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Trails ready for Gunflint sled dog race

Chad Schouweiler runs his team in the Gunflint Mail Run sled dog race last year. Thirty mushers will race 12-dog and eight-dog teams in this year's Gunflint Mail Run, which begins Saturday morning at Trail Center Lodge on the Gunflint Trail. Photo by Jim Stroner

GRAND MARAIS, Minn. — After a week of frigid temperatures, a slight warmup looks like it may happen in time for the Gunflint Mail Run sled dog race this weekend.

"It's definitely nicer for spectators and mushers if it's not 25 below, but that's why they're tough people. They do it anyway," said Sarah Hamilton, race organizer and owner of Trail Center Lodge.

As for race trail conditions, it's looking good with about a foot of snow, Hamilton said. The local snowmobile club has groomed and cleared about half the trail and is planning to groom all of it before the race begins.

Registration for the Gunflint Mail Run is full this year for the first time, which Hamilton said is "wonderful." A total of 30 mushers will participate in this year's race. Hamilton added, "You always hope for it."

The 12-dog teams are scheduled to start at 8 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 6, traveling 100 miles, and the eight-dog teams are scheduled to start their 65-mile run at 9 a.m. Both races will start and end at Trail Center Lodge, about 30 miles up the Gunflint Trail. Spectators are asked to not bring their own dogs to the race. The race will have a heated tent in the starting area and may feature a custom archway over the starting line, Hamilton said.

Anyone wanting to watch the race can stop by Trail Center Lodge or the Cook County Visitor Information Center in Grand Marais to pick up a driving map that will have mileage and good spectator spots marked. There's three resorts and a couple of viewing spots, cleared of snow with bonfires, where Hamilton said people will be able to easily see the race. She said she enjoys watching the race.

"Seeing the people, the dogs. Even the spectators, they're so excited to see what's going on and they're just in awe. Winter people are just something special, all of them," Hamilton said.

The Gunflint Mail Run had its start as an annual race in 1977, but was eventually canceled. It was resurrected in 2012 when poor snow conditions canceled the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon that year. With the Beargrease canceled, they decided to have a sled dog fun run along the Gunflint Trail and had a lot of mushers participate, Hamilton said. It was more formal as the Gichigami Express Sled Dog Race, before being renamed the Gunflint Mail Run.

"We kind of got settled in and figured out what we were going to do long term and decided we wanted to do this ... forever so we renamed it back to its original name and brought it back to the Gunflint Trail," she said.

Beargrease preparations underway

With one month until mushers begin the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, the countdown to the race has begun for the organizers. The race begins on Jan. 28 near Two Harbors and travels along the North Shore to the Gunflint Trail.

Preparations have been "dialed in" over the years, but Beargrease spokesman Jason Rice said they have backup plans if something goes wrong.

"The one thing that's for certain is you can expect some uncertainty," Rice said.

The race will be "absolutely in great shape" for snowpack on the trails if the Northland continues to receive snowfall at the same pace it has already this winter, he said.

Musher registration has been about average. As of last week, seven mushers had registered for the Beargrease marathon and 17 mushers had registered for the Beargrease mid-distance race.

With multiple past Beargrease champions registered, this year's Beargrease is shaping up to be a "fantastic competition," he said. Martha Schouweiler, who Rice calls "a fierce competitor," will be racing in the mid-distance after winning it for the past three years. Past marathon champions Blake Freking and Nathan Schroeder will be taking to the trail this year, along with Ryan Redington, who set a fast pace in last year's Beargrease before finishing in second place.

"It's an interesting sport in that everybody really charges hard to try to win it, but they're all really good friends afterwards," Rice said.