THUNDER BAY - For musher, Joanna Oberg, racing down a snow covered trail with trees whipping past on both sides and a team of dogs pulling with all their might out front, is an experience unlike any other.
“It’s really a rather magical experience,” Oberg said. “It’s exhilarating. I like a thrill. With dog mushing you just never know what each run is going to bring.”
Oberg’s next run will be the Gunflint Mail Run this weekend, as she takes on 70 miles of back country in Cook County, Minn. The annual dog sled race will be taking place Jan. 7 and 8 and runs along the Gunflint Trail from Poplar Lake, north of Grand Marais, to just west of Loon Lake, south of the Canada/U.S. border.
This will be Oberg’s second time competing in the Gunflint Mail Run, having placed third in the 2015 race out of more than 20 mushers.
“It was a fun trail,” Oberg said. “It’s really narrow and curving. It can be a little challenging meeting teams on the trail.”
Oberg, originally from Ely, Minn. now lives in Ignace, Ont. where she helps her parents run a hunting and fishing camp. During the winter she runs the Run Silent Racing kennel, which includes more than 20 dogs.
Sledding for the last 18 years, Oberg said the first time she got behind a team of dogs was an experience she will never forget.
“When I was younger, some friends of mine took me on my first dog sled ride,” she recalled. “I remember the whole excitement of it. The dogs screaming and barking to go, they were just so eager to get out and run and as soon as you take off, they are so excited and fast and furious. And then it gets quiet.”
While being out on the trail with her team of dogs can be a quiet, serene, even magical experience, Oberg said the thrill of the race and seeing what the dogs can do is what keeps bringing her back to the starting line.
In the last five years, Oberg has placed first in the Midnight Run in Michigan in 2012, first place in the 2014 Voyageur Classic in Northhome, Minn., and she was awarded the Best Cared for Team in 2015 at the 2015 John Beargrease Mid-Distance in Duluth, Minn., the Midnight Run, and Copper Dog in Calumet, Mich.
Oberg will be participating in the eight-dog, 70 mile race during the Gunflint Mail Run. The race takes place in two 32-mile stages and includes a mandatory three-hour layover.
With temperatures in Grand Marais this weekend expected to be well below zero, Oberg said the weather can impact the race, but won’t deter her.
“You just have to do your race no matter what the weather throws at you,” she said.
The dogs have booties for their paws and jackets if it gets too cold, but Oberg said it’s the mushers who suffer the most from cold weather.
“We’re just going to have to be a little bundled up,” she said. “There are a lot of hills. They aren’t really long, but they are short and steep. There is going to be a lot of running up the hills for us mushers and that kind of makes it frustrating because you want to be careful not to breathe in the cold air but you also want to protect your face.”
While out on the trail, there are a number of challenges that face every team, and when it comes to racing, every single second counts.
During the race last year, Oberg lost her lead dog to a pulled muscle. The new lead dog was more timid, which made passing other teams a challenge.
“We lost a lot of time last year with head on passing and from behind issues,” she said. “He would just literally stop so I had to go up there and drag him past. You have to have mostly a pretty clean run in order to win or have a chance of winning.”
“Every little second counts, every little stop adds up, and that’s just how it is with dog racing,” Oberg continued. “You just never know how it’s going to go. These are dogs, they’re not machines.”
Oberg said this year there are some really good mushers and dog teams competing in the race and she has been training with her dogs since August, which includes a lot of physical and mental conditioning. Unfortunately, she is not able to bring some of her top female dogs because they are in heat, so she will be racing some younger, more unexperienced dogs.
And while it is a race to the finish line, for Oberg, it’s about being on the trail with the animals she loves, feeling that rush of excitement as the dogs burst with energy, and living that magical experience of waiting to see what the next curve in the trail will bring.
“I feel good knowing we did the best we could and you just let the chips fall where they may,” Oberg said. “It is frustrating when things don’t go right. But as long as you go out there and give it the best effort and the most important thing is the dogs and you have fun out there together and winning is just a bonus to that.”