REGIONAL – Musher Jennifer Freking earned her first championship in the WolfTrack Classic, completing the 60-mile journey from Ely to Cook in six hours and 20 minutes in the 10-dog race on Sunday, maintaining an average race speed of 10.5 miles per hour.
Freking, who finished second in the 2011 WolfTrack’s 120-mile race, credited her team for her success.
“I’m just very proud of the dogs,” she said. “It’s all about the dogs; they’re awesome.”
The veteran musher has been involved with sled dogging for 24 years. Freking received the 2008 Most Inspirational Musher Award in the 2008 Iditarod and was selected as Rookie of the Year in the 2006 Beargrease, in which she finished in second place.
She and her husband own Manitou Crossing Kennels near Finland, where they raise and train Siberian Huskies. Freking also works as a veterinarian at the Ely Veterinary Clinic.
Sunday’s warm temperatures made for a more challenging race. The dogs typically run better in temperatures between 10 to 10-below-zero and the 30-plus degree temps resulted in slower times.
“I was a little concerned about the heat,” said Freking. “But my dogs are well conditioned and the trails remained in decent condition.” She had dressed her dark-colored dogs in sun coats to repel some of the heat their fur would normally absorb.
Theodosia Schneider, who helps the Frekings at Manitou Crossing Kennels, finished in sixth place. Last year was the 24-year-old’s first time competing in Minnesota. “It was a blast,” she declared about the 2012 WolfTrack Classic. “I also want to compliment the volunteers who made the road crossings superb.”
Volunteers are at the heart of the WolfTrack Classic, in total the race takes more than 150 volunteers to run smoothly. And many of the volunteers come without any sled dog experience.
“I had a black lab once,” said Randy Scott, with a laugh. Scott has been a dedicated volunteer and board member for the WolfTrack Classic since it started back up in 2008. Scott, who lives in Duluth, became a sled dog racing fan after volunteering for the Beargrease Race.
“It’s a lot of work,” he said. “I don’t know how to explain it. But I just love seeing the dogs and being around the dogs.”
Scott said the dogs are the real attraction of the race.
“They are the athletes,” he said. “They are really doing the work.”
This love of dogs is the glue that holds the event together.
“The dogs are magnificent athletes,” said Scott. “We don’t always see it that way. But this is what they love to do.”
Race volunteer Jen Beck stood at the finish line of the six-dog race in Tower, with her three-month old daughter snuggled safely inside her coat. Beck said her family doesn’t race sled dogs, though their older daughters wish they could. But the suburban Twin Cities couple spends their vacation each winter up north, volunteering at the race.
The biggest issue for race organizers over the years has been warmer-than-normal winter weather. The entire race was cancelled last year, and in 2010, the 10-dog race was cancelled, and the 6-dog race was run from Ely to Tower, with dogs contending with large puddles along the race route.
This year’s early winter weather had committee members scrambling, but by early February, there was no question there was enough snow pack to run the race.
Unfortunately, this year the race weekend coincided with some of the most pleasant snowmobile-riding weather of the year. Since most of the race is run on state snowmobile trails, a successful race depended on cooperation from area riders.
“We really appreciate the cooperation we get from the snowmobilers,” Scott said.
This year’s format, shortening the 10-dog race to a 60-mile run from Ely to Cook, made the behind-the-scenes logistics a bit simpler.
“Once all the dogs were out of the start, we could follow the race,” said Scott, “and we could pack up right afterwards.” This meant race organizers got to spend time in Ely, Tower and Cook, getting to savor the race in its entirety.
The daytime timing of the race also made it more spectator-friendly. Good crowds were on hand in all three communities. Scott said the crowds in Ely and Tower were both larger than expected, and the turnout for the finish in Cook was also above expectations.
Action at the starting line was fast-paced. The start of the 6-dog race was moved up a half hour to take advantage of the cooler morning weather. Dogs raced off every two minutes from the starting line, keeping the crowd on their toes.
Race times were a bit slow due to the weather. While the moderate temperatures made perfect weather for the spectators, dog handlers had to make sure not to overheat their dogs.
The 10-dog teams took their “differential” time in Tower. Since start times in Ely were staggered, teams made up the difference, from two to 16 minutes, in the parking lot of the old Iron Ore Bar. Handlers fed and watered their teams during the wait. Dogs took advantage of the cool snow, burrowing their heads and bellies in snowbanks to cool down. A few dogs were taken out of the race at this mid-way point, and their teams raced on with a reduced number of dogs. Vet Chip Hanson of Ely was on hand to check any dogs that were having issues.
“Every musher knows their own dogs’ limitations,” said Scott.
Rhonda Heerschap, from Kakabeka Falls, Ont., rode into Tower with one dog sitting perkily up in her sled. She said the dog was younger, and not as experienced, and simply wore himself out. The rest of her team didn’t seem to mind the fact that they were pulling their kennel-mate.
Second-place 10-dog finisher Bill Wehseler made it to Tower just behind the first of the 6-dog teams. But with no differential to wait out, he moved straight through, and finished the race seven minutes behind Freking. This was Wehseler’s first time competing at the WolfTrack. He and his wife operate Stoney Creek Kennel and Sled Dogs in Tofte.
Clayton Schneider, of Dryden, Ont., was the first-place finisher in the 6-dog race with a trail time of 2:08:36 for the 30-mile trip. Schneider’s nephew, Brendon, came in second, with a time of 2:12:56.
Clayton is also a vet, in Dryden, and has been racing sled dogs since he was a teen. He now races dogs across Canada, and his visit to the WolfTrack makes the race more competitive, Scott said.
Clayton has won the 6-dog race the last three times. This year he brought three teams of dogs to race. He has also financially supported the race. Last year he donated his winning purse back to the WolfTrack.
The race paid out $4,000 in prize money this year. The top finisher in the 10-dog received $850 and the top finisher in the 6-dog $650. Cash prizes were paid out to the top eight finishers in each race. While race registration was a bit lower than expected, due to the unseasonably warm early part of winter, race organizers said with the help received from sponsors, the race was also a financial success.
This year’s race also featured something totally new. The Wildlife Research Institute loaned each 10-dog team a GPS units, which enabled spectators to track each sled’s progress throughout the day online.