Minnesota man finds his true passion: dogsledding

Posted: Thursday, February 24, 2000

LOWRY, Minn. (AP) -- Carl Larson takes the lone trail every day.

Instead of reporting to work each day as a machinist's foreman, as he once did, he guides a team of Siberian huskies and a hand-crafted sled along the winter trails of Pope County.

Instead of collecting a steady paycheck in a boom economy, he runs a kennel and makes his own dogsledding equipment. He sells the gear and dogs to fellow mushers and wishes there were more snow to boost interest in sled-dog racing.

When the snow is there, his weekdays of toil are followed by two-day, 100-mile races that will allow him maybe two or three hours of sleep.

Frostbite and minus-60-degree air blackened his face during one sleepless race.

He's discovered other types of pain on the race trail, too. There was the frustration of struggling with an out-of-synch dog team while other teams glided by him with the huff-huff-huff pace of steam locomotives.

There was the desperation of meeting a dead end after 10 miles of hard trail, and realizing he should have allowed his lead dog to follow its instinct and not his command to turn down the wrong path.

''It doesn't make a lot of sense if you really look at it,'' said Larson of his life's passion. ''No rational person would do it.''

But no rational person ever gets the chance to know what it's really like to glide down winter trails behind a team of anxious, fast-running dogs.

''When it clicks and is going right, you wish it would never end,'' Larson said.

He enjoys working and competing with the dogs, and the quiet pleasure of touring the great outdoors in so intimate a manner.

And he loves the thrill that comes with sled dog racing.

''The racing has an addictive quality,'' he said.

He didn't know any of this until he watched a videotape more than 13 years ago about Alaska's Iditarod race and decided this was something for him. From there, he was on his own.

Larson had to learn the sport by trial and error and from other racers, mostly as they left him behind on the trail.

''Going to the races helped the learning curve immensely,'' he said.

He's learning, but Larson doesn't pretend to have the experience or skill of Willmar native Rick Swenson, a five-time winner of the Iditarod.

Larson has yet to win first place in a race, but he's getting closer to that goal each year. These days, he usually finishes in the upper one-fourth of sled dog racers. Most of his races are one- or two-day events that will cover anywhere from 40- to 100 miles of forest, lake and open trail in parts of northern Minnesota, Wisconsin or Michigan.

Win or lose, Larson gets noticed. He's among a minority of sled-dog racers who prefer to run purebred Siberian huskies in place of the traditional, mixed-breed Alaskan huskies.

He keeps more than 40 purebred Siberian huskies of his own at his Freese Breeze kennel in rural Lowry. They train year-round. A makeshift golf cart substitutes for the sled when there is no snow.

Just like a football team coach, Larson spends much of the late summer and fall paring his team to the best runners for the winter race season. In most races, eight or 10 dogs will make up the team, although as many as 16 can be run in some long-distance contests.

He enjoys racing against the ''big boys,'' but it's not because he's looking for cutthroat competition. There's a friendly rivalry among mushers, according to Larson. For most of the race, competitors never see one another.

It was different for Larson during one race. He saw his competitors one after the other as he overtook them and captured the lead, seemingly for keeps.

His wife Lori parked their pickup truck about one mile before the finish line to cheer him on to what looked like his first victory. The dogs spotted the truck, wanted to head there instead of the finish line, and lost their edge.

Larson came in second.

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