“Ready!” 5-year-old Elena Freking called to the Siberian huskies, BooBoo and Violet, from where she stood at the back of the dog sled.
She grinned as she and the two-dog team picked up speed, headed out of the dog yard and disappeared around the bend of the trail on Wednesday afternoon. Her father, Blake Freking, reminded her to slow down by calling after her, “Use your drag!”
Out on the trail, the kindergartner yelled to her mother, Jennifer Freking, on the dog sled ahead of her, “Mama, I want to pass you!”
Elena maneuvered her dog team around her mother’s team on the trail before coming to a stop — it was time to give her 3-year-old sister, Nicole Freking, a turn driving the sled.
Only her second time driving a dog sled on her own, Nicole grabbed the handlebar and took off. However, BooBoo decided it was time to play in the snow on the side of the trail and Nicole experienced her first crash as the sled tipped into the deep snow. Showing no fear, Nicole laughed. Blake, ahead of her on a snowmobile, stopped to help her right the sled and take off again.
“It just floors me how quickly they’ve adapted to using a sled,” Blake said.
Elena led the family back to the house near Finland, dancing while she kept her balance standing on the sled’s runners, and Nicole squealed in the sled’s basket.
As the daughters of veterans of John Beargrease and Iditarod sled dog races, they’ve been around the sport since they were born. However, Blake and Jennifer, who have 65 Siberian huskies at Manitou Crossing Kennels, don’t want to push them to enter dog sledding and the girls only go out on the sled if they want to.
Both girls will be racing in Beargrease’s Cub Run on Saturday in Fredenberg Township — it’ll be Elena’s second year and Nicole’s first year in the race. Jennifer was a little older, at 9 years old, when she began dog sledding and she completed her first distance sled dog race at age 14.
Elena said she’s excited about the race and likes to go fast. Blake noted that the girls don’t have fear on a dog sled like adults do.
Now that the girls have taken to dog sledding, it’s fun to head out as a family on the trail, Jennifer said.
“It’s like heaven to be out with the kids and dogs,” she said.
While on the trail, they’ll stop to play in the snow or look for animals tracks; Nicole said that they have found moose tracks.
A mushing family is rare because most people leave dog sledding when they have children, Jennifer said. Blake explained that the sport is a large commitment of time and money. Whether the girls come with the team to a race or stay with family nearby depends on the race, Jennifer said. Blake said that it’s more difficult on long-distance races like the Beargrease marathon, where the mushers and handlers are up all night, but Jennifer said that Elena and Nicole will visit them at the checkpoints.
Their first belly laughs as babies happened while they were in the dog yard, Jennifer said.
“They were running as babies in the sleds,” Blake said, explaining that the motion of the dog sled would put them sleep in the sled’s basket. Jennifer would put sleeping bags in the basket and the girls would play and nap.
The girls have also progressed from being pulled by a dog while in plastic toddler sled, then in a toboggan. The dog sled they now use, from Beargrease musher Peter McClelland of Ely, is sturdy and is a good sled for them, Jennifer said. She added that Elena was immediately asking, “When can I pass you? When can I pass you?” When they’re out on the trail, the girls usually will travel about 8 miles.
The dogs they use are part of Blake and Jennifer’s race team, and the dogs competing in the Cub Run will also be a part of Jennifer’s team during Beargrease’s marathon distance race.
The girls have helped socialize the puppies since they were very young, Blake said. In the dog yard, Elena showed off the kennel’s 15-week-old puppies, laughing as they jumped up on her.
Elena said that BooBoo, who will be part of her team in the Cub Run, became her favorite dog in the kennel after the two bonded when BooBoo was a puppy. The husky, now 3 years old, slept with Elena as a puppy and while all the other puppies would run around, BooBoo would stick close to Elena.
“This has been Elena’s dog from the get-go,” Jennifer said.
Before the girls took off mushing, Nicole helped Blake put the harness on Violet, one of Nicole’s favorites.
“How do we do it?” she asked Blake before helping to slip the harness over Violet’s head. Once the harness was in place, Nicole led Violet over to the sled to be hooked up.
Blake and Jennifer said they hope dog sledding also teaches the girls lessons they can use in other areas of their life, including having confidence and working toward a goal, whether it’s with sled dogs or something else of the girls’ choosing.
“It’s a great way to teach them respect of animals and positive reinforcement,” Blake said.