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Organizers pleased with 2016 Beargrease

When the start of the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon falls on a bitterly cold, subzero winter day, the start line is like a ghost town. But this year, "everything aligned correctly" to have a great race, Beargrease race director Jason Rice sai...

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John Beargrease mid-distance racer Scott Olsen's lead dogs kick up snow at the start of the race Sunday. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com

When the start of the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon falls on a bitterly cold, subzero winter day, the start line is like a ghost town. But this year, "everything aligned correctly" to have a great race, Beargrease race director Jason Rice said.

A cloudless, warm day for the first day of the race brought spectators out in droves to the start along Lake County Highway 2 north of Two Harbors. Although the warm weather wasn't ideal for the sled dogs, it cooled down at night, Rice said. A few inches of snow fell toward the end of the marathon-distance race, but it turned out to not be a huge factor in the finish, he said.

"We got everything that we could have dreamed for," he said.

The end of the race is bittersweet for the volunteers because while they're happy that everything came together, Rice said they'll miss the camaraderie for the next 51 weeks until the 2017 Beargrease race.

The mushers, too, had good things to say about this year's race.

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"Beargrease put on a heck of a race this year, and hopefully they can continue on," race winner Nathan Schroeder said. He added that he hopes the race can continue to build more of a fan base via social media to spread the word that the Beargrease is a big deal both to the community and to the sport of dogsledding.

This year was the first Beargrease without two longtime volunteers who died in the past year. Dating back to the 1980s, Billy Berry manned a remote northern road crossing. He would set up a bonfire and earned the nickname "Penguin Billy" because he would decorate the road crossing area with dozens of plastic penguins to give the mushers a laugh as they went by, Rice said. Frank Bishop had volunteered at the Beargrease since the first year of the race. His ashes rode on the trail this year in musher Jennifer Freking's sled.

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