FINLAND, MINN. – A lead dog led them to each other. Blake Freking needed a fourth husky to stoke his skijoring passion. Jen Freking operated a sled dog kennel. At the time, they weren’t married and didn’t know who the other was until he emailed her about buying that lead dog. The introduction grew into a bond of humans and huskies. They became the Freking family at home and teammates on the trail, whether in sled dog races or recreational runs beneath the moonlight.
For Blake Freking, 43, skijoring with Siberian huskies took hold of him during his high school years in Heron Lake in southwestern Minnesota. Jen Freking, 36, grew up near Cambridge training and racing sled dogs since she was 9. Between them, their short-list of long-distance races includes the legendary Iditarod, the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon and Yukon Quest.
He won the Beargrease in 2004. He has finished the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest and is a three-time Iditarod finisher. Of those Iditarod finishes, he twice set what was then the record for an all-Siberian husky team.
Jen Freking took second place in her rookie year at the 2005 Beargrease. In 2008, her fellow Iditarod competitors voted her as the “Most Inspirational Musher,” an honor awarded for overcoming serious adversity before and during the race.
Their two daughters have inevitably taken to mushing. In last year’s Beargrease Cub Run competition, Elena finished first and Nichole took second. Elena was 5, Nichole, 3. Today they’re 6 and 4.
The Frekings have owned and operated Manitou Crossing Kennels near Finland, Minn., since 2003. They also work full-time jobs. He is a civil engineering technician for the U.S. Forest Service. Known as “Dr. Jen” to many, she practices veterinary medicine at the Ely Veterinary Clinic. They recently spoke about the challenges and pleasures of a life packed with dogs, mushing and family. Here are edited excerpts:
On juggling family schedules
Jen Freking: We have a sort of motto, “We’ll sleep when we’re dead.” This time of the year, if it’s a training day, then we’re out with the team all day. We’ll start chores at 4:30 or 5 in the morning. If we’re headed to work, we leave by 7, get the kids to school and return home at 7 that night.
Blake Freking: We both really enjoy our jobs. We have kids and dogs because we absolutely love them. To me, it’s not as if any of it is really work. It’s just what we like to do.
JF: Our career as mushers and my career as a vet is so ingrained in who I am and what I’ve done my whole life, that it’s not really that stressful. Yet I know I need to find ways to make it happen. Raising children is an ever-evolving process and always changing. But it’s fascinating and fun.
On children and chores
JF: It’s important to me that Elena and Nichole enjoy the dogs, but that they also understand how much work it takes to do something well. And you don’t always win. That’s why it has to be about the journey, not the destination.
BF: I hope they learn responsibility, respect for dogs and respect for animals. We’ve never pressured them into helping in the kennel or with the dogs. A few nights ago, it was late, cold and snowing. We were feeding when Elena yelled out the door that we can’t feed until she gets out there. I thought that was real cute. She got her clothes on, came out and helped us.
JF: They can be as involved with the dogs as they want. In summer and more mild weather they’re out scooping poop and feeding.
Elena and Nichole also love running with a team. The other night they asked me when we can do another family run. In November, the full moon had very mild temperatures. We all took the team out with the four-wheeler and ran them in the moonlight.
On operating a kennel
JF: If you’ve got the flu, you can’t just stay in bed. It’s like dairy farming. You’re committed to the dogs’ schedule and caring 24/7.
BF: One of the things we rely on quite a bit are handlers. We have folks who stay at the kennel and help with dog care, training, conditioning and preparation for races.
Jen: Our goal with selling dogs is to make enough money to cover expenses. We’re definitely not profit-motivated. We’re motivated by raising healthy dogs and running a healthy team. If we didn’t sell any dogs, we wouldn’t raise more dogs.
They’re working athletes, born to run. Most that we sell are 5 or 6 years old and still have many years of running. They tend to tell you when they’re ready to retire. We can’t make them run; they want to run.
Scott Stowell is a freelance writer and photographer from Ely. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.