Richmond woman volunteers at annual sled dog race

In January, visitors are welcome to observe and enjoy the annual John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, which begins in Duluth and runs along the north shore of Lake Superior.

Rosie Court of Richmond during a camping/sled dog adventure in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Rosie, who loves the outdoors, likes to volunteer at the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, which runs along the north shore of Lake Superior. Contributed photo

There are two races… the 293-mile Marathon ending in Grand Portage and the 120-mile mid-distance ending in Tofte. The races commemorate and honor John Beargrease (1862-1910), a legendary mailman, who, armed with courage, compelled and empowered by the human spirit, overcoming many obstacles and hardships, delivered the mail relying on his sled dogs between pioneer communities along Minnesota’s north shore of Lake Superior.  His motivation has left a legacy upon the land inspiring mushers and volunteers to keep the tradition of the race going.  The mission of the race is to be the largest sled dog race in North America in a culturally sensitive manner to promote the sport of dog mushing.

Mushers are from Minnesota, other states, Canada and Alaska.  There are Minnesota mushers that have raced in the Iditarod and Yukon Quest. Ryan Redington from Skagway, Alaska is registered, and his grandfather Joe Redington was the founder of the Iditarod.  It commemorates the sled dog race from Anchorage to Nome, racing 674 miles in rugged terrain for 5½ days in severe blizzard conditions to deliver serum during the diphtheria epidemic in 1925. In 2002, I was thrilled to be a dog handler for the ceremonial and official start of the race for Bill Cotter from Alaska in 2006.

My interest in outdoor adventure was sparked by reading classic Jack London stories. They were based on his own experiences, tales of adventure, conflicts and perilous journeys including the 1897 Klondike Gold Rush in Alaska. London incorporated his own escapades and his severe struggles against nature and the elements into fiction writing.

Rosie Court takes a sled dog ride near Ely. Contributed photo

I became further fascinated with sled dogs while following the 1986 International North Pole Expedition with seven men and one woman, including Will Steger, Paul Schurke and Ann Bancroft from Minnesota and 49 tenacious sled dogs all from Minnesota. The team successfully reached the North Pole in 49 days unsupported by outside assistance.

Since that time, I have taken three 4-day sled dog trips in Ely, Minnesota. The most exhilarating was a camping trip where all the equipment, food for humans and dogs had to be hauled by our dog sleds. After arriving at a remote area, we set up camp, searched to get wood for a campfire and cooking, and chopped holes in the frozen lake for water.

To truly enjoy the full experience of the John Beargrease, you can volunteer at one of the seven checkpoints along the trail. For the past 18 years I have enjoyed the awesome experience of volunteering at the only wilderness, remote checkpoint called, “Sawbill,” located eight miles off the main road from Tofte. The only building is an outhouse in the woods. It is surrounded by the beauty high in the Superior National Forest along the scenic Temperance River. The other checkpoints are based at community centers or trail side lodges. At this checkpoint I was able to experience firsthand the bond between mushers and the team of their eager dogs in a backwoods wilderness.

My first few years I volunteered at Kramer road crossing 18 miles from Sawbill checkpoint on a logging road to ensure the safety of the teams crossing the road.  Loaded with firewood and hot coffee, I would arrive around 2 a.m., start a fire and not leave until the last team crossed, possibly 12 hours later.  I watched and waited with anticipation for the red light of the lead dogs down the pine-treed narrow trail. I became spellbound by the silence of the woods watching as the evening sky turns into daylight.

Checkpoint start-up began two days prior to the race. Sites in the woods for dog teams to rest needed to be cleared of brush, snow stomped down and straw spread out. A canvas tent with a cook stove provided heat for cooking and a veterinarian tent was set up. At our checkpoint our group was responsible for a variety of duties…keeping the fires going, preparing and serving meals for the mushers, volunteers, race marshals, judges and veterinarians. We hauled wood for the two campfires, provided water for the dog teams and hauled their dog food bags into their spot in the woods after they arrived. We then led the teams to the woods, logged accurate arrival and departure times and secured the road when the teams leave.  Sawbill is a favorite for mushers especially since they can smell the frying bacon along the trail as they get closer to our checkpoint.

Several of the volunteers stayed in motels or have canvas tents with wood stoves, but I choose to sleep in a summer tent in the woods with no heat to take advantage of a primitive outdoor experience.  Every race is different for the teams, mushers and trail conditions.  Mother nature dictates the pace of the racecourse and the strategy of the mushers.

Sled dogs at rest in Sawbill. Contributed Photo

In 2019, the temps were 37 below zero which is the most severe weather I have experienced. At night as I crawled into the warmth of my sleeping bag, I can hear the cry of wolves in the distance. A wakeup call at 2 a.m. notified us that it was time to prepare for arrival of the first team. With an adrenaline rush and headlights lit, volunteers began our duties.

As teams arrived volunteer dog handlers grabbed the gang line and escorted them to their own site in the woods. Mushers removed dog booties and massaged the dog’s feet. Veterinarians completely checked out each dog on the team.  At this checkpoint, there is a mandatory 4-hour layover where they must rest.  Mushers prepared frozen food for the dogs with portable cook stoves.

I chose this checkpoint since there were no team dog handlers allowed due to it being a remote checkpoint, making it a qualifier for mushers to race in the Iditarod in March.

It takes about 1,000 volunteers for planning, road crossings, race judges, veterinarians, trail management, etc. It’s a big effort and there are many behind the scenes people. Proper clothing is essential for all volunteers.  The only communication link between headquarters and checkpoints is a satellite phone and the “BARC” Amateur Radio Coalition.

Each day is a new adventure. There is something primal about a campfire in the winter woodlands with it bringing an array of sounds.  The smoke rises through the chimney of the trees with cinders, circling upwards into the darkness of the northern sky, shedding light in the darkness spreading a warmth to body and soul too. When it snows, it breathes new life and dimension to the landscape capturing and amazing winter wonderland.

A few years ago, in the later hours, I was able to be mesmerized by a stunning scene and memorable experience. With the warmth of the crackling fire, the northern lights danced with awesome patterns and a palette of changing colors across the evening sky. The smoke rose, mingling and joining in the symphony of colors, heightening the experience. I felt an even stronger connection with Mother Earth that intensified the evening. Native Americans have viewed the northern lights as part of their spiritual world. In that aurora it was as if I could see the spirit of John Beargrease pass into the patterns of soft flowing streamers of light

Rosie Court prepares soup for the mushers in the cook tent during a John Beargrease race. Contributed photo

I have always been in awe of these mushers, explorers, their “spirit of adventure” and what drives them to sometimes do the impossible in the most severe, dangerous areas into unknown areas of the world. Sled dogs are intelligent and well trained, with a desire and love to run in cold temperatures. For the mushers with kennels of sometimes 60 dogs, this is a year-round commitment. It is a great experience to see firsthand the bond between musher and the four-legged.

After the last team departs from the checkpoint the process of taking down our checkpoint begins. We not only sadly bid farewell to fellow volunteers but to this beautiful landscape that has been our home for four days. We got to experience the yin and yang of life. The silence and elements of the northwoods, the chaos yet excitement of dog teams arriving, sleep deprivation, challenge of bitter cold making it both exhilarating and exhausting, range of emotions and developing camaraderie among our crew. It gives us a deep feeling of satisfaction for being a part of this unique Minnesota tradition rich in stories and legends. This true adventure will be another for the history books and will be long remembered. All the past coordinators have made Sawbill Checkpoint a special place that we want to come back to each year.  Each year it is a pilgrimage as we leave the warmth of our homes to volunteer for a tradition, push past our comfort zone and take in the simple beauty of the north woods,  I truly enjoy being a part of this Minnesota tradition that is rich in stories and legends.