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New route, same spirit for Copper Dog

Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette Kristen Dippold approaches the finish line for the final stage of the Copper Dog 150 in Eagle Harbor Sunday.

EAGLE HARBOR — Last year’s Copper Dog 150 was one of the last big events in the Keweenaw before COVID-19. Precautions forced changes this year — for one, instead of a big kickoff and end in Calumet, people were encouraged to watch online.

What came out of it was essentially “a whole new race,” said director Jeff Foss. The race trails, GPS data and volunteer systems all saw changes.

But despite the complications, the three-day race had gone seamlessly, said race director Jeff Foss.

“I was a little nervous it was almost going a little too well, because it meant a cog was going to fall off somewhere,” he said. “The race is done, but there’s a lot more to do, so something can happen. If everyone gets home safe, I think that’s the important part.”

This year’s race began in Eagle Harbor on Friday and concluded with a finish in Eagle Harbor Sunday. Routes were designed in a way to minimize spectators and keep within the regulations of 20 people per 1,000 square feet.

Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette Joanna Oberg and Jaimee High race toward the finish line during Sunday’s final stage of the Copper Dog 150 in Eagle Harbor.

“These small communities were more than willing to help us out,” he said. “Then from there, we found the routes in between. We’ve been involved with these two communities before, and it worked out great.”

This year’s winner was JR Anderson, who finished in 8:33:55, 19:28 ahead of second-place finisher Laura Bontrager and 26:13 ahead of third-place finisher Joanna Oberg. Anderson averaged 13 mph.

Mushers Sunday raced to the finish lane through an angled blanketing of lake effect snow. But they had to contend with warmer-than-usual temperatures earlier in the race, particularly Friday.

It hadn’t made much difference, said Anderson, who was competing in his seventh Copper Dog. He’d already been training during a warm winter — once in a T-shirt. It did have some impact on regulating the dogs’ speed and their efforts, he said.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s 50 below or 50 above, you have to respect the weather,” he said.

Conditions on the trail had varied, he said — soft in some places, packed in others. For more of Sunday, the sleds had been behind the trail groomer, leaving a flat surface behind.

“It slowed down performance a bit, but it’s not that big a deal,” Anderson said. “I think I averaged pretty much the same speed every day.”

This was the first Copper Dog for Griffin Ferrell, in his second year at the Mushers Club at Michigan Technological University.

While the first two legs had been slow, his team made a strong finish on the final day, Ferrell said.

“With the snow today, some of the Eurohound dogs that are quick on hard trails are a little slower in the snow, and we picked up some time,” he said.

He got involved with sled-dog racing after a friend brought him out to Tom Bauer’s Otter River Sled Dog Training Center in the fall of 2019. He joined the Mushers Club, competing in his first race last year.

The club goes out to Bauer’s place in Chassell, feeding the 60 dogs, doing chores and doing training runs. They trade off racing and handling. Around 20 people from the club came out to support him Sunday.

Ferrell hadn’t known he was going to race until last Saturday, when a slot opened up.

“With only six days before the race, the training was just a couple training runs to get me comfortable with the dogs,” he said.

It’s a great way to end his MTU mushing career, said Ferrell, who graduated in December.

“Once I start work, I’ll definitely take a few days off and come up for the weekend and see all the mushers next year,” he said.

Seeing people out on the trails and along the finish, even in reduced numbers, represents progress, Anderson said.

“I’m not a people person — I’m probably the most introverted person out here,” he said. “But people need to see people. We need to get together. So it represents hope.”

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