Every January the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon brings mushers, dogs, and race fans to northeastern Minnesota. And anyone can come and watch the action.
Lean into winter at the John Beargrease dogsled race
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.
As I wrote this, a small group of winter-loving people were 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 Minnesota in January), so I went out to watch the race begin.
The dogs are eager to run even if the weather doesn’t cooperate
2016 was a pretty warm winter in Minnesota.
Unfortunately, sled dogs need cold weather and snow to run fast and safely. And, while the starting point for the race was moved a bit north this year in hopes of finding more snow and colder weather, it was still really warm for the dogs. But it wasn’t so warm the race was shortened, although that has happened. Dogsledding is a cold weather sport.
On the other hand, people watching sled dog races tend to appreciate warm winter weather, and mobs of them turned up to watch the start of the race in 2016. Of course, they only added a little more chaos to what would be a rather chaotic even without them.
See, sled dog racing may seem like a solitary sport – just a musher and their dogs racing through the silent woods – but this type of 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 trying to watch it all without getting in the way.
Then there are the dogs.
In 2016 there were a lot of dogs:
- The folks who do this as a profession, the ones running the full 383-mile marathon, ran teams with up to 14 dogs. (In 2022 the maximum number of dogs on a team in the full marathon is 12.)
- A 120-mile mid-distance race had teams of up to eight dogs.
- A 40-mile junior/recreational race for hobbyists ran teams of up to six dogs. (Now there is a separate 120-mile Junior Class race who can run teams of up to eight dogs, as well as a 40-mile race with teams of no more than six dogs.)
The 2016 John Beargrease sled dog marathon 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 added up to almost 400 dogs. Strong, energetic dogs who are eager to run. Dogs that aren’t shy about letting anyone within earshot know that they are ready to go NOW.
The whole thing is loud and rather chaotic. But also highly organized.
Setting up the teams
The dogsled teams are set up in a separate area well away from the chaos of the starting line. Here, mushers get their dogs ready for the race, securing them in their harnesses and giving special attention to protecting each dog’s feet from the cold, icy snow, and sharp objects along the route.
As their turn to run gets closer, the harnesses are attached to the sled’s rigging, the sled attached to a small piece of motorized equipment (I assume to ensure there are no runaway teams along the way), and the whole outfit is moved to the starting area – with a lot of help from the dog crew.
It’s quite a process.
And then they are off!
There is a lot of dog-holding going on even as the dogs wait in the starting gate. These dogs love to run and it takes a lot of people to keep them from starting down the trail on their own.
It is really hard to photograph the big teams right out of the starting gate – not only was it too crowded to really see it all, but a team of 14 dogs is 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.
Along the trail
The viewing options don’t end once the last team disappears down the trail. The race mostly runs along state snowmobile trails. Anyone wanting to watch the race in progress need only pull off where the trail crosses a public road or stop 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 them coming in.
The trail split at this spot and a number of less-experienced mushers had trouble directing their teams around the bend. Spectators gleefully “helped” 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 other teams had settled in for a long break. So it was the end of the day’s race viewing for us.
But there was still time to see the dogs again.
There are regular breaks along the route where both mushers and dogs have a chance to recuperate.
They look happy to rest, but they’ll be eager to run again as evening comes and the air cools.
See the Beargrease sled dog race for yourself
The John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon is held in northeastern Minnesota every year. It’s the longest sled dog race in the lower 48 states, and the pro teams run for about three days.
The race honors Anishinabe mail carrier John Beargrease, a man famous for his speed as he used of a team of dogs to carry the mail between Two Harbors and Grand Marais late in the 1800s.
Pre-race activities begin in Duluth. The race itself usually (but not always) begins in or near Duluth and continues north, ending on the Gunflint Trail or Grand Portage. Checkpoints along the way give dogs and mushers a chance to eat and rest. Vet checks also are held at the checkpoints. The easiest and most interesting part of the race watch is the start and road crossings along the first 40 miles. After that, there are far fewer teams and they are often very spread out — meaning a long wait between teams. And on the trail, the dogs race past very quickly.
The 2023 race begins on Sunday, January 29. The last team to complete this year’s 300 mile race is expected to arrive in Grand Portage by in the hours before midnight on Tuesday, January 31.
Check the John Beargrease website for details.