A long standing tradition in Northeastern Minnesota is the one and only, John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon. For those who are not familiar with the race, it serves to honor John and his contribution to the North Shore. For nearly twenty years, John and his brothers delivered mail to communities from Two Harbors to Grand Marais while out on their hunting and trapping routes. Each year, at the end of January mushers ready their dogs and head out on the trail for a grueling 350+ mile race, paying homage to John’s mail run.
My husband has handled multiple times for friends of ours, I’ve been at various checkpoints and assisted so I know a thing or two. This year my husband couldn’t fit it into his work schedule, so the next best stand-in…Helga of course! How hard can it be? After all, Phoebe’s husband Oscar was only running the mid-distance (120 miles). Pulling an all-nighter? No problem!
We rose early Sunday morning and finished loading up essentials such as: headlamp with extra batteries, snickers, reese’s peanut butter cups, sour patch kids, chips…check, adult pedialyte (tomato juice with other essential vitamins and minerals), celery sticks and of course a blanket and pillow. I was still operating under the assumption I would have some time to sleep.
The start of a sled dog race is exciting. The adrenaline is addicting and can be felt from dog to musher to spectator. As the dogs get harnessed up and put on the line, they are yipping and tugging – ready to go! When you bring a dog team through the chute, it makes you almost want to hop on that sled and drive them out yourself, until you jump into a warm vehicle. Then the thought melts away.
The mid-distance race starts in Two Harbors with checkpoints in Finland and Caribou then finishing at Trail Center, up the Gunflint Trail. Oscar arrived into Finland in good time and we bedded the dogs down for a rest. Around 7 pm that evening, we shipped him back onto the trail towards Caribou. Reality started to set in once he left the chute. It was dark, the temp was dropping and we were on our own. No more friends and family to keep us company on this long night ahead.
We made it to Caribou, strung out the line, cooked up a beaver meat stew for the dogs and checked the GPS tracker religiously every two minutes. Standing next to the fire, waiting for Oscar to come in, there was no wind and complete silence. Other than the sound of our breathing and the fire crackling – it was quiet. I peered up for a moment and will never forget how bright the stars looked in that clear night sky. For a moment I thought, this isn’t so bad.
Oscar rolled in shortly before midnight and headed back out for the finish after 4 am. We picked up the hay, loaded the blankets, line and prepared another dish of beaver meat stew and set out for Trail Center. When we arrived, it was a hard choice between catching some shut eye or eating real food. My teeth groaned for a tooth brush and my mouth was nearly raw from all of the sour patch kids. We opted for real food and I’m not sure if it’s just because I was sleep deprived, but it was the best breakfast I’ve had! I highly recommend the roast beef hash!
There was a sense of “we’ve made it” after breakfast. You know when Harry and Lloyd finally made it to Aspen? Insert Phoebe and Helga. We checked the tracker one last time. It said Oscar would be in around 9:30 am. We decided to set our alarms for 9 am. That would give us some wiggle room in case the tracker was off a little. We settled in for a nice three-hour nap. At 8 am we were abruptly woken by a fellow handler, “Helga, Phoebe! Get up! Oscar is a mile out!” What!? We jumped out of the truck and ran to the finish just in time for Oscar to make his way out on the lake.
There was a sense of accomplishment to make it all the way through. It was only the mid-distance, remember? Running the mid-distance as a musher has been something on my bucket list for a long time. However, after handling for it, I felt the need to re-evaluate this line item. My new goal is to run the rec race from Two Harbors to Finland and call it good.
Now that I’ve had a good week to recover, I look back to the time when Phoebe asked me to help handle. We both had the same thoughts. “It’s only one night,” we said. “We can do this, it’ll be fun.” It was fun at times, it was peaceful at times. But it was also tiring and I tip my hat to those who handle and run dogs. It’s not as easy as it looks.
Until next time, don’t forget to look up every now and then.