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Beargrease 2014: Local mushers recall the race

Blake Freking, lead sled dog, Spruce, led their team to a seventh place finish in this year’s John Beargreast Sled Dog Marathon. Photo by Ken Vogel.

Although this year’s Beargrease is now in the books, it will go down in history as the race that almost wasn’t. Once rivaling the famed Iditarod in Alaska in popularity, this year’s race was canceled by organizers last October. A new management team was convened, however, providing new ideas and breathing new life into the annual event for its 30th year, and giving mushers, spectators (and dogs) an opportunity to create new experiences and memories.

“The wind was significant this year, unlike any other year I have been involved,” seventh- place finisher and Lake Countian, Blake Freking said, adding “the trail was fairly fast until the wind caused blowing snow which became abrasive.” He said that conditions did affect his dogs and he chose to drop dogs out of the race quickly rather than place them at risk.

“Some of the dogs will be running in the U.P. 200 in Michigan next week, I wanted to avoid any injury to the dogs,” he said. Freking completed the last 140 miles with just five dogs. He said that his normal lead dog was unable to race this year and was replaced by “Spruce,” a younger dog. It was an adjustment for the team, but Spruce rose to the occasion.

“The other dogs really relied on my normal leader. Spruce started the race by hamming it up for the spectators, but as the race progressed he turned into a true leader. By the end of the race he was an absolute professional,” said Freking.

For another Lake County resident, fourth place Beargrease finisher Colleen Wallin, this year’s winds stand out in her mind, too.

“The most memorable event from this year’s race was the sound created by the wind. Usually you just hear the dogs’ feet on the trail. This year, branches were breaking and trees popping from the sap freezing, it was kind of intimidating,” she recalled. Also memorable, said Wallin, was a stretch of trail along the Canadian border through what mushers call the “loop to nowhere.”

“I was on Loon Lake for sunrise which took my breath away, the vertical rocks and cliffs were just amazing,” she said, but there were also moments that challenged her and her team.

Wallin said she encountered difficulty crossing Devils Track Lake at night with Shawn McCarty, another racer, during a white-out.

“When we reached the trees Shawn looked at me and said, ‘that was crazy,’ I responded, ‘yeah, but we did it.’” Despite brutal cold, punishing winds and blowing snow, Wallin said her team was stellar.

“I have never been so proud of my dogs. I thought it was me that would get them through the race, but it was them that got me through it,” she said.

“This is my 15th year doing the Beargrease; I have been captivated by the sport since I first took a dogsled trip into the BWCAW,” said Wallin. “After the BWCA trip I wanted to get four dogs just to trail around our property. We came home with six dogs and that was the beginning of it all.”

Now a 15 year veteran of the Beargrease, she said that training for the race is a year around effort. The dogs are run whenever temperatures are 50 degrees or below.

“When there is no snow we hook up the four- wheeler to the team and run it on trails or the grade,” she said.

According to both Wallin and Freking, daily maintenance of the dogs is a demanding part of the job.

“The dogs get fed before we eat,” said Wallin. “In addition to feeding times in the morning and evening there is cleaning up after the dogs and exercising them. This is full time work and the entire family helps.”

Freking and his wife Jennifer own and operate Manitou Crossing Kennels, raising and training approximately 70 Siberian huskies. Freking said his introduction to racing started with another sport – skijoring — cross country skiing while being pulled by a dog. The rest is history.

“Later I accepted a job training sled dogs in Willow, Alaska, which led into racing and then the

Iditarod. Then I was hooked,” he said. In 2004, in his inaugural run of the Beargrease, Freking finished in first place with his all- Siberian husky team.

This year’s race was unique for Freking as he had a passenger for the first few miles of the race. He decided to offer a rare opportunity to Beargrease volunteer, 90-year old Frank Bishop, in honor of his 24- year commitment to the race. Over the years, Bishop said he has served in many roles as a Beargrease volunteer and he plans to continue for as long as he is able.

“I have been at check points looking for sick or tired dogs, time keeping and doing just whatever needs doing,” Bishop said, “I have told people if need be, I will be up there in a wheelchair for as long as I can.”

When Freking invited him to ride in the sled, Bishop said he was surprised.

“There is the question of liabilities and just getting the race management to give the OK to do it,” Bishop said, but eventually the pair got the green light and the nonagenarian was thrilled.

“This was a very special treat and an honor,” said Bishop, “Blake is a special man; he made an old man very, very happy.”