Some people embrace northern winters. They are the ones outside doing stuff in all sorts of weather.
I am not one of those people, but that doesn’t mean I’m not interested in what those winter-loving folks are up to.
Right now a small group of winter-loving people are racing through northern Minnesota as part of the 2016 John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon. And, while I really can’t see the appeal of racing through the winter woods on a dogsled for hours on end (day and night), the weather was beautiful (for winter in Minnesota), so I went out to watch them as the race began on Sunday.
It’s been a pretty warm winter in Minnesota. Unfortunately, sled dogs need cold weather and snow to run fast and safely. While the starting point for the race was moved a bit north this year, it was still really warm for the dogs. On the other hand, people tend to appreciate warm winter weather and mobs of people turned up to watch the start of the race. Of course, they just added a bit more chaos to what would seem like a rather chaotic scene even without them. See, sled dog racing may seem like a solitary sport – just you and your dogs – but racing requires a whole array of equipment and people to transport, manage, and care for the dogs. There’s a lot of people and “stuff” around even without random spectators like me.
Then there are the dogs.
The folks who do this sort of thing as a profession, the ones running the full 383-mile marathon, run teams of up to 14 dogs. There is also a 120-mile mid-distance race with teams of up to 8 dogs and a 38 mile junior/recreational race for hobbyists running teams of up to 6 dogs. This year’s race included 12 teams running the full marathon, 17 in the mid-distance race, and 15 in the junior/recreation race.
If you do the math, that adds up to almost 400 dogs; strong, energetic dogs that are eager to run . . . dogs that aren’t shy about letting anyone within earshot know that they are ready to go.
The whole thing is loud and rather chaotic, but also highly organized.
The teams themselves get set up in a separate area well away from the starting line. Here the mushers can get the dogs ready while they wait for their turn.
When their turn finally comes, the dog harnesses are attached to the sled’s rigging, the sled attached to a small piece of equipment (I assume to ensure there are no runaway teams), and then the whole outfit is moved to the starting area – with a lot of help from the dog crew.
There is a lot of dog-holding going on even in the starting gate.
It was really hard to photograph the big teams out of the starting gate – not only was it too crowded to really see, but a team of 14 dogs is really hard to get in one shot!
As the morning went on, the crowds thinned and it was easy to find an open spot at the side of the trail.
The viewing options don’t end once the last team of dogs disappeared down the trail. The teams follow a state snowmobile trail and anyone wanting to see more of the race need only pull off the road where the trail crosses a public road or at one of the check-points along the way.
My next sight of the teams was near the first check-point, where I caught the last of the teams coming in.
The trail split here and a number of these less-experienced mushers had trouble directing their teams around the bend, so we spectators got to help out by pointing the way and yelling “Gee! Gee!” as the dogs tried to figure out whether to go straight ahead or to the right.
It was dusk by the time the last teams came through. We had identified a good spot just up the road to watch the teams again after they left the checkpoint, but this was the end of the race for the Junior and Recreational racers and most of the rest of the teams had settled in for a long break. So it was the end of the day’s race viewing for us.
The John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon is held in northern Minnesota every year and is the longest sled dog race in the lower 48 states. The race honors Anishinabe mail carrier John Beargrease, a man famous for his use of a team of dogs to carry the mail between Two Harbors and Grand Marais at the end of the 1800s.
This year’s race is expected to end in Duluth tomorrow (Wednesday). Check the race website to see where the teams are in real time.