be heard, as the dogs and their owners prepared to compete for fastest speed.

The Sweetwater Challenge Sled Dog Race, presented by the Mid Union Sled Haulers (MUSH), was well attended this past weekend. MUSH racers, also called mushers, traveled as far as Virginia and Maryland to enjoy the recreation in the woods of western Lake County.

The annual winter event takes place on the Sweetwater non-motorized winter trail system along Wingleton and Stearns roads, a few miles west of Baldwin. This race, the last of the season, was set to take place on Feb. 9-10, but was rescheduled for March due to icy trail conditions.

Linda Lange, chair for the Sweetwater Challenge, said attendance was fair.

“We had the five-dog, seven-dog, three-dog, junior- and senior-dog events. We didn’t have skijoring this year (mushers on skis being pulled by dogs),” she said. “We had a fair turnout. Not a lot of people plan to race this late into March, and some didn’t come out because the weather was supposed to be bad on Sunday. Someone from the U.S. Forest Service checks on us to see if we are doing things according to a special permit we are required to have, because this trail is on federal land.”

Lange, as president of the Michigan Dog Drivers Association (MDDA), said the MDDA had worked hard to get the trail system designated, and the group maintains the trail in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service. The trail also is utilized by fat-tire bikers, snow-shoers and skiers, she added.

Ted and Ann Nelson came from Howard City to race in the event.

“We race every year and train in the fall,” Ann said. “This winter has been bad with ice, and if it is icy, we don’t run the dogs. It is too dangerous,” she said. “We have been racing for 20 years and we love it. It is kind of sad we’re getting to the age we won’t race much longer, but our son is carrying on and his dogs are from the same line as ours.”

Sauble Township Clerk Gail Raad was one of the spectators.

“This is a once in a lifetime experience. You don’t need to go to Alaska to enjoy sled dog racing. You can enjoy it in Branch, Michigan,” she said. “I love the dogs. They’re beautiful.”