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Sister mushers: Menahga teens compete in Beargrease Dog Sled Marathon

Brenna high-fives her sister, Nicole, at the start of the 2018 John Beargrease Junior Race, held last weekend. (Submitted photos)1 / 4
Nicole Grangoth gets a kiss from one of her dogs.2 / 4
Brenna Grangroth shows her dog team a little love after finishing the John Bearbrease Recreational Class Race.3 / 4
Sisters Nicole Grangroth, 15, and Brenna, 14, display their bib numbers for the 2018 John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon in Duluth. They attend Menahga High School.4 / 4

Sisters Nicole and Brenna Grangroth may have opposite personalities, but they share a single passion: dog mushing.

Last weekend, the duo competed in the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, mingling with world-class mushers. Established in 1980, the Beargrease race is the longest sled dog race in the lower 48 states.

Both ladies attend Menahga High School.

Nicole, 15, raced in the junior class division, traversing 120 miles through the hills of the North Shore with her eight furry teammates. She completed the course in 15 hours, 44 minutes.

Brenna, 14, trekked 40 miles with her six-dog sled team in the recreational class.

During Saturday's (today) Park Rapids American Legion Ice Fishing Contest, Nicole will be dog sledding around the perimeter of the contest area. A meet-and-greet will follow at Smokey Hills Outdoor Store, her race sponsor.

The Grangroths moved to Menahga from Dassel, Minn. about 3.5 years ago, says mom Jeanette.

"Brenna had always wanted to try out dog sledding. Always."

Jeannette contacted Janet Bahe, a local family friend who owns 33 sled dogs, four of which are now exclusively trained by Brenna and Nicole. Brenna began by grooming, cleaning and sled dog riding at Bahe's house.

And loved it.

"It has been such a positive thing in our girls' lives, but even in ours, too. It's just a wonderful activity for kids to be involved in, aside from looking at screens all day long or sitting indoors. There's a lot of responsibility and a lot of gratification," Jeanette said.

When an opportunity arose for Brenna to participate in a Mushing Boot Camp, developed four-time Beargrease champion and Iditarod finisher Jamie Nelson, Bahe couldn't attend. The camp is located in northern Minnesota, near Togo. Bahe suggested Brenna bring her older sister, Nicole.

"The dog racing bit Nicole, and that was the end of that, so now she's involved, too," Jeanette said.

For the past two years, the Grangoths have trained with six Alaskan huskies at their Menahga home. Bred with a desire to pull and please, the dogs range in age from 2 to 7. Bahe serves as coach.

"The girls would never be where they're at without Janet as their mentor," Jeanette said.

Dedicated trainers are willing to invest time in youth. "A lot of mushers realize the sport is dying out unless you bring in fresh blood. There are a lot of people that feel a soft spot for junior mushers," she continued. "They learn a lot of tips and tricks from these mentors."

Both humans and canines practice year-round. Before Beargrease, Nicole aimed to run her team about 600 to 800 miles. When there isn't snow, the dogs pull an ATV (at dead weight) or a specialized cart.

Like their canine counterparts, mushers also must have stamina.

Each dog has a unique personality and different motivation, so mushers must learn bonding, teamwork, leadership.

Beargrease is the first dog sled competition of the season. The Grangroths have raced at the Apostle Islands and Mid Minnesota sled dog races as well.

Nicole particularly enjoys the training aspect of the sport, while Brenna simply likes the dogs.

"It's fun to see their personalities, learning to do something and achieving goals and just hanging out with them," Brenna said.

Beargrease began at noon on Jan. 28. Nicole and her team raced in 40-mile chunks. There were two mandatory checkpoints and eight hours total of required rest.

At the beginning of the race, the "dogs are amped up," Nicole said.

Her team averaged about 10 miles per hour. She arrived at one checkpoint around midnight.

"I was out in the dark all by myself. It was actually really fun. It was just peaceful out there. The moon was shining. It was really cool to see. The dogs love to run in the dark," she said.

The hills were especially challenging — and Nicole's team tackled them at night.

"There was one hill that was super scary to go down. By the bottom, your sled is going faster than the dogs. It's just insane how fast you can get going," Nicole said.

Soon Nicole turns 16. She plans to purchase a pickup for her dog kennels and ATV.

"It's been really fun watching the whole thing evolve and our whole family is getting more involved," said Jeanette.