2019 John Beargrease Sled Dog Race
By Kristy Johnson
Gliding amongst the pines like a gentle whisper emerges a force beyond compare. A team of dogs and their musher, gently sailing over the glistening snow. Peace, solitude, invigorating energy as they move in unison towards their goal, the finish line.
January 27, 2019 at Billy’s Bar, just north of Duluth, Minnesota, marked the start of the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon. Typically, the race starts at Two Harbors, MN, and goes up to Grand Potage and returns to Billy’s Bar, but this year they shortened it a bit and made it a one-way trip. It was probably a good thing race organizers did, because the temperature hovered around -30 degrees for the duration of the race.
Established in 1980, the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon is the longest sled dog race in the lower 48, at nearly 400 miles. The race is in honor of John Beargrease, who initially delivered mail by sled dog up the North Shore, helping to establish many of the towns that exist today. You can read a detailed history of his life at: https://beargrease.com/about-john-beargrease/ and or view the education resources at: https://beargrease.com/education-resources/. An interesting side note: to honor the sled dog’s rich history of carrying the mail, the mushers carry trail mail during the race. You can purchase a commemorative envelope, write a letter, and have it receive a stamped cancelation which reads, “carried by dog sled.” Kind of a neat gift to give that special someone.
Dogs and their mushers begin to show up around 9:00 A.M. Shortly after the team’s arrival, the spectators began to appear en masse, just to meet the mushers and the furry athletes. The highway was lined with cars for at least a mile in either direction. People were walking or taking the shuttle bus down to the starting point. It is very cool to see all the people who show up in order to support the racers. They definitely deserve the attention. I am not sure people understand how much work goes into a sled dog team. Besides countless hours of training and feedings, there is also the financial burden of veterinary bills, food, equipment, travel expenses and housing, and most importantly the emotional investment that goes into each and every lovable dog.
One might wonder why mushers do it with such a large investment. While I have never formally interviewed any of the mushers on this subject, I have gleaned bits of information from them here and there and have formed a speculation on why. They love it! And if you don’t believe me, just show up at the beginning of a run and listen to the dogs. The dogs yip, howl, bark, and jump up and down with excitement. They are so excited to get going that heavy off-road vehicles are used at the start of the race to help control the dogs so they don’t take off down the trail before it’s time to go.
I have been dog sledding twice, and I loved it both times. It is so exhilarating, balancing on the skis of the sled, silently flying over the snow, your body swaying to and fro with the twists and turns of the trail, feeling the energy of the dogs. It seems so amazing that they can pull you and a sled across the miles so effortlessly and with such enthusiasm. Believe it or not you can reach speeds of 12 to 18 mph. Quite the rush! I would highly recommend a trip with a qualified musher. There are several top-rated kennels in Minnesota that can accommodate you.
I seem to be rambling on about the nuts and bolts of the race, but it’s important I think to know why the race started and who participates. There are over 500 volunteers who help make the race a reality. There are veterinarians, road crossing guards, check point controllers, race assistants, photographers and countless others who contribute to the racer’s success. It is so wonderful that there is such a great group of people who are willing to sacrifice several days to support the teams.
I have been going up to photograph it for about five years. I have developed some great relationships with other photographers, racers, and support staff. Truly each and every person is remarkable. I look forward to connecting with people up there that I see only at the race and best of all, it’s like we’ve seen each other every day. No lack of things to talk about or awkward silences. It’s my once-a-year family, and I am already looking forward to next year. !