By Scott Thoma
As longtime park supervisors at separate Minnesota State Parks an hour apart, Bill and Terri Dinesen of Granite Falls have had encountered many outdoor adventures on their own. In late January, the married couple of 40 years embarked on a different sort of outdoor adventure together when they were volunteer timers for the John Beargrease Dogsled Marathon.
Bill, who turned 65 in early February, is close to retiring as Park Supervisor at Camden State Park near Marshall. Terri is the Park Supervisor at both Lac qui Parle State Park near Watson and Big Stone Lake State Park near Ortonville. Both are also volunteers with the Granite Falls Avera Ambulance.
Although the Dinesens are dog owners (Springer Spaniels), they had never attended a sled dog race before first volunteering at the Beargrease race four years ago.
“Our daughter, Michelle, worked at Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center, near Finland (northeastern Minn.) for a school year,” Terri said. “I went up to volunteer the first year with Michelle, helping mushers make the turn into the community center at Finland and other odd jobs. When Michelle changed jobs, it has been Bill who has volunteered each year with me.”
The couple then became timers for the race two years ago.
“When I went to sign up for the Finland checkpoint in 2021, the volunteer slots were already all full,” Terri explained. “So, I looked at other checkpoints and volunteer positions and found Skyport Lodge (near Grand Marais) had room.”
Terri has now dubbed Skyport as “Retirement Checkpoint.”
“It’s because you can literally stay warm most of the time in the rec room, and you know when teams are coming in via GPS, and you can see them and hear them if you are outside, coming down to go out again,” she explained.
Being able to time indoors was beneficial as the wind chill temperatures were below zero each day during the John Beargrease runs.
The Dinesens’ job was mainly overnight hours as mushers came into the checkpoint all through the night, beginning around 8 p.m., and the last one left around 10 a.m.
“(Bill and I) try to tag team so we can get some rest,” Terri said.
The John Beargrease Dog Sled Marathon begins just north of Duluth, and the finish line is at the Grand Portage Casino in Grand Marais. This year’s race ran from Sunday morning, Jan. 29, and concluded on Tuesday, Jan. 31. There are three divisions of the Beargrease that mushers can compete in, consisting of 40 and 120-mile races, or the 300-mile marathon.
The Dinesens volunteered on Jan. 30-31 at Skyport.
“As timers, you are at the checkpoint line for timing,” Terri said. “The line is literally 40 feet outside the Skyport rec center. We did go help at a road crossing for an hour because the volunteers for that site had to leave early and we had trained in the other couples by then.”
Volunteer timing isn’t just standing around looking at a stopwatch, though.
“When you time, you write down the bib number, the number of dogs, the time in hundredths of a second (utilizing the Atomic Clock app), and any notes like if a dog was in the sled and had been pulled from the race,” Terri said. “We also set out the straw bales before the start of the race, helped stoke the fire outside, shared the timing information with the checkpoint coordinator to be entered into the system and the ham radio operators, and helped with cleanup of the rec room at the end. The organizers keep track of where everyone is as a safety item.”
Mushers can run at any hour they choose, but are mandated to rest for a total of 24 hours during the marathon.
“There are two mandatory four-hour rests at checkpoints, however, Skyport is not one of them,” Terri explained. “Experience is that the mushers normally do stay 3½ to four hours at Skyport.”
One of the most talked about stories during this year’s run was a dog named Wildfire, a member of Ryan Redington’s team. During a training run last year in Wisconsin, Redington’s team was hit by a snowmobile. Wildfire’s back leg was fractured in three places. Through excellent veterinary care, Wildfire was able to complete this year’s entire marathon with Sarah Keefer, a member of Redington’s team, as the musher.
“We were at the end of the race and saw Wildfire come in,” said Terri. “He, of course, got plenty of cuddles and plenty of photos and focus.”
The Dinesens understand the tradition and value of this race, which is one of the reasons they enjoy volunteering.
“I’m just going to say if you don’t have the reason to get out of bed... life can’t be all about work,” said Bill. “Working in the careers that we do we don’t get out much. So, this gives us a reason to get out and see the beauty of the north shore in the winter.”
Working for the marathon had even more meaning for the Dinesens this year as they were able to find time to visit John Beargrease’s gravesite in Beaver Bay.
“I read a book on John that I received last Christmas from our daughter, so it was humbling to visit his gravesite,” said Dinesen. “They had hard lives on the shore before there were roads or real trails. John almost lost his life more than once while delivering mail.”
Beargrease, who died in 1910, was a winter mail carrier for 20 years, delivering mail by row boat and/or dog sled. It is thought that he died of pneumonia after diving into frigid water to save another mail carrier.
Mushers in the race are sworn in as official U.S. mail carriers, and each one carries a full mailbag of letters during the race in honor of John Beargrease. At the end of their designated trail, the envelopes are picked up and taken to post offices.
Anyone can buy a commemorative envelope to send off to friends or families that are stamped with “carried by dog sled” and decorated with the musher’s signature. Over 1,500 envelopes were sold this year.
“It’s a pretty cool keepsake,” said Terri. “I am sharing some with local teachers.”