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Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon This Weekend!

The weekend that many of us look forward to in the winter is here! The 39th Annual John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon is taking off from Billy’s Bar located at 3502 W. Tischer Road in Duluth the morning of January 29th! We sure got a good start to winter this year with the amount of snowfall. The amount we saw so early was sure to excite mushers around the region ready to dust off their sleds and hit the trails with their beloved teams. Many mushers train all year to compete in the full-length marathon, which is the premier long-distance sled dog race in the lower 48 states and was established back in 1980. The race is a multi-day event, with scattered checkpoints for visitors and spectators to catch some of the action going on up the North Shore throughout the weekend.

There are 4 different categories of races. The full marathon, the 120-mile race, the 40-mile race, and the 120-mile race for juniors.

Billy’s opens at 7:00 a.m. with great breakfast & lunch options, hot & cold beverages and a bloody mary bar. There is a shuttle bus that can help folks get to the starting point. The shuttle bus begins running at 7:00 a.m. and runs until 2:30 p.m. Multiple shuttles will run approximately every 15 minutes to drop you off at the starting line at Billy’s. Go to Parking Lot W at UMD.

There is a rich history behind the Beargrease dog sled marathon and the man behind the name. John Beargrease was the son of an Anishinaabe Chief and was born in Beaver Bay, Minnesota in the year 1858. In the early days, there was but a mere footpath as the main means of travel between Duluth and Thunder Bay, Ontario. When European settlers made it to the area, they also began to use these trails and built several small settlements along the shore. John and his brothers were experienced hunters and trappers and made regular trips along the shore and within the region. They decided to seize an opportunity and picked up a position delivering mail to the rural settlements between Two Harbors and Grand Marais between 1879 and 1899. They simply tossed the mailbags into their existing packs. They made this trip once a week and used a variety of methods of travel throughout the changing seasons, including canoes, horses, boats and dogsled. Back then, John would use 4 dogs and his fastest trip between Two Harbors and Grand Marias was 28 hours long.

Eventually, a road was put in and horse and buggy were able to traverse the region. He made his last trip in April of 1899. In 1910 he went out in a storm to rescue another mail carrier out in the Big Lake and was caught in the waves near Grand Portage. Soon after, he caught pneumonia and died. His grave is located in Beaver Bay.

Photo Credit: Pine Ridge Siberians

Keeping the tradition alive in John’s honor, one very special tradition of this race is that every year each of the competing full marathon mushers is sworn in as an official United States mail carrier. Folks are able to purchase “Trail Mail” before the race and the mushers carry the letters on their journey north to send off at the end of the race. This tradition commemorates the dedication and journey John Beargrease and his brothers would take to keep people connected on the North Shore – over 100 years ago. You will also notice that Bib number 01 is never given to a musher, as it is reserved for the spirit of John Beargrease.

Aspiring long-distance mushers look forward to training and running the full marathon as it is one of the qualifiers to enter and compete in the annual 1,000-mile Iditarod race that takes place in Alaska, from Anchorage to Nome. This year there are 17 mushers competing in the full marathon. They will be the first to leave the gate at 10 am out of Billy’s Bar in Duluth and finish 3 days later at the Grand Portage Lodge and Casino. With over 300 miles of trail to cover and endless hills, stamina, grit and endurance is needed for both the human and 12 canine athletes that make up each team competing in this category. The full marathon mushers will have cream-colored bibs with sponsored logos, along with their double-digit bib numbers.

Second out of the gate will be 24 teams of mid-distance race teams aiming to complete the 120-mile trail leaving from Billy’s around 11 am and ending near Finland at the Historic Trestle Inn located on the Cramer Road. Both categories of adults and Junior mid-distance teams will be leaving at the same time. This year, there are 3 junior mushers competing in the 120-mile competition. The adult teams will be wearing red bibs, and the junior participants in cream-colored bibs with triple digits numbers. This mid-distance race is one of the most competitive in the lower 48 states.

Proceeding the departure of the mid-distance teams, 14 teams competing in the “recreational” 40-mile race will take off from Billy’s bar around noon. These mushers will be in green bibs and the finish line for them is in Two Harbors later that day. 12:30 pm is when the last team is expected to leave the start gate.

The relationship between sled dogs and humans is one of the oldest bonds of its kind. Animal welfare is the single most important aspect of this event from its inception. No dog will be allowed to run beyond its natural ability and there is a highly trained staff of veterinarians that will be present at all stages throughout the event. The Beargrease is run under the International Sled Dog Veterinary Medical Association (ISDVMA) guidelines. All decisions regarding race safety will be in favor of the dogs. Beargrease is proud to be a leader in animal welfare in the mushing community.

List of Checkpoints and what to expect: Hwy 2 checkpoint in Two Harbors will be the first checkpoint and finish line for the 40-mile race. This checkpoint is located off Hwy 2, north of Two Harbors, near the intersection of Silver Creek Township 24. Exact google location is available on the Beargrease Website.

Next checkpoint is at the Clair Nelson Community Center located on the Cramer Road in Finland. Teams are expected to arrive as early as 6 pm and will be funneling through the checkpoint until the wee hours of the morning. Please leave the parking lot open for handlers/trailers and teams to rest. You can find parking alongside Cramer Road and it is a short walk to the center. The center has inside restrooms, food and drinks available, and places to warm up for visitors and volunteers.

John Beargrease, undated. Image courtesy
of the Cook County Historical Society.

Next is the finish line for the Beargrease 120 mushers at the Trestle Inn, located just up the Cramer Road from the Finland Community Center. The Trestle will have a breakfast buffet available starting at 6 am on January 30th and continuing until the last dog team is in. From there, the long-distance full Beargrease Marathon mushers will continue on to the Sawbill checkpoint, which is approximately 113 miles from the starting point. This checkpoint is incredibly remote. There is a mandatory rest of at least 4 hours there for the mushers and teams. With a little bit of fuel and some rest, the teams will continue on to the Trail Center Checkpoint at Trail Center Lodge located at 7611 Gunflint Trail, about 31 miles from Grand Marais. Trail Center Lodge is a full-service lodge with a bar/restaurant and gift shop. Teams usually start arriving around noon and will be coming and going until the evening.

225 miles from the start of the race is the Skyport Checkpoint. This checkpoint is hosted by the Skyport Lodge and Raven Rock Grill, located on the shore of Devil Track Lake. Teams will likely start arriving sometime after 8 pm. From there, Mineral Center Checkpoint is the last checkpoint before the finish line for these incredible teams. There is a mandatory 4-hour rest there as well. Mineral Center is about 4 miles west on County 17, then another mile north on County 89. This checkpoint is only about 6-7 miles away from the finish by car, but the dog teams will wind around about 40 miles through remote trails. Mineral Center was once a thriving support hub for the local logging industry, but today is an open parking area (that will be filled up with dog trucks) and a cozy old log cabin where mushers, volunteers, and race fans can stop to warm up by the fire for a few minutes.

Finally, The Finish Line! Located at the Grand Portage Lodge and Casino, this location is incredibly comfortable for visitors with lots of indoor space and live coverage of the race on TVs from inside the facility. By the time these amazing dogs and humans make it to their final destination, they will have spent over 3 days out on the trail in the freezing temperatures, running long hours with very little sleep. What an accomplishment. Truly an inspiring event of endurance and spirit. This is a great place with easy accessibility to witness the end of the race.

Ever since the Beargrease race began, there has been an “amateur” dog sled race the weekend previous for novice adults and kids. This event has turned into what we now know as the Cub Run. “We believe that dogsledding is such a beautiful sport, and we are determined to pass that legacy on to the next generation,” states the Beargrease website. The event takes place at the Lakeview National Golf Course in Two Harbors. 24 young mushers ages 3-14 checked into the event on Saturday Jan 21st. The event featured youth running teams of 2- 3 dogs each. There is a 1/4 mile sprint and a 2.2-mile sprint. The event kicked off with a mushers meeting covering the trail and markers with the young mushers. The event concluded with awards at 2:30 pm. The next step up from the Cub Run for these young mushers is the Juniors 40-mile sprint in the Beargrease race. Liz Busa, who has been working with the Cub Run for the last 5 years, is hoping to come up with a 15-mile race for the kids as a bit of a gentler transition to get up to the Juniors 40 mile.

Educators have been using the opportunity of learning and exploring the history of dog sledding with their students to teach about Minnesota’s geography, local history, language arts, social skills and more! There are some very interesting teaching tools and suggested curriculum to make learning fun located on the Beargrease website such as making dog sled shoe boxes, sleds made out of popsicle sticks, using trail mail to encourage students to learn letter formats and much more!

There are a lot of preparations that go into making this race happen every year. Over 400 volunteers come to help manage road crossings, checkpoints, help mushers get dogs to starting points, setting up, taking down, etc. A highly trained and dedicated team of veterinarians come out to assist and offer their support to teams throughout the entirety of the multi-day race, and put plenty of time and energy into maintaining and marking the trails for teams beforehand. Much of this event is made possible thanks to the wonderful volunteers and generous donations made throughout the year from many sponsors and folks just like you to keep this history alive! To find more information, including the 2023 Trail Map, how to donate, and get your Beargrease merchandise, please visit www.beargrease.com. You will also find a Silent Auction to bid on items such as a Nordic Sauna session, Beargrease merchandise, a signed mini MN Vikings helmet by Duluth native CJ Ham, and more located on the website with all proceeds going to the event. There is also a link to watch live coverage of the 2023 race on the Website.

Best of luck to all the teams competing this year.

Katee Rose
Katee Rose
Katee Rose grew up on the Great Lakes in upstate New York. She left home on a bicycle and embarked on a cross country trip to California following her graduation from college. This trip was the beginning of many more that eventually landed her in countries across Europe, Canada, Mexico and Central America. Learning the cultures, cuisines, history and traditions from the communities she’s spent time in around the world. Katee is passionate about community and social justice movements. As well as engaging with many forms of art and music. For the past 5 years she has called the North Shore home and has been enjoying homesteading a small slice of land in the Northwoods. She is involved in many community efforts around local food, building capacity for a more sustainable future and supporting the elders in the area.
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