Nearly 500 dogs making up 59 teams will rocket from the start chute at the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon on Sunday in Duluth. They are high-octane athletes with skills unique to their breed history and everyday lives. Some will set themselves apart — at least in the minds of mushers — even if they aren’t champions.
Several mushers who have participated in the fabled Beargrease were effusive when asked to talk about their dogs, while hesistant to play favorites. For many, selecting only a few was hairsplitting. What’s more, some of their most important experiences as a team didn’t happen during a competition.
Musher and veterinarian Jen Freking of Manitou Crossing Kennels in Finland, Minn., has raced dogs for 30 years. She said personality traits and relationships are as integral to her bond with her dogs as their on-trail performance. “Every dog is a standout in their own right, so (choosing) is actually quite hard,” she said.
Here are the stories of some standouts, shaped by bloodlines, home environment — and sometimes, the moment.
In fall 2000, four-time Beargrease champion Jamie Nelson of Togo, Minn., and her 18-dog team were returning from a training run to Squaw Lake. A team of that number is about the length of a tractor-trailer. The dogs were connected to an all-terrain vehicle Nelson uses for training on bare ground. She stopped the team at an S-curve that led into Squaw Lake before crossing the highway. Then she walked to the lead dogs by the road and checked for traffic. Nothing appeared to be approaching.
But in the brief timespan returning to her ATV, a semi-truck came toward them and swung wide as it rounded the curve. Nelson said most dogs freeze in that situation. But Boom, one of the lead dogs, instantly reacted. He jumped away from the truck, knocked down the other lead dog, Audi, and dragged her to the side as a truck tire passed her head.
Nelson said if Boom had hesitated, they both would likely have been killed. But Audi got up, and they continued home.
“Boom knew that something was happening and he ran away from it,” Nelson said. “He knew he had done something right and he never was concerned about it. … Those are the things that are hard to believe, that an animal can reason that.”
Nathan Schroeder is a four-time Beargrease champion and was the 2014 Iditarod Rookie of the Year. Even with that success, he said some of the most exciting moments aren’t crossing the finish line first, but from overtaking another team right down to the wire.
In 2012, Schroeder found his team in 12th place after the third leg of the UP 200 sled dog race. But two of his dogs, Diablo and Achilles, were superb leaders. He said Diablo particularly wanted to please, work hard and was a good student. “You could teach him and he’d retain it,” said Schroeder, of Goodland, Minn. “He was a good listener.”
For competitive motivation, Schroeder said he just had to call their names. “They high-tailed it into another gear. They were unreal.”
They passed eight other teams in the final 50-mile stretch. His team rounded the final corner in downtown Grand Marais, Mich., with less than a block to go, charging the team ahead of them. They crossed the finish line half a dog team ahead of the other, a difference of one second, and two minutes out of third. “It was one of the most exciting finishes I’ve ever had.”
Musher and former Minnesota legislator Frank Moe of Hovland, Minn., was riding the runners of the team Schroeder passed during that barnburner finish. Moe recalled the screaming fans and his lead dog, Wolf, who also has won his share of races. But Wolf, now almost 12, has an accomplishment no dog on anyone else’s team can claim.
In 2012, Wolf and Nita, another of Moe’s leaders, led the team from Grand Marais, Minn., through the traffic, stoplights and snowless streets of St. Paul. They delivered more than 13,000 petition signatures in opposition of copper-nickel mining to Gov. Mark Dayton.
“[They] circled the Capitol and ran right up the Capitol steps like they were on their home trail,” Moe said.
He described Wolf as a once-in-a-lifetime dog with no quit, the one that leads the team at the most difficult time.
“So, I have to be the parent, the musher,” Moe said, “and leave him home when he wants to go no matter what.”
According to Freking, funny occasions come to mind first regarding her outstanding dogs. At the ceremonial start of the Iditarod in 2008, she ran two dogs in lead, Capri and Lena. She described Capri as a small-but-mighty love bug. Capri also displayed a noticeable sense of humor.
The ceremonial start in Anchorage, Alaska, is a festive atmosphere with concessions along the route, and people handing out food — for the mushers. Capri saw it otherwise and veered toward the stands trying to get free hot dogs and muffins.
Down-trail, teams had to cross a bridge in downtown Anchorage. But Capri and Lena, intent on catching the team ahead of them, devised a straight-line shortcut. They ignored the bridge, angled to its side and led the gang across the frozen river below.
“They were just being creative,” Freking said.
Blake Freking, Jen’s husband, is a three-time Iditarod finisher and the 2004 Beargrease champion. They owned a Siberian husky named Boo Boo, but in reality the dog belonged to their two girls. He said Boo Boo and their oldest daughter, Elena, had an amazing connection from day one. “She learned so much from that dog, and that dog from her.”
Elena was 2 when Boo Boo was born. At 4, Elena was competing in children’s races. Boo Boo was her primary dog.
“Boo Boo would just drive like a maniac with Elena, but (that dog) really couldn’t perform well for anyone else,” he said. “They were so connected. If Elena would fall off the sled, Boo Boo would just stop, which our dogs never do.”
In the end, Boo Boo taught Elena about love and loss. Boo Boo developed cancer and passed away at 4 ½. Jen Freking said the girls have dealt with death before, but questioned why they were losing Boo Boo at such a young age. As veterinarian, owner and mother, “Doctor” Jen’s response was heart-wrenching.
“It’s really, really hard in having to explain to your daughter that, ‘No, Mommy can’t fix this one.’ ”
They encouraged their girls to enjoy Boo Boo every day before she passed. She said the kids handled it well.
“She’ll never forget that dog,” said her father.
Scott Stowell is a freelance writer and photographer from Ely. He can be reached through writingoutfitter.com.