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Sled dog teams hit the trail this weekend for Gunflint Mail Run

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Gunflint Mail Run sled dog race
A musher and their sled dog team traverse Poplar Lake at sunrise in January 2018 during the Gunflint Mail Run in Cook County, Minn.
Nace Hagemann via www.nacehagemann.com

More than two dozen sled dog teams will hit the trails of Cook County on Saturday for the annual Gunflint Mail Run.

The race serves as a kickoff of sorts to the sled dog racing season in Minnesota and the Upper Midwest.

Trail conditions are looking good for the two events — a 12-dog, 100-mile race and an eight-dog, 65-mile race.

"We have had plenty of snow. We're sitting really good for snow. Our conditions on the trail are in really good shape for the most part," said Cathy Quinn, a board member and volunteer coordinator for the race.

"We've had some slush on our lakes, but we have been actively mitigating the slush issue and we also lucked out with some nice, good, typical January temperatures earlier this week where we got down to 10, 15 below inland — and that really helped to solidify things," she said.

The race begins and ends at Trail Center, along the Gunflint Trail north of Grand Marais, Minn.

In each division, mushers follow a trail leg twice — starting on Saturday morning, returning to Trail Center for a mandatory layover of several hours, then heading out a second time. The teams will finish from Saturday night into early Sunday; the fastest cumulative time determines the winner.

Race officials set a cap of 30 teams, and quickly reached that limit after registration opened Nov. 1. Musher Ryan Redington of Skagway, Ala., is back, seeking a fourth straight title in the 100-mile race.

Other entrants include three former champions of Minnesota's John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon — Ryan Anderson, Blake Freking and Nathan Schroeder.

Spectators are welcome, as long as they leave their pets at home; there's more information on the race website. There also will be a Facebook live video of the race start on Saturday morning.

Quinn said being at the starting line is an unforgettable experience.

"I get chills right now as I think about the start of any sled dog race, really. It is the energy, the excitement in the air is — it's just palpable,” Quinn said. “The dogs are obviously quite fired up. They're ready to run. So it's quite loud and noisy, but also just it's just exciting, borderline chaotic, but a controlled chaos, in a good way."

And Quinn said a dedicated group of volunteers will be at the start and along the trail to keep things running smoothly.

"We're just so fortunate to have these folks — these are the people that make the road crossings safe and help get the teams in and out of the start chute. Without them, there would be no Gunflint Mail Run,'“ she said. “We have people coming from Minneapolis year after year to help out. We have local people. It's really very heartwarming.”