JOHN BEARGREASE: SLED DOG MARATHON

Leaning forward, his blue eyes seeming to blaze out of his head with scary intensity, Doug smacked his coffee mug down on the lacquered hardwood surface of the table hard enough that I thought it would surely crack and said, “The Beargrease is the toughest race I’ve ever run!”This powerfully declarative statement came at the end of a very long conversation where Doug Swingley had been reminiscing about his career as a long distance racer and the merits of individual races that made up the body of his vast mushing experience. As my team surged out of the starting chute in downtown Duluth several months later, bursting with frantic energy and robust good health, throngs of cheering spectators arrayed to either side of the trail clapping their hands and thundering their collective approval of our mission, I thought the same thing now as I did then. I must see this legendary trail with my own eyes.It was January of 2008, and my team of Alaskan Huskies and I were on the North Shore of Lake Superior chasing down a dream that had been 25 years in the making. We were participating as rookies in the 25th annual running of the John Beargrease Marathon, and as my sled runners began to heat up the surface of the State Trail I was filled with a child’s simple wonder.I had been following this race since I was a lad mushing the Junior Iditarod up in Alaska where I had been raised, eagerly listening to stories about Susan Butcher and Dee Dee Jonrowe, John Patten and Jamie Nelson. Robin Jacobson. The Swingley brothers. Halter and Adkins. Epic showdowns played out over five hundred miles of trail alongside the Great Lake Superior and across the savage roller coaster ride that is the Sawtooth Mountain range. The best laid plans and wide eyed dreams of novice and pro alike cast like wreckage against an unfriendly shore like so much driftwood, both from merciless competition and a relentlessly difficult trail. This race was infamous for its intrinsic difficulty, a Lower 48 analogue to the Kuskokwim 300 in Bethel Alaska, and it was for this reason that I was here, to test myself, both my team and my wits against this course that was usually talked about by other drivers who had experienced it with hushed tones and shakes of the head. The Beargrease will destroy your team, the collective opinion of many. In truth, as I made the first big climb and looked back to see the surface of the lake glistening with liquid gold and bronze from the sun sagging into its western gulf and the buildings and homes of Duluth limned by eldritch fairy dust, it was the history and heritage of the event that consumed my thoughts, both the nearly mythical characters who had done battle on this Minnesotan field as well as the ones who peopled its long and rich history. Soon, my mind would turn to my competitors, but for now I reveled in the salty sweet chill of awe and intrigue that ran up one side of my body and down the other as I prepared to turn my face away from electronic mail and cel phones, diesel fumes, asphalt, Styrofoam, Wal-Mart and McDonalds and the collective works of man’s quest to cover the world with cement and plastic wrap, and make my way back in time to a simpler age when John Beargrease himself was the giant of the day. In the last part of the 1800’s John, the eldest son of the Anishinaabe Chief Moquabimetem, Chief Beargrease had been the US mail carrier for the country between Duluth and Port Arthur, Ontario, using a path known widely as The Old Dog Trail. In the summer and fall he would carry the mail on his back, delivering parcels and letters all along the North Shore to families in communities such as Two Harbors and Grand Marais, and in the long winter months he would saddle up his small team of huskies and travel overland with huge loads of freight, sometimes venturing onto the frozen apron of Lake Superior to get to his destinations. It is the tradition of John Beargrease that serves as the purpose and inspiration for the Marathon. His was a story of adventure and service that has endured the test of the ages, a clarion call to duty that has resounded and echoed throughout the long span of decades to ring deep down in the marrow of the bones of all of us who would follow in his footsteps, all of us who would fashion ourselves as dog mushers and voyagers. This was John Beargrease’s country that we were traveling into, and it would be by his yardstick that we, all of us competing in this year’s edition of the race, would be measured.Originally, the 500 mile Beargrease race route went from Duluth up to the turnaround point in Grand Portage with numerous detours from the main State Trail down to the very same communities that John Beargrease himself used to deliver the mail to back in the 1800’s. Communities such as Two Harbors, his birthplace of Beaver Bay, and Skyport, as well as Grand Marais, Sawbille and Trail Center. Nowadays, the route has been shortened considerably from 500 to 325-380 miles, depending on the weather and trail conditions. The race route takes you up and away from Duluth, swiftly launching you into the Sawtooth Mountain range where you will find a rapid fire succession of short but explosive hills that make you feel like you are on some kind of violent amusement park ride. After leaving the checkpoint of Highway 2, about fifty miles into the race, these hills only get bigger and more aggressive. After a long, choppy climb up to Finland, traveling through spectacular Minnesota wilderness all the while, the trail planes out a bit and you traverse the shoreline of a number of impressively long lakes such as Devil ‘s Track Lake, where you are almost certain to encounter high winds and punchy overflow, and maybe a moose or two. The race trail reaches its current turnaround point on Gunflint Lake Lodge, almost 160 miles into the event, where teams bulk up on rest before heading back along the route that they had just traveled, all wondering the same thing: If those hills have gotten any smaller.And when you finally reach the finish line back in Duluth, if you are so fortunate, you are not exactly complaining that the race organizers omitted that extra bit of mileage that they used to include back in the good old days…It was warm, ball-cap and chore gloves warm, though in typical Jason Barron fashion I was happily overdressed in my 400 gram Thinsulate one piece Trans Alaska outfit, and all twelve of my dogs looked fantastic. Clumber and Thor were in the front of the team and they were moving together like a piece of precision tuned machinery, sticking to the right side of the thirty foot wide trail as if they were on rails. We had started the race in 25th position out of almost thirty teams, and within less than two miles were traveling in dead last. Crowds of spectators lined the trail for several miles, but soon we left the final group of them behind. One hand on the handlebar of my sled, I kept a steady pressure on my drag mat sending a rooster tail of snow to shower my sled tracks and cover the back of my survival suit. As the last of the days light bled away, the glow from my twin leader lights (two LED chore lights fastened like collars around the necks of my lead dogs to assist in navigation as well as alert oncoming snowmachine traffic to my presence), slowly became visible as a pool of white light about fifteen feet in diameter centered on the front end of the team. I pulled my headlamp on over my cap and added its glow to that of my leaders.Now that we were under way, I began to mentally fan through the faces and names of my competitors like a deck of specialty tarot cards.All premier Lower 48 drivers, all experienced veterans here at the Marathon, many of them playing to home court advantage. Matt Rossi, Blake Freking, Mark Black, John Stetson, Rick Larson, Matt Carstens, Ryan Anderson, Nathan Shroeder, Tim Calhoun…All of these guys were mid-distance champions from other race venues with potent teams, and though none of them had achieved acclaim in Alaskan races such as the Iditarod, I knew them to be a savvy and rugged lot who were each one more than capable of ruining my rooky debut here in the mid west. Snapshot of the race trail and scenery: Thirty foot wide trail, heavily groomed, even more heavily traveled. Steep little hills grouped together so close that your leaders could reach the foot of the next climb before your sled cleared the summit of the first. Tangled birch and black spruce. My team looked wonderful, but I knew that this would be the type of trail that could quickly break them down by frying first their front ends, then their heads. The pace on this trail would be nothing short of relentless. Tailing the main body of traffic, we stopped briefly at the first big checkpoint, Highway 2. This was only fifty miles into the race, but we decided to burn up some of our mandatory thirty-two hours of rest and do as much travelling as possible in the cool of the dark.The second run of any distance race is always much different than the first. Gone is the hype, the pre-race jitters. Calm and collected are the nerves of the driver and team. Now it’s just you and a group of your beloved teammates blasting off of the straw and into the night, your world reduced to a well of white LED light with a kaleidoscope of broken and bent images streaming by to either side. Not the primal poetry of a hellride yet, but getting closer… Thirty-five miles later and we pulled into Finland, and found that my awesome team of handlers had carved a snow trench for us to park. It was still full dark and the checkpoint was ablaze with activity. Exhaust fumes from mufflers and cookers hung thick in the air; beams from countless headlamps flashed and crisscrossed, flickered off of tree tops and bounced across the slick surface of the parking lot. Dogs just arriving rolled on their straw and shook, dogs queuing up to depart howled and hammered their harnesses.My team had such a nice spot that I chose to stay, and after getting a couple more hours of sleep, I awoke to discover that most of my personal high spirits of the day before had vanished. I now felt sluggish and weak. My stomach was clenched into a tight hot fist and I could taste the bile of my last meal in the back of my throat. That was four o’clock in the morning mixed with the sudden thought that perhaps I was being too conservative in my tactical approach to the race. I was locked into a rail now, and only time would tell if I were making the right moves. We saddled the team and got back on the trail. Still dark. Still too warm. Still hard fast trail mixed with little bits of plastic eating gravel spun up from the previous weekends sno-go traffic. The sun arose in the east just like it’s supposed to, revealing the black on white birch forest that we traversed. Still in the choppy little hills.Thirty miles to the unassisted checkpoint of Sawbille, six hour mandatory rest and vetcheck. The sun was a white coin standing at mid morning, blazing heat beating down. I was nearly delirious from slogging around in my ‘survival suit,’ a piece of equipment geared for really cold weather. I felt like crap, but the dogs looked great, eating and drinking like they had not seen food in weeks. Not too long after arriving, maybe a couple of hours, the front runners began to depart, giving me a good idea as to just how bad I was being pummeled. There was some talk about freezing rain in the forecast.Our six hour break was completed late in the afternoon and we began to make our 55 mile run to Trail Center, the halfway point. A little over 24 hours into it now, and the stage where the fine line between reality and subjective fantasy begin to overlap. The dogs still looked strong, but not in the same manner that we tend to judge such things back in the staging area. There were signs of stress, telltale cracks and fissures; a few red warning lights were flickering to life on the instrument panel. The sun went down as we cleared a low mountain range furred with slender poplar thickets and shaggy Tamarack, leaving us the impression of ancient forests and mysterious caverns. A moist wind began out of the east and my iPod batteries ran down mid song. Before long the trees were moving aggressively and a fine spray of moisture splattered our faces.The wind seemed to pause, than the rain came in a leaden shower, raw and frigid. I fumbled about in the sled bag for my raingear, but of course that was back in the dog truck. Within several minutes my suit was soaked through and moisture was creeping steadily down my back and into my gloves. The trail became thick with slush.And we traveled on. Sodden gear and sopping coats, into the dark and the spray, the wind building, growing into a surge of power that lashed the forest all around us and hurled freezing rain down upon our heads. Gunflint Lodge came hulking out of the night like some grounded Mothership, ablaze with light and activity. This was the turnaround point, halfway, the point where I had planned to really start racing, and we came into its black ice covered parking lot on the breast of a hurricane.Crispy straw under the dogs, thick sleeping bags completely covering their poor wet little bodies, steaming soup served in battered aluminum bowls. Soreness mended with love and liniment. Images flicker like photos in an album: me, soaked to the bone, my survival suit weighing down like a soggy anvil. Lots of people, everyone, crowded together in the lodge, some shouting, some speaking hushed and low. Tim Calhoun in a slick green poncho, hunched on a bench, eyes glazed. John Stetson, booming voice, full of energy and confidence, cracking jokes. Food in front of me, but I am too sick to eat. I sit in a puddle. More photos, click click click, and now I lay under a camper shell in the back of my handler’s truck listening to the rain pound and sizzle. I drift away, and when my eyes open next, it is still dark, but the rain has stilled. My suit is still wet and I am very cold. Outside, the wind blows furiously, shaking the truck.My mind is filled with thoughts of the grim task ahead.The time had come to race.My team of brave little dogs came off of the straw and led me out into the storm. It is very windy, and the ground is slick with pools of standing water. We charge through this and somewhere along the line the wind turns into a gale and the temperature begins to plummet. I wear a frozen suit of armor. The sun clears the horizon to the east and still we march, stopping briefly to replenish in Sawbille before continuing on, steadily reeling in our rivals. Then comes Finland and it is dark again and a sharp edged snow grates against our faces. I have caught and passed them all, and now as we race back to the finish line still a hundred miles away, Stetson is the last one standing. He is on my tail, and it is his headlamp beam that my dogs seek to outrun.Up steep, down steep, gears in the transmition clanking, the gears of reality slipping. The wind shrieks and the mercury bottoms out, leaving a trail frozen as hard as cement and serrated like a ginsu knife. We ran ran ran. Pursued by rivals, paced by the ghost’s of legends past, frozen stiff, alone in the dark, pounded by weather coming off of the mighty Lake Superior, we did what we were born to do.Shortly after dawn, 68 hours after the start, I took my place as Rookie of the Year and Champion. My dogs and I had been tested, both by the competition and the rugged geography of Minnesota’s North Shore, as well as the timeless spirit of John Beargrease himself.I cannot accurately describe what happened to me out there, but let me just say that I was broken down, than remade in a smarter and tougher image of myself, and leave it go at that.As of the writing of this story, I have held the title in the Marathon for two years, winning it back to back in ’08 and ’09, and now my mind turns to the approach of the 2010 version of the race, and the stories that it will bring. I’m going back. I plan to make history there on the Shore by being the first musher to title three years in a row. John Barron, Dad, is a two time champion of the Beargrease himself, and a grizzled campaigner of many a battle in Alaskan races. He will be there, and he plans on stopping me. Same for Jamie Nelson, no stranger to the throne herself. She holds four titles, and plans on making it five.John Stetson has been the runner up for two years now. He is a fierce competitor with a fantastic team of huskies, a great attitude and a sense of humor that is undiminished by rain, snow, or fifty below wind chill factors. Word has it that he has designs on the Crown. And a pile of other top drivers from one side of the continent to the other, drivers like Mark Stamm of Washington. Rick Larson and Billy Snodgrass from the Rocky Mountains. Matt Rossi, Blake Freking, Colleen Wallin and Mark Black in Minnesota. Matt Carstens from the mountains of New Hampshire. And many more. The richest field of competitor’s since the era of the Swingley’s and Butcher and Jonrowe. On January 31st, it will not be a race so much as a light saber battle between Jedi Masters.The John Beargrease Marathon is a story, a celebration, and a test. I have never seen the 500 mile version of the event, but I think I will just take Doug at his word…

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