While I had been warned about the noise level of the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, nothing could prepare me for the clamor I was met with at the starting line. The yipping, yelping, and yowling of excited pups was enough to make even the most hardened rock star cover her ears. Yet after a ten-second countdown and a loud “HIKE!”, these dogs barreled forward over the starting line and set themselves to the business of racing. I may have been new to the world of dog sledding, but from that moment, I was hooked.
The John Beargrease Dog Sled Marathon is one of several dog sled races in the US and is named after John Beargrease, an Ojibwe man who delivered mail throughout the north shore during the late 1800s. During his winter deliveries, inclement weather and the lack of any extensive road systems made him travel by dog sled. During a time when most areas across the nation enjoyed developed communication systems, this lone musher and his team of four dogs served as the only link to the outside world for many of Minnesota’s most remote communities. (That’s a tradition that’s honored in this race, by the way: each musher is inducted as an honorary postal worker, and they carry mail from the community in a program called Trail Mail.)
Today, the Beargrease race follows his delivery route and is the longest sled dog race in the contiguous 48 states, with the full marathon distance clocking in at 300 miles and the mid-distance race at 150 miles. This year, entrants from across North America participated, with Canadians and Americans competing side by side — though most of the mushers were, appropriately, Minnesotans.
I had the opportunity to talk to a young musher, Kayla Borntrager, 16, from Elk River, who was racing for the first time. I asked her what she loved most about mushing, and Kayla was quick to talk about two things: the thrill of the race and, more importantly, the helpful community of mushers. And when asked if the dogs like to race as much as she does, she said, “Oh yeah, they love to run!” and added, “We’re all in it for the dogs.”
True enough: The dogs and their health are the mushers’ first priority. In fact, many mushers will “scratch” (fancy musher speak for “drop out”) if they sense their dogs aren’t feeling their best or get an injury on the trail. Volunteer vets even wait for the teams at each checkpoint, making sure all the dogs are happy, healthy, and well taken care of.
Even the dogs’ diets are designed to help the dogs be at their best. The concoction favored by most is a meat, soup, and water blend — the meat and soup flavor the water which makes the dogs want to drink it, so it’s a simple way to make sure the pups are hydrated. Mushers also look out for their dogs’ health by using dog booties. They protect paws from ice buildup and rocky terrain, which makes them a must-have item on the trail: one musher claimed he goes through up to 30,000 boots a year for his dogs.
Aside from extra booties, the mushers carry a day’s worth of food and water for both them and their canine team in their sleds. Because the checkpoints are spaced out every 30 miles or so, the mushers don’t need to carry their entire team’s water and food supply for the whole trip — each checkpoint provides food. And lots of it. Depending on the size and breed of the dog and the number of dogs on the team, sled dogs can consume up to 10,000 calories a day. That’s more than five times the recommended amount for a human!
Whether you’re a seasoned sled dog fan or a first-timer freezing your feet off like me, you’ll love the enthusiasm and dedication each musher brings to the sport — and you’ll be caught up in the love everyone has for the dogs. Case in point: Before the race began, I asked a marathon musher if he had a tent packed away on his sled. His response? “ Nope, I’ll be sleeping with my dogs this week.”
– Emily Kulich