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And they're off: 28th annual John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon begins

The dogs get all the love. At the start of the 2011 John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon on Sunday, eyes were fixed on the dogs that, with booties on, were all harnessed up and ready to go. Jumping and yelping, the dogs couldn't contain themselves, ...

The dogs get all the love.

At the start of the 2011 John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon on Sunday, eyes were fixed on the dogs that, with booties on, were all harnessed up and ready to go.

Jumping and yelping, the dogs couldn't contain themselves, so eager were they for the run.

That's why, as Gavin Baker's team of 14 dogs headed for the 28th annual race's start on Sunday afternoon, a voice called out to him from the spectators he passed.

"Good luck!"

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Baker, from Almonte, Ontario, turned, looking a bit surprised. He responded in turn with a "Thanks" to the stranger as he led his dog team forward.

"It seems like the dogs were getting all the attention," explained the stranger, actually Michael Gabler of Duluth, who was at the race start with his 10-year-old son, Noah. "It seems like it would be very stressful. He looked a little nervous, and I just wanted to wish him well."

Baker was one of 17 teams that had registered for the 390-mile marathon race that set out from Riley Road north of Duluth on Sunday afternoon.

They include defending champion Nathan Schroeder of Chisholm and four-time winner Jamie Nelson of Togo. They were followed by 37 teams competing in the Beargrease Mid-Distance race of 150 miles.

The marathoners began checking in at the Highway 2 checkpoint in Two Harbors at 4 p.m. and the Beaver Bay checkpoint at 7 p.m. and, at 5 a.m. today, were expected at the Sawbill checkpoint, where they are required to rest for four hours.

Just minutes before the 1 p.m. start, musher Tom Bauer was putting booties on his dog team. Bauer had run the Beargrease 150-miler before, but when it came to marathons, he was a rookie.

"They're getting anxious," he said of his Alaskan huskies. "These guys like to run. We got to hold them back a little."

That's his strategy. Reserve their energy until later in the race. Everything looked good, too, he said. The dogs had been eating well to put on the extra fat they would need for the race. The forecast of below-zero nights was ideal for running. And besides the usual mushing gear, he was taking some mementos and American Indian artifacts with him for luck.

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"It seems to bring me luck when I go whitetail deer hunting," he explained.

Meanwhile, first-timer Stephanie Love of Duluth was both nervous and excited. As an outdoor educator, she often takes children out on dogsled rides. But she and her husband, Blake Cazier, who run Positive Energy Outdoors, were attempting their first Beargrease mid-distance race with separate teams.

"The mushing part is the fun part, but all the preparation is very difficult," she said.

While 15-mile runs were the norm for her, training involved runs of up to 50 miles and nighttime runs, she said.

"I don't expect to win," she said. "But it's been all positive for me. Now when kids ask, 'have you done a race?' I can say I did the Beargrease."

As, one by one, the teams took off, Dave Burkum stood on a mound of snow, smoking a pipe, a thermos mug of coffee in one hand, a camera in the other. He had brought his grandchildren up from Minneapolis for the race and they had made a weekend of it.

"It's their first time at the race," he said. "I used to bring my own kids."

They had gone to the Cutest Puppy Contest on Saturday, then stayed at a cabin in Knife River on Saturday night and watched "Iron Will," a Disney film about a sled dog race that was filmed in the Northland in the early 1990s.

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He wasn't worried that the hundreds who gathered along the race's starting line made it hard to see the teams. They would go to the first checkpoints for better views and pictures, he said.

The race -- which goes up the North Shore Snowmobile Trail to the Gunflint Trail, then back to Duluth -- should see its first finisher Wednesday morning.

The marathon winner wins a $7,000 top prize, while the mid-distance race winner gets $3,000.

Video: Teams arrive in Finland (posted at 4 a.m. today)

Video courtesy of Gary Larson

Related Topics: TWO HARBORS
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