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Dog day afternoon

Muriel Olson was enjoying the relatively warm weather Saturday as she took in the view from East Grand Forks' LaFave Park with her 6-year-old Siberian husky, Keela.

Dog sled team
Peter McClelland, of Ely, Minn., drives his team Saturday afternoon along the Red River southeast of Buxton, N.D., during the Red River Sled Dog Derby. Ten teams competed in the 164-mile trip along the river. Herald photo by Sarah Kolberg.

Muriel Olson was enjoying the relatively warm weather Saturday as she took in the view from East Grand Forks' LaFave Park with her 6-year-old Siberian husky, Keela.

While Keela was happy to be there, her striking set of blue eyes were fixed on the other huskies resting in the park. Maybe it was jealousy -- those dogs were taking a break halfway through the 164-mile Red River Sled Dog Derby that started Saturday morning in Halstad, Minn.

"She's just a plain old house dog," Olson said.

"If we put a harness on her and I brought out a sled, she'd jump on the sled and say, 'Pull me instead.'

Olson said Keela may be a well-behaved house dog, but her instinct can take over during the East Grand Forks winters.


"When it snows out, she wants to be outside," she said. "She just lays there looking at the snowflakes."

A warm day

Olson has visited LaFave Park each year for the third annual race that will end today in Halstad. She was happy to have such a nice day this year, warm enough that snow and ice were actually beginning to melt.

Dozens of families and young kids roamed around the park for a peek at the dogs, a much better turnout than the handful who braved subzero temperatures last year, Olson said. But Todd Lerol, a race organizer, said the warmth can cause problems for this sport.

can cause problems for this sport.

"For dogs, colder is better," he said.

These dogs prefer temperatures from 10 degrees below zero to 10 above, Lerol said, because their thick fur can cause them to overheat as they pull a sled for hours at a time. But the thermometer was still at 18 degrees as teams started arriving in East Grand Forks at 6 p.m.

"They get warm, too," he said. "They're the ones working. They can dehydrate."


The dogs know a few tricks to get around these problems, and they often grab mouthfuls of snow while running to stay hydrated and cool down, Lerol said.

The race was off to a good start this year, with 10 teams from Minnesota, Montana, Georgia and even New Zealand racing for the $1,500 first place prize and more than $2,000 of other prizes.

"Everybody's really happy with the turnout," he said. "We're going to go forward and make any changes that we feel are necessary and do it again."

Sarah Banks brought her kids to LaFave Park for a new experience. "We saw it on the news and just thought it sounded cool," she said. "We just hadn't ever seen a dog sled race."

Banks is no amateur to winters -- she's from Colorado and is stationed at Grand Forks Air Force Base but is still adjusting to the region's rather extreme version of the season.

"I've done winter, but not this cold," she said.

Gavin, her 5-year-old son, was excited to look at the dogs and had just met Keela. "I'm not really scared of it," he said, explaining that his family has a lab that's staying with his grandpa until they move back to Colorado.

Race Marshal Edward Dallas was on hand Saturday to interpret the rules, his "big job" for the event, and said he has some perspective on how racers think because he has nearly two decades of racing experience.


"You try to always tweak the rules to your advantage," he said.

Dallas got out of racing shortly after appearing as the character Gunnar Tveit in the 1994 Disney movie "Iron Will," but still serves as a race judge or organizer from time to time in order to stay involved with the sport.

"I wanted a life outside of dogs," he said. "But I do miss them."

Dallas keeps busy with plenty of other seasonal activities such as winter camping, fishing and snowshoeing. He admitted sled dog racing is "like an addiction," but he knows what would happen if he ever relapsed and came home with a team of huskies again.

"My wife would shoot me," he said.

Reach Johnson at (701) 780-1105; (800) 477-6572, ext. 105; or send e-mail to rjohnson@gfherald.com .

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