John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon: MN Winter Activities
Minnesota's Dog Sledding Heritage Breeds Biggest Sled Dog Race in Lower 48
chosen by the musher based on the dog's personality.
For more than 30 years, Minnesota’s annual John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon has celebrated a centuries-old tradition that tests mental strength, physical endurance and passion. Every January, thousands of spectators gather along Minnesota’s North Shore to be a part of something historic and legendary. Today, the 400-mile race from Duluth to the end of the Gunflint Trail near Grand Marais, MN and back is one of the most prestigious and difficult sled dog marathons in the world, carrying on a tradition that was once vital to the very survival of Minnesota’s North Shore.
Annually more than 20 teams – made of 10 to 14 dogs and a musher – compete in the Beargrease full marathon, and another 45 teams of six to eight dogs and a musher compete in a half, or mid-distance, marathon. The race begins in Duluth, MN, and over four days teams stop at 10 check points along the North Shore where they can eat and rest, or continue on to the next check point.
“It’s four days and 400 miles. A total of 32 hours of racing and 36 hours of resting,” Tom Roley, a musher from Bryant, Wis., said of the full marathon.
There are more than 50 races listed with the International Sled Dog Racing Association (ISDRA), but the Beargrease is considered among the elite, attracting world class mushers during its history like Susan Butcher and John King, each four-time winners of the famed 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Alaska. Beargrease is the longest race in the lower 48 states, and due to its terrain, it’s also considered one of the most challenging races in the country.
A Minnesota Marathon Like None Other
On race day, the air is filled with excitement as teams make final preparations and spectators gather to watch the race start. Teams arrive to a field outside of Duluth in converted trucks and pickups with attached dog boxes. Dog-athletes sleep and travel in the boxes that resemble Japanese-style capsule hotels on wheels. In the chill of the air, their warm breath creates little clouds around their “rooms” when they bark, and they stick their paws or even heads out of the openings in the doors to see who’s passing by. As soon as they arrive, mushers begin to make food and water for the dogs. They pull down their sleds and begin packing and pulling out items for the race – including mini booties for every dog.
“Race rules require each musher to bring a sleeping bag, enough booties for every dog, a knife, fire starter, snowshoes and a number of other survival items,” said musher Brain Wiese as he packed the steam bent, hand-tied wooden sled he made himself. Weise, a Minnesota native who now lives in Canada, has participated in races throughout the Midwest and has sold his handmade sleds as far away as Australia and Alaska.
But each team has its own strategy – the type of sled, number of dogs and additional items they will carry along the trail. Even the food dogs eat is carefully selected. Some mushers prepare a mix of meats while others feed their dogs a meal high in fat that will prepare them for the thousands of calories they will burn each day.
The opening day event draws thousands of spectators, who line the sides of the trail to watch the team’s race away across the snow packed trail. As race time approaches, teams make their way to the starting line and the sound of excited dogs barking can be heard across the field. Dogs jump and lurch forward, eager to race away. After thousands of miles of training over several months, the dogs are prepared and ready to go in an explosion of energy.
“Just before the start, they’re jumping to go,” said Mary Beth Logue, a mid-distance musher from Pennsylvania. “When they see other teams go, they can’t wait to get going themselves.”
A hush falls over the crowd as Native American drumming begins, playing traditional music meant to wish the mushers a safe journey.
“Are you ready to run?” shouts start coordinator Bob James, standing at the starting line in his blue coat and distinctive red fox hat.
Team after team barrels out from the starting point, two minutes apart. Watching the lean and athletic dogs with deep blue or hazel eyes and explosive energy as they race away, spectators instantly become fans. As teams race off, some spectators dash to their cars to meet the racers at check points or road crossings along the trail and catch a glimpse of the teams in action.
The Love of Mushing
In the world of extreme sports, few races challenge mental and physical endurance like sled dog racing. At times, it’s not as much about winning as it is about surviving. In the sub-zero temperatures in the dark of night and with little sleep, it’s easy to question why anyone would choose to compete in such a grueling endurance race. In fact, more people have ascended Mt. Everest than have completed the Beargrease, or all three top North America races – the 1,000-mile Iditarod and Yukon Quest races in Alaska and the Beargrease – combined.
But when you ask the mushers, the thrill of the race and the challenge to body and mind is exactly what draws them back time and again.
“Many people have ties to the sport,” said Tom. “I started mushing because of my dad, who has always loved sled dog racing. I’ve been doing this for 17 years now. Other mushers have a passion for the sport after reading Jack London books as a child or learning the history of sled dog racing here in Minnesota or the gold rush days of Alaska.”
It’s that heritage that keeps both fans and mushers coming back.
In fact, the North Shore owes its history to the race’s namesake, John Beargrease. Son of an Anishinabe (Ojibwe) chief, Beargrease was born in 1858 on the edge of the North Shore’s first settlement, Beaver Bay. At the time, only a footpath existed between Beaver Bay and Canada. By the time Beargrease reached his 20s, numerous small fishing settlements dotted the North Shore. Despite access to the Lake, the settlements were difficult to reach year round because of the violent storms that could appear on the Lake at any time. Settlements remained isolated at a time when most other areas of the country were able to receive regular mail delivery.
Beargrease and his brothers, who frequently hunted and trapped in the area, saw the need and opportunity and they began carrying the mail – up to 700 pounds a load – weekly up and down the North Shore. In the winter months, Beargrease became known for his dog sleds, which he ran with teams of four dogs. His regular service was vital to the development of the North Shore, and his deliveries allowed permanent towns to grow.
“If you look at what the mushers do during the race today and imagine doing that solo, with no help from handlers or food drops along the trail, it is amazing to think of what John Beargrease did for the North Shore,” said Geoff Vukelich, president of the Beargrease board of directors.
Given our rich dog sled heritage, it should be no surprise then that the “King of the Iditarod” Rick Swenson – the only musher to win five times – is a Minnesota native, from Willmar. It’s that love of mushing and rich heritage that led a group of North Shore residents to commemorate John Beargrease with an annual race.
“A small group of Grand Marias residents were the first to start the tribute with a shorter race in the Grand Marias area. From that it grew into one of the premier races in the lower 48 states,” said Geoff.
In recent years, the Beargrease has commemorated its namesake with a new tradition, called Trail Mail.
“Trail Mail carries on the tradition of John Beargrease and helps raise funds for the race,” explained Jean Vincent, Trail Mail coordinator and a long-time volunteer. “Every year a different local artist designs the envelopes, which sell for $5. Anyone can buy the envelopes and send a letter anyone in the world. In fact, this is the first year someone’s sending a letter to the President.”
Each musher is sworn in as an official – albeit temporary – U.S. mail carrier, and takes the letters to a post office at the end of the trail, just as John Beargrease did more than 100 years ago.
Of Man and Dog
But this race is not just about winning or marking history. There’s a reason they call the dog man’s best friend, and maybe dog sled racing is not as much a story of sport as a love story.
“All of the dogs have a different personality,” said Mary Beth as she prepared food for her dogs. They playfully wrestled with each other and pulled at their leashes to reach for the food as she mixed it. “I choose the order of my dogs carefully. I know who runs well in each position, and I can tell how each leg of the race impacts each of the dogs.”
The best mushers know their dogs like they would know a member of their family.
Dogs are selected carefully. Lead dogs are the alpha personalities, chosen to lead and motivate the rest of the team. They are high energy, fast and determined. Wheel dogs – those closest to the sled – are chosen to help steer the sled.
Dogs are used to the cold, and in fact, they prefer it. Subzero temperatures are best, and when temperatures start to get much above zero, dogs are at risk of overheating during the race.
Preparing and caring for the dogs is treated as carefully as training an Olympic athlete. Teams begin training in the fall, several months prior to the race, and often run thousands of miles in preparation. Just like humans training for a marathon, the dogs start out slowly and quickly advance their training – three miles, then nine, 13, 20, 26, 30, 38 and so forth.
“We’ve run 3,000 miles in training for the race,” said Tara McGovern, a musher from Grand Marais, as she placed the tiny booties on her dogs’ feet, petting them as they jumped toward her. “This is already our second race of the season, so the dogs are as well prepared as they could be at this point.”
The day before the race, all teams must go through vet checks, which visitors can observe in downtown Duluth. Dogs stand alert as vets check their heart rates, weight, hydration levels, breathing and other factors to ensure they are healthy enough to undergo such a strenuous race. Dogs are small and lean, chosen to be athletes. As a team they run an average of about 10 miles an hour during the race.
“People are often surprised to see the size of the dogs. In sled dog racing, smaller and leaner dogs are the best runners. The dogs are chosen for speed. They really only pull a bit of weight, so speed is the most important factor,” said Tom, as he scratches his lead dog’s ears, as the rest of the team tugs at their chains to reach him.
Along the North Shore and Back
At check points and road crossings along the trail, spectators crowd the sides, cheering for their favorite teams and watching the dogs race by. Checkpoints allow the teams to rest and allow fans to meet teams and maybe even snag an autograph or two.
To help track the mushers and ensure they can safely cross roads along the trail, volunteers have started BARC – Beargrease Amateur Radio Coalition. BARC ham radio operators monitor when mushers pass certain points on the trail to alert road crossing and check point coordinators ahead. Teams race to the famed Gunflint Trail before turning back toward Duluth.
“We have a lot of different terrain and a lot of elevation changes, which makes this race very competitive,” said Geoff. “I’ve heard mushers describe why this race is so tough and here is what I have come up with. We have no mountains here, but what we do have is hills and lots of them. The whole race course from start to finish is up and down and then up again. With that kind of topography, your dogs really do not get a break. It really keeps you and your dogs on your toes.”
After four days the teams race to the finish line just a few yards from where they started – this time, most are exhausted and running on adrenaline alone as they approach the finish. But it’s an experience they won’t forget.
“This race is such a great event,” said Mary Beth. “It’s such a great community of mushers. I’ve been racing for eight years, and this is one of my favorite races.”
“I love it,” said Tara, competing in her third race.
“This was the first race I competed in with my dad years ago,” Tom remarks. “The Beargrease holds special memories for me, but it’s also one of my favorite courses to race.”
Teams race to the finish in Duluth for a celebration dinner with fellow mushers, event volunteers and fans.
“We have volunteers who come back year after year, and new volunteers ever year,” said Geoff. “Without them, this race wouldn’t be possible.”
As another race goes into the history books, it’s hard to forget the history that made this very race – and the fate of Minnesota’s North Shore – possible. And it’s that history that draws mushers and fans back each year to take on one of the toughest challenges in the world.
If You Go:
The 2013 John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon race start takes place Sunday, Jan. 27 at the intersection of Jean Duluth Road and Riley Road in Duluth. Stops throughout the race allow you catch the teams along the trail.
Stay for opening weekend events, including the Cutest Puppy Contest on the Saturday before the event, and opening night dinner with the mushers.
On race day, parking is available along roads near the starting point, or shuttle service will take you from the University of Minnesota-Duluth.
For the most spectacular views, after watching the race start, also stop at road crossings along the way. For a complete list of checkpoints and road crossings, visit the Beargrease website at www.beargrease.com.
The starting point is located off of Jean Duluth road in Duluth, but checkpoints dot the North Shore and offer distinctive views of the race.
While You’re There:
The North Shore offers spectacular wintertime scenery. Bundle up and take a walk along Duluth’s Lakewalk to see frozen views of Lake Superior. Visit nearby state parks for a wintery scene, including the beautiful drive from Jay Cooke Park to Duluth along Hwy 23 (take 210 through Jay Cooke to Hwy 23).
Plan a Weekend Getaway in Duluth, MN. Duluth also offers numerous wintertime activities, including skiing and snowboarding at Spirit Mountain, and numerous parks offering snowshoeing, cross country skiing and snowmobile trails.
Find something new℠.