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The dog days of winter: Dozens race dog sleds at Camp Ripley

CAMP RIPLEY, Minn. — This weekend, Camp Ripley felt more like a kennel than a military training facility.

In an area removed from most of the facility’s buildings, wind-whipped dogs yipped, and people couldn’t help but have a good time Sunday on the last of the two-day Winter Warrior Sled Dog Races.

The event, hosted by the North Star Dog Club, featured about 30 competitors from around the nation, dozens of dogs and hundreds of people looking for a fun way to spend their weekend.

“They put on a wonderful event here,” said Stephen Peterson of Backus. “It was an outstanding trail, the help here is amazing and I’m really proud of the club for getting this race going because there’s been a shortage of races in Minnesota.”

It was the first time the event, which combines styles of races, was at Camp Ripley. Besides the racing, there were food and sled rides. While racing was at the forefront, the weekend provided an opportunity for people to try something different, said Bob Bzdok, an event organizer.

“It’s a fun family event that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg,” Bzdok said. “It’s a good way to break the winter doldrums.”

Races began at 9 a.m. and ran until 3 p.m. Sunday. A mixed field allowed for teams that ranged anywhere from one to 10 dogs depending on the type of competition.

A single-dog race covered four to five miles while 10-dog teams traveled as far as 25 miles.

Camp Ripley proved to be a nearly perfect venue in Bzdok’s estimation.

“A lot of times when you go to a race, you don’t have a facility like this, the trail isn’t groomed as much and a lot of times it’s not as good of a situation as we have here,” Bzdok said. “It’s a lot more prepared, I guess, than what you’d typically see at a race. It’s nice because of the resources they have, not only the land but ... there’s virtually no traffic that you have to deal with or worry about. It makes a huge difference.”

While competitive, the race wasn’t official by any means. Some, such as Lily Stewart and Grace Bailey, used the race as a tune-up. The duo, who hail from Massachusetts and New Hampshire, respectively, are preparing to compete in the world championships in North Pole, Alaska, and saw the day as a perfect opportunity to hone their skills.

“It’s best to get a race in just for the experience, to get the dogs ready and everything, and we’ll be stopping throughout our travels to train,” Bailey said. “They put on a really good race; it was a really good trail.”

Added Stewart: “This race was really nice. We know people here, so it feels kind of homey.”

Others saw an opportunity to relax and reconnect to people they hadn’t seen in awhile.

“A lot of people, including myself, come for the dogs. I come more primarily for the dogs than people because I just think their personalities and their athleticism is incredible,” said Jerry Vanek of Grand Marais.

Vanek, a race veterinarian, has been to sled dog events all over the world and said he felt the Winter Warrior Sled Dog race’s unique atmosphere made the event appealing.

“For the general public, I’m sure they come out because they like to see a new kind of winter sport, beyond skiing or snowmobiling or ice fishing,” he said. “It’s certainly not a rare sport ... but it doesn’t happen every weekend.”
 

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