Dog days on the North Shore are during the middle of the winter. That’s when the sled dogs come out to race. The biggest race of the season begins north of Two Harbors on Sunday, Jan. 29: the nearly 400-mile John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon. The annual race, which began in 1980, celebrates historic musher John Beargrease, who used a dog team to deliver mail between Two Harbors and Grand Marais during the late 1800s. His great-grandson, Grand Portage band member Mike Keyport, serves on the race’s board of directors.
Mushers from across North America compete in the race, which this year offers a $35,000 purse. However, the mushers aren’t in the race for the money, because even the $6,125 first-place prize would barely cover the dog food bills for the average racing kennel.
“The mushers are rich in experience and broke on paper,” says race director Jason Rice. “They do it because they love it.”
The race, which follows groomed snowmobile trails, begins on Sunday when there is less snowmobile traffic, although local snowmobile clubs that maintain the trails and the mushing community have a good relationship. The race route follows the high, snowy ridges above Lake Superior, with checkpoints at Finland, the Sawbill Trail, Trail Center on the Gunflint Trail and Grand Portage Lodge. The winner usually crosses the finish line at Billy’s Bar in Duluth on Wednesday. For spectators, the best way to see the race is to attend the Sunday start, which will be held in a gravel pit along County Hwy 2, nine miles north of Two Harbors, or to wait for the teams to pass through the various checkpoints. Super fans even follow the marathon from checkpoint to checkpoint. You can log into beargrease.com and use the GPS tracking for each racer to predict when they will pass through the next checkpoint.
The marathon isn’t the only race. The Mid-Distance Race is a 150-mile race that also offers a purse. Then there are Recreation and Junior races, and a Cub Run for kids. The races allow folks with smaller kennels or teams to try racing and hopefully fosters coming generations of mushers.
“Mushing is very much alive,” Rice says, “but now the trend is for smaller teams and more family involvement.”
Dog-lovers will find other activities associated with the race to enjoy. One is the Cutest Puppy Contest held at Fitgers in Duluth on Saturday, Jan. 21. Another is the Beargrease Photo Exhibit which opens Sunday, Jan. 22 at the Great Lakes Aquarium in Duluth.
The magic of the Beargrease wouldn’t occur without the support of its sponsors, beginning with the Grand Portage Chippewa Band and the Grand Portage Lodge and Casino. John Beargrease was a member of the Grand Portage Band.
“Grand Portage helps out in numerous ways throughout the year,” Rice said.
Other primary sponsors include Duluth Trading Company, KQDS Radio, I Fan Sports Network, Vanilla Bean and the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board.
Cutest Puppy Contest Saturday, January 21
Puppies 4-9 months. Proof of vaccinations are required. Fitgers in Duluth, MN.
11:30 a.m. Registration
12:00-2:00 p.m. Voting
2:00 p.m. Awards announced
Photo Exhibit Grand Opening Sunday, January 22
Great Lakes Aquarium in Duluth, MN.
Vet Checks Saturday, January 28
8:00 a.m.-1:00 p.m. in Beaver Bay, MN.
Opening Ceremonies Saturday, January 28
5:30 p.m. at American Legion in Two Harbors, MN.
Meet The Mushers Sunday, January 29
9:00 a.m. Join us at the start staging area of the race to see the dogs and their mushers prepare for the race. Please – no pets! Service pets welcome.
Race Start Sunday, January 29
Mid Distance Awards Banquet Monday, January 30
3:00 p.m. at Trail Center, located up the Gunflint Trail.
Marathon Awards Banquet Thursday, February 2
11:00 a.m. at American Legion in Two Harbors, MN.