GRAND PORTAGE - On a day when most schools closed and public health officials warned Minnesotans not to venture outside, eight hardy souls lead teams of sled dogs across the forests of Cook County, braving subzero temperatures and a 45 below windchill.
Finland husband and wife mushing duo Blake and Jennifer Freking were the fastest among them.
Blake Freking won in the final 36-mile leg of the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon despite leaving the Mineral Center checkpoint more than 90 minutes behind Ryan Redington of Skagway, Alaska who appeared to have the race won at midday Tuesday.
Redington, who was down to just six dogs for the last leg, had his team unexpectedly stop running on the trail between Mineral Center and Grand Portage, allowing Freking to pass him and cross the finish line first, just after 7:30 p.m. Northwest winds were gusting to more than 30 mph, whipping newfallen snow into a frenzy.
“I stopped to see if I could help Ryan. His team wasn’t moving. We even tried to get his team to follow mine. But they just wouldn’t go,’’ Freking said of his passing Redington.
Redington would come in sixth place just before 10 p.m. Tuesday.
“I feel great!” Freking exclaimed after crossing the finish line and hugging his two daughters and each of his dogs.
“I think they would have turned around and gone back to Duluth if I would have asked them to,’’ Freking said of his team of Alaskan huskies, a new group he’s been training with only since August.
Freking said the last leg of the race was windy bust mostly uneventful, other than a cow moose that crossed the trail ahead of him.
“I passed him about 15 miles back,’’ Jennifer Freking said of the close battle for second.
After hugging her kids, husband and dogs - in that order - Freking gave all the credit to her dogs, saying she never thought she would pass three other mushers in the final leg.
“I never thought that, but they were telling me otherwise,’’ Jennifer Freking said, pointing at her dogs. “They were on fire tonight. Sometimes you get these cold nights and they just love to fly.”
Jennifer Freking took home $3,600 for second place.
Colleen Wallin of Two Harbors finished fourth; Erin Altemus of Grand Marais finished fifth; Redington finsihed sixth; Peter McClelland of Isabella finished seventh and and Frank Moe of Hovland finished eighth. Four others - Mary Manning of Hovland, Damon Ramaker of Fountain, Minn., Martin Masicotte of St. Tite, Quebec, and Sally Manikian of Shelburne, N.H. - dropped out of the race before the last checkpoint.
The 35th Beargrease race started Sunday afternoon just outside Duluth, aimed up the North Shore and then up the Gunflint Trail before turning back south and then east to the Grand Portage Lodge and Casino on the shore of Lake Superior.
This year’s race started at about 20 below and never saw temperatures much above zero, and finished the last 24 hours well below zero, with wind chills reaching 43 below zero Tuesday afternoon. As usual, though, the mushers said the cold didn’t really bother them, that they and their dogs are accustomed to training in subzero weather. Still, some said the wind was nasty at times.
“I didn’t really notice it until we got onto a lake or into a clearcut (logged off area) and then you could feel it. One of my lead dogs really felt it... You could just see her lose her energy,” Altemus said while resting at the Mineral Center checkpoint. Altemus lives and trains just off the Gunflint Trail. “If you dress for it, it’s not a big deal. But I’m glad that leg (46 miles from Devils Track Lake to Mineral Center) wasn’t any longer.”
“It was a good course,’’ Rice said while resting at the last checkpoint. “We had some (new) snow Sunday night and again (Monday) night that impacted visibility. And where it drifted a little, it would slow us down. But where it (the track) was hard, it was fast.”
Of the total marathon time - between 55 and 60 hours depending on the team - 24 of those hours were spent at mandatory rest stops.
This was the first year of a shorter Beargrease marathon, with over 100 miles and a full day of mushing cut off the race compared to past years in hopes of attracting more mushers and allowing more entrants to finish.
“There’s a difference. But it’s still very challenging,’’ said Altemus, who also ran last year’s longer race. “The times might have been a little faster this year on some of the legs. But it’s still a marathon. You still have to keep going, night and day.”
It was Rice’s first and likely only sled dog marathon. A former shorter distance musher, Rice was competing in the race as part of a “bucket list’’ of events over the next year.
Blake Freking, 45, is originally from Heron Lake, Minn. He began mushing in 1998 and moved to Finland in 2003 in search of the best snowfall in the state. He and Jennifer, 38, an Ely veterinarian, own Manitou Crossing Kennels in Finland. Both are veterans of Beargrease and other major races. They have two daughters, Nicole and Elena.