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Beargrease sled dog race starts with fewer spectators, same levels of excitement

A higher-than-usual number of racers are from outside Minnesota this year, including one from Jamaica.

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Ero Wallin starts his first John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon on Sunday morning. Wallin is one of 17 racers in the marathon. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

DULUTH — If anyone thought the starting line of the 37th John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon would be quieter this year, they'd be mistaken.

Despite missing the 3,000 or so usual spectators who normally line the side of Tischer Road, the din of volunteers, race officials, sled dog teams and especially the happy yaps, barks and occasional howls from excited sled dogs nearly drowned out the announcer's comments early Sunday morning, Jan. 31.

The 302-mile race up the North Shore had to cut spectators due to COVID-19 restrictions. Instead, the space set aside for viewers was filled with sled-dog teams, as the preparation area shifted closer to the starting line and spread out farther.

Mushers were distanced to avoid COVID-19 spread as they prepared to race. Musher Erin Letzring noted a slightly calmer atmosphere, but said the lack of spectators didn't quell the anticipation.

"You still have the same excitement. You're still ready to get out on the trail and be there with the dogs," Letzring said.

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Sled dogs of Silver Creek Sled Dogs peak out of their trailer Sunday, Jan. 31, before the start of the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon in Duluth. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

Letzring is originally from the Duluth area, but now lives in Skagway, Alaska. This is her fist time running the Beargrease marathon, though she's been racing since she was a teenager.

"My sister wanted sled dogs, so we got sled dogs and the whole family got hooked," she said. "I've done races all over the place but it's nice to be here for this race."

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Letzring has been training with her dogs since September for this race, but said she feels like she's constantly training.

"You're kind of always training," she said. "You have to be prepared for just about anything."

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Letzring's is one of 17 teams taking on the marathon race. She's not the only one from out of state to compete. According to race spokesperson Monica Hendrickson, about half of the marathon teams are from outside Minnesota, a higher-than-usual amount.

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Erin Letzring’s lead dogs set the pace early in the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon on Sunday. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

"It's mostly because a lot of races had to cancel. So mushers are a little more willing to drive further distances to get a race under their belt," Hendrickson said.

One such musher is Josi Thyr from Olney, Mont. She'd heard about Beargrease for years, but she hadn't made the trip to Minnesota. This year, the other races she'd planned to do were all canceled, so she decided to head over.

"Plus it's a good opportunity to get the dogs out on some different trails," Thyr said. "It'll be different from what we're used to."

Thyr said the best part about mushing is "being out there on the trail, seeing the beautiful country, while spending time with my best friends," referring to her team of dogs. When she was busily packing her bag Sunday morning, she said it was mostly stuff for her dogs.

"They're what's most important," Thyr said. "You can't make it without them. They're busy doing what they love to do. We're just along for the ride."

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Bailey Vitello of Milan, New Hampshire, starts the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon on Sunday. Vitello is running the marathon with his father Gregg as a qualifier for the 2023 Iditarod, which they hope to run together. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Thyr doesn't like to pick favorites between her dogs. Her fellow musher Bailey Vitello agrees, but also said he relies a lot on his "right-hand dog," Chien.

"He's my lead dog," Vitello said. "I've raised him from a pup and now he's 7 years old. I won my first race at Can-Am with him when I was 17."

Vitellow, now 23, has been mushing since he was a child. He's a second-generation musher from New Hampshire who has been hearing about Beargrease since he was young.

"I love the tradition of this race," Vitello said. "It's something very unique."

One such tradition is the symbolic sendoff of the first musher, John Beargrease, the Anishinaabe mail carrier who delivered up and down the North Shore by dog sled in the late 1800s. After his sendoff, the racers were released in two-minute intervals starting at 9 a.m. After a break, the racers for the Beargrease 120 race were lined up to go.

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Ryan Miller's lead dogs come into view as they climb a small hill Sunday, Jan. 31, during the Beargrease 120 in Duluth. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

Among them was Newton Marshall, a racer originally from Jamaica. Marshall said he was introduced to the sport in 2005 and had the opportunity to compete in his first big race, the Yukon Quest, in 2009. He's participated in the Iditarod four times.

"I didn't know where life would take me after that first race, but for 15-16 years now, I've been running dogs," Marshall said. "I've been training for this race in Lily, Wis. I train every day with the dogs, and I think we're ready."

Marshall was slightly concerned about the hilly nature of the course. The marathon course treks along the North Shore and the elevation varies by a total of 35,000 feet. This is equivalent to the teams climbing Mount Everest three times, according to an announcement before the race.

"There are not many hills where we train, but it'll be a good experience," Marshall said.

The marathon won't end in Grand Portage as originally scheduled. Instead, mushers will reach the final checkpoint at Mineral Center and take a mandatory four-hour rest. After that, mushers will conduct a final series of trail loops for 31 miles, and finish the race back at Mineral Center. Hendrickson cited lack of snow and icy conditions as the reason for the switch. S he added that the small accumulations of snow Sunday morning were a boon to the race.

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Lisa Boulay, a handler for Beargrease 120 racer Frank Moe, wears a facemask bearing the image of her dog Lola. “She has passed on and crossed over the rainbow bridge but she is immortalized,” Boulay said. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

"These little dustings and the warmer temperatures make it much easier for the dogs," Hendrickson said. "It makes it really mushy for those of us walking around, but it'll help them out on the trail."

Despite the many restrictions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, Hendrickson said she thinks there is one bright side.

"Due to COVID, the mushers have had more time to train and it feels like they're just ready to go," she said. "I think we're going to have an exciting and pretty competitive race."

Teri Cadeau is a general assignment and neighborhood reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. Originally from the Iron Range, Cadeau has worked for several community newspapers in the Duluth area for eight years including: The Duluth Budgeteer News, Western Weekly, Weekly Observer, Lake County News-Chronicle and occasionally, the Cloquet Pine Journal. When not working, she's an avid reader and crafter.
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