This October, Price County native Niina Baum will travel to Sweden to compete in the International Federation of Sleddog Sports Dryland World Championship event with her three-year-old dog, Molly.
For 24-year-old Baum, this is the culmination of a lifetime of dedicated competing in dog-assisted sports, fueled by a passion she’s had since childhood.
Baum has been around sleddogs almost her entire life, after what was supposed to be a one-time trip to the Park Falls area sleddog race turned into the passion for the sport that has only grown over the years.
After watching the spectacle of teams of furry huskies dashing through the snow, Baum’s entire family got a jones for racing. With providential timing, their neighbor’s dog had a litter of Siberian huskie pups, and it wasn’t long before one of those fuzzy puppies wriggled its way into the Baum family.
As soon as that pup was mature enough to pull a sled, seven-year-old Baum and her older sister were competing in the junior classes of sleddog races throughout the region. Every year, Baum continued racing, going from one dog to four dogs races to distance races to skijoring — which is where a dog or team of dogs helps pull a person on skis. Eventually, Baum’s participation in the sport grew to include dryland variations, particularly scooter-joring.
Dryland racing initially started as a way for sleddog mushers to keep their teams in shape during the off-season, and — in more recent years — has evolved into a sport all its own. While it was first popularized in European countries, it has begun gaining favor in the United States as well. In fact, back in 2015, Baum’s parents Richard and Anna hosted Price County’s first dryland race right on their Kennan area farm.
“Dryland racing is more accessible since you only need one dog and most people can either run or bike,” said Baum, explaining that in addition to those who chose to compete, many people do it recreationally.
Participants in the sport can choose to either run with their harnessed dog (known as canicross), ride a bike or off-road scooter fastened to their dog’s harness, or use a rig, which is a type of cart which the dog can pull similar to a sled.
In all these variations, the human is expected to do as much work as the canine, allowing the team to reach high speeds.
Scooter-joring, which is Baum’s specialty, is not for the faint of heart. While the dog pull the specially designed scooter, which comes complete with bike-style handlebars and large tires, the human kicks constantly — allowing the duo to sustain speeds 20 mph or faster. Ideally, Baum said, the partners should be running three-minute miles on a level course.
“When you’re racing, it’s very intense,” explained Baum. “You have adrenaline flowing through your body. I wear a helmet because I’ve crashed before, and when you finish the whole course, your entire leg is sore from kicking that hard.”
Because the sport is done in temperate weather, lighter-weight sprinting dogs are generally more popular — and Molly, Baum’s three-year-old dog, is a racy Greyhound/Pointer cross.
Molly, who Baum describes as the dog of a lifetime, has been Baum’s constant companion over the past three years, going from bumbling pup to powerful athlete.
In order to train Molly, Baum started by going on short runs with the puppy following along at her own pace. Molly quickly began outpacing her human companion, so Baum moved to biking with the pup. Eventually, as Molly matured, the harness was introduced and she quickly caught on to the sport.
“She really loves this,” said Baum. “The more positive experiences the dogs have in this sport, the more they want to do it. When Molly is out on a course, she has a laser focus on trying to catch whichever team is in front of us.”
It didn’t take long for Baum to see that Molly was a unique dog with great potential. After spending the last two years competing in many different races throughout the Midwest, Canada, Alaska, and the French Alps, the hard work has paid off.
Based on her long racing history, with the last year carrying the most weight, Baum and Molly have been selected to represent the United States at the IFSS World Championship.
“I was really excited when I found out I’d been selected to compete,” said Baum. “I’ve been planning for this to be the year I’d apply for probably the last seven years.”
As co-captain of Team USA, Baum will travel with nine other Americans to Nybro where they will compete in a variety of different dryland racing styles including canicross, bikejor, one-dog scooter, two-dog scooter, and four-dog rig. Baum will be competing in the one-dog scooter class on a 4.8 kilometer course.
“I know a lot of these people from having raced against them in the past, so it will be nice to be on the same team,” she said.
Team USA will be facing 22 other countries at the world championship, with the toughest competition coming from the Nordic countries, according to Baum. The competition will be judged Olympic-style, with gold, silver, and bronze medals awarded to the top finishers.
“My whole lifestyle has revolved around this,” said Baum. “This has been my passion, and this experience is an incredible opportunity.”
After returning home to Wisconsin after a year of living in Alaska, Baum plans to spend the summer visiting family and training for a half-marathon in addition to working with her dog.
With the dryland world championship on the horizon, Baum already has her sights set on someday competing in a winter skijoring event, and plans to continue training in that specialty.
“There’s always something to work on in this sport,” she chuckled.