Wednesday, August 12, 2020

MSU Lyman Briggs alumnus forgoes medical school to race dogs in the Iditarod

April 17, 2016
McMillan resident Ed Stielstra pets his dog, Enzo on April 15, 2016 at Erickson Hall Kiva. Stielstra graduated from Lyman Briggs School in 1993.
McMillan resident Ed Stielstra pets his dog, Enzo on April 15, 2016 at Erickson Hall Kiva. Stielstra graduated from Lyman Briggs School in 1993. —
Photo by Sundeep Dhanjal | and Sundeep Dhanjal The State News

Stielstra is a musher and has been for nearly 20 years, since he first opened Nature’s Kennel. Married to his wife Tasha, also an MSU alumna, in 1998, his family has grown to include more than 150 Alaskan huskies, bred for one purpose — to race.

By 2002, he and Tasha reopened Nature’s Kennel, a kennel full of those Alaskan huskies, after closing its doors when they got married to give tours and train.

Located in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the kennel in McMillan, Mich. has been the site of tours and training runs for Ed and Tasha for years. But Ed has done more than just operate the kennel and run in local races. He’s competed in the world famous Iditarod, which is the world’s most well-known Alaskan dog sled race.

And that’s how he found himself back at MSU on April 15.

“Every year he’s run it, I try to do a presentation somewhere in Michigan,” Tasha said. “Some of the message too is — we went to Michigan State, I have a teaching degree and Ed was Lyman Briggs biology — this is something we never though we’d be doing and you just never know where things take you.”

In front a large crowd, Ed and fellow Nature’s Kennel musher Laura Neese gathered to talk about their experiences crisscrossing the Alaskan and Yukon wilderness on the legs of Alaskan huskies.

Exploring the trials and tribulations of running in the Iditarod, Ed laid out the groundwork to his success throughout the years. It’s more than physical and mental endurance. As with any sport, the foundation for success is laid out by a trust in not only oneself but in one’s teammates.

Being dogs, his teammates offer up a peculiar form of communication barrier.

“They understand our language, but we really have to be in tune with them,” Ed said.

Ed seems to have the trust part down.

“Trust isn’t something built overnight,” Ed said. “You can’t push a rope — the dogs have to trust you. So, much like human relations, you need that trust to make it to the finish.”

His love for dogs has pushed him to compete in the Iditarod and other races across the globe. Now an eight-time finisher of the Iditarod, he’s seen a lot on the trail. Throughout the night he showed pictures of the stops along the route and shared videos of himself hanging out with his dogs.

But as the night progressed, the stories became more about what he’s leaving in the next generation of mushers.

Laura Neese is somewhat more than a trainee as the bond between her and Ed is evident.

At 19, Neese has run the Yukon Quest, a 1,000 mile race from Fairbanks, Alaska to Yukon, Canada. One of the hardest dog sled races, she completed the race in nine days, finishing in 13th place. Along the way she picked up the sportsmanship award for her efforts to help other mushers on the trail out of tough situations.

But Neese has done more for Nature’s Kennel than race. Homeschooled in Ohio, she ran dogs out of her own kennel and found her way to Ed and Tasha. One night after work, she professed her passion for racing to Ed.

From there, Neese began to train alongside Ed and then for him. She took on the responsibility of not only her team but helping to train Ed’s as well, making early morning training runs with both teams.

Her tireless work ethic helped push her to compete and do well in the Yukon Quest.

“I loved it, I was finally living this dream,” she said.

She doesn’t make excuses, Ed said.

“She’s tough, she gets it,” he said.

And the toughness has made it possible for her to set her sights on the Iditarod as both Ed and Neese plan to run in the Iditarod in 2017.

“We love what we do,” he said.

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