When the Beargrease returns, it's all about the dogsSAM COOK: The yipping and yowling of 300 huskies will echo at East High School on Sunday afternoon. The resurrected John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, a celebration of winter in the North, is on.
By: Sam Cook, Duluth News Tribune
The yipping and yowling of 300 huskies will echo at East High School on Sunday afternoon. The resurrected John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, a celebration of winter in the North, is on.
It’s the race that almost wasn’t. Organizers had announced cancellation of the 30-year-old race in October for a lack of sponsorship. But in an amazing turnabout, new leadership emerged and sponsors stepped up to reinvigorate this canine carnival along Minnesota’s North Shore.
The number of mushers in the 374-mile marathon is down to 10 from the 20 or more teams that once competed, but it’s a start. The first team goes out at 1 p.m. Sunday.
This event always has been about the dogs. For the mushers, for the race volunteers, for the fans who bundle the kids and wait expectantly along the trail, it’s the dogs. Mostly Alaskan huskies, they’re marvelous creatures, coddled and conditioned to do what they were born to do — lean into their harnesses and pull.
Here they come, through the night along some quiet stretch of trail, 48 or 56 paws flicking. Reflective patches on their harnesses shine in the beam of a headlamp. On a cold night, the team trots along wreathed in its own collective breath.
The dogs are all business, ears cocked, listening only for the voice that comes from the runners. A “gee,” a “haw,” an “on by” or merely a soft affirmation of their efforts.
Gone now, the pandemonium of the start, the wild and potentially dangerous sprint out of the chute. They’ve settled in for the long haul, the go-forever 8-mph trot. Their passing is silent save for their quick exhalations and the creak of the runners.
Up the shore, in gravel pits and parking lots and woodland clearings, the checkpoints await. The team swings in. The handlers lead the team and musher to the appointed resting place with its beds of straw. The musher moves up and down the gangline, rubbing muzzles, stroking ears. The dogs slip into their insulated jackets. Tin food dishes clank. The dogs dine on a mysterious slurry of warm water, commercial food, maybe some beaver meat.
The well-insulated musher, headlamped from the trail, moves about like some Sasquatch coal miner, checking paws, consulting with handlers. Race followers move about in the shadows, too, keeping a respectful distance, but drawn to these dogs, to these exquisite athletes. In what other sport can we get so close to the game, watch and listen to those in the arena? And all of this for free.
When the dogs are fed and resting, the mushers might allow themselves a bowl of soup or a burger. On longer layovers, they might even visit with one another. I remember a long-ago Beargrease, sitting over bowls of chili with three mushers, listening to them telling stories of the trail and discussing strategy. A lot of psychology there, and possibly some subterfuge.
Maybe it will be that way again at the Beargrease, this year, or in some year to come. For now, it’s enough that the race is on once more, plucked from the embers of a dwindling fire, fanned to life once more to brighten our winter.