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Checking in with the mushers of Beargrease

A meet-the-mushers event was held at Bent Paddle on Sunday. The Beargrease sled dog race is now less than a month away.

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Tupelo Young , 4, and Sage Young , 7, met musher Blake Freking and his sled dog Eagle at a Beargrease Meet the Musher event at Bent Paddle on Jan. 2, 2022. Teri Cadeau / Duluth News Tribune
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John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon is less than a month away, and a few mushers gathered at Bent Paddle Brewery for a Meet the Musher event Sunday afternoon. The event was a chance for the public to meet some of their favorite local racers, pet a friendly sled dog and find out more about this year's race.

This year's marathon race is already full, according to race spokesperson Monica Hendrickson.

"We have a couple of positions open in some of the shorter races. But our marathon filled up within 36 hours this year. We’re really excited about that," Hendrickson said. "For a few years, the marathon was always short a few teams. It’s expensive to own a kennel that is big enough to run a marathon team. But it feels like that part of the sport is coming back and rejuvenating."

With that many experienced and new teams in the race, Hendrickson said the title could go to any racer.

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Tupelo Young, 4, gives sled dog Eagle some pets while at a Meet the Musher event for the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon at Bent Paddle Jan. 2, 2022. Teri Cadeau / Duluth News Tribune

One of the racers who came second last year after a neck-and-neck race with Erin Letzring for first, Ryan Redington, said his training with his dogs has been going well. He credits the cold weather and snow with helping ensure his dogs get enough time out as they train near Brule.

"I'm ahead of where I was last year on miles," Redington said. "And the dogs are looking good. The snow really helps as it helps get their feet off the rocks."

While Redington is feeling ahead of schedule, Finland, Minnesota, resident Blake Freking feels a little more behind than usual. His season got a late start due to the Greenwood Fire . Freking works in fire containment for the U.S. Forest Service. In fact, the family had to evacuate with their kennel full of 66 dogs when the fires threatened to move into their area. After about a week, they were allowed to return to their home.

"Working on the fire took up a lot of the time in the fall, so I didn't get as early of a start as I normally do," Freking said. "It made for a unique challenge. But the team is looking good and we're getting the mileage out there, so we'll be in good shape by the end of the month."

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Mushers Blake Freking, Ero Wallin and Ryan Redington chat with each other at the Beargrease Meet the Mushers event at Bent Paddle Jan. 2, 2022. Teri Cadeau / Duluth News Tribune

New to the race last year, Silver Creek musher Ero Wallin is facing his own challenge: time. Wallin is a freshman and baseball player at St. Cloud State University.

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"It's been a handful, to juggle baseball and school with the three-hour drive home to train the dogs," Wallin said. "It's been a lot different. But we're getting ready to run the Gunflint Mail Run later this week and that'll be a good chance to get some experience on the trails ahead of Beargrease."

Freking also brought his 8-year-old sled dog Eagle to the event to meet some fans.

Speaking of sled dog fans, spectators are allowed back at this year's Beargrease race. Spectators were not allowed during the last race due to COVID-19 restrictions, but Hendrickson said they're allowed to return.

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Kori Boatman introduces her 2-year-old daughter Zuri to Blake Freking and his sled dog Eagle at a Beargrease Meet the Musher event at Bent Paddle Jan. 2, 2022. Teri Cadeau / Duluth News Tribune

"We're really excited to have spectators back," Hendrickson said. "We'll still try to do some social distancing to the best of our ability, but we're also outside and we have a lot of people."

The start of the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon is set for 10 a.m, Sunday, Jan. 30 at Billy's bar in Duluth. Volunteers are still needed for the start of the race, visit beargrease.com for more information.

Teri Cadeau is a general assignment and neighborhood reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. Originally from the Iron Range, Cadeau has worked for several community newspapers in the Duluth area for eight years including: The Duluth Budgeteer News, Western Weekly, Weekly Observer, Lake County News-Chronicle and occasionally, the Cloquet Pine Journal. When not working, she's an avid reader and crafter.
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