Each January, the beloved John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon is held in northeast Minnesota. The race is named after the mail carrier, John Beargrease, who delivered mail up and down the North Shore via dogsled and rowboat. It began in 1980. Today, there are three races for teams to choose from: The full marathon, the 40-mile race, and a 120-mile race.
The full marathon begins in Duluth at Billy’s Bar. Teams then follow a hilly course through the Sawtooth Mountains. The 40-mile race ends near Two Harbors while the full and 120-race continue up the shore of Lake Superior. The 120-mile race ends at the Trestle Inn. Those continuing on for the full marathon will find themselves heading further up the shore to the Gunflint Trail, where they then turn around and head back down before heading up towards Grand Portage. The full marathon ends in Grand Portage near the Grand Portage Lodge and Casino.
Many Places to Spectate
Each year at the Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, top racers from across the world register to compete in the nearly 400-mile marathon (a qualifying race for the Iditarod in Alaska). Typically about 35 competitors make it to the starting line, with only a handful competing in the full race. Billy’s Bar in Duluth is a common spot for spectators to gather, for the start of the race. Checkpoints in Two Harbors, Finland, Sawbill, Skyport, Trail Center, Kings Road, and Mineral Center are other popular gathering places. The finishing line at Grand Portage is another place where you can have the chance to see the teams.
Before the route changed to go around the town of Beaver Bay, mushers would usually pause at John Beargrease’s final resting place to pay their respects. While the course no longer passes the cemetery, many mushers still find ways to pay their respects to the man who’s memory we honor each year.
A Changing Course
While this is the current course, it changes often! In past years races would follow routes closer to Lake Superior, and Lutsen Mountains has hosted the finish line for the 120-mile race. Weather conditions have forced changes in the start location, course, and finish line in years past. We always recommend double-checking the official website before making your plans, just in case there’s a last minute route change.
Conditions for the course also differ each year and mushers meet many challenges along the way. The hilly course has been said to make the Iditarod course seem like a walk in the park. Potentially cruel temperature changes and limited sleep also keep mushers digging deep into their emotional reserves to finish the race. In recent years, the mushers have endured sub-zero temps and even more dramatic windchill. Although, past mushers have expressed a preference towards colder temps over warmer temps, which can make the trails icy and slushy.
Get in On the Fun
The casual observer may find the crowd at Billy’s Bar to be a bit much for casually observing the race. However, checkpoints along the route are easily accessible and offer many opportunities for people to take part in this event as spectators or volunteers. So, slip on your mukluks, grab a thermos of hot chocolate, and join in on the fun! You can get information on the checkpoints and estimated times that teams will arrive at each on the official website.
Grand Portage Lodge and Casino is another great choice for those wanting to watch the race. See teams cross the finish line to a smaller crowd with food and drink options available nearby while you wait. The only downside to the finish line- we never know when the first musher will arrive! And at this point in the race mushers might be very spread out so you are waiting longer between finishers. Or, you could have the chance to observe a thrilling end to that marathon, like 2021’s dramatic finish where Erin Letzring crossed the finish line and took first place just a mere 7 seconds ahead of second-place finisher Ryan Redington! Third place musher Sarah Keefer came in about twenty minutes later.
To learn more about this year’s event, visit www.beargrease.com. You can find the route map, volunteer information, musher information, and more!