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Heart of the race: Trail Center abuzz with Beargrease activity as some teams finish, others rest

ON THE GUNFLINT TRAIL -- Halfway across Poplar Lake on Monday morning, Ingrid Pond's dog team decided it was more interested another group of sled dogs than it was in reaching the finish line.

John Beargrease marathon musher Blair Braverman nears the Trail Center checkpoint with two dogs riding in her sled bag. Steve Kuchera / v
Frost covers the hat and eyelashes of Sarah Keefer at the Trail Center checkpoint on Monday morning. Keefer handles for mushers Blake and Jennifer Freking and had just helped Blake leave the checkpoint on his way to Grand Portage. Temperatures were below zero along the trail on Monday morning. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com

ON THE GUNFLINT TRAIL - Halfway across Poplar Lake on Monday morning, Ingrid Pond's dog team decided it was more interested another group of sled dogs than it was in reaching the finish line.

As the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon mid-distance musher was nearing Trail Center Lodge and the end of the 120-mile race, there was an overlap with marathon mushers heading back out on the trail to Grand Portage. A north-woods traffic jam, of sorts.

Mid-distance musher Dave Gordon of Duluth, running just ahead of Pond, sailed past the team of marathon musher and three-time Beargrease champion Ryan Anderson of Ray as they passed on the lake, with Anderson shouting to his team to ignore the distraction.

But for Pond's team, the excitement of seeing other dogs overrode the drive to reach the finish, and the waiting kibble and kennels. Her entire team turned and ran to Anderson's dogs; his instructions to his dogs to keep going failed as the mid-distance dogs proved too much of a distraction.

Both teams came to a complete stop on the lake as the mushers had to spend a few minutes untangling out their respective teams and getting the dogs headed in opposite directions again.

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Trail Center was a bustling place during the hours before and after dawn on Monday. The lodge on the Gunflint Trail serves as a Beargrease checkpoint where marathon mushers typically spend a few hours resting their teams in the 373-mile race, and as the finish line for the mid-distance race. But for all the activity and excitement, and teams coming and going, the tangle between Pond's and Anderson's teams was the exception, not the norm.

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Musher Ryan Anderson and his team make their way down a hill between Poplar Lake and Grand Portage. Steve Kuchera / DNT

Standing at the dog truck after the race, Pond said she started the race unsure if she was going to be able to finish. The musher from Peterborough, Ontario, was not only a Beargrease rookie this year, but was also a mushing rookie - she began learning how to dogsled a little over two weeks ago.

"Didn't start small!" Pond exclaimed.

She worked with Ontario musher Leanne Bergen, who also competed in this year's mid-distance race. Bergen wanted more dogs in her kennel to gain race experience - more than she could fit on her team. Bergen asked Pond if she wanted to run a team in the Beargrease, and Pond jumped at the opportunity.

Pond said she was a dog handler for Bergen at the Gunflint Mail Run earlier in January and then began her "crash course" in mushing with Bergen.

"I thought it'd be an adventure, an experience that I'll never forget and it's turned out to be that," Pond said.

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Musher Colleen Wallin descends a hill on the trail between Poplar Lake and Grand Portage on Monday. Steve Kuchera / DNT

Icicles still hanging from his eyebrows and beard from being on the trail in subzero conditions, Gordon was kenneling his dogs in his truck after finishing the mid-distance race. Gordon, who has run sled dogs for 35 years, has competed in both the Beargrease marathon and mid-distance races in the past.

"I've had some health issues in the last year or so; this was a real challenge and goal to be able to do this, get my dogs out," he said.

It was quiet and cold on the trail this year, he said; he stayed warm by running with the team on the trail and using handwarmers, adding, "We buy them by the box."

It can be eerie to run a dog team at night because a musher can feel defenseless, he said, adding, "We've all seen the wolf eyes in the dark." But he said Sunday night was a beautiful night on the trail under the light of a nearly-full moon.

Gordon has a sled dog kennel on the outskirts of Duluth. He and two other mushers ran teams filled with dogs from his kennel in this year's mid-distance race; Gordon said he's proud that a total of 21 dogs from his kennel crossed the finish line on Monday. The dogs work hard and "give their heart and soul" for the musher, he said.

"This whole event, it's very humbling to be out here with the dogs and it's very gratifying to work with these really, really amazing animals," he said.

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Joanna Oberg pets her lead dogs at the finish line for the John Beargrease mid-distance race. Steve Kuchera / DNT

By mid-morning Monday, the last of the marathon mushers still at Trail Center - Blair Braverman from Mountain, Wis. - was resting. Her husband, Quince Mountain, was looking after the dogs. Mountain, who competed in last year's Beargrease mid-distance race, said that sleep deprivation is a real issue on the trail.

"I saw a unicyclist, like a fat bike unicyclist, going down the trail" during the 2017 race, Mountain said. "I said, 'Wow, guys, what did you think of that unicyclist?' when I got into the checkpoint and everybody was like, 'Nobody else saw that.' "

Despite the fatigue, the mushers experience "all kinds of trail magic" in the form of friendly spectators and volunteers, he said.

"Little signs up on the trail or (they) hand you a warm Gatorade or a hot dog or just cheer you on at all hours of the night. People come out in the middle of the night to cheer on one person who feels like they're alone in the world," Mountain said. But, he added, "the coolest thing is to be out with your dogs all night and then watch the sun come up."

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