As the Beargrease Sled Dog Race approached, the forecast became foreboding.
“Won’t mushers drop out?” Someone asked me before the race. I thought about this for a minute. “No, no one will drop out ahead of time because of impending cold. This is a crazy group of people.”
The Beargrease started Sunday, with a high that hung in the single digits below zero and with the windchill the temperature was significantly colder despite being the middle of the day. In the coming days, school would be cancelled around the state because of cold temps and high winds, but the race went on.
There are many things that set my musher heart aflutter—the impending cold—would I stay warm enough? I constantly have a hard time keeping my hands warm despite beaver mittens and instant hand warmers—maybe this would do me in.
There were murmurings about the race start which began outside Billy’s Bar in Duluth and followed a road for several blocks, then turned onto the state snowmobile trail. Some thought the turn would be quite sharp and this made me nauseous because I didn’t want to tip my sled at the beginning of a race.
I was all set up to carry my best dog Beezus in my sled for the first part of the race. Matt built a special box that fit in the sled bag to hold Beezus—a dog crate. We practiced carrying Beezus in this—he didn’t like it, but it did work. Because he had an injury in mid-November he missed a significant portion of the season’s training. He had half of the training miles that other dogs had accumulated. I didn’t want to overrun him and risk re-injuring. But he looked good running the past few weeks and I really needed him for the race. Based on my team’s performance in the Gunflint Mail Run, I knew that we would likely not finish the Beargrease if Beezus didn’t lead. But I felt I didn’t need him in the first third to half of the race—so that was my plan. Keep him in my sled until Sawbill—then put him in lead.
With all these worries, we pulled the hook at 12:14 p.m. Sunday, following the left side of the road until a sweeping curve put us onto the snowmobile trail. My first worry turned out fine.
As for the weather and the cold—all I could do was take the race one leg at a time. If I got cold over each four to six-hour leg, I knew I would be able to warm up at the next checkpoint. And this was absolutely the case. There were times—notably the leg from Sawbill to Trail Center, that I did feel really chilled, but overall the cold is not what I remember most—save for perhaps the last leg of the race—more on this later.
Duluth to Two Harbors and Two Harbors to Finland were smooth runs. Beezus stayed in his box in the sled. Gabby and Victory led with confidence. But as we neared Finland it began to snow—so hard in fact, that I couldn’t see the trail markers. Luckily, volunteers were posted to direct us into the Finland checkpoint. Several hours later however, the snow continued, and we pulled out of Finland following Colleen Wallin’s tracks in the snow. The snow was blinding and I had chanced pulling Gabby and Victory for a single leader, Nancy. Even so, I soon had to move a few dogs around in the team. Soon it became clear that Nancy didn’t want to lead in the snowstorm either. I knew I could either start trying dogs in lead with Nancy, or, I could pull Beezus out of the sled and put him up front. Not wanting to waste time, that is what I did. Soon Beezus and Nancy were pulling the team on toward Sawbill. Beezus stayed in lead for the rest of the race.
There were ups and there were downs. We had a tough run to Trail Center. Maybe I fed them too much at Sawbill—where I was on my own to care for the team. It seemed the dogs had to poop constantly and we just couldn’t keep a good pace. But leaving Trail Center after a six-plus hour rest, we gained momentum. As we pulled onto Poplar Lake, Roxy began barking from the front of the team. Ringo gave out a scream from the back. All the way down Poplar, these two kept it up—barking and screaming, the dogs lunging ahead. There was a 25-mile out and back north of Poplar Lake and then we came back the other way—again, Ringo yipping the minute we hit the lake—propelling the team forward at a speed I could barely control. We made the turn away from Trail Center toward the Lima Grade without a problem thanks to Beezus and kept on towards Devil Track. Several miles from Devil Track, I put Dells in the sled bag—the length of the race had got to her head and she didn’t want to pull any longer. I hoped that when we hit Devil Track, my buddy Ringo would pull through and kick us into high gear to the checkpoint—he didn’t disappoint. For the length of the lake, the dogs pulled full-bore—thanks to Ringo’s yipping.
At Skyport I tried to take a nap in a sleeping bag in the enclosed trailer and woke up chilled to my core a half hour later. I opted instead to go inside and drink coffee. I was low on rest hours left, so after 3.5 hours and with nine dogs, we took off for Mineral Center, making the turns that took us near and past our kennel without a problem. Practice had paid off.
I had hung close to the bulk of the mushers but was still far enough behind that I knew I would need to have a stellar run from Mineral Center—the last checkpoint—to pull ahead from my current seventh place standing. It turned out, the team obliged.
I had to juggle a few dogs leaving the checkpoint, but soon we were in a groove. The dogs charged ahead into the evening. Finally, everything gelled. Halfway through the leg, I passed the sixth place team of Peter McClleland. He told me later that he thought he was “moving along well, and then comes this team out of nowhere—passes me and disappears.” He was impressed, he said.
After that halfway point, the wind really picked up. We passed through a clearcut area where the wind blew at us sideways. I couldn’t see the team. I couldn’t see the trail. I didn’t know if my team could see the trail. The wind chill was reportably in the 40 to 50 below zero range, but at that number, the specifics become irrelevant. Soon after the clearcut, the wind was behind us and I felt us being pushed up hill. Finally, we began the downward descent to Grand Portage, passing Ryan Redington’s team on the way.
Finally, the trail spat us through the tunnel under Highway 61 and we reached the casino.
In the end, I will remember that it was cold, but more so, I will remember that Beezus ran 220 miles of the Beargrease with half the training the rest of the team had. He nailed every turn and kept us moving forward when no other dog would. I will remember Ringo driving down the lakes with the heart of a champion—driven by some instinct passed down to him from lines of great sled dogs who wanted nothing more than to pull through the worst of conditions. I will remember Roxy, rookie-of-the year—eating at every checkpoint, jumping off the straw with unmatched enthusiasm when it was time to go again. I will remember the moment at Sawbill checkpoint, where after four hours of rest, I reluctantly bootied the team, tidied up our camp, hooked up the tuglines—with still little sign that the team was ready to go. But I knew we had to be on our way. I stood on the sled runners and said, “Ready Beezus?” The entire team jumped up off the straw, pulled into their harness and we were off. My heart leapt with joy. I didn’t even know we had trained them so well.
It is somewhere between all that training and the instinct born into sled dogs that we find the beauty in racing—the mojo, the heart, the love. I pulled the hook and continued on down the trail.