Many start as spectators, but not Jean Vincent.
The Duluth woman was introduced to the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon as a volunteer in 2004 — and she never left.
Since then, Vincent has done everything from road-crossing help to fundraising to serving as Beargrease board president.
Vincent has a vast knowledge of the race’s history, has dedicated countless hours and played a significant role all these years. She has helped “keep the race alive,” said Carmen Schempp, the current board president.
“Jean has helped with developing countless fundraisers and educational programs for the race. She is someone I know I can count on, especially in a pinch, and I am so glad the race has her continued support,” she added by email.
Vincent was drawn to Beargrease because much of her service work was “all serious stuff,” and she was looking for something lighter. Early on, her cellphone didn’t work at her road crossing. They didn’t have HAM radios, and she needed to guess when a musher was coming in.
“The first year or two was learning how to calculate all that stuff,” she said.
She shared a story about sleeping in her car at a road crossing, and another about getting lost. But, she kept coming back.
In 2006, after researching the history of John Beargrease, Vincent helped enlist the race’s tradition of trail mail. Every year, each musher is sworn in as an official U.S. mail carrier and delivers letters in locally designed commemorative envelopes to a post office at the end of the trail. This is a way to honor John Beargrease, who carried mail by dog sled more than 100 years ago.
Also, she launched the race’s Beer and Bacon Bash, where local brewers and restaurants bring goods for taste-testing and fundraising. It’s an expensive race, Vincent said. It costs $3,000 a mile, which covers permits and insurance, among other things.
Vincent has watched the race scale back 500 miles to 300 miles, and has watched advances in technology improve communication behind the scenes and during the race. (Though, she still earned her HAM radio license.) Northland weather can make the race interesting.
“You can deal with a blizzard on the day — you don’t want one — but if you don’t have enough snow, it’s hard to have a sled dog race,” she said, recalling previously canceled events.
Her favorite tasks have been designing Beargrease merchandise, and, in 2019, she traveled with another member to Norway on behalf of the board.
Vincent also noted the gifts of pitching in, such as watching the relationship between human and canine.
Along with the beauty of the terrain and sometimes seeing the northern lights: “If you’re sitting on a road crossing at 2 o’clock in the morning, and it’s 30 below and a musher goes by, and they’re like, ‘Thank you!’ it almost makes it worth it,” she said.
This year, she’s back helping at a few road crossings. Nobody wants to do the job, she said, but it’s the most important for safety.
While Vincent is playing a smaller role, the race is still very much ingrained in her life.
“I still continue to be intrigued by all the history around John Beargrease, the geography of the North Shore and all the many things that can be learned from our environment.”
And, the Beargrease mushing and volunteer communities are connected.
“You might not see them for a whole year, but they’re your good friends.”
Beargrease has about 140 volunteers this year. They are keeping numbers down at each location due to COVID-19, said volunteer coordinator Betsy Ingram-Diver. Last year, there were more than 200, about half from the Twin Ports, and the other half from places as far-reaching as Texas, Florida and New Hampshire. Many drive up from the Twin Cities.
A couple’a helping hounds
Chuck and Jodi Nelson read about mushers in Alaska going across rivers and highways during the winter. It had always been a dream, but living in the Cities makes it difficult to impossible, Chuck said. The couple came up north to watch Beargrease and figured volunteering would be the closest they’d get.
“It was our outlet to try to live the life,” he said.
The Nelsons have been married for 32 years, 25 of which have been spent volunteering at Beargrease. They were first assigned to the vet team.
“We were the first in line for dogs to pee on,” Chuck said with a laugh.
Neither had veterinary experience, but Jodi has a long dog-training background. They’d follow vets at checkpoints or help at the start of the race. After 10 years of that, the Nelsons have done pretty much everything: musher check-in; managing trail mail; working the musher banquet and breakfast; poster signing; highway coordinators.
- PREVIOUSLY: 'One checkpoint at a time': How high school senior Ero Wallin rose into the Beargrease Marathon
They’ve worked the Highway 2 checkpoint, which Jodi now coordinates. “The gravel pit can be the coldest place on earth during Beargrease,” she said.
But, they have their gear down pat: headlamps, flashlights. She has a River Otter hat that she got in Alaska, and she always packs many layers of gloves.
“When you have a team coming in on the checkpoint, you need to do the timing, count the dogs; you need your hands to be mobile. When they’re not mobile, I have a set of beaver gloves.”
There’s also what they call “a musher teddy,” or a one-piece snowmobile onesie with coyote fur on top and a zipper-down drop seat in the back. It’s extremely warm, she said, and has been signed by mushers from here to the Iditarod.
The Nelsons used to drive down in a trailer, where they’d sleep during Beargrease, but thefy exchanged that for a hotel room. They’ve seen everything: rain and all sorts of weather, dead truck batteries. And it can get tough at checkpoints: staying awake, long lengths of time standing and always being ready.
“I’m not going to say we’re old, but we’re getting old,” Jodi said.
Chuck is retired, but when he was working, they’d take time off from work for their “winter vacation.” They both love the season and the outdoors.
“My dream was always in the summer to be in Alaska; in the winter, to be in Minnesota,” Jodi said.
The Nelsons do have pups at home.
“They’re worthless sled dogs,” Chuck joked about their Cairn terriers, Uma and Willow.
“Like Toto in the ‘Wizard of Oz,’” added Jodi.
Whatever the Nelsons are doing for the race, they always serve together.
They were among those named volunteers of the year in 2020, for which they received a gold penguin — an inside joke, of sorts.
“It’s a blessing to have them,” Schempp said. “They’re the type of people who do the work without expecting the thank-you, even though they deserve all the thank-yous.”
Volunteering becomes “addicting,” Chuck said.
Many of the same helpers have been coming for years, and they tend to frequent the same races. “It’s a second family for sure,” Jodi said.
Their most gratifying parts are watching the animals. “It’s our dog fix for the year,” added said.
Jodi, whose picture of a sled dog won the 2015 Beargrease Photo Contest in the adult category, said capturing moments between the mushers and their pups exemplifies affection.
“I called it ‘The love of dogs.’ That’s what I think of it as for us,” she said.
Asked how long they plan on volunteering, Chuck was quick to say: “Probably forever. Until we can’t move anymore.”