Thousands of people lined the streets of downtown Excelsior and parts of Lake Minnetonka on Sunday for the return of a longtime winter tradition, sled dog racing.
It wasn't the renowned John Beargrease or Alaska's Iditarod, but it had all the excitement of those races: bootie-clad dogs tugging at their harnesses, mushers keeping them in line and bundled-up spectators taking it all in as the snow swirled around them.
"Many, many years ago there was a sled dog celebration on the lake and it's got a lot of history out here, so it's really neat," Allen Hansen of nearby Greenwood said as he watched part of the Lake Minnetonka Klondike Dog Derby while he cross-country skied.
It's been 83 years since the west metro first put on a sled dog race with the 1937 Klondike Day winter carnival. The tradition fell into a 22-year hiatus before Klondike Dog Derby founder Bethany Hway revived it with a weekend of activities, including campfires, food trucks and a chance to meet the dogs.
The big event, though, was Sunday's race. Forty mushers from as far away as Alaska and Ontario started with a total of 250 dogs on the snowy streets of Excelsior, looping across the lake for 40 miles then returning to Excelsior for the finish.
Among the mushers was Blair Braverman, dog sledder and author from Wisconsin who was an Iditarod rookie last year. This year's Beargrease champion, Ryan Redington, took part in the Klondike as well. His grandfather founded the Iditarod, and a handful of other Iditarod veterans raced in Sunday's derby.
Back in 1937, Excelsior native Annette Colburn won the first sled dog derby. On Sunday, Dave Hochman was declared the winner with a time of 2:41:52.
The first musher to take off Sunday, Jennifer Freking, raises and trains Siberian huskies with her husband, Blake Freking, in Finland, Minn. The Frekings took first and second place at the 2019 Beargrease marathon, while their young daughters, Elena and Nicole, competed in the Cub Run.
As Jennifer was racing Sunday, Blake held a question-and-answer session inside the chalet, sharing information about their teams of dogs, gear and endurance.
"Motivation is not an issue," he said of sled dogs. When 10-month-old pups take their first sled run, he said, "it's absolute chaos." Even when they're older, up to 17, they still want to get out and race.
"I'm reminded how naturally motivated they are to do this," he said.
A team of 21 veterinarians and vets in training checked all 250 dogs the day before the race. Then on Sunday, the vets hung out near the finish line with stethoscopes and scarves draped around their necks, ready to tend to any dogs in need.
"It's the sled dogs, they're so wonderful to work with. They're athletes," said Jackie Piepkorn, chief veterinarian who has worked with sled dogs professionally for the past 25 years.
Piepkorn, who serves on the Lake Minnetonka Klondike Derby Board, said the attendance was a success — despite a snowy start that made travel challenging. She said the board looks to host the derby again next year to carry on the winter tradition.
Michael and Janet Malik of Orono said watching sled dog races is a hobby. They traveled north at the end of January to see the Beargrease, the longest sled dog race in the Lower 48. This year's Beargrease was without sun, they said, so they enjoyed sitting outside the chalet Sunday, basking in the rays and watching fans new to the sport take it all in.
"It's great to see people get exposed to this sport," Janet Malik said.
Ten-year-old Noah Cabrera of Minnetonka made a snow angel in the middle of Second Street as big snowflakes filled the air while his parents, Amy and Eddie Cabrera, smiled and took photos. The family was watching a livestream of the race from home that morning when they decided to check it out in person.
"If it was colder we might've not come," Amy Cabrera said. "But it's perfect with the sun."
The snow that ended around noon added to the experience, she said. "I think it makes it more memorable."
Hansen, who had just competed in Saturday's 50-kilometer Vasaloppet in Mora, Minn., said it was a bonus for him to see the dogs while he skied on Sunday.
"The dogs are beautiful out there running," he said, with his beard covered in icicles. "That's what they love to do."