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'The mail has been delivered!': Beargrease mail service honors North Shore legend

"Trail Mail," operating for 15 years, has mushers deliver mail by sled to recognize John Beargrease's legacy.

Beargrease Trail Mail bag
Each musher participating in "Trail Mail" receives a mail bag made by Frost River company.
Contributed / Jean Vincent
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DULUTH — Between 1879 to 1899, John Beargrease braved hot summers and harsh winters to deliver mail with his team of sled dogs between Two Harbors and Grand Marais — leaving an everlasting mark on the North Shore.

Over 100 years later, mushers hope to honor Beargrease's life by following his trail.

Although local musher Peter McClelland is not competing in this year's John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, he continues to participate in "Trail Mail," a tradition since 2006.

"So much of history is remembering the big people," McClelland said. "But it's the people who just did the grunt work that really helped build the modern country. ... It's important to remember people that contributed to the region."

John Beargrease was an Anishinaabe mail carrier who delivered to towns along the North Shore. Each year, every musher in the race is sworn in as an official U.S. mail carrier, taking letters from Northlanders to the end of the trail.

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Peter McClelland.jpg
John Beargrease marathon racer Peter McClelland arrives at the Mineral Center checkpoint with his whiskers well-iced.
Steve Kuchera / 2019 file / Duluth News Tribune

"It's to remember and honor the way we used to be able to communicate, and how it wasn't easy, but we still communicated with each other, because we had people willing to travel into the wilderness and deliver the mail," McClelland said, "We're honoring that."

Each musher takes a Frost River mail bag full of envelopes that are checked at different location points across the North Shore. At the end of their designated trail, the envelopes are picked up and taken to post offices.

All mushers in the marathon, the 120 race, and the junior race will be participating in "Trail Mail."

"The dogs are just our companions in doing this job," McClelland said. "And when you work in tandem, it's a special relationship that you develop."

Beargrease Trail Mail envelope
The Beargrease 2022 design, Makwabimidem / Beargrease by Grand Portage artist Sam Zimmerman
Contributed / Jean Vincent

Anyone can buy a commemorative envelope to send off to friends or families that will be stamped with "carried by dog sled" and decorated with the musher's signature.

The artwork is specifically designed by local artist Sam Zimmerman, whose design pays homage to the Beargrease's legacy and Indigenous heritage.

"The biggest thing to me was the celebration of not just the Native American aspect but the whole history of the North Shore and the culture of people who lived then," Beargrease Vice President Jean Vincent said. "I think there's a lot to learn in recognizing and celebrating history."

Amy Tucci, the Trail Mail coordinator for the past four years, is a second grade teacher who started as a Beargrease volunteer.
"My hope and dream is that John Beargrease is seen as a really significant historical person," Tucci said. "It's real and I can teach it as real."

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Vincent said a record-breaking 1,500 envelopes sold this year, and the event is sold out.

As mushers face the bitter cold, Vincent said volunteers and board members alike wait for the finishing proclamation, "The mail has been delivered!" as an ultimate tribute to the Northland hero.

Community members can call dibs on their own personalized envelopes for next year's event by purchasing them at beargrease.com/product/trailmail . The envelopes for the 2023 Trail Mail are available for purchase next fall.

READ MORE ABOUT BEARGREASE:
Second grade, and some third grade, students at North Shore Community School near Duluth have been learning about dog sledding over the last month and their lesson culminated on Friday, Feb. 18, 2022 with the 15th year of the "Ikidarod." The students pretended to be sled dog teams and raced on the school's nature trail, stopping at checkpoints as family and fellow students cheered them on.

Abigael Smith graduated from the University of Minnesota Duluth with a double major in journalism and English and a minor in Digital Writing, Literature, and Design.
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