Finland couple's lives revolve around racing dogs

FINLAND -- It's just days until the start of the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, and husband-wife marathon racers Blake and Jen Freking are busy pursuing their passion: spending a lot of time with a lot of dogs.

FINLAND -- It's just days until the start of the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, and husband-wife marathon racers Blake and Jen Freking are busy pursuing their passion: spending a lot of time with a lot of dogs.

The couple has 73 huskies at their Manitou Crossing Kennels, in the woods and off the power grid north of Finland. The couple and their handlers began training 55 dogs five months ago for this weekend's Beargrease and March's Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Alaska.

Iditarod veteran and Beargrease champion Blake said he and Jen are going to Alaska to get a break from the kennel.

"It really is a full-time job, a year-round commitment," he said. "You have to love dogs. It's not like a race car you can park in the garage and pull the keys. Everything we do revolves around the dogs' nutrition and health and well-being."

Blake estimates they spend an average of 8-10 hours a day running their kennel, caring for and training dogs.


"This time of year we spend all day, every day with them," he said.

Training began with five-mile runs pulling ATVs in August. The teams began pulling sleds in late November, with training runs lengthening to as far as 80 miles. Each dog has covered 1,500-1,700 miles in training. The mushers probably have covered twice that distance, running different teams.

"Sometimes we leave the yard at nine in the morning and don't get back until 11 at night," Jen said.

On this afternoon, Blake and Jen are taking two 16-dog teams on a 26-mile run in order to keep them loose. A pale sun struggles vainly to break through a gray sky. The temperature hovers just above zero, although the sting of a steady wind quickly numbs fingers exposed for finer work, such as putting booties on dogs.

Inside a penned dog yard, the dogs don't seem to notice the weather. Some rest in or on top of their individual houses. Others trot in circles, their orbits proscribed by chains from their collar to a pole. The dogs range in age from last-year's puppies to grizzled veterans of 16 years. Some established mushers give older dogs to people just entering the sport. The Frekings keep their retired dogs.

"We use them a lot for the socialization of puppies -- we like to put them with grumpy, old grandparents for a while," Blake said. "They do a great job of teaching the puppies what is right and what is wrong."

Many of the dogs start calling when Blake and Jen, dressed in mushing clothes, come into view. Sled dogs love to run, and the ones selected to run on this day move eagerly to the ready sleds. At that point, the dogs come to the Frekings to be harnessed as their names are called.

"Our enthusiasm feeds off the dogs'," Jen said. "They're so energized and have so much drive."


Like people, dogs are individuals, and the Frekings have to consider their distinct personalities during training to determine where to position each team member -- or deciding which dogs can or can't be placed near one another.

Individual differences are obvious as the dogs wait in the harness. Some are wild with excitement, yipping, screaming, jumping and pulling. Others stand in quiet expectation. A few lie on the snow. They know it's not yet time to go, and they wait with an air of patient professionalism as the mushers finish harnessing teammates and put booties on 128 paws.


Booties, a kind of sock held on by a Velcro strap, protect a dog's paws from cuts and sores. Booting dogs is just one way mushers care for their dogs. A lot of time and effort goes into such care. Shots must be current, adequate food and water must be provided, the dog yard must be cleaned, stress and training must be held to reasonable levels, and physical conditions must be monitored.

"If they get a sprained toe or anything, we like to catch it right away. Then we are able to get that healed and not have a big issue before we realize what is going on," said Jen, who is a veterinarian -- a good career choice when you have more than 70 dogs of your own to care for.

Proper training and nutrition helps keep the dogs strong and better able to deal with stress and ward off illness.

"A healthy and a happy dog team translates into a fast dog team," Blake said. "That helps explain some of our success."

Blake, 34, won the 2004 Beargrease Marathon. He began skijoring recreationally in 1991. From 1998 to 2000 he handled dogs in Alaska, and the fourth dogsled race he ran was the 2000 Iditarod, where he finished 46th out of 81 teams. In 2005 he finished 12th in the 1,000 mile-long Yukon Quest.


Jennifer, 27, finished second in the 2005 Beargrease Marathon and was named rookie of the year. She began training and racing Siberians huskies when she was nine.

"I've been running dogs for nearly 20 years," she said. "I can't even image not having them, not working with them every day. Working together with a team on a trail ... you really become one with the dogs."


Like many mushers with larger kennels, the Frekings have handlers during at least part of the year. They have three handlers this year -- one Blake met while fighting fires for the U.S. Forest Service and two Europeans who heard about the opportunity through friends. Blake doesn't know how they could train and care for all the dogs at this time of year without the help.

This is the forth winter handling for Phil Morrison, 52, of Newcastle, Ireland.

Morrison said he has been around working dogs all his life as a police canine handler and training officer. The opportunity to handle came when he was considering early retirement.

"It's an opportunity for me to continue to travel and experience new things," he said. "It's something I can't do at home. No snow, not cold enough."

Morrison and Arja Monttinen, 23, of Soumussalmi, Finland, will run teams in the Beargrease's mid-distance race.


"It's fun to see how these dogs enjoy running," Monttinen said. "I like this lifestyle -- working with dogs every day. Feeding and cleaning is what we are doing every day."

they have jobs, too

During the summer, the dogs are fed twice per day with combinations of ground beef, chicken, beaver meat and commercial dog food. During the winter, they are fed three or four times a day, including snacks devoured during breaks on training runs. Blake doesn't know how much it costs to feed the dogs.

"I would hate to even know that number," he said.

To help offset the costs of having a kennel, mushers may offer dogsled rides, sell dogs or court sponsors. The Frekings don't offer rides and only sell a couple of dogs a year. Like many mushers, they pay for their dogs with regular jobs.

"This is our lifestyle and our passion," Jen said. "A lot of people imagine 'Oh, it's so much work.' It's something they probably assume that you dread doing every day. But it gets us out of bed every day because it's something we love to do. Scooping poop isn't work for us necessarily, it's fun playing with the dogs when we are out there in the kennel. Being with the dogs is what it is all about."

STEVE KUCHERA can be reached weekdays at (218) 279-5503 or by e-mail at skuchera@duluth

Steve Kuchera is a retired Duluth News Tribune photographer.
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