Fast trail expected for Beargrease sled dog race

Anticipating a run
Sled dogs belonging to Ward and Colleen Wallin jump up and down prior a practice session on Jan. 21, 2016, at their Silver Creek Sled Dogs business near Two Harbors, Minn.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News file

Unseasonably warm winter weather and rain along the North Shore of Lake Superior had organizers of the John Beargrease sled dog race sweating whether there would be enough snow to race.

But the temperatures dipped into the 20s just in time, said Beargrease board member Jason Rice.

"That was actually just good enough to set everything that we had," he said. "We're not losing any more snow, and what's there is firmly locked down now. It's created a very crispy, fast trail."

That trail is expected to be put to the test by a field of 12 experienced marathon racers, including Nathan Schroeder, of Warba, Minn., who's vying for his record fifth Beargrease title, and two-time champion Ryan Anderson of Ray, Minn.

An additional 16 mushers will compete in the mid-distance race, with more in a recreational event.

Schroeder, Ray and two mushers from Alaska who are competing in the marathon distance are all also racing in the famed Iditarod — a 1,200 mile dog sled race in Alaska.

The Beargrease is expected to wrap up on Wednesday, and the Iditarod is about a month later. Those racers have to be careful not to push their dogs too hard in the Beargrease, Rice said. "If you just race too hard and too furious in Beargrease, it might take longer than a month for the dogs to be back up to their full capabilities."

The delicate balance mushers strive for is to hold their dogs back enough at the beginning of the race — "when the dogs go with the gas pedal all the way down," Rice said — and settle into a steady rhythm that can be sustained for the duration of the race.

The first Beargrease was run in 1980. It's named after an Ojibwe musher from Beaver Bay, Minn., who delivered mail via sled dog between Two Harbors and Grand Marais from 1879 until 1899, when a road was built connecting the towns.

Over the years the race has attracted top mushers from Alaska and Canada.

The Beargrease was nearly canceled in 2013, on the verge of bankruptcy. It's since been revived with new sponsors, fresh leadership, and a team of nearly 500 volunteers who help run the event every year.

Mushers this year will compete for a purse of $35,000 — up $5,000 from a year ago.

"We're slowly but surely trying to grow this back to where we have the kind of purse that attracts people from a long distance," Rice said, "because it's worth the risk financially for them to come."

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