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Beargrease organizers say race is on as planned

John Beargrease mid-distance racer Alex LaPlante crosses Poplar Lake and nears the finish line shortly after sunrise February 1, 2016. (file / News Tribune)

A week of high temperatures into the 40s and rain has reduced snow cover along Minnesota's North Shore, but organizers of the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon said Monday night that they believe the race can take place next week as originally planned.

Mushers largely travel on snowmobile trails during the Beargrease and some of those trails have seen the snow cover melt rapidly in recent days — particularly at the start near Two Harbors and near the turnaround point in Grand Portage, where a tunnel to be used by mushers to cross under Minnesota Highway 61 was flooded with melted snow.

"The rain really killed us. It really melts the snow very quickly," said Jason Rice, Beargrease race director.

The snow near Two Harbors is "not what we'd want, especially for the start of the race" when dogs are most energetic, Rice said. "If you don't have (enough snow) to throw a hook into, you are gambling that there aren't going to be any problems."

But after a meeting Monday night, Rice said organizers "believe there is a good and safe trail to use as we have it planned out already. ...

"We will be using the Two Harbors start location as scheduled (and) as of right now — and barring any more severe changes to the trail — it appears we have a safe trail into Grand Portage as well."

Rice said the race has "great cooperation in Lake and Cook Counties from the snowmobile clubs and their trail grooming staff," and that some extra work will be needed to groom the trail in some areas.

The 373-mile race is set to leave Sunday from just north of Two Harbors, move through Finland and on to the Gunflint Trail and then down to the Grand Portage Lodge and Casino on the shore of Lake Superior before returning to Billy's Bar north of Duluth for the finish.

Rice reported Monday that there were "multiple mushers out training on the trails today, and they have phoned in trail reports and images that give us confidence in having teams safely finish in Duluth at Billy's as planned."

Less snow on the trail is less of an issue at the end of the race when dogs are moving slower and teams are spread out, Rice said.

A storm system moving through the region is forecast to clip Northeastern Minnesota tonight and Wednesday, bringing perhaps an inch of snow to the North Shore, the National Weather Service reported. Cooler weather also is in the forecast for the rest of the week.

The annual sled dog race is scheduled to begin at 11 a.m. Sunday at the Alger Grade gravel pit on Lake County Highway 2, about 8 miles north of Two Harbors.

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