BRITT, Minn. — Elena Morgan was 4 years old when she started attaching her border collie to a sled using a series of complicated knots. Sometimes the family pet could pull her as far as a mile.
This was her introduction to sled-dog racing — just a cobbled-together rig and an early taste for adventure. There was no family connection to the sport and she hadn't yet seen the sled-dog signature movie "Iron Will" a dozen times.
"I'm not sure how I got inspired," Morgan, 17, said on a recent 4-degrees-below-zero day from her home in rural Britt, about 10 miles north of Virginia and adjacent to the Superior National Forest.
A decade later, she has cobbled together a kennel of 18 dogs she keeps in a large fenced-in enclosure on the family's 3 acres of land. Many of them are castoffs from the mushers she has met while navigating a sport that, in a lot of cases, competitors are born into.
Morgan is one of about 17 mushers who will compete in a 40-mile race that is part of events surrounding the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon that starts Sunday.
Morgan's race, the Beargrease 40, is sometimes a point of entry for young mushers. She expects it will take her three to four hours to get to the end point in Two Harbors, Minn.
'Everything she's done, she has done on her own'
According to family lore, Morgan found her first dog — a birthday present from her father — on Craigslist and talked the owner into shaving hundreds of dollars off the asking price. When she did something similar to get her second dog, she said the seller was surprised to find he had been wheeling and dealing with a 12-year-old.
"Everything she's done, she has done on her own," said her grandfather, Tim Morgan.
In the past few years, Elena Morgan has built up a kennel, which is partly supported by a handful of sponsors, her job as a server at Kunnari's Farm Market in Virginia, and dog breeding. She has networked with seasoned competitors and has twice attended Mushing Boot Camp — summer sessions run by four-time Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon champion Jamie Nelson of Togo, Minn.
And she has learned some hard lessons.
After a cold spell three years ago, it warmed up to 15 below. She was itching for time with the dogs, so she hitched up four to her sled. Before she even made it to the trail, she hit an ice chunk, was dumped from her sled and hit her head. When Morgan regained her wits, the dogs — and the sled — were gone.
"I was really worried," she said. "They're my best friends. It was scary to think I'd lost them."
She made a post on Facebook, and soon two of the dogs were found. Days later, she was contacted by someone who heard howling in the woods and was worried the wolves would find her lost team before she did.
Morgan thought maybe it was her team.
"If you've had huskies, you know they sound like wolves when they howl," she said.
With the help of friendly snowmobilers, she and her brother found the other two dogs — one that was still attached to the sled and tangled with a tree.
The experience sticks with her, and these days, she won't go out when it's extremely cold. She's also trained the dogs to always return to the house at the end of a run.
Carmen Morgan, 10, described her sister as someone who can handle anything.
"She knows how to figure out situations," she said.
Tending to a kennel-full
Morgan's days revolve around the dogs: up to 40 pounds of food per day between two daily feedings, scooping waste, practice runs, and check-ins with each dog. If they've exercised, she rubs their joints. Some of the dogs are older, with arthritis on the horizon, she suspects.
The sport is expensive, she said, and time consuming. The Morgan family doesn't get to take as many trips in its RV anymore.
It's worth it, she said.
While sled-dog racing wasn't the family sport in the past, it has now taken hold. Her twin brother, Matt, is the dogs' mechanically minded handler, though he has no interest in competing. Her sister, Carmen, helps tend to the dogs and now competes as well. Last weekend she finished sixth at the Cub Run, a Beargrease event for young mushers. Her father drives her to events and goes with her to sled-dog boot camp.
When Morgan is in the woods with just the dogs, she's happy, she said. She likes the cold, the quiet interrupted only by the sound of the chains, the puffs of breath from the dogs as they exercise.
"I usually talk to the dogs about my day, which is kind of strange, I guess," she said. "They don't answer, but it works. I also admire how pretty it is out there."
"Yeah, that's what I really like about it," her little sister added a bit dreamily, "how it's really pretty in the woods."
Ready, set, 'hike'
Elena Morgan has found that the logging trails and snowmobile trails of the Superior National Forest are good for practice runs with her team. But during last year's race, she realized she had done all of her training on flat ground. The dogs were taking hills too fast, which ultimately tired them out.
This year, after much training with an ATV, they're ready, she said.
Collectively, she has a squad that's willing to work.
"They're such fun dogs to be around," she said. "They have such positive attitudes."
Morgan's lead dog is Shypoke, who shows off an impressive vertical when he's ready to go. Shypoke's mother, Blush, is a veteran marathoner, and she packed in tight with him before a recent run. Cracker is a spitfire, according to Morgan, and Dolly is a fireball — "a big personality for such a small dog." Her wheel dogs are Drake, Shypoke's brother, and Eli, an eight-year-old with a puppy's energy.
Morgan is adamant that she will not win the Beargrease 40. Other racers have more experience and their own line of dogs, she said, rather than the mix-and-match crew she's assembled. Most of them aren't working around a schedule that involves school.
"This year a Top 10 might be possible," Morgan said. "The plan is to have fun."