Two Harbors teams finish fifth and sixth in Gichigami Express Sled Dog Race
It was 31 below zero with a wind chill of 63 below on Monday morning at the start of the third and final stage of the Gichigami Express Sled Dog Race at Devil Track Lake near Grand Marais.
The dogs and the mushers? They did just fine. Their vehicles, not so much.
“You’ve got dog teams running, and trucks not running,” race director Beth Drost said after at least two teams’ trucks fell victim to diesel gelling in the cold, or other mechanical woes. “You can count on a dog team, but you can’t count on a truck.”
Ten teams persevered through the harsh cold, traversing a fast trail to reach the finish line in Grand Portage on Monday afternoon, when the weather had warmed to a balmy 17 below zero with a wind chill of about 40 below.
Musher Buddy Streeper of Fort Nelson, British Columbia, won the race and the $6,500 top prize, leapfrogging teammate and early leader John Stewart on the final day to claim the title in the second annual event. Streeper’s cumulative time over the three days was 15 hours, 41 minutes, 59 seconds. Stewart was second in 15:45:10, and Keith Aili of Ray third in 16:10:11.
“It was colder than we were used to,” Streeper said, noting that he typically does not train his dogs in conditions as cold as they were on Monday. “But we put the coats on the dogs, and they didn’t care.
“The mushers, that was the weak link,” he joked.
One by one the teams arrived in Grand Portage, caked in frost and ice but in good spirits. Among them was Josh Compton, mushing in a race for the first time.
“It was definitely cold, but honestly, I was working hard,” said Compton, 22, who competes for 10 Squared Racing of Two Harbors. “I was sweating the last few miles, running up and down hills” with the dogs.
Compton, a native of Fort Wayne, Ind., who spends his summers as a wildland firefighter in Alaska, said the trail was fast on Monday but he was especially tired because his sled broke, forcing him to exert extra energy to stay balanced on the runners. But he finished the Gichigami without having to drop a dog, and he’s already signed up for his second race — the Beargrease mid-distance event later this month along the North Shore.
“It’s a lot of fun, and a hell of a lot of work,” he said of racing.
The teams had to contend with a half-foot or more of fresh snow on the trail to start the race on Saturday. Drost compared the dogs’ task in that first stage to running on the loose sand of a beach for 60 miles.
Sunday brought some challenges with a drop in temperature and overflow on some lakes along the route. Stewart, a native of Scotland, held a lead of about 5½ minutes going into Monday’s final stage before being overtaken.
“It was cold, a lot colder than I’ve been in for a long time, especially for a race,” said Stewart, who in the summer is a commercial deep-sea diver, working on oil rigs in the North Sea among other projects. “I think (the dogs) did better than I did. It’s a tough race, lots of hills.”
That challenge was part of what drew Stewart and Streeper to the Gichigami, and it was a well-timed warm-up for their annual run in the International Pedigree Stage Stop race in Wyoming that starts Feb. 1.
“We drove 2,200 miles to come here; we hadn’t raced in Minnesota in 10 years,” said Streeper, a decorated musher from a decorated mushing family. “It’s great competition; these are the best mid-distance mushers in the continental United States. To come here and race with them and see their teams on the trail was really interesting.”
Keeping the teams safe and on track during the race was a crew of volunteers who braved the cold; Drost and race board president Jack Stone said the number was up significantly from last year’s inaugural event.
Among those out on Monday were Gunflint Trail residents Barb and John Bottger, who were manning the crossing on that road north of Grand Marais.
“It’s a great day. It’s fun when the governor has shut down all the schools, and we’re out playing,” Barb Bottger said.
Veteran musher Arleigh Jorgenson of Grand Marais, serving as race marshal, joined the Bottgers at the crossing to watch teams pass.
“This is a chance to show what this sport is all about,” he said of the subzero conditions. “This is going to be an event that these mushers are going to talk about for a long time. It’s been a challenging course.”
Ryan Anderson of Ray had the fastest time in Monday’s stage — 4 hours, 32 minutes, 10 seconds. He finished fourth overall.
Last year’s champion, Ross Fraboni of Duluth who mushes for 10 Squared Racing, finished fifth.
Gichigami Express Sled Dog Race
Standings after Monday’s third and final stage
1. Buddy Streeper, Fort Nelson, B.C., 4 hours,
38 minutes, 44 seconds Monday; 15:41:59 overall
2. John Stewart, Aberdeen, Scotland, 4:47:23;
3. Keith Aili, Ray, 4:44:26; 16:10:11
4. Ryan Anderson, Ray, 4:32:10; 16:34:11
5. Ross Fraboni, Duluth, 4:41:32; 16:38:41
6. Josh Compton, Two Harbors, 4:59:44; 16:52:05
7. Ryan Redington, Knik, Alaska, 5:09:27; 16:58:54
8. Nathan Schroeder, Chisholm, 4:54:11; 17:38:49
9. Mike Bestgen, St. Cloud, Minn., 5:01:51;
10. Matt Schmidt, Grand Marais, 5:49:50; 19:31:52