The 2019 John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon will start next Sunday just outside Duluth and wind its way to Grand Portage, about 100 miles shorter than previous years and, unlike every past year, it won't be coming back to the start.
Race organizers decided a shorter, one-way race could help breathe new life into Minnesota's most famous dog sled event, especially by attracting more entrants.
Last year only 10 teams entered the 400-mile race, and only six finished - about half the number of early years of the race. This year, 12 teams are entered in the marathon and most are expected to finish the shorter, roughly 300-mile course.
This will be the 35th Beargrease marathon first run in 1980. The race was canceled some years due to lack of snow.
This year's purse totals $30,000, with $5,400 to the marathon winner and $3,600 for the 120 winner, said Monica Hendrickson, spokesperson for beargrease.
The Beargrease marathon had been the longest sled dog race in the lower 48 states. That distinction now falls to a Montana marathon with the Beargrease shortened. 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. 27 at Billy's Bar just outside Duluth on Jean Duluth Road. 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 Lutsen ski hill. The marathon will end at Grand Portage Lodge and Casino, probably sometime Tuesday afternoon.
The race will take much the same route as usual to start, from Duluth to the Sawbill Trail on the North Shore State Trail, then veer north to Trail Center on The Gunflint Trail, head back south to Devils Track Lake near Grand Marais and then continue east to Mineral Point and then on to the finish line at Grand Portage.
Beargrease race officials first announced the shorter race last summer and decided since to make it a one-way race. A shorter, two-way race would have had to skip several North Shore communities that have historically been part of the beargrease tradition, Hendrickson said.
"The shorter race was really requested by the mushers,'' Hendrickson said. "It's getting harder for a lot of them to train for a 400 mile-plus race. A lot of them don't have snow as much, or as early, and training on wheels just isn't the same. So this was really driven by what the mushers wanted."
Veteran musher and Beargrease regular Frank Moe of Hovland said the shorter race is less of a crush on dogs, handlers and mushers.
"To me it's a big difference training a team to run 300 miles versus almost 400,'' said Moe, who also serves on the Beargrease board. "One less night out on the trail will make it easier, especially for my main handler, my wife Sherri."
In addition to the dozen teams in the marathon, there are 24 teams entered in the 120-mile mid-distance race, including four junior mushers under age 18. There are 21 teams entered in the 40-mile rec race and there were 21 teams entered in the Mini-Musher race last weekend, all under age 15.
Moe said the heavy snowfalls of early January in Lake and Cook counties have mostly settled and trails that were nearly impassable for a while are now "starting to set up" well for mushing. Frigid temperatures forecast for for the marathon are actually welcome to keep the trail fast and keep the hard working dogs cool. From now on the biggest impact that weather might have is a significant snowfall just before the race.
"When we get a lot of snow right before or during the race, then it can really slow things down. The more soft snow on the trail, the slower everyone goes,'' Moe said, adding that most mushers try to train for varied conditions.
"In the end, more snow (before the race) is better than not enough. When it snows heavy up here we take the dogs right out into it because we don't want the first time they see deep snow to be during the race. In the end all mushers have to run on the same trail,'' Moe said. "With so many years lately where (lack of) snow has been an issue, you won't hear many mushers complaining about too much snow."
If you go:
• Parking at UMD, free shuttle: Parking is at a premium at the race start at Billy's Bar on Jean Duluth Road north of Duluth. Plan on walking a distance if you drive to the start. The best option is to park at UMD Lot W - along Junction Avenue just off College Street - and take a free shuttle bus to Billy's. Buses will start running at 8 a.m. and run about every 20 minutes until 4 p.m.
• Do NOT bring your dog to any Beargrease event! No pets are allowed.
• Best viewing: Arrive early at the race start to get the best viewing spots. Before the race there are opportunities to talk with mushers and see their dogs and equipment. Road crossings along the North Shore State Trail also are great viewing opportunities, as are the checkpoints.
• Etiquette around the dogs and the mushers: Be respectful of their space and their time. Please ask permission before touching any dogs any time you encounter them - before, during or after the race. Ask the musher before taking photos of them or their dogs.
• Volunteers still needed: Especially road crossing volunteers. Go to beargrease.com and click on volunteers.
• Follow the race live: Each musher will wear a GPS tracking device and you can follow their progress live at beargrease.com or facebook.com/beargrease/.
Saturday, Jan. 26
8 a.m. Vet checks for teams at Lake Superior College in Duluth.
11 a.m. to noon: Registration for the Cutest Puppy Contest, Fitgers complex, Duluth. (Limit of 40 puppies age 4 to 9 months).
Noon to 2 p.m. Viewing/voting on cutest puppy at Fitgers; Awards at 2:15 p.m.
3:30-5 p.m. Beargrease social, cash bar and silent auction, Lake Superior College.
5 p.m. Opening Ceremonies Dinner at Lake Superior College in Duluth. Requires ticket in advance of $20. For tickets go to beargrease.com/opening-ceremonies-information/.
Sunday, Jan. 27
10 a.m. Meet the mushers at the race starting area, Billy's Bar 3502 W. Tischer Rd, along Jean Duluth Road just north of Duluth. Outdoor food tent, live music, food and drink specials.
Noon. Marathon start first, then Beargrease 120 start then Beargrease 40 start - all at Billy's Bar.
3:30 p.m. Estimated first marathon teams to Lake County Highway 2 checkpoint just north of Two Harbors.
5:00 pm Estimated Finish of Beargrease 40, Lake County Highway 2 north of Two Harbors
8 p.m. Estimated first marathon teams into the Finland checkpoint.
Monday, Jan. 28
5:00 a.m. Estimated first marathon team in to Sawbill Checkpoint
7:00 a.m. Estimated time Beargrease 120 Finish at Lutsen Mountain, Papa Charlie's chalet.
10:00 a.m. Estimated first team into Trail Center along Gunflint Trail.
3:30 p.m. Beargrease 120 Banquet, Papa Charlie's, Lutsen
8:00 p.m. Estimated first marathon team into Skyport Lodge at Devil Track Lake near Grand Marais.
Tuesday, Jan. 29
7:30 a.m. Estimated first marathon team into Mineral Center
3:30 p.m. Estimated marathon first finisher, Grand Portage Lodge and Casino. The last marathon teams are expected to finish by about 4 a.m. Wednesday.
Wednesday, Jan. 30
9 a.m. Marathon finishers and awards banquet at Grand Portage Lodge and Casino. Cost is $10, advanced registration required.
All checkpoint times are ESTIMATES and are likely to change. For more information and updates go to beargrease.com
About John Beargrease:
John Beargrease was born in 1858, the son of Anishinaabe Chief Moquabimetem. The family lived in a traditional wigwam in Beaver Bay.
By the time John Beargrease was in his twenties, the North Shore had become home to numerous small settlements of European fishing families which had planted themselves in the many coves of Lake Superior's rocky shoreline.
John Beargrease and his brothers were avid hunters and trappers and made regular trips along the shore and they eventually picked up the job of delivering the mail on their trips.
For 20 years, between 1879 and 1899, John Beargrease and his brothers delivered the mail between Two Harbors and Grand Marais once each week - by canoe, horse and boat. John Beargrease was best known for his winter deliveries by dogsled. When the North Shore trail was improved into a road allowing horse and wagons, it ended the dogsled adventures. John Beargrease made his last dog sled mail run to Grand Marais on April 26, 1899.
Beargrease made his home in both Beaver Bay and in Grand Portage. He never forgot how much the people living on the North Shore depended upon the mail. One day in 1910, he went out in a storm to rescue another mail carrier whose boat was caught in the waves off Tamarack Point, near Grand Portage. He caught pneumonia after the ordeal and died soon after. His grave can be seen today at the Indian Cemetery in Beaver Bay.