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Florida musher takes on the Beargrease
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Dee Morris gets her dogs ready for breakfast, on a -15 degree morning in Duluth. They came from Florida to run the John Beargrease Sled Dog race. (MPR Photo/Chris Julin)
The John Beargrease Sled Dog race starts Sunday. Organizers had to postpone the Beargrease for a month, and move the start 20 miles north because there wasn't enough snow. But the thin snow cover won't bother one musher. Dee Morris drove up from St. Petersberg, Florida with her nine huskies. It's her first race. It's also the first time her dogs have seen snow.

Duluth, Minn. — Dee Morris and her dogs are staying with some new friends in the woods on the edge of Duluth. The dogs are in portable kennels padded with straw in a shed.

Morris is happy to introduce her dogs to a visitor, as she drags them from the kennels to a line stretched from tree to tree, where she'll feed them.

"This is Bee," she says, hauling a cream-colored husky from her kennel.

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Image Each of Morris' dogs has a distinct personality.

"I call her 'Bee' for short but it's 'Between.' She's always coming between. Like, if you let her out she'll run between your legs all the time. Over there's Malachi, the red and white husky. He has an attitude - he's always getting in fights. But he's a good puller. I rescued him from the shelter. I rescued Bee from the shelter too."

Dee Morris rescued a lot of huskies from the pound in St. Petersburg. To keep them healthy she tried running them on a flat, paved trail in St. Petersburg.

They pulled her on a skateboard, and then she hooked up a bicycle to their leads. They pulled so hard she added another bicycle with her daughter riding. And then another bicycle with a friend.

She started thinking about trying her dogs out in a race. But there aren't any sled dog races in Florida. So she signed up for the Beargrease mid-distance race - 135 miles of winding, hilly, snowy trail.

Dee Morris says all her friends tried to discourage her.

"I was told by vets, by all kinds of people in Florida, 'Those are Florida huskies, they will not make it in the snow; you're taking Florida dogs up north to 40 below,' (like last night was 15 below) 'and they will not perform.'"

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Image Morris' dogs have adjusted quickly to the snow and cold.

But Morris and the dogs drove north, and the first time the dogs were let out in the snow, they did what any husky would do - they rolled in it. And they seem to be enjoying the challenges of the trail. Morris took them on a thirty-mile run at night.

"Right through the dark - I could not see the trail at all," she says, her voice full of wonder and pride. "And these guys pulled me right smack back to the truck. I don't know what else to say. They're huskies! They're bad little dogs."

Dee Morris grew up in Colorado, so she doesn't mind the cold. But she didn't know anything about sleds until she came north a week ago. That's when she picked up a sled she'd ordered from a Duluth company.

"The first time I was on it, it was almost disastrous," she laughs. "The dogs were pulling, faster and faster. I'm like 'where's the brakes?' I went around the corner, and sort of flipped over. I got up, held onto the sled, they stopped and looked back at me, like, 'Mommy what happened?' 'I don't know!' It's a lot of things, it's a crash course in learning. I had no idea of what really went on."

And the dogs have a lot to learn too. They've never run with other teams before. They spent an afternoon near Ely training with some Minnesota mushers. The first time another team ran past, Morris's dogs nipped at their heels and tried to chase them. Now they're learning they need to stick to business pulling their own sled.

Peter McClelland has run the Beargrease before. He spent an afternoon with Dee Morris, and he says she needs more than just ten days training in snow, with other dogs around.

"I think she has the gumption that she will finish the race at some point," he says. "It just might not be this year. If she gets to the first checkpoint, that's a great victory for her."

Dee Morris has her own ideas about that. She'd like to finish the race, to show her friends what a Florida husky team can do.

"Even if I'm the last person pulling across the Beargrease," she says, "this will be proven that a husky is a husky no matter where it's at."

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Image Morris got her inspiration to run sled dog races from an old dog food can.

The race starts at 1:00 Sunday on Highway 2 near Two Harbors. It ends 135 miles north, on the Gunflint Trail. The winner is expected to finish early Monday morning.

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