Dakota Datebook

Prairie Built Mushers

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Today is the tenth day of the Alaskan dog race, the Iditarod, and the first teams are expected to begin crossing the finish line today. Others will be out on the 1,500-mile trail for as much as another week. Some of the sleds being used in the race were constructed in North Dakota.

Jim Miller grew up south of Casselton and has had a lifelong love affair with speed. He started with racecars and custom motorcycles and then discovered dogsled racing. One day at Red Willow Bible Camp, near Binford, he met South Dakota native Mary Ann Hellwig.

“Jim was giving rides,” says Mary Ann, “and that’s where I got my first dogsled ride. My son and I just kept getting back in line for another ride. We both thought it was fantastic. I finally had the courage to ask this guy if I could trade spots with him and drive the sled. I remember telling myself to just go ahead and ask, because the worst thing that could happen was that he would say no, and besides, if I embarrass myself, I probably won’t see him again anyway.”

Of course they ended up getting married, with Mary Ann joining Jim in a handsome log house he had built from scratch. Turns out Jim’s pretty creative and resourceful. In fact, he’d been experimenting on how to improve dogsleds, and soon the Millers were selling their own custom built sleds. In 2000, two of the sleds ended up in the Iditarod.

“We were invited to help at the start,” Mary Ann says. “Being there was a great learning experience, we were able to see the equipment being used by all the racers. The feedback we received really encouraged both of us to pursue our dream of producing mushing equipment.”

Their next Alaska trip was for a symposium in Fairbanks. They set up a booth to display two sleds they had shipped up beforehand, as well as two others belonging to local customers. “We were so swamped at our booth you couldn’t hardly move,” Mary Ann says. “We didn’t have time for lunch or to go to any of the programs. We were so excited to go home with so many orders.”

When asked which sleds are their favorites, the Millers say, “It seems like we ‘get attached’ to every sled we build, because we get to know the mushers and get to know their plans and dreams. So we build the sled and sled bag with all of that in mind. It’s a big deal to a musher when they get a new sled, so it’s exciting to give them the equipment they’re dreaming of.”

The Millers aren’t racing at this time, but they do go out mushing whenever they can. Prairie Bilt Sleds is located on the north edge of Page, where the Millers also keep their 24 sled dogs. When you drive into the yard, the dogs are active and curious, but also surprisingly quiet. It’s not until they see a sled that they go crazy. Or a cat.

Jim says his most special dog was an Alaskan husky named Buck, which he bought from some Minnesota mushers. “They always used him as a wheel dog (right in front of the sled),” he says, “and they didn’t know how much he had learned running in that position. When I got him, he was the only dog I had that was experienced at pulling a sled. He immediately took over as a lead dog and was so eager to lead that he would do any command I would give him. He would turn by command between trees and obstacles and could break trail all day long. I always trusted him when my son, Adam, took him out. He would go wherever Adam wanted to take him.”

When asked about special experiences, Mary Ann says, “We had two sleds in the Disney movie Snow Dogs, of course that was very exciting. Who expects a phone call from Hollywood! It seemed unreal, and we decided not to tell anyone about the order until the check came, ha!”

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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