Campus Closeup: Darlene Walch
Darlene Walch (AIS) will be the eighth musher to leave the starting chute in Gwinn tonight for the Midnight Run. She will guide her team of sled dogs on the 90-mile trek to Wetmore.
Walch has competed in mid-distance races in the Upper Peninsula and Wisconsin, but she initially pursued mushing as a recreational activity, not a competitive venture. Three pivotal events aligned to spark her interest in the sport: witnessing the start of the inaugural U.P. 200 Sled Dog Championship in Marquette 19 years ago; watching a sled-dog demonstration during a trip to Alaska; and visiting an area musher to pick up a miniature sled he loaned Olson Library for a U.P. 200 display.
“Before I left his house, he had his lead dog take me for a ride down the road and back,” Walch said. “That sealed it. I was hooked and ordered a sled for myself. I had acquired an Alaskan Husky, Zelda, a short time earlier. I tried skijoring, but I was not a very good skier. So I picked up two more dogs and started mushing. I’ve always been enamored with dogs and I’ve been known to go buy one and come back with multiples. My husband is very tolerant.”
To accommodate her expanding canine collection, Walch moved to a house with more acreage in Sands Township and secured a special use permit. She now has 21 dogs, which is a relatively small number for a musher. Walch said the most competitive kennels house anywhere from 30 to 100 dogs. Often their income is generated by breeding and selling champion bloodlines, not from prize money collected on the racing circuit.
Walch doesn’t breed her dogs. She also doesn’t employ professional handlers to take care of and train the teams, which – with a full-time job – prevents her from investing the training hours and distances required for longer races like the U.P. 200. However, she does receive handling assistance from her neighbor and friend, retired NMU librarian Carolyn Myers. Walch’s personal involvement in all aspects of the kennel increases her respect for the animals and their capabilities.
“Mushing for me is all about the dogs and the challenge of getting them to work together as a team. When it goes well, it’s amazing to see. You have to figure out the dogs’ individual strengths and weaknesses, determine which dogs run best side by side and use problem-solving to address issues ranging from health to psychology.
"There are a lot of complexities involved in creating the best dynamic. I suppose in that respect there are some parallels you can draw with my work here at Northern.”
As dean of Academic Information Services, Walch oversees the following areas: Olson Library, Academic Computing (the Help Desk and Micro Repair), Instructional Technology, Instructional Media Services and the Archives. Problem solving is one of her favorite parts of the job and she exercises that skill in such areas as online education, instructional design, copyright issues and digital information.
She also participates in virtual field trips that teach school children about mushing. Her other spare-time activities include wilderness canoeing, fishing and serving on the Sands Township Board.
Ironically, Walch leaves a high-tech working environment each day and travels just 12 miles to the other extreme. Her home is located in a cell phone “dead zone” and she has no access to cable or its high-speed Internet connection. Not that she needs one, but this gives Walch yet another incentive to pursue her passion and spend more time riding the wooded trails with her dogs.