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With no snow, Beargrease still a go

Pat Olson is working on her snow dance really, really hard. As December comes to a close with little to no snow along most of the 400-mile John Beargrease sled dog marathon trail, anything will help, said Olson, president of the marathon's board ...

Pat Olson is working on her snow dance really, really hard.

As December comes to a close with little to no snow along most of the 400-mile John Beargrease sled dog marathon trail, anything will help, said Olson, president of the marathon's board of directors.

The trail along the North Shore needs 10 to 12 inches of snow for the race to go, Olson said. Organizers must make a decision on or around Jan. 18 on whether the race will begin as scheduled on Jan. 28, she said. It's also possible that the race could be postponed until the end of February.

"I have a very positive outlook," Olson said. "I just can't believe we wouldn't get any snow."

In its 25-year history, the Beargrease has never been called off, she said.

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The Beargrease was postponed because of a lack of snow in 2002 and shortened in 2003 for the same reason. Those races were ultimately run in early March.

In 2005, the board voted to set the 2006 race for late January, hoping to avoid competition with other big-name races like the Iditarod, which begins in early March, and to attract more sponsors and elite mushers. Some mushers also use the Beargrease to qualify for the Iditarod, creating a timing conflict. The decision was questioned by several board members, who argued that the best chance of a lot of snow on the trail came in March.

This year's dry trails are particularly heartbreaking because it's the first year both the marathon and the mid-distance races are full and have waiting lists; the purse for both races has doubled from last year; and sponsors have been signing on, Olson said.

"Everything has been falling beautifully into place this year, except this thing that no one has any control over," Olson said.

While some mushers have withdrawn from the 2007 field, no one has yet cited the lack of snow as a reason, Olson said. But out-of-state mushers have been calling to ask about trail conditions.

If the race is pushed back to February, conflicts with other races could become an issue, Olson said.

One of the area's more fortunate mushers is Pete McClelland, owner of White Wilderness Sled Dog Adventures.

"We've been on snow since Dec. 6," said Theo Theobald, a guide at White Wilderness.

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At their location, about 20 miles east of Ely, six inches of packed snow on old logging roads is just enough to run sleds, Theobald said. McClelland was out with his dogs on a training run Thursday afternoon. Lately, mushers from outside the area have discovered the elusive snow, too.

"We've been getting a fair number of calls from other mushers, people who are chomping to find some snow," Theobald said.

Veteran musher Mark Black, who owns Black Magic Kennels in Hovland, was also on a training run Thursday afternoon, but Black's team was towing an all-terrain vehicle instead of a sled.

"We can't wait for the snow to start training," said Black's wife, Mary. She also has run the Beargrease.

There are a few inches of snow on the ground near Hovland, "enough to run a sled, but not safely stop a sled," Mary Black said. "It's frustrating, but there isn't a whole lot we can do about it."

JANNA GOERDT covers the communities surrounding Duluth. She can be reached weekdays at (218) 279-5527 or by e-mail at jgoerdt@duluthnews.com .

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