My First Beargrease, part V: Race Day.

The stove had gone out sometime during the night and it was actually cool in the cabin when I woke up. Bruce must have woken up just before me; he pulled on the last of his clothes and headed out to the truck with me not too far behind.

We met at the truck, where he was trying to tie up the last bit of loose ends; things that couldn’t be packed until we were ready to go, dropping the dogs one last time until we were in the official race dog yard. Bruce was kind of a focused basket case, still sort of asleep and doing one task part way, switching to another and then on to a third, only to come back and do more of the first. But who in his position wouldn’t be? It was race day. He and his dogs had trained and worked all fall and all winter to get to this point. In a few hours all of their hard work and his planning would be put to the test in a pretty tough race that spans over four hundred miles and five days. I was getting the pre-race jitters and I wasn’t even running.

Almost eight o’clock in the morning and we were underway. A good deal of snow had fallen overnight and getting out of the driveway was tough. Imagine missing the race start due to snow. The irony was sickening. We ploughed through snow down the laneway and onto the concession road and it wasn’t until we reached the highway, several miles away, that the snow had been pushed to the side by the road crews.

We followed the same route in as the day before; we passed the Duluth Depot and the parking lot where the vet check was held and then, exiting off the highway, we drove through some fairly residential areas to the open field that was to serve as the official Race Start and the dog lot. Trucks were there already, parked in their assigned spots, and plenty of volunteers surrounded the new arrivals to help them find where they were going to be parking. It was done this way to maximize the space available, but also to facilitate the teams getting to the starting chute. Team one was first in line, two second, and so on, so that subsequent teams didn’t have to pass by other teams getting ready. There’d be time for passing later. Shawn parked the truck and, I don’t know about the others but, I got out of the truck with a stomach full of butterflies. We took the dogs out of their boxes and snacked them. We made some breakfast. We looked around at the other teams and we started to get the sled ready. Bruce had packed it the night before, not wanting to forget anything and knowing he’d be busy with other things today. All of his gear was spread out around the truck and the last thing to do was take the sled off the truck. Shawn climbed up on top of the truck and I stood down below, waiting to have the sled passed to me.

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Marked out in the snow were spaces like a parking lot.  Inside the spaces were numbers that corresponded to the bib number of the musher.  Alleys on either side were for the teams to travel down when heading to the starting chute.


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A crowdless start chute.



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As the start time neared, the dog lot filled up with trucks and teams and spectators until it was difficult to walk up and down the alleys.

The sled came down front-first and the only place I could get a grip on it was the brush bow. I was holding the sled by the brush bow, waiting for Shawn to come down and help put the sled on the ground when I felt a twitch and heard a sickening snap. I felt the weight of the sled shift in my hands and knew in an instant that the brush bow had broken. This was not good. My heart sank. “I’ve just broken his sled.” I thought. The sled used the brush bow – a solid piece of plastic, continuous from the bed of the sled – to form a pocket with the sled bag. Bruce had all of his booties for the race stored there and without the support, the pocket drooped sadly. He couldn’t run the race with a bag or sled like that. I didn’t know what to do and I stood there, for what seemed like hours, debating with myself.

Shawn had heard the snap – luckily, Bruce hadn’t, being away from the truck for a few minutes – and he rushed over and took the sled from me, heading for the team behind us who was another Ontario musher.

“Where’s the sled?” I heard a few moments later. “Um… I…” I began to say.

“Right here.” said Shawn, rounding the corner of the truck as though we had taken it down just then.

I thought for certain Bruce was going to see the broken brush bow. He eyed the sled for a minute and then said “Let’s get the lines tied on.”

As we sorted out the lines, Shawn told me he had taken the sled to the other musher’s truck and had sewn the brush bow back together with some baler wire. “It’ll be fine.” he said. “Don’t worry.” My heart slowed back to its normal pre-race stress level.

Although there was a lot of activity in the dog lot, there was not a lot to do. We made sure that all that was left was harnessing the dogs. We filled in the time until the race start by answering questions from curious fans, talking to the dogs, visiting other teams and their drivers and by discussing the question of booties. To bootie or not to bootie. On the one hand, Bruce’s dogs were blessed with tough feet and it was a short run to the first checkpoint, so it seemed a good idea to not bootie. But then again, there was all this new snow and it didn’t seem like a good way to start a race with the risk of a fissure from snowballs between the pads. Plus, booties tend to take half a mile per hour off of the speed of a team and Bruce was looking to take things easy at the start, so it seemed like a good idea to put booties on. In the end, we bootied the dogs; a good decision, I think.

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Bruce and our host for the past few days pose for a picture beside Bruce’s truck.  Our host bought the Canadian flag for Bruce, his reasoning being that Shawn and I were to fly it at every checkpoint so that a tired Bruce wouldn’t have to search out his truck, he’d just have to look for the flag.  It didn’t matter because we would end up meeting Bruce at each checkpoint and guide him to the truck, but the flag did draw a lot of well-wishers when they discovered where we were from.

At last the announcement came over the loudspeakers asking the fans and non-race personnel to please leave the dog lot and make their way to the start chute. The race was about to begin. My heart ramped up its speed again and the butterflies made a churning sensation in my stomach. “This is crazy,” I thought to myself, “I don’t even get this nervous when I’m racing.” I looked around for Shawn but couldn’t see him, so Bruce and I began to harness and bootie the dogs. Shawn showed up a short time later and informed me that he’d just “puked enough for the two of us.” I guess it wasn’t just me who was nervous.


A very short video of the growing commotion as mushers began to harness their dog teams.

And then everything started to happen quickly. Harnessed dogs were taken to the line, volunteers showed up to help us get the team to the start and I found myself running ahead of the leaders, a tug line attached to one of their harnesses, swinging wide around the corners and meeting a throng of race fans cheering us on into the chute. I held up my hand to signal a stop and I could feel the vibrations of Bruce’s brake through the gangline but we weren’t stopping. I was afraid that we were going to end up overtaking the team ahead of us. More volunteers came and grabbed the gangline, helping stop the team. I heard Bruce behind me say “I guess they are ready.”

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Bruce and team in the chute, counting down the two minutes.

One by one and spaced out by two-minute intervals, the teams ahead of us left on their race. The last thing I remember before seeing the back of Bruce and his team was crouching in the Start chute, whispering to the leaders.

“Ten seconds, driver!” the announcer called over the loudspeaker. And that was it: ten seconds later, I shouted “Good luck Bruce!” as he and his team tore past me.

Shawn and I went back to the truck, packed up everything and made ready to leave. We had to drive to the next checkpoint at Two Harbours and set up for Bruce. If all went well, we wouldn’t see Bruce for another four hours. If all didn’t go well, then who knew when we’d see him next.


My First Beargrease, part IV

I think if I go any slower with this story, the race will end some time near Labour Day. There has been a lot going on around these parts, despite our decision to not raise any chickens, goats, ducks or sheep this summer. Now, on to the Beargrease.


I awoke early in the morning, stiff and sore. The cement floor we had been sleeping on for the past few nights was starting to get uncomfortable. There were five of us sharing the space, so I quietly pulled on my clothing and snuck outside to begin the dog chores. Nobody had asked for a wake up call so I figured they’d all get up when they were ready. The two other mushers sharing the space would be up soon, anyway, because today was the vet check, mushers’ meeting and bib draw and their appointment was for a time earlier than ours. Shortly after dropping the dogs, Bruce and Shawn came around the corner of the cabin looking sleepy and stiff, too. To be honest, I was looking forward to sleeping in the truck after the past few nights spent with the concrete mattress and I think it would be a safe assumption to say that both Bruce and Shawn were feeling the same way.

Crammed full though it was, we soon squeezed into the truck and pulled out of our host’s laneway and headed for Duluth. It was good to be on the road again and I, for one, was looking forward to seeing Duluth again, having passed through it a few springs previous on my way back to Whitehorse to collect the last of our belongings. Pretty much all I remembered was the big bridge. Two and a half coffees later, we saw the hills of Duluth on the horizon and not long after that, the bridge I remembered. The organizers of this race had thought it a great idea to hold the vet check and mushers’ meeting downtown along the waterfront. We merged from Hwy 2 onto Interstate 35 and into three lanes of traffic, overpasses, underpasses, exits and on ramps. I was glad I was not driving and I found myself questioning the wisdom of the organizers and their choice to hold things right in the middle of a city. Fortunately for me, I was sitting in the back seat of the truck so the onus of finding the correct exit was somewhat reduced. I don’t mind responsibility, but city driving is where I draw the line. Shawn and Bruce managed to find the proper exit and navigate down to the waterfront, in behind the bars and restaurants to the parking lot designated for the vet check.

Parked among the shoppers, Downtown Duluth

Downtown Duluth and part of its waterfront behind

I was still having trouble with the whole set up. There was no snow to drop the dogs on; instead, there was bare, salty pavement and the smells of food coming out of the several restaurants surrounding us not only drove the dogs crazy, but me as well. The veterinarians were upon us seconds after the last dog came out of the dogbox. “Hi!” the head vet said, “Are you Bruce?” I replied that, no, I wasn’t, “that’s him over there” as I pointed. The head vet went to see Bruce while I helped the other four with the dogs.

“…and who’s this?” the note-takers would ask as the vets ran fingers along the inside of the dogs’ mouth, inspected feet, listened to breathing and heart rates and assessed the dogs’ overall condition. I felt bad and irresponsible because I had a hard time with some of Bruce’s dogs and their names; I could differentiate all of Bruce’s dogs but I kept forgetting some of their names, especially the ones from the same litter that looked alike to me: Nash, Newton and Nitro who were all about the same size, shape and stature and who were all black and tan with similar markings. “Maybe this is why so many people ask if all of our sled dogs have names,” I thought to myself. “Yes, they do, I just don’t remember them. Sheesh.” It was pretty much the same routine with all of Bruce’s dogs and they all received a sound bill of health. One of the vets commented that it was obvious Bruce had been training his dogs together for a while because all of their heart rates were very close. The entourage left impressed with the condition and athleticism of the team. “Good luck!” they said, “we’ll see you on the trail.”

Vets giving Bruce’s dogs the once-over

We looked around at our surroundings, now that one of the bigger stresses was over: we were parked in a parking lot that, along with other dog trucks and trailers, was open to the public. Amid the barking dogs, the smells of dog crap and dog food being prepared and the general chaos that seems to accompany a gathering of more than two mushers and their dogs, was the shopping public. They seemed surprised and somewhat perplexed that there would be this many dogs and dog rigs downtown, in a parking lot that was normally full of cars. Was it possible that some Minnesotans didn’t know there was one of the biggest dogsled events in the mid west taking place this weekend? Evidently so. Many of the available parking spots went unused, being too close to the dogs for the comfort of some. It was funny to watch the expressions of the people as they entered the parking lot: “Dumdeedum…Just going to do some shopping today. Now, to find a convenient parking spot… I’ll just pull in here and – wha? What the hell are all of these dogs doing here?”

The mushers’ meeting was a sort of low-key affair. It essentially told the mushers what the trail was like, what sort of markers to look for, changes that had been made to the rules or the course since last year and then answered questions. It lasted about an hour and then let all of us out into the bar or the streets of Duluth, whichever option suited the particular musher and crew. For us, it was a return to the truck to let the dogs out of their boxes for a stretch and a pee. After the meeting the only thing left to do in Duluth was the bib draw, which was still three hours away, and there was ample time. People were still pulling into the parking lot and shopping so we had several curious passers-by, but none so curious as the Korean exchange students who were incredibly interested in the dogs and the race. We talked as best we could, their English far better than my Korean but still limited; we managed a decent conversation, though.

Some race fans

The drive to the Duluth Depot, an old railway station converted to an all-under-the-same-roof library, civic center, museum, live theatre and conference center (and probably a fish market, too, if I had looked hard enough), was supposed to be an easy one. It was, after all, directly across the interstate from where we had been parked all day. It was not an easy find. We drove around Downtown Duluth four times before finding the building. We had been met with one-way streets, vague directions and a poorly marked destination on three occasions and on the fourth try, one that had us drive back down the interstate several miles by mistake and manage to stumble across the venue by accident, still foiled us with parking. We were looking for a spot to feed everybody, but all we were able to find was one, tiny parking lot bordered on one side by the Depot and another an interstate overpass and on-ramp. Nevertheless, we dropped the dogs and fed them not noticing until they were half done their meals that we had parked them directly in front of a window that allowed the public to gather and watch the spectacle. This upset the dogs even further – some forgot about their food and concentrated on barking at everybody – so it wasn’t long before Bruce decided to pull the plug on our parking spot. He went in the building to see if there were other lots available and emerged with directions a short time later. He left Shawn and I to re-park the dogs, the only criteria being to find a quiet spot which was going to be difficult, given the interstate right beside the only lots available. Still, Shawn and I managed to find a good, out of the way spot and left the truck and the dogs: they were fed and back on their warm straw so they’d be sleeping shortly unless people were curious and approached the truck. We tried to situate it so it was out of the way of pedestrians and away from the noise of the traffic, too. It was like trying to parachute onto a bike seat: I’m not saying it can’t be done, it just takes some trying.

Our none too suitable parking and feeding area at the Duluth Depot

We milled around with the many mushers and race supporters until the dinner was put out, buffet style. Standing in line with Shawn, a man around fifty five or sixty, sporting a mustache and wearing jeans, a denim shirt and black leather vest approached us with his plate and struck up a conversation.

“You racing?” he says.
“Nope, handling,” I reply.
“Oh? For who?” he continues. Shawn, by this time has his plate loaded – no, piled – with salad, pasta, garlic bread and chicken breasts. You have to understand that we had been eating microwaved food, food that had been prepared at home, wrapped and frozen and then mostly thawed in the microwave, for the past three days and were facing much of the same for the next week. We were not about to let this feast, such as it was, pass by. And here he was, out of the conversation and heading to his seat while I stood and talked with this guy, watching the other side of the table rapidly diminish the food available.
“Bruce Langmaid,” I volunteer, then, to be polite “Are you here to race?”
“No… just watching.” his voice trails off with a certain vagueness to it.
“Oh. Have fun. Enjoy the race.” I say this as I turn to the food and load up my plate, too.

The dude I spoke with in the meal line.

It wasn’t until the dinner portion of the evening was over and the ceremony for the bib draw had begun that I realized who I had been speaking with in the line for dinner. I had spoken to Jeff King, a several-time over Iditarod champion and Yukon Quest victor, too. Boy, some people sure look different without their ego. I guess he had left it at his table because when it was his turn at the microphone he was back to his all-about-me self, offering a story not about the Beargrease – which would have been the appropriate subject – but about how he accidentally hooked a chair with his whip during his first race back in the Seventies. Thanks, Jeff, but we don’t use whips – haven’t for ages – and why would you think that was an appropriate topic? A whip?! Let the misconceptions about our sport continue…

The rest of the evening was otherwise uneventful. We left Duluth the way we came in, now well acquainted with its downtown and interstate. All three of us were eager to get back to our sleeping quarters, concrete though they may be, because tomorrow was Race Day and it was, after all, the reason we were here. All of the events leading up to this point were going to come together tomorrow and, for the love of all that’s holy, let’s get Bruce to the Start line without mishap.