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Replacement sled dog race under way in Cook County

Sled dog teams in the Gunflint Mail Run prepare to leaving the starting line at Devil Track Lake on Monday afternoon. Photo by Linda Nervick.

What do you do when Minnesota's best-known sled dog race is derailed because Mother Nature doesn't hold up her end of the bargain?

You improvise.

Undeterred by an unseasonably warm and dry winter that forced the cancelation of the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, a small group of race enthusiasts put on an abbreviated race that kicked off Monday afternoon north of Grand Marais.

Seventeen sled dog teams -- many of them entrants in the canceled Beargrease race -- left Devil Track Lake landing at 4 p.m. to kick off the Gunflint Mail Run, a 120-mile journey to Gunflint Lake and back. Teams were scheduled to check in for a five-hour layover Monday night at the Trail Center checkpoint, then continue back to Devil Track. Leading teams are expected to reach the finish line between 6 a.m. and 10 a.m. today at the landing off County Road 8.

The John Beargrease race runs annually north from Duluth to the Gunflint Trail and back, a 290-mile marathon drawing teams from across the United States and Canada. It was scheduled to begin Sunday, but it and its companion mid-distance race were canceled Jan. 15 because of a lack of snow. That spurred a group of Cook County organizations to put together a local, shorter race.

Race organizers said they were pleased by the number of entrants and surprised by the turnout of fans who showed up Monday afternoon to give the sled dog teams a lively sendoff.

Jan Lemke, a race coordinator working out of Grand Marais, said fans stuck around after dusk to enjoy the mild weather conditions and a bonfire at the starting line.

"It shows people up here in Northeastern Minnesota love their sled dog races," Lemke said.