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.

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