Sled dog training begins as temperature drops in northern Minnesota
With no snow on the ground, Blake and Jennifer Freking's Siberian huskies pull an ATV instead of a sled.
FINLAND, Minn. — With leaves falling and temperatures dropping, it's time for seasoned mushers, Blake and Jennifer Freking, to break out the harness and begin training their nearly 60 Siberian huskies for the upcoming racing season.
The Frekings’ temperature cut-off for training is 50 degrees, so training typically begins around the middle of August. "It's fairly intermittent in August," according to Blake, two-time John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon champion. "We're just getting them out, getting a few runs on them, and getting a little bit of base. By mid to late September, we can kind of plan on every day we can train."
To keep below 50 degrees, they have to start training around 4:30 a.m., before it warms up. It isn't until around the end of October that they can train almost any time of day.
For the Frekings, the main goal of fall training is to build up endurance, conditioning and strength. It isn't about speed yet. "We start with shorter runs as it gets cool enough — about 5-mile runs usually about every other day," Jennifer said. "And then incrementally, every couple weeks, we increase the mileage, vary the strength of how hard they're working." As of last week, the teams were doing 11-mile runs.
With no snow on the ground yet, however, they cannot use the sleds often thought of with sled dog racing. Instead, the teams pull an ATV. "Having the ATV gives us a lot more control, so we can stop when we need to and control the speed a little better than we can with a sled," Blake said.
With more control, Blake and Jennifer are able to train larger groups with teams of 20 dogs. Despite the heavier weight of an ATV compared to a sled, they have to use the gears to hold the dogs back from going too fast. "It's always intimidating when you're watching how powerful these dogs get," Jennifer said.
After a whole summer of no training, their Siberian huskies enter the training season with a hefty amount of pent-up energy. "We've been free running all summer, but it's just not the same. When they get in harnesses for the first time, they're really, really out of control," according to Blake. That's one of the benefits of starting the season with the ATV. Blake and Jennifer are able to control the teams better until they start calming down. "By the time we get onto sleds, we've got enough hook-ups and runs that they're calmed down a little bit, and it's a little bit more casual," Blake said.
The married team love starting the training season in the fall. According to Blake, "Fall's just a great time to be out and about anyways. It's a great time to be in the woods." For Jennifer, she loves seeing how excited the dogs get and how seamless it feels putting the harnesses on again. "It's always amazing how the first hook-up so often feels like you didn't have a summer break. They're just so happy to be out there."