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Wild ride: Beargrease mushers battle windswept trail, snowdrifts

SAWBILL TRAIL CHECKPOINT -- Several veteran mushers and past John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon champions agreed Monday that this year's race is shaping up to be slower than normal.

Ross Fraboni
Ross Fraboni helps his team along by using a ski pole and kicking as they near the end of the John Beargrease mid-distance race in Tofte on Monday morning, Jan. 27, 2014. Fraboni won the race. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

SAWBILL TRAIL CHECKPOINT -- Several veteran mushers and past John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon champions agreed Monday that this year's race is shaping up to be slower than normal.

"Nobody can remember a run as tough as that one," Keith Aili, the 2006 champion, said of the run to the Sawbill Trail checkpoint from Finland.

The problem was wind-driven and drifted snow that, in open areas, formed drifts as high as his sled, Aili said. At times his team moved to the right to attack the drifts where they were lower, only to fall off the packed trail and into deep snow.

"It was a tough night," he said.

The National Weather Service reported wind gusts of more than 40 mph along the North Shore on Monday morning, combining with subzero temperatures to create brutal wind chills.

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"The wind was ripping last night," Blake Freking, the 2004 Beargrease champion and three-time Iditarod musher, said. "You would hear trees snapping off. That was kind of fun."

Like other mushers, Freking was giving his dogs a longer rest at Sawbill to recover from the run from Finland before heading to the next checkpoint at Trail Center on the Gunflint Trail.

"Everyone is anticipating this next run to be really slow, and the next run, and the next run," Freking said. "Every year is a new challenge."

The Sawbill Trail checkpoint is a good place for dogs and mushers to rest. Sheltered in a conifer forest, it's safe from most wind. At each end of the trail that runs through the woods where mushers and teams rest are posted signs declaring the area to be a "Quiet Zone. Canine athletes at rest." On Monday it was a well-earned and much-needed rest.

With her team fed and bedded down, musher Colleen Wallin paused to talk to a friend before catching some shuteye. Wallin has run in the John Beargrease marathon and mid-distance races for 18 years. This is the coldest and windiest Beargrease she recalls.

"The wind is beating me up," she said.

Despite that, the race is "going well," she said.

Defending champion Nathan Schroeder agrees that it has been a cold race, but that it's going well. Other than a lot of wind-drifted spots, the trail is in in pretty good condition.

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"We're making do," he said. "It is going to be a longer race than in the past; a slower finish."

The race pace could pick up if the weather moderates and groomers and sleds hit the trail to pack the drifts.

Despite the slow going overnight and the fact that some dogs are recovering from frostbite injuries suffered in an earlier race, overall the dogs are doing well, trail veterinarian Gregg Phillips said.

"Right now they are just tired," he said, "but it's amazing what four hours of rest will do."

Beargrease race officials reported Monday evening that marathon mushers Amanda Vogel of Ray and Cindy Gallea of Wykoff, Minn., had dropped out of the race at the Sawbill Trail checkpoint. Musher Denis Tremblay of Quebec scratched at Trail Center on Monday night. That leaves seven teams in the race.

Fraboni wins mid-distance race

Ross Fraboni won the John Beargrease mid-distance sled dog race Monday. It was the second time he ran the 113-mile race along the North Shore.

"It was really warmer the last time," the Two Harbors musher said after crossing the finish line in Tofte just after 9 a.m. "This is definitely one of the hardest things I've done."

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Shortly before sunrise Monday, the National Weather Service reported temperatures of 17 degrees below zero in the Tofte area, with a northwest wind gusting to 41 mph.

His dogs "don't seem to mind" the weather at all, Fraboni said.

"The dogs did really good," he said. "They just plug through it."

As for Fraboni, he said: "You dress for it."

Fraboni helped stay warm, and helped his team along, by using a ski pole and kicking a leg. He finished at 9:04 a.m., race officials reported, with a total time of 10 hours, 50 minutes, 31 seconds.

Finishing second, five minutes later at 10:55:56, was Joshua Compton, Fraboni's teammate at Ten Squared Racing. It was Compton's first Beargrease and second sled dog race.

"I'm really happy for him," Fraboni said. "He did wonderfully in the most-difficult conditions."

Compton said there were times on the trail when blowing snow made it difficult to see the trail.

"You were just shooting for an opening in the trees," he said.

Like Fraboni, Compton kicked and poled. He was cramping up near the end of the race.

"It was pretty miserable," he said.

But doing well made it worthwhile.

"I can't feel my right foot," he said shortly after finishing. "It was fun."

  • Mid-distance musher Elizabeth Nelson, 14, of Togo, who was profiled in Sunday's News Tribune, finished in 15th place with a time of 14:28:41.
  • Steve Kuchera is a retired Duluth News Tribune photographer.
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