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Hobby makes winter doggone fun

For more than 30 years Paul and Marilyn Peterson have been raising and caring for sled dogs.

Marilyn has been participating in sled dog races since 1990.

"Both of us listened to Sergeant Preston of the Yukon on the radio when we were growing up," said Marilyn.

The show was about a Canadian Mountie who patrolled the Yukon with his horse Rex and his dog Yukon King, battling both the elements and criminals.

With each having a pre-existing interest in sled dogs, they leapt into the hobby together.

"I went to a race just as a spectator," said Paul.

While attending the sled dog race he saw an advertisement for a husky and being interested in huskies he decided to purchase it.

"We had dogs before we even had a sled," said Marilyn.

Shortly afterward, the Petersons were given a female husky, which they bred and had six puppies, the making of their first sled dog team.

"Paul made several of the racing sleds," said Marilyn. Paul made four of their six sleds.

This year Marilyn raced in the Third Crossing Sled Dog Rendezvous in Frazee in January, as well as, the Crosslake Dog Derby earlier this month. She races with four dogs, in approximately 4-mile races.

According to Paul, he and Marilyn learned how to race and manage a dog sled team by trial and error.

To find out what equipment they needed the couple first attended races.

Different sleds are used for racing than for riding. For races smaller sleds, which have more flexibility, are used.

"I sewed some (harnesses) out of cloth first," said Marilyn.

Mistakes such as using cheap rope were learning experiences.

"You can have some hair raising adventures sometimes," said Paul.

Incidents such as running into porcupines and having deer bound across the trail in front of the team can create dangerous episodes.

"You never know what is going to happen at a race," said Marilyn.

The sport can be treacherous at times. Accidents, such as hitting trees, tipping over and tangling teams are a real concern.

To practice before a race the Petersons take the dogs on a trail near their home.

Marilyn said she hopes to participate in at least one more race this winter, the Paul Bunyan Sled Dog Challenge in Bemidji Saturday, Feb. 23 and Sunday, Feb. 24.

Besides racing, in the winter the Petersons give rides at Wonewok Conference Center and do demonstrations for the school and other organizations.

Marilyn gave demonstrations at the Smokey Hills Artisans Community for 10 years. These demonstrations took place during the summer so she used a cart instead of a sled.

The couple also gave rides at the Wolf Lake Winterfest last weekend.

The Petersons have a racing team and a riding team.

Some of their dogs are from Eddy Streeper's bloodline. Streeper, from Osage, took home the gold at the Third Crossing Sled Dog Rendezvous this year. He has also won several other times in the race's eight-year history. Some of the dogs are from Gary McCollom's bloodline. He owns Lady Hawk Racing in Pinewood.

Currently, the Petersons have 25 Alaskan huskies, 19 of which are their own. The other dogs they are keeping for the winter belong to McCollom.

The Petersons take some of McCollom's older dogs to give them an opportunity to run on their riding team.

One of the dogs Petersons have, by the name of Deuce, led the team the year his owner won the International Sled Dog Racing Association gold medal for skijoring.

"They (the dogs) like this because they get a chance to run," said Paul.

According to Paul, it is inherent in the dogs to want to run. This makes it easier to train them.

Marilyn said they train by, "walking puppies, putting little harnesses on them and getting them to walk out in front of you."

The dogs also need to learn all the mushing terminology the Petersons use such as "hike, gee, haw and whoa" which mean go, turn right, turn left and stop.

"It is a big help to have an experienced team," said Paul. "You hook up an inexperienced dog and they catch on pretty fast."

According to Paul, everyday the dogs eat a combination of dry dog food and at least a pound of ground beaver.

Paul said they go through about five tons of beaver in a year. They get the ground beaver from a processor in Ottertail.

Each of the dogs has an individual run and house, which helps to protect them from the elements.

One of the dogs learned how to open the gate to his run (when nobody was looking), so they had to add an extra latch to the gate.

The Petersons know each of their dogs on a personal level, their likes, dislikes and quirks.

After 30 years Paul and Marilyn learned a lot and what started off as an interest in huskies quickly "snowballed" into a lifetime hobby.