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And they're off: Beargrease mushers on the move

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John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon musher Colleen Wallin of Two Harbors gives out high-fives left and right shortly after the start of the race Sunday. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com2 / 12
Beargrease rec class racer Morgan McClelland, 12, rests on her sled before Sunday's race. McClelland has ran dogs since she was 3. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com3 / 12
Beargrease fans cheer and snap pictures as marathon racer Dr. Joe Carson of Wasilla, Alaska, begins his race Sunday. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com4 / 12
One of Beargrease mid-distance racer Nick Turman's dogs shows its willingness to run while a teammate waits quietly in the starting chute Sunday. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com5 / 12
Beargrease race fans watch as mid-distance musher Quince Mountain of Mountain, Wis., starts his race Sunday. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com6 / 12
Maven Bassignana, 10, of Superior, meets one of Beargrease racer Alex LaPlante's dogs Sunday. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com7 / 12
Two-time defending Beargrease mid-distance musher Martha Schouweller of Irma, Wis., gets a final hug in the starting chute just before starting her race on Sunday. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com8 / 12
Handlers help Beargrease mid-distance musher Rita Weheseler's team into the starting chute Sunday. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com9 / 12
Erin Redington carries son T.J., 1, while putting fresh batteries into husband and Beargrease Marathon racer Ryan Redington's headlamp as daughter Eve, 2, holds the old batteries. Redington's grandfather Joe Redington Sr. helped found hte Iditarod sled dog race. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com10 / 12
John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon racer Justin Savidis of Willow, Alaska, slaps hands with a spectator at the start of the race Sunday. Savidis was the first racer on the trail. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com11 / 12
Beargrease marathon musher Blake Freking of Finland holds daughter Elena, 6, before the start of the race Sunday. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com12 / 12

Among the last-minute preparations for this year's John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, the snow seemed the most rushed. It furiously flurried as teams gathered for the 33rd annual installment of the race Sunday morning, but then came the sun — just in time for the first musher to head off into the woods. Close one.

Spectators and supporters managed to outnumber the hundreds of dogs that passed the starting line north of Two Harbors as Beargrease got underway. In fact, so many showed up to see off the racers that the start of the marathon was pushed back 15 minutes to make time for another parking lot shuttle run.

Twelve sled-dog teams are making the full 373-mile journey to Grand Portage and back to the finish line at Billy's Bar in Rice Lake, and 18 mushers took off Sunday for the 120-mile mid-distance race.

Among the mushers were familiar names, former champions and first-timers from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Alaska, Ontario and beyond.

One first-place Beargrease finisher from 2015 and 2011 wasn't out looking for gold again this year, as he has his eyes set on a platinum-level race in March: the Iditarod. "That's the last step," said Ryan Anderson of Ray, Minn. "Not the final step, but a big one."

The 36-year-old is using Beargrease, the longest sled-dog race in the lower 48, to train himself and his dogs for the famous 1,000-mile trek across Alaska. (The grandson of the Iditarod's founder, Ryan Redington, is racing in the Beargrease as well this year.)

Anderson has been mushing for decades, winning races throughout the country along the way. He can thank his dad, who was on hand Sunday, for getting him on a sled in the first place.

"We've been doing this for more than 30 years," said Howie Anderson. "Our other son just raced in the Stage Stop in Jackson Hole, Wyo."

Ryan Anderson and his wife, Missy — a canine neurologist — live with and train about 45 huskies and a few other dogs at their AnderTier Racing Kennel.

For the dozen or so dogs getting ready before the race, he poured out a high-protein mix of dry dog food and raw meat — a mix of beaver, mink, chicken and beef. Just another day on the job.

"Anybody could sacrifice their time to become a musher," Ryan said. "But not so many people are able to."

Two other classes of racers hit the trail Sunday. The 45-mile recreational race features another dozen mushers, and the junior race comprises four mushers running 85 miles to Finland.

Talia Martens is making her first attempt at the junior Beargrease this year; she was surrounded by family as the dogs and the sled were getting ready for the race ahead.

"I just want to have fun with the dogs," said the 16-year-old from Brule who added she's hoping at least to finish her race this year.

Talia's mother, Janet Martens, picked up mushing when she lived in Alaska and brought it back to Wisconsin with her.

"I thought it was a crazy hobby," Janet said, and now it would be crazy to imagine not doing it.

As the crowd gathered along the snowmobile trail that would guide the teams for the next several hours or days, the announcer led countdowns for mushers departing one by one.

While all received hearty cheers over the yips, barks and howls of their engines, the third racer to depart for the marathon had a little extra support in the audience.

Kaye Pearson came up from the Twin Cities with another friend to support Colleen Wallin, a Two Harbors musher with years of racing experience. Pearson said the anticipation, from the crowd and mushers alike, make for great energy. Plus: "This just shows how tough Minnesotans are."

Brooks Johnson

Brooks is an investigative/enterprise reporter and business columnist at the Duluth News Tribune.

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