Nearly 60 mushers — and hundreds of dogs — ready to run the Duluth Beargrease

The 36th running of the John Beargrease Sled Dog race gets underway.
Mushers leave Duluth in 2020 on the 300-mile route ending in Grand Portage, Minn. The first musher out, Blake Freking (No. 2), of Finland Minn, was the winner of the previous year's race.
Jerry Olson for MPR News 2020

Nearly 60 mushers and hundreds of eager dogs will take off from Duluth Sunday morning, up the North Shore of Lake Superior, for the annual running of the Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon.

It’s the longest sled dog race in the lower 48 states and a qualifier for the famed Iditarod race in Alaska. 

The event consists of three races, all beginning in Duluth. The 300-mile marathon, where mushers field teams of up to 12 dogs, finishes Tuesday at the Grand Portage Casino. The Beargrease 120 mid-distance race ends near Finland, Minn. The 40-mile race, geared toward less experienced mushers, ends in Two Harbors.

The forecast calls for frigid conditions, with subzero temperatures expected for the start of the race Sunday morning, with overnight temperatures up the North Shore that night approaching minus 20.

That makes for uncomfortable viewing conditions for spectators. But the dogs love it.

“Alaskan Huskies are built to be out in the cold and run with their friends in the cold,” said Jeremy Miller, a spokesperson and board member for the Beargrease Sled dog marathon. 

The cold temperatures also create firm trail conditions.

“The dogs can go a little bit faster, and we don't have to worry quite so much about injuries and things like that when the weather gets warm,” said Miller.

40 years of racing

The John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon was first run in 1980. It commemorates an Ojibwe musher who delivered mail via dog sled up and down the North Shore of Lake Superior in the late 1800s. 

The race used to span 400 miles, with mushers starting and finishing in Duluth. But the number of participants began to decline, as the number of mushers with large enough kennels — and the time to put enough training miles on their dogs this early in the winter — dwindled. 

So a few years ago, Beargrease organizers changed to the existing format that ends at Grand Portage.

“And we’ve really seen the numbers be a lot steadier with that,” said Miller. “We think we've got a good mix of mileage, and a good mix of races to be able to get the most people involved.”

“From what we see and what we hear, mushing is alive and well in northern Minnesota.”

Meet the mushers

The majority of mushers competing this year live and train in northern Minnesota and Wisconsin. Several mushers are also traveling to the race from Canada, including New Brunswick on the Atlantic coast. There are also mushers from Upper Michigan and one from New Hampshire. 

Defending champion Ryan Anderson of St. Croix Falls, Wis., returns this year to defend his title. He’s one of three people to have won the Beargrease marathon four times.

Miller believes it’s a wide open field.

“There's probably five or six teams easily that could win this race,” he said. 

Musher crosses finish line.
Ero Wallin crosses the finish line at the 2022 John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon in Grand Portage, Minn., coming in fourth.
Courtesy of Root River Photography

It’s a family affair for some mushers. Colleen Wallin and her son Ero of Two Harbors are both running the Marathon. They finished in third and fourth place last year. 

Jennifer Freking of Finland, Minn. is racing in the marathon, while her 12-year old daughter Elena is tackling the 40-mile race. It will be her first time racing on the Beargrease trail. 

Fat tire bikers

In addition to dozens of mushers, a small group of fat tire bike riders has also taken on the challenge of the Beargrease trail in recent years. 

Ben Weaver, a St. Paul-based poet and cycling advocate, first rode the trail with a friend in 2019 who had ridden the Iditarod trail in Alaska. 

Bu they don’t treat it as a race, he stressed: “It’s more about community building and being out there with the land and with each other.”

Since that initial ride in 2019, Weaver has ridden the trail every year with a small group of cyclists. They leave Saturday morning from Duluth, ahead of the dogs. They arrive at the Sawbill checkpoint Sunday, where they camp and volunteer, running dog teams back and forth, helping out where they can.

bike riders pose for a photograph in a forest
A group of fat bike riders, including Ben Weaver and Alexandera Houchin, at the Sawbill check point along the John Beargrease sled dog trail.
Courtesy of Ben Weaver | 2022

Then once the checkpoint is clear, they take down their camp, hop back on their bikes and follow the teams up the trail. Last year they barely slept.

The trek continues to Grand Portage on Monday. In all, they ride about 200 miles of the trail. It’s a significant challenge: The trail is relentlessly hilly and they carry everything they need to survive with them.

Alexandera Houchin, an accomplished long-distance bike racer and resident of the Fond du Lac reservation who takes part in the event, says for her, it’s a refreshing change of pace — something completely different from the sometimes “ego-driven” ultra racing she’s used to, and it’s a moment to recognize the history Native people have in the area.

“It just feels like a different way to connect with John Beargrease,” she said. “We're really just working to do some healing and narrative change around what bike racing is, what it has been, and what it can be.”

If you go

The Beargrease begins at Billy’s Bar in Duluth, which Miller says is a great spot to see mushers and their dogs. Parking is limited but a shuttle bus runs from UMD.

Checkpoints along the race course are also spectator-friendly. Mushers are required to rest their teams for a total of 24 hours at these designated stops along the trail. Descriptions of the checkpoints, driving directions and estimated dog arrival times can be found at the Beargrease website

If you’re feeling adventurous, Miller says, try “trailgating.” He said a group of people set up along the trail north of Hovland, make corn dogs and hand them to mushers as they pass.

Mushers are expected to finish the 120-mile race Monday morning and the marathon late Tuesday afternoon.

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