Beargrease, part II

I had agreed to meet Bruce in the parking lot of a local hotel that was currently closed for renovations. It would be a perfect spot for him because I was certain he would want to drop the dogs for a pee. There was ample snow on the ground for them as well as a large, currently unused, parking lot so we wouldn’t be in the way of anyone. I parked the truck and Jenn and I talked over what I might expect in the coming week. So lost in our conversation were we that neither of us noticed the man at the side of the truck until he tapped on the window. I rolled down the window and looked at him,

“Yer gonna have to move.” he said. And so ensued a short conversation about insurance and the disbelief that anyone could be so ignorant to two people just sitting in a truck. I mean, I hadn’t even got my grafitti paint cans out yet. I considered telling Bruce that the parking lot was a fine place to drop the dogs and that the owner said not to bother picking up any poop the dogs may leave behind, but I knew Bruce wouldn’t enjoy dealing with the guy anymore than I had, so we just waited and had him follow us down to Jenn’s parent’s place, two minutes down the road.

I met the other handler, Shawn, as we took dogs out of their boxes and hooked them to the drop line. I loaded my stuff for the next week and half – two small-ish bags an extra winter jacket and a pair of boots – into the truck and then it was time to load the dogs up again. I said goodbye to Jenn, climbed in the truck and we were on our way. Oh, man, what had I agreed to?

“I’m not really sure what I’m doing here,” I thought to myself. “This is a big-deal race; lots of time and money have been invested in getting the team to this point and it’s likely the only race he’s going to do this year. I’d better not screw things up.” And there would be a lot of things I could screw up. For instance, as a handler, I was probably going to be feeding the dogs at some point. Too much food – especially during the race – could be even more harmful than not enough. What if I didn’t know the proper way to massage his dogs, or treat a swollen wrist, maybe I would put booties on wrong or screw up the sequence of the routine. And, on top of all of that, there would be a tired musher to deal with, too. Keeping him fed and watered would be a challenge, as would making sure his clothes were dry and he was rested. I wondered if it was too late to say I couldn’t go.

An evening feeding.  I have had some difficulty loading and embedding these photos so if you want to see them larger, click on the image.

For the early part of the drive, things were fairly uneventful. I knew the highway to Sault Ste. Marie so the scenery just slid by, barely registering. As it grew dusk, however, and we neared the city itself, a car sped up beside us, the driver alternating between swerving all over his lane and some of ours and honking his horn as he waved madly at us. My heart leapt into my throat because the way the guy was acting, we had just lost a sled from the top of the truck or worse still, a dog. I tried to think quickly if I had made sure all the doors had been closed and secured from the last time we dropped the dogs. I was certain they were, and yet, here was this guy…

“Pull over, Shawn,” said Bruce, “see what this guy wants.” The truck swerved onto the shoulder just behind the car which had, at this point, pulled over also. The driver was out and walking towards the truck almost before Shawn could get out. He strode with such purpose that I assumed he was really mad. Maybe the sled we’d lost had hit his car. Suddenly, Shawn was back at the truck and the driver’s hand was stuck through the open window.

“Bruce!” he exclaimed, “how great to see you! Going to the Beargrease?” The driver turned out to be another musher that Bruce used to train with years ago. Coincidence had us on the highway at exactly the same moment, traveling in the same direction. Bruce, Shawn and the musher friend spoke briefly, luck was wished and promises were made to not let it be so long next time and then both our vehicles turned back onto the highway and we continued towards Duluth, Minnesota.

As far as border crossings go, ours was as smooth as you’d expect given that there were three shabbily dressed men crammed into an old truck packed full of stuff and dogs. For what seemed like minutes, the guard stared at each of us individually while weighing the possibilities that this was a cleverly disguised ruse to smuggle something of value across the border. If it weren’t for the fourteen dogs he’d have to pull out of their boxes, I bet he’d have searched us.

An early morning feed.  Or maybe this is the evening photo? I can’t remember, and let’s be honest, it’s a picture of dogs eating in low light… does it even matter?

Newberry, Michigan received us quietly. It was a fairly nothin’-goin’-on night when we checked into our hotel room. We did all of our chores, ate, showered and slept. I made good use of the bed that night knowing it was going to be my last time in one for the next several days. In the morning we equaled out the cost of the hotel room – it was kind of high – with their complimentary breakfast. For a hotel’s complimentary breakfast, it was pretty decent. I mean, I’ve been to places where they advertise a continental breakfast and it’s little more than a croissant and tea. It’s almost as though they say “if you stay here, we’ll give you a doughnut.” Not so the hotel in Newberry. They had waffles, cereal, fruit, juice, coffee, tea, buns, muffins, sweets and, of course, croissants. I must have had several litres of coffee while we took turns checking on the dogs who were tied around the truck stretching and finishing their breakfast. We left Newberry rested and full.

Ashland, Wisconsin, here we come.

My first Beargrease, part 1

At one point or another in the history of the snowy parts of North America, mail was delivered by dog team. There are many races around both Canada and the United States that commemorate this but none are on the level of the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon. The Marathon is a four hundred mile trail that starts in Duluth, Minnesota and finds its halfway point down the Gunflint Trail, which runs northwest from Grand Marais and into the Superior National Forest; it then follows the course back to Duluth. The trail is based on the route that would have been used by John Beargrease and his contemporaries as they hunted, trapped and delivered mail along the North Shore of Lake Superior from Beaver Bay, Minnesota in the south to Thunder Bay, Ontario to the north.

The history of John Beargrease, according to the race website, is that he was born in Beaver Bay, Minnesota, in 1858. He lived with his family on the shores of Superior, surviving through the traditional means of hunting, trapping and fishing. As settlers moved into the area there was an increased need for communication with the less remote settlements which were already enjoying regular mail delivery. John and his brothers began delivering the mail to the various communities by seeing an opportunity – they were traveling these routes already so they simply agreed to carry the mail bags along with their packs. This was no small feat, however, since the mail bags could weigh as much as 700 pounds. Throughout the seasons they used horses and canoes, they carried the mail by foot and, of course, by dogteam. John and his brothers carried the mail for twenty years, from 1879 to 1899 and were instrumental in helping the communities along the north shore grow and thrive. It is said that John used four dogs in his team and that it took him twenty eight hours to travel the distance from Two Harbours to Grand Marais. Today, the mushers in the race with three times as many dogs, lightweight equipment and no real load in the sled have not improved much on his time. To pay their respects to the original driver of the trail, the racers lay a pouch of tobacco at the grave marker of John Beargrease.

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At the Beaver Bay checkpoint is a marker for the grave of, among others, John Beargrease.  Mushers are required to lay a pouch of tobacco on it as part of the race.

Like the Yukon Quest and its Gold Rush history and the Iditarod and its connection to the Serum Run, the history behind the Beargrease trails make it more than just a race. And, too, like the Quest and Iditarod, the Beargrease is a tough and challenging run for both dogs and driver. I have always been interested in the Beargrease, in a “maybe, some day…” sort of way, so when I was asked to help out a musher at the race this winter I excitedly said “Yes!” and then immediately thought about what I had just agreed to.

The Beargrease allows handlers to help at all of the checkpoints except one. This means that the handlers can help massage the dogs, treat any injuries like sprained wrists, feed, lay down straw for the dogs to sleep on – basically anything the musher would do, the handlers can do – with the exception of driving the sled. By saying “yes”, I had agreed to climb into a cramped dog truck full of gear, clothes and food and drive with two people I hardly knew for seventeen hours, and help take care of dogs I had never met. It is said that the Beargrease is as hard on handlers as it is on mushers. I would soon find out.

The racer and owner of the dogs was Bruce, a person with whom we’ve had a relationship with for a few years. He very kindly loaned us a sled when we had all of our equipment in Whitehorse and we have bought dogs from him in the past. That has been our only interactions. We don’t know him all that well. Shawn, the other handler, and I met five minutes before the truck pulled out of the driveway and headed to the race. I had never met him before and had only heard his name occasionally in the conversations of others who travel in our circles. It didn’t matter how well I knew them. They didn’t seem to mind that a near stranger would be sharing their space for a week and a half. Besides, it was a long truck ride and there’d be lots of time to get to know each other.