Beargrease: Racing under difficult conditions
This weekend, local musher John Stetson will battle more than racers during the annual John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon. He will be competing with a heavy heart. His wife, Shelly, passed away about two weeks ago after a long battle with cancer. ...
This weekend, local musher John Stetson will battle more than racers during the annual John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon.
He will be competing with a heavy heart.
His wife, Shelly, passed away about two weeks ago after a long battle with cancer.
"There's a lot of thoughts in my mind," said Stetson, 51, about the possibility of not running in the race. "There's a general sadness. ... Because you are sad, [it] doesn't mean you don't do. I shouldn't say I didn't give any thought of not doing it, but Shelly was a dog racer -- these are her dogs. She ran a dog race two years ago while she was on chemotherapy. This is what we do. It's my job. I can't not go to work."
Stetson, who owns about 50 dogs, said dropping out of the race wouldn't be fair to his dogs.
This year there are a few changes for the Beargrease.
One of the biggest alterations will be the length: The race will be 371 miles, about 47 more than last year.
Stetson is aware of how the course changes. What he doesn't know is how the loss of his wife will alter things.
"I don't really know how it's going to be different, except Shelly won't be there," said Stetson, who has a 7-year-old son. "Those are bridges you pass when you pass them. I don't have [pause] the time or inclination, really, to project how something might be. I am far more inclined to think about how it was after I'm done. With Shelly, she has been at every race."
Even though Stetson has competed in numerous races, winning the race isn't his prime motivation.
"The racing to me, that's not what I do," he said. "I've always said, 'I race because there happens to be races.' It's not what drives me. For a lot of guys, that's why they have sled dogs. ... I love dogs. I really like dogs that are capable of being my companion and helping me do stuff. Sled dogs -- they take me to places that I can't [go to] otherwise."
Stetson, who has logged about 100,000 miles dog sledding, added that it is conducive to a philosopher's state of mind.
"One of the things that attracts me to dog sledding, and somewhat to dog racing, is you do have time to think," said Stetson, who has a degree in psychology. "I've always felt that most people don't spend enough time thinking about their life and about their reason and their meaning. They think about how [they] can make more money or how I can do this."
No matter what, the John Beargrease will always hold a special meaning for Stetson.
"It's our home race ... we've always tried to support that," he said. "Secondly, it has such a historical perspective that's often lost. John Beargrease was this native guy who was really close to the land and he had a job: taking the mail."
Beargrease, along with the mushers of today, often battled frigid temperatures. The forecast for Sunday, Jan. 25, when the race begins, calls for a low below zero.
"[There] are numerous times when it's in the minus 30s," Stetson said. "Last year was a particularly bad year because it rained, so it had to be above 30 and then it went down to minus 30 degrees."
These temperatures don't bother Stetson as much as the average person.
"I always tell people that, to do what I do, you have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable," he said.
Stetson has competed in numerous dog sledding races (including the Iditarod). He has also been on expeditions -- including ones in the Canadian Arctic and Antarctica -- to make people more aware of global warming.
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The running of the mid-distance race will begin at 1 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 25, at Ordean Middle School. The full marathon will begin at 2:30 p.m. at the same location. For more information about the Beargrease and a listing of events surrounding the festivities, visit www.beargrease.com .
Stetson also has a dog sledding tour company, which delivers educational opportunities. For more, visit www.dogmusher.com .