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Join us for coverage of the 2023 John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon.

Beargrease 2021: Does the family that race together place together?

© Jason/Shirley Rice

It's one thing to say the mushing community is like a family, but there are six mushers in the race this year for whom the Beargrease is, indeed, a family affair.

18-year old Ero Wallin says he's been racing dogs since he was old enough to drive two dogs ("I could barely see over the driving bar"), and his favorite mushing story involves a bad crash, a broken sled runnner and a 13-pound lake trout.  But as Beargrease announcer Ken Buehler put it, "He's running with the big dogs now" as Wallin competes for the first time in the full marathon.

His mom, Colleen, started racing in the Beargrease in 1995 and this is her 16th race.  But thanks to COVID, her son Ero was home and able to train more.  This year, she's been relegated to driving the "puppy team" and been "kicked off the runners by Ero."

Credit © Jason/Shirley Rice
Jennifer Freking and Blake Freking have been together since their 1998 "meet cute"

Jennifer Freking grew up racing sled dogs.  In fact, she got her first dog sled from Santa when she was eight, and a few of her mother's retired racers made up her first team.

In 1998, Jennifer was preparing for the Junior Iditarod, when a young skijoring enthusiast, Blake Freking, wanted to learn more about mushing and introduced himself.  Ten years later, then a married couple, the Frekings raced the Iditarod together.  The story is enough to melt the ice off your sled runners!

Credit © Jason/Shirley Rice
Bailey Vitello and his father, Gregg Vitello, traveled from New Hampshire to compete in this year's Beargrease

In 1997, Gregg Vitello took the innocent and well-intentioned step of getting a malamute puppy to help his golden retriever recover from a bad car accident.

That one decision led to the voracious consumption of "countless books on dog sports," home-made harnesses whipped up on his wife's Singer sewing machine to attach "a few dogs" to his bike ("Ouch"), and eventually, necessitated a move to a farm in Western Massachusetts to accomodate his growing kennel - and family.  Eventually, everything came together in the Vitello's Northern Exposure Outfitters, where folks can get tours, training, and even (leased) teams!

His son, Bailey, started sprint racing with dogs when he was 4.  Bailey celebrated his high school graduation with a move to the woods of northern New Hampshire and he also became the owner/operator of the family outfitting business.  He and his partner, Brianna, have 136 acres where they can dedicate their  live to the dogs, the business, and Bailey's passion for dog sledding. 

Lisa Johnson started her broadcast career anchoring the television news at her high school and spinning country music at KWWK/KOLM Radio in Rochester, Minnesota. She was a reporter and news anchor at KTHI in Fargo, ND (not to mention the host of a children's program called "Lisa's Lane") and a radio reporter and anchor in Moorhead, Bismarck, Wahpeton and Fergus Falls.Since 1991, she has hosted Northland Morning on KUMD. One of the best parts of her job includes "paying it forward" by mentoring upcoming journalists and broadcasters on the student news team that helps produce Northland Morning. She also loves introducing the different people she meets in her job to one another, helping to forge new "community connections" and partnerships.Lisa has amassed a book collection weighing over two tons, and she enjoys reading, photography, volunteering with Animal Allies Humane Society and fantasizing about farmland. She goes to bed at 8pm, long before her daughter, two cats, or three dogs.
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