It's the dogs, their frosty breath-clouds, their booted paws punching pure snow, their bouncing and yipping and pulling on tug lines and tow line, eager to get on with it, breathless to hit the trail.

That's what our John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon is all about: that enthusiasm, that excitement, that uninhibited celebration of winter. We see it in the dogs, and we can seize the chance to be part of it, to joyfully bask in the cold and the slush and the just being in this special place at this frigid-in-a-good-way time of year.

The 36th running of the Beargrease — a can't-miss moment on Northland calendars rivaled only by things like Grandma's Marathon, the Christmas City of the North parade, and the fishing opener — takes off Sunday just outside Duluth at Billy’s Bar, 3502 W. Tischer Road. Free shuttle rides to the starting line depart regularly between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. from Lot W at UMD, along Junction Avenue just off College Street. We can even meet with the mushers there before the race.

Then, during the race, road crossings along the North Shore State Snowmobile Trail are great viewing spots, as are checkpoints. Directions to the checkpoints and the teams’ estimated arrival times are updated regularly at All mushers wear GPS tracking devices, and the website is a great place, too, to follow their progress.

During a quiet moment during the race, we can also recall John Beargrease, whose spirit is first on the trail every year. The race route roughly follows the path Beargrease and his brothers did while delivering mail during the frontier days of the late 1800s. They made their deliveries by dogsled in winter and while checking trap lines. Mushers take a moment to pay homage to Beargrease by visiting his gravesite in Beaver Bay. It's a worthy tradition that also is a celebration of our heritage and our past.

With the annual John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, Northlanders get the chance every year to celebrate winter, the beautiful dogs, and all that it means to be part of this unique place. Our chance to celebrate this year begins Sunday.