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Mail by dogsleds

By Bill Vossler

With texting and email, why would a person get excited over first-class snail mail taking days to a week to deliver?

Nikki Rajala shows this year’s trail mail envelope on the left, and two from last year on the right. Photo by Bill Vossler

“Because it’s ‘trail mail’ delivered by sled dogs,” said Nikki Rajala of Rockville, “the same way my French-Canadian ancestors did.”

Nikki’s voyageur ancestors, like Charles Peloquin and Pierre Pelletier, were winterers--that is, stayed in Indian country during those dark days of the snowy months instead of heading back to Quebec. They transferred “mail” by sled dogs -- that is, messages and gossip -- as they made their way to Ojibwe villages in Minnesota to trade their tools for pelts from the Indians; beaver, fisher, martin and fox.

Even during the 19th century, getting mail to outlying areas during harsh winters was difficult, so starting in 1879, Anishinabe John Beargrease and his brothers became official United States Post Office mail carriers. They transported 700 pounds of personal mail, newspapers and packages from Two Harbors (83 miles) to Grand Marais by dog sled. They made the trip once or twice a week, two or more days each time, at about 40 miles per day.

As MNopedia says, “When the bells (of the dogsled) were heard in the distance, people gathered, not only to receive long-awaited news of friends and relatives but also for reports of ice conditions, snow depths and other vital information.”

Modern Trail Mail

Today, each year mushers in the John Beargrease Sled Dog Race are authorized to carry United States mail during the race.

Sara Keefer’s watercolor is on the front of all 1800 of the John Beargrease trail mail envelopes. Note the musher’s signature at the bottom. Photo by Bill Vossler

“It’s been in the back of my mind for years, because of my voyager ancestors, as well as because when I was teaching a pair of mushers showed their dogs and the process of mushing. That led to teaching about mushing, and a field trip to a local kennel that raised sled dogs.”

While writing her novels about a young voyageur she researched mushing. “My main character needed to be adept in dog sledding, so I had to find out more. How often did they stop for water? What food did they bring on the trail? What did the dogs eat? How many dogs per sled? How much weight could they carry?”

When she discovered that mushers on the John Beargrease Race carried letters, she jumped into action.

“The race commemorates John Beargrease and his brothers delivering the United States mail for 20 years. Each musher carries a specially-made bag containing envelopes that they sign with their name.”

About 1800 pieces were carried in 2021, about 445 per musher.

“Even better, a special envelope is created each year by an artist. This year a five-year-old child designed the cancellation stamp. How imaginative a way to deliver mail.”

The cancellation for the Beargrease photos was created by a five year old girl. Photos by Bill Vossler

Last year she sent a few envelopes, including one to herself and one to her husband. After that race she checked signatures against mushers to see who had transported her letters, and noted their race performances.

“In later December I prepurchased 20 envelopes for trail mail to be signed by the mushers. Inside I included a note and an information sheet on the Beargrease race from their website. I could hardly wait to get my trail mail and see who signed it. Trail mail is such a unique example of what people did to be able to stay in touch.”

She also had fun selecting older legitimate U.S. mail stamps to put on each envelope. Her husband, the author of this article and a stamp collector, was pleased to get that unique form of mail.

“The U.S. Postal Service is an important agency, and I’m delighted for all the ways they’ve delivered letters and packages over the years,” she said.

Nikki Rajala is comparing the signature of the musher who carried the mail with the names of the John Beargrease Dogsled Race racers. Envelope courtesy of Dan Rethmeier. Photo by Bill Vossler

Nikki hopes as more people know about trail mail they’ll connect to that historical event of how the Beargrease brothers carried the mail during the winter, and how important it was to the people who were waiting to receive it.

The Beargrease race has four different “races”: the Beargrease Marathon of 411 miles with 17 mushers; the Beargrease 120 with 24 mushers; the Beargrease 40 (or recreational) with 18 mushers, and the Beargrease Junior 120 with a single 14-year-old entrant.

Mushers who finish a John Beargrease Race are eligible to enter the granddaddy of them all, the Iditarod, a little over twice as long as the Beargrease, at 938 miles.

“But Iditarod mushers don’t carry trail mail,” Nikki smiled.

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