By Shawn Perich
During the recent running of the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, folks I know were watching the progress of our friend and coworker, Erin Altemus, who was competing in the long distance race for the first time. Throughout the race, which begins on Sunday and ends Wednesday, we followed her progress with the GPS tracker on the Beargrease website.
Erin finished fourth in the 319-mile race—a feat that was even more impressive considering she crossed the finish line with only six dogs of her original 12-dog team. While just completing the mushing marathon is a tremendous accomplishment, I can’t say that I was all that surprised that Erin did so and placed in the money. She’s a remarkable woman.
Consider this. Prior to starting a sled dog kennel, Erin and her husband, Matt Schmidt, paddled all of northern Ontario the rivers flowing to Hudson’s Bay. When I asked her how many long canoe trips she’d been on, she replied, “By long, do you mean 30 days or more? Dozens of them.” She’s also an experienced climber and long distance hiker—a bonafide been there, done that kind of girl.
Erin got her start in outdoor adventuring through the YMCA Camp Menogyn on the Gunflint Trail, as a canoe trip leader. Her introduction to sled dogs came from Menogyn, too. In 2003 she and another woman were hired as mushers for the camp’s winter programs. Matt, who she previously met at Menogyn, spent time mushing there as well.
However, it was a few years before the couple got into sled dogs. While operating an organic farm in central Wisconsin, they saw classified advertisement from someone who was giving away a dog team. Soon they were the proud owners of a motley, six-dog team that they mushed around the farm. One thing led to another. Soon they had more dogs and a desire to race them.
In 2011, Erin entered a six-dog team in her first race, an 18-mile run through the Apostle Islands. She finished the race back in the pack, but with a desire to do it again. The couple started buying racing dogs. Then along came a litter of pups. By summer, they were up to 18 dogs.
They ran some longer races the following winter, learning some mushing lessons along the way. In one race, Erin started out too fast and ended up plodding across the finish line with very tired dogs.
“I got back to the truck and just cried,” she said.
But the lesson was learned. In 2013, Erin took first in the Apostle Islands race. She and Matt did well in the other races they entered, too. So well, in fact, they decided to move to Grand Marais the following summer.
“We needed more snow and more room to train,” she said. “Also we were burning out on farming. We wanted to live in the woods.”
So now they do. Suffice to say the couple lives beyond road’s end along the Gunflint Trail, where their nearest neighbors are many miles away. They made it through the brutal winter of 2013-14, which means they’ve got what it takes to live in the north woods. And they have endless room to run their dogs, which now number 27.
And that leads us to the Beargrease, which was Erin’s second race of the season. Her first, the Gunflint Mail Run in early January, got off to a disastrous start when her 12-dog team got away from her on the middle of a snowy lake. Even though she lost nearly an hour chasing down the team, she endured bitter, sub-zero temperatures and a terrible sore throat to finish seventh out of nine finishers.
After five months of training and anticipation, she said it was relief to get on the trail for the Beargrease Marathon. Due to poor snow conditions near Duluth, the race began at Two Harbors this year, running northeast along the high ridges above the North Shore all the way to Gunflint Lake. There the teams turn around and run back to the finish line at Duluth.
From the race start all the way to the Sawbill Trail checkpoint, she kept braking the sled to slow the team down. Although Matt was her race handler, the rest and water stop at Sawbill was an unassisted checkpoint. She checked booties, bedded the team on straw, fed and watered them. Then she sat on the straw in the darkness until it was time to run again.
The next run was a long one. It began snowing so hard she couldn’t see if the team was going up or down a hill. The glare of her headlamp on the falling snow caused eyestrain. Early Monday morning, she traveled about 10 miles while nodding off on the sled. When she pulled into the Trail Center checkpoint on the Gunflint Trail at 9 a.m., she discovered that she didn’t feel like eating. She did snack on granola bars and Gatorade while on the trail.
The toughest leg of the route was the 63-mile run up to Gunflint Lake and then back down to Devil Track Lake. Reaching there, she dropped one tired dog—the second she pulled from the team—and began thinking about how to conserve her remaining 10 dogs’ energy.
“When I got to Devil Track I started thinking about getting to the finish line,” Erin said. “But I had to take the race one leg at a time.”
Fortunately, she had planned out her race strategy and stuck to the plan. She took a three-hour rest when she returned to the Sawbill checkpoint. When it was time to hit the trail, she changed from her boots to tennis shoes so she could run up the hills behind the team.
“Mostly my feet got wet and cold,” she said.
Erin changed back to boots when she reached the Finland checkpoint and then went to tennis shoes for the finish line run from Two Harbors to Duluth. She continued to drop dogs at every checkpoint until she was down to six for the final leg of the race. Since the race started in Two Harbors, this was her first time down this section of the route. She discovered they saved the steepest North Shore hills for last. But she kept going. More importantly, so did her dogs.
“I feel really lucky my dogs didn’t want to quit,” she said.
The fourth place win came with a $4,000 purse, which will no doubt be used to buy some dog food. While this is Erin’s last race of the season, Matt will run a couple of races before winter’s end. She isn’t sure if they will tackle the Beargrease next year or, if they do, which one of them will run the race. Is there an Iditarod in their future?
“It would be fun to do, but expensive,” Erin said. “We’d need major sponsors…and more dogs.”
While she was on the trail, Erin had another win. She was awarded an arts grant to work with an editor on her memoir chronicling the time in her childhood when she moved with her family to Nicaragua to start a dairy farm. Yup, she’s been there and done that, too.