Mary Manning has a leg up, actually many legs up, on any game law violator she approaches on the frozen surface of a Boundary Waters lake.

In fact, Manning, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources conservation officer for northern Cook County, has an edge no other conservation officer in the state has.

Her sled dog team.

Manning, who has been mushing for nearly 25 years, has put her sled dogs to work in recent years to patrol deep into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

“It’s a lot of effort to get everything ready, and to make sure we’re prepared,’’ Manning said. “But it does work out pretty well. We can cover a lot more ground with the dog team than we could on skis or snowshoes.”

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Mary Manning walks two of her dogs back to her truck following a patrol into the BWCAW. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Mary Manning walks two of her dogs back to her truck following a patrol into the BWCAW. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

She's not only the only mushing game warden in Minnesota, but also may be the only one in the continental U.S.

Manning, 53, almost always makes her wilderness mushing patrols with another officer, and lately that’s often been Tom Wahlstrom, also assigned to Cook County. Both officers joined the DNR conservation force in 2005 and both have been in Cook County the entire time.

“When you work with someone as long as Mary and I have worked together, you kind of get to know what they are going to do. You don’t even have to say anything,’’ Wahlstrom said, describing the surprise looks the duo gets when the dog team rounds a point on a lake and pulls up on an unsuspecting group of trout anglers deep inside the wilderness.

“Mary stops the dogs and handles them while I jump off. … We can usually get up on them before they have a chance to stop doing whatever it is they were doing,’’ Wahlstrom said. If that happens to be an illegal activity fishing with too many lines, or fishing without a license, or having too many fish — it often means citations are issued.

Just last week the two rode tandem on Manning’s big sled, behind eight of her best dogs, across some slush-covered lakes, heading into Daniels Lake — not far off the Gunflint Trail — a popular trout fishing destination inside the BWCAW. Sure enough, they found two anglers, but both were behaving themselves on a mild winter’s day.

While Mary Manning stays with her team co-worker Tom Wahlstrom talks with angler Joey Pederson on Daniels Lake. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
While Mary Manning stays with her team co-worker Tom Wahlstrom talks with angler Joey Pederson on Daniels Lake. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

“I absolutely enjoy being with the dogs. And it’s a great tool for us,’’ Wahlstorm said.

“We do get some interesting looks when people realize we’re wearing uniforms,’’ Manning noted. “They don’t expect to see us out there.”

Stumbled into mushing and stayed

Manning has been mushing since about 1997 when she lived in the Willow River area of Pine County where, before joining the DNR, she worked for the Pine County Sheriff’s Office as a deputy, dispatcher and corrections officer.

“Like so many people who get into mushing, it started small and snowballed from there,’’ she said. “I made the mistake of getting that first puppy given to me. Then you get a second dog and someone sold me a used sled. Then you get more dogs, you upgrade sleds. ... And pretty soon you’ve got a kennel of dogs. ... Then you start doing races.”

And that’s how you become a musher.

“You should do drugs, it would be cheaper,’’ Manning said with a laugh.

Mary Manning.
Mary Manning.

She’s stayed with it, she noted, because she loves the teamwork with the dogs, loves training and learning along with the dogs, and loves the experiences she and her dogs have on the trail.

A Michigan native, Manning said she never saw a sled-dog team until she got to Minnesota. Now, Manning and her spouse have about 35 active and retired dogs in what they call DoodleDog Kennel in a remote part of Cook County near Hovland. (The retired sled dogs get to move inside with the people.)

Manning at first used her dog team for personal camping trips into the wilderness. But then she realized they could come in handy for patrols, so she approached her supervisors with the idea.

“I wouldn’t say anyone was overly excited over the idea. But I’ve never had anyone (at DNR) say I shouldn’t do it,’’ she said.

In addition to fellow DNR officers, Manning also has ridden into the wilderness with U.S. Forest Service personnel. She starts patrol trips both off the Gunflint trail and out of the Ely area as well.

“We try to clean up whatever violations we find because we will probably be the only (law enforcement officers) that have contact with that party,’’ Manning said, noting that can include minor drug possession charges or wilderness rule violations.

The patrol runs are usually onto frozen lakes without groomed trails, so the training is a bit different than preparing for sled-dog races, Manning noted. But it’s still good work, or more like fun, for the dogs.

“I use my own gear. I don’t get paid for practice. I don’t get reimbursed for the dog food,’’ she noted. “But, the way I see it, when I am out there (on dog-sled patrol) I’m getting paid to do something I absolutely love. Two things, really.”

Manning takes each patrol into the wilderness seriously. It’s not the place you want to end up stranded or somehow lose control of the dog team or situation. Last year deep snow was a concern. This year it’s slush on top of the ice.

“We go in prepared to handle any situation,” she said. “I look at each situation to see how can we get in and out safely. … Maybe it’s the weather or the snow conditions on the lakes.”

Like many other conservation officers, Manning seems to get extra satisfaction over surprising people who are violating the law.

“It’s nice to keep people guessing sometimes, and the dogs help with that,’’ she said. “But it’s also not a bad thing to catch people doing everything right.”

Mary Manning’s team near anglers Joey Pederson (left) and Carolyn Fritz in the BWCAW earlier this month. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Mary Manning’s team near anglers Joey Pederson (left) and Carolyn Fritz in the BWCAW earlier this month. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

The Hovland mushing mafia

Being able to run her dog team was a big reason she chose the Grand Marais DNR field station that happened to be open in 2005 when she started her career.

“Grand Marais was No. 1 on my list. It was close to Lake Superior. It was close to the Boundary Waters and the things I loved to do,’’ she said. “Plus, it was somewhere I could run the dogs.”

Manning settled in the Hovland area northeast of Grand Marais, and not by accident. Hovland is a hotbed for mushers and has been for years. At her new home Manning says there are a half-dozen mushers with kennels within a mile or so, including Frank Moe and Linda Newman.

“On this end of the county, there is a little private property, and it’s zoned right for having a kennel,’’ she said. “Plus you’ve got all these forest roads that aren’t used in the winter that are perfect for running dogs, and the ATV trail system, too.”

It’s a great place to live if you want to get away from the trials and tribulations of city life, she noted. But not so great if you want to order from Amazon.

“They won’t deliver mail this far out, so it’s hard to get any packages delivered because we don’t have an official (Postal Service) address,’’ Manning said. “There’s no electricity out here. There’s no broadband service. We have to get satellite internet. ... But that’s OK. It all works out.”

Several of Mary Manning’s team watch as she and Tom Wahlstrom load a tandem sled onto her truck. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Several of Mary Manning’s team watch as she and Tom Wahlstrom load a tandem sled onto her truck. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Moe said Manning has become a good friend, neighbor and mushing compatriot in the far-flung but close-knit mushing community around Hovland where friends may compete in races but everyone helps each other out.

“Several years ago we moved to a new cabin here in Hovland and I needed help putting in the new dog yard. Mary ... showed up and didn't leave until the job was done,’’ Moe said of his neighbors.

“There's a long history of mushing in eastern Cook County. In fact there are sections of the old dog trails used by John Beargrease that are still in use,’’ Moe added.

Running the Beargrease

In addition to her DNR patrols, Manning has become an accomplished dog team racer in recent years. In 2016 she finished the Beargrease mid-distance race and in 2019 she started the Beargrease marathon but pulled out of the race at the Sawbill checkpoint when her dogs seemed to lose energy.

“I was into racing for a while many years ago and then got out. … it’s very expensive and a huge commitment in time,’’ she noted. “But now I guess we’re back in again.”

Mary Manning begins the 2018 John Beargrease Mid-Distance Race. She has competed in the race’s marathon once and is running it again this year. (Steve Kuchera / file / News Tribune)
Mary Manning begins the 2018 John Beargrease Mid-Distance Race. She has competed in the race’s marathon once and is running it again this year. (Steve Kuchera / file / News Tribune)

She’s also run in the Gunflint Mail Run, the Ely Wolf Track Classic, the Apostle Island Sled Dog Race in Bayfield, the U.P. 200 and CopperDog races in Michigan, the Can-AM 100 in Maine and the West Yellowstone Special in Montana, among other races.

“The only race I ever won was the Apostle Island race in Bayfield. But we’ve done OK in some others,’’ she noted.

Manning said he was taken aback last February when she raced in front of thousands of spectators at the 2020 Lake Minnetonka Klondike Dog Derby in the Twin Cities.

“That was quite an experience,” she said of the huge crowd, noting mushing is usually a solitary sport while training in the woods.

This year she’s one of 19 mushers entered in the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, and her goal is to finish strong. It will be an unusual race, held without spectators due to COVID-19 concerns. But the mushers and dogs are still eager.

Manning says the Beargrease marathon is probably as difficult a race as she wants to try.

“People ask if I’m going to try the Iditarod someday,” she said. “I say no way. … I like to sleep too much to be on the trail that long.”

Manning says the competition in the Beargrease is always top-notch and that 2021 is no exception. But she thinks she has the right team together this year to finish well.

“I’ve got young dogs that have trained well. This is a fast team,’’ she said. “They’re ready for it. I’m ready for it.”

Two of Mary Manning’s dogs wait to begin a recent patrol. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Two of Mary Manning’s dogs wait to begin a recent patrol. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

37th John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon starts Jan. 31

Mary Manning of Hovland will be one of 19 mushers registered to start the 2021 John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon on Sunday, Jan. 31, just outside Duluth.

This year’s race will seem familiar to veteran mushers, traveling about 300 miles from the start at Billy’s Bar on Jean Duluth Road to the finish at Grand Portage Lodge and Casino — the same route as 2019 and 2020.

But this year’s race will be held without spectators. No members of the public will be allowed at the start, at checkpoints or at the finish line due to COVID-19 concerns.

Fans will be able to follow the race online, including updates at dulutnnewstribune.com and, once the race starts, can track mushers via GPS transmitters at beargrease.com.

This will be the 37th Beargrease marathon, which was first run in 1980 honoring Ojibwe musher John Beargrease, who delivered mail by dogsled along the North Shore. The race was canceled some years due to lack of snow.

So far 26 mushers are registered for the 120-mile race.

The Beargrease marathon had for years been the longest sled-dog race in the Lower 48 states. That distinction now falls to a Montana marathon with the Beargrease shortened in 2019. The 300-mile Beargrease, however, is still long enough to serve as a qualifying race for Alaska's Iditarod.

The Beargrease marathon will start at noon Jan. 31. The 120-mile mid-distance race and 40-mile race will start at the same place after the marathon racers leave.

The 40-mile race ends at Lake County Highway 2, just north of Two Harbors. The 120-mile race ends at the Trestle Inn. The marathon will end at Grand Portage Lodge and Casino, with the fastest mushers likely finishing sometime Tuesday afternoon or evening.