Midnight at Skyport: Waiting for dogs with Beargrease volunteers
In the hours before dog teams arrived, a John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon checkpoint in Grand Marais became a buzzing hive of activity. "It's like a family reunion," said one volunteer.
GRAND MARAIS — I'm not sure exactly what I expected to find at my first visit to a John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon checkpoint, but it wasn't a guy snoozing on a couch in the light of a leg lamp.
Yes, a leg lamp. Wearing a high heel and fishnets, just like in "A Christmas Story." Skyport Lodge has a matched pair of leg lamps: one downstairs in a game room, one upstairs at the bar.
The game room was turned into a logistics center on Monday for the lodge's role as an overnight Beargrease checkpoint, but I arrived early. It was around 3:30 p.m., and the first dog teams wouldn't arrive for another seven hours.
The volunteers who would staff the checkpoint were just arriving. One coordinator introduced himself as "Lloyd Hautajarvi, common spelling." When the other volunteers chuckled at my confused silence, Hautajarvi ribbed me. "You're not from around here, are you?"
Well, yes and no. Duluth, itself a northern outpost from the Twin Cities' perspective, suddenly felt very far south from our viewpoint on the eastern end of Devil Track Lake, off the Gunflint Trail. When I returned after dark, the brilliant stars overhead were amply absorbing, aside from the seasonal spectacle of sled dog teams running across the frozen lake to clock in on shore and get a little R&R on the nearby airstrip.
Wait ... airstrip? That's right, Skyport's name doesn't just come from its relative proximity to the sky. Clarence J. Krotz, a World War II aviator, built a dirt airstrip and seaplane base on the site in the 1940s. It served as the official Cook County airport until 1996, when the present airport was built about three-quarters of a mile north.
By the time the dogs reached Skyport, late Monday night into early Tuesday morning, they'd run over 220 miles in under two days. The site's volunteers, who would ultimately number in the dozens, agreed that the signal feature of Skyport is the long, visible approach across the lake.
"You can see them coming from about 5 miles down the lake, because you see (each musher's) headlamp," said Hautajarvi. "When they get a little closer, you see the blinking red light on the lead dog."
When the teams finally started to arrive, with Ryan Anderson in the lead, I gaped at the surreal spectacle. With the mushers' ultrabright headlamps blazing, each approaching team at first looked like the apparition from the movie poster for "The Thing." Eventually, the running dogs, breathing hard in the subzero temperature, became visible in a rolling vapor cloud.
All in utter silence, except for the groaning of the ice sheet and, gradually, the patter of the dogs' feet. Then came the musher's cries, and the cheers of the crowd. "Good dog!" people would yell. "Good dog! Good dog!" (If there was one thing about Beargrease that did not surprise me, it was the preponderance of good dogs.)
Teams of veterinarians were on hand to check the dogs' health, and when I left at midnight, they were reporting only good things. "Everyone's looking great," said Jonathan Elbaz.
Great? Despite having just run along frozen trails for hundreds of miles in the kind of temperatures that inspire people to toss pots of boiling water and watch the droplets become instant snow? Absolutely.
"These dogs train so much, and they're so happy to do what they do," said Katelyn Washburn, another vet. "It's almost an emotional experience the first time you see it, seeing the passion in these dogs."
There were, I discovered, very porous boundaries among the different roles at Beargrease, from mushers to spectators. Many of the people I spoke with at Skyport had mushing experience, some very recently.
"I ran the first leg of the (Beargrease) 120 this year," said Billie Thompson, cradling an infant as she watched the teams advance on a GPS monitor. "My little one ran the Cub Run this year, too," she added, referring to another young child who was still up at midnight due, Thompson said, to "FOMO."
Thompson's mother, a Skyport checkpoint coordinator, pitched in with child care throughout the night. "We have always been heavily involved with Beargrease," Thompson said of her family. "We've always been the mushers and then we wanted to jump into the volunteer aspect, but usually we'll see volunteers who suddenly become mushers. Once you jump into the world, you fall in love with it."
"Love" seemed a useful word to describe the motivation of the volunteers, some of whom hadn't had much more shuteye than the mushers. "I'm probably two hours' sleep since 5 o'clock Sunday morning," said Dee Hurda, who described her state as "tired, but caffeinated."
Hurda explained that "I work from home, so this is how I meet people and make new friends. We all have one thing in common: We love the races. We love the dogs. We love the mushers."
You've heard of fantasy football. Did you know there's fantasy mushing? I didn't. "Who are these handlers working with? Who is their mentor? Whose dogs are they running?" said Hurda, listing some of the variables she takes into consideration when drafting her fantasy mushing teams.
Handlers, I learned, are key members of a sled dog retinue. Some liken themselves to car race pit crews, others say there's really no comparison.
"Each musher is different," said Tony Mai, an experienced musher who was working as a handler in a utility role. "In past years I've done as much as making sure every meal is ready. Feeding dogs. One of the handlers makes sure they're up (after a rest) to get going."
Handlers, who generally assist mushers at checkpoints, also help with the booties. The booties? "Especially in this cold, they wear a bootie every run," said Mai, referencing the dogs' paws.
"When they come in," Mai continued, "because they have a Velcro that wraps around the wrist, they have to be taken off because otherwise it can cut circulation off. When they're running, it's fine. Once they stop, they need them off pretty quick. Also, the dogs only cool through their feet."
In just a few hours, I was learning a lot. "You're going to love it, so be careful!" said a grinning Stephanie Bartelt, standing around a roaring fire near the dogs' approach. "It's such a big sport, but a small world."
"It's like a family reunion," said Jake Hway, an Ely musher who I recognized from his Chilly Dogs jacket. Gesturing out to an incoming team on the lake, he explained: "These dogs have this lifestyle. We are their caretakers."
As one team yelped with delight at the imminent prospect of snacks, Hway explained that just because the dogs live to race, that doesn't mean they don't appreciate the pleasures of a good checkpoint.
"It's like when you go on vacation," Hway said. "It's also nice to come home."
Inside the lodge's Raven Rock Bar and Grill upstairs, Madonna's "Papa Don't Preach" played on the jukebox. Several people perched on stools, some stepping out on the deck to take a look when teams approached. Rachelle and Cory Christianson, who have owned Skyport Lodge since 2016, stood by.
"It's a special 24 hours," said Rachelle Christianson about the annual Beargrease stop. "Very fast, we've become friends with 'the Sawbillies,' they call themselves." (Sawbill is an earlier Beargrease checkpoint, on the Temperance River.)
Christianson herself wasn't planning to pull an all-nighter — "I'm a mother of two who have school in the morning" — but said she and her husband made sure the volunteers were set up with coffee and hot water. "We'll be back at it at 4 a.m. tomorrow. Cory prepares home-cooked food for breakfast."
The volunteers also had cookies and doughnut holes on hand for overnight sustenance, keeping an ear to the radio and an eye to the teams taking rests along the runway just outside the lodge.
I was glad to hear even the well-seasoned Mai acknowledge how cold it was up on the runway, where wind whipped through the darkness and made my rabbit-fur hat feel like mere tissue paper. The mushers, I saw, had trailers and support vehicles for shelter as needed.
Even as volunteers cycled in and out of the cold, occasionally crashing for naps on chairs or even the bare floor, there was a sustained, if restrained (this is Minnesota, after all), sense of exhilaration. "Should we do yoga?" Elbaz asked at one point.
"It's so good. It's really fun," said Patty Schlader, who was serving as the checkpoint's race timer alongside her husband, Dick. The Schladers were still reeling from witnessing the marathon's dramatic start.
"They're all just laying there, quiet and calm," said Patty Schlader about the dogs. "As soon as they are put into their harnesses, they just ... pull!"
"These teams are flying," said Dave Hruska, one of the judges stationed at Skyport. "There's a lot of good teams out there, so it's going to be an interesting finish."
Just after midnight, as I prepared to leave, Hautajarvi and other volunteers were calculating the amount of time remaining before every musher would have checked in. They estimated it would be at least another few hours.
That wasn't bad at all, said a smiling Hautajarvi. "We know what we signed up for."