For the first time in its history, the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon will have a direct descendant of the race's namesake lead its board of directors.
Late last month, Mike Keyport was elected the new board president after serving as its vice president since 2014. Keyport is the great-grandson of John Beargrease, the legendary North Shore musher who used a sled dog team to deliver the mail from Two Harbors to Grand Marais during the winter in the late 1800s. Keyport is a member of the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and serves as the emergency management and safety director for the Grand Portage Reservation.
"I'm honored to carry on my ancestor's legacy and continue the great work that goes into the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon," Keyport said. "Somebody told me today I should be very proud that my grandfather was a leader of his community, and now I'm leading something that is his namesake."
Keyport's election as president wasn't the only change on the board. Race communications director Jason Rice was elected board vice president and there are five new members coming on to the 13-member board.
"When you get new faces on the board you get new ideas. With any organization, maybe the way we've been doing it for many years isn't the right way, maybe there's a better way or more efficient, cost-effective way," Keyport said. "I think there's always room for improvement in any organization and that's one of my goals, is to fine-tune it a little better and see if we can save a dollar here or get a better sponsor there."
Keyport and Rice both said they want to try to increase the fundraising and sponsorship money coming into the race. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Beargrease race had an annual budget of about $200,000 - but today operates on about half that. Rice said that one of the problems is that the larger number of nonprofits today compared to 25 years ago has increased the competition for sponsorships and donations.
"We're not saving lives with our organization, so we have to fight twice as hard to stay relevant to the sponsor and show them we're important," Rice said. "The greatest thing we do for the area is tourism and as a cultural and historic lesson. We're providing a pump of tourism in a month that is notoriously down for visitorship to this area."
During a retreat to welcome the new board members and set a path forward for the next year and the 2018 race, the group brainstormed ideas that might help increase the budget for the race. Keyport said ideas included a 5K race to benefit the race or even a motorcycle run that begins and ends in Beaver Bay, the birthplace of John Beargrease.
In addition, Duluth city attorney Gunnar Johnson and four-time Beargrease champion Nathan Schroeder will share stories and pictures from their experience completing the 2017 Iditarod race. The event will begin at 6 p.m. today at Temple Israel, 1602 E. Second St. in Duluth. The event is free but donations to the Beargrease race are accepted and encouraged.
"We can't rely totally on sponsorship money; we have to get out there and put boots to the ground and do these fundraisers," Keyport said. "I think that's the more enjoyable part, the fundraisers, because you get to get out there and see people and learn their interest in the race."
Rice said he is excited about the new era with Keyport at the helm of the board. Keyport, according to Rice, is a thoughtful leader who raises the spirits of everyone around him and seeks common ground when disagreements arise.
"(Keyport) leaves you feeling a little bit better than you were before and that's a fantastic quality," Rice said. "The fact that he happens to be the great-grandson of John Beargrease, that's just a nice side thing; we'd elect him even if he wasn't. He's a good man and a hard worker and having that at the heart of what we do, that can only spell good things for us."