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This year’s John Beargrease races will begin on Sunday, Jan. 28 at Billy’s Bar in Duluth. | SUBMITTED
Along the Shore

John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon: Celebrating 40 years

The John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, held annually along the North Shore of Minnesota, is more than just a race. It’s a testament to human-canine partnership, a celebration of the spirit of adventure, and a vibrant historical tradition. As the race approaches its 40th anniversary this month, excitement is building for what promises to be an extraordinary event.

A Tribute to John Beargrease

The race’s namesake, John Beargrease, was an Ojibwe mail carrier who traversed the rough terrain of northern Minnesota starting in 1879 through 1899. Facing blizzards, frigid temperatures, and treacherous trails, Beargrease and his brothers delivered mail, medicine, and essential supplies to communities between Two Harbors and Grand Marais. His dedication and unwavering spirit helped build and keep northeastern Minnesota communities connected at a time when they were isolated. Carrying a load of up to 700 pounds, they traveled by canoe, horses, and dog sled until the Lake Shore Trail they utilized was turned into an actual road. Beargrease’s contributions and massive impact resonated with the founders of the Beargrease marathon, inspiring them to create a race that would honor his legacy and celebrate the sport of dog mushing. To honor Beargrease, all of the mushers are sworn in as U.S. Postal Workers before the race, and actually carry and deliver mail along the trail.

40 Years of History

Held Jan. 28 this year, the first Beargrease marathon was held in 1980 with just 15 mushers and 100 miles of trail. However, the race quickly gained popularity, attracting mushers and spectators from across the globe. In 1987, the course was extended to 300 miles, solidifying its place as the longest sled dog race in the lower 48 states, and a qualifier for the famous Iditarod. Today, the race includes the 300-mile race, the Beargrease 120, the Beargrease 40, and the Beargrease 120 Junior race.

The Beargrease marathon has seen its share of remarkable moments in the decades since its inception, and even took place during the pandemic, minus spectators. Mushers like Susan Butcher, Rick Swenson, Ryan Anderson, DeeDee Jonrowe, Ryan Reddington, and local mushers Erin Altemus (past top finisher) and Joanna Oberg (winner of the 120-mile race in 2023), have etched their names into the history books with thrilling victories and record-setting performances, including last year’s winner Keith Aili.

This year marks 40 years for the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon. | SUBMITTED

In addition to memorable moments, the race has also had to deal with a warming climate. In 2019, a lack of snow caused organizers to reroute and shorten the course by 70 miles. In 2022, 13 mushers were forced to drop out of the race due to warm temperatures and soft snow. In 2023, a lack of snow has forced trainers to find alternative ways of training, including using items like ATVs.

The race has also witnessed moments of camaraderie and sportsmanship, showcasing the tight-knit community of mushers and volunteers who make the Beargrease such a special event. It has even spurred a documentary created by PBS called “On By,” which aired on PBS North recently. You can learn more here:

40th Celebrations

To mark the 40th anniversary, the Beargrease committee has planned a series of special events and activities throughout the year, culminating in the 2024 race. Commemorative merchandise featuring 40th anniversary logos and designs are available for purchase, including apparel, mugs, and other items. Other special events are in the works—stay tuned for more details.

Whether you’re a seasoned musher, a curious spectator, or simply someone who appreciates stories of human resilience and the enduring bond between humans and animals, the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon is an event worth experiencing. Especially in its momentous 40th year, the Beargrease promises to be an unforgettable journey through history, culture, and the breathtaking landscape of Minnesota’s North Shore.

Learn more about the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon and its 40th anniversary celebrations online at:

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