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Northeast Minnesota mushing couple finish first, second in John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon

John Beargrease marathon champion Blake Freking watches as his younger daughter, Nicole, pets Eagle. Nicole had just helped dad put the Frank Bishop Lead Dog Award on Eagle, who has lead his team on several Beargreases. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service1 / 2
Blake and Jennifer Freking hug at the John Beargrease marathon finish line shortly after Jen finished the race in second place behind Blake. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service2 / 2

GRAND PORTAGE, Minn. — On a day when most schools closed and public health officials warned Minnesotans not to venture outside, eight hardy souls lead teams of sled dogs across the forests of Cook County, braving subzero temperatures and a 45 below windchill.

Finland husband and wife mushing duo Blake and Jennifer Freking were the fastest among those competing in the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon.

Blake Freking won in the final 36-mile leg despite leaving the Mineral Center checkpoint more than 90 minutes behind Ryan Redington of Skagway, Alaska, who appeared to have the race won at midday Tuesday.

Redington, who was down to just six dogs for the last leg, had his team unexpectedly stop running on the trail between Mineral Center and Grand Portage, allowing Freking to pass him and cross the finish line first, just after 7:30 p.m. Northwest winds were gusting to more than 30 mph, whipping newfallen snow into a frenzy.

“I stopped to see if I could help Ryan. His team wasn’t moving. We even tried to get his team to follow mine. But they just wouldn’t go,’’ Freking said of his passing Redington.

Redington would come in fifth place just before 10 p.m. Tuesday.

Blake Freking, a veteran of sled dog races in the U.S. and Canada, last won the Beargrease marathon in 2004 and finished sixth last year. First place this year won $5,400.

“I feel great!” Freking exclaimed after crossing the finish line and hugging his two daughters and each of his dogs.

“I think they would have turned around and gone back to Duluth if I would have asked them to,’’ Freking said of his team of Alaskan huskies, a new group he’s been training with only since August.

Freking said the last leg of the race was windy bust mostly uneventful, other than a cow moose that crossed the trail ahead of him.

An hour and forty five minutes behind Blake Freking, Jennifer Freking finished second, just 15 minutes ahead of third-place Jason Rice, of Duluth, racing in his first long distance sled dog marathon. Erin Altemus of Grand Marais took fourth place.

“I passed him about 15 miles back,’’ Jennifer Freking said of the close battle for second.

After hugging her kids, husband and dogs — in that order — Freking gave all the credit to her dogs, saying she never thought she would pass three other mushers in the final leg.

“I never thought that, but they were telling me otherwise,’’ Jennifer Freking said, pointing at her dogs. “They were on fire tonight. Sometimes you get these cold nights and they just love to fly.”

Jennifer Freking took home $3,600 for second place.

Colleen Wallin, of Two Harbors; Peter McClelland, of Isabella; and Frak Moe, of Two Harbors, were still on the trail as of deadline Tuesday, although it appeared all would finish. Four others — Mary Manning, of Hovland; Damon Ramaker, of Fountain, Minn.; Martin Masicotte, of St. Tite, Quebec; and Sally Manikian of Shelburne, N.H. — dropped out of the race before the last checkpoint.

The 35th Beargrease race started Sunday afternoon just outside Duluth, aimed up the North Shore and then up the Gunflint Trail before turning back south and then east to the Grand Portage Lodge and Casino on the shore of Lake Superior.

This year’s race started at about 20 below and never saw temperatures much above zero, and finished the last 24 hours well below zero, with wind chills reaching 43 below zero Tuesday afternoon. As usual, though, the mushers said the cold didn’t really bother them, that they and their dogs are accustomed to training in subzero weather.

This was the first year of a shorter Beargrease marathon, with over 100 miles and a full day of mushing cut off the race compared to past years in hopes of attracting more mushers and allowing more entrants to finish.

Blake Freking, 45, is originally from Heron Lake, Minn. He began mushing in 1998 and moved to Finland in 2003 in search of the best snowfall in the state. He and Jennifer, 38, an Ely veterinarian, own Manitou Crossing Kennels in Finland. Both are veterans of Beargrease and other major races. They have two daughters, Nicole and Elena.