A race to the finish

Denis Tremblay claims victory in U.P. 200

Ward Christopher Wallin and his team of sled dogs cross the finish line third in the U.P. 200 race on Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017, at Lakenenland. (Journal photo by Jess Makela)

MARQUETTE — Crossing the finish line at 9:35 a.m. Sunday, Canadian musher Denis Tremblay took home his first win at a mid-distance sled dog race with a first place finish in the U.P. 200.

Speaking in broken English, Tremblay, of St. Michel-des-Saints, Quebec, said earlier today he was “very excited” about winning the U.P. 200, in which he’s competed five times.

“I’m very happy because I (had) three goals this year,” he said. “I finish (with a) win, the first (time). I beat Martin (Massicotte) for the first time. I finish with a good team, a big team. Not … with eight dogs or six dogs, I finished with 10 dogs, and a good team, too.”

The Upper Peninsula Sled Dog Association held an awards breakfast today at the Holiday Inn in Marquette to honor the 13 mushers who competed in the U.P. 200.

Massicotte, of St.-Tite, Quebec, finished second, crossing the finish line at 9:39 a.m. Sunday. Taking third was Ward Wallin, of Two Harbors, Minnesota, finishing at 9:46 a.m., following by fourth-place finisher Frank Moe, of Hovland, Minnesota, who completed the race at 10:43 a.m.

Denis Tremblay, winner of the U.P. 200 sled dog race, gives an interview about his experience Monday morning, Feb. 20, 2017, at the awards breakfast banquet held at the Holiday Inn of Marquette. (Journal photo by Rachel Oakley)

Three teams scratched from the competition, and the final musher to cross the finish line at 1:49 p.m. was Blake Freking, of Finland, Minnesota.

The U.P. 200 is a 12-dog race that takes mushers on a 230-mile route starting in downtown Marquette to Grand Marais, typically finishing at Mattson Lower Harbor Park in Marquette.

However, warmer than normal weather this year caused the finish to be moved about 14 miles east to Lakenenland in Chocolay Township.

Race marshal Al Orazietti said the decision to relocate the U.P. 200 finish was made early Saturday with the primary reason being for the welfare of the dogs and poor trail conditions as it neared Marquette.

“With the heat, dragging them over pavement and gravel and stuff, it’s going to make it a whole lot harder on them,” he said.

Denis Tremblay's lead sled dogs get a meaty treat when they finish first in the U.P. 200 on Sunday morning, Feb. 19, 2017, at Lakenenland. (Journal photo by Jess Makela)

Temperatures on Saturday were near 60 degrees and Sunday saw a high of 44 degrees, according to the National Weather Service station in Negaunee Township.

“I’m very happy with the decision we made, because it’s a gamble, right? A lot of people, they want to go to the ending,” Orazietti said. “You don’t want to make changes at the last minute, obviously, but it worked out really well. The reception at Lakenenland was phenomenal.”

UPSDA President Ron Hewson said the weather had a positive impact on the downtown start and the race overall.

“An organization has to be dynamic and able to flex and make adjustments and because that went well, it ended up being a positive on the race,” Hewson said. “Lakenenland had a lot to do with that. … We haven’t really done much on trying to get a number (for attendance at start), but, yeah, there was a huge crowd.”

Tremblay, whose total race time was 22 hours, 11 minutes and 14 seconds, said other than being tired, his sled dog team was in good health.

Martin Massicotte and his sled dog team finish second in the U.P. 200 on Sunday morning, Feb. 19, 2017, at Lakenenland. (Journal photo by Jess Makela)

He has been racing competitively for more than 20 years, and first became associated with the sport at a young age through trapping.

“(I started) very young for trapping, at 13, and I (bought) three dogs for trapping. … Two years later I (had) 16 dogs in the kennel.”

Tremblay has 40 dogs in his kennel now, and typically races three or four mid-distance sled dog races a year, aiming for around 1,000 miles total. He hopes to make another appearance at the long-distance Yukon Quest, a 1,000-mile race from Fairbanks, Alaska to Whitehorse, Yukon, in Canada.

Ryan Jarvi can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 270.