I know I’m not the first to tell you but, the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon is all set to make its way through our lovely West End again this year, starting on Sunday, January 29. The race runs nearly 400 miles and is the longest sled dog race in the lower 48 states. It’s a qualifier for the famed Iditarod race in Alaska and as such draws some really world class mushers.
You can check out the mushers and their dog teams between 9am and 11am on Sunday, January 29, at the start point, the Highway 2 gravel pit in Two Harbors. You can park at the Lake County Fairgrounds and ride a free shuttle bus there. At 11am sharp, the race begins.
If you want to see some action a little closer to home, there is a checkpoint on the Sawbill Trail at the intersection with the 600 Road. For the uninitiated, that’s about 5-1/2 miles up the Sawbill Trail, which starts in Tofte right by the Tofte General Store. If you want to catch them, teams will probably be rolling into the checkpoint between 5pm and 10pm on Sunday, and leaving again starting around midnight.
When I was little, I don’t think there was anything more exciting than hanging out at the Sawbill checkpoint, watching the mushers feed and care for their dogs while they took some much needed rest time. I remember being particularly impressed with the famous musher Susan Butcher. My parents still have one of my childhood drawings of Susan and her team.
Perhaps it’s that fond childhood memory that got me interested in skijoring, as a fan if not a participant. In Minnesota, skijoring is the practice of cross-country skiing while being harnessed to a dog, who is hopefully pulling you in a nice straight line. If you’ve been up to Sawbill in the last year, you’ve likely met my favorite skijoring team, Huckleberry the springer spaniel, and my husband Dan. Huck is nothing if not enthusiastic, but after about a mile of pulling he suddenly finds every last twig on the side of the road irresistible, and needs to stop, frequently, to investigate.
If this were the Wild West End News, we’d be talking about a whole different kind of skijoring. In Montana, where we used to live, they take it to a whole other level. Those skijorers strap on downhill skis and are pulled behind horses, using the same kind of tow rope you’d see a water skier hang on to. The intrepid skier holds on for all their worth while their horseback riding partner pulls them through a course, complete with turns and jumps. It’s quite the spectacle that makes me sort of appreciate Huck’s laid back approach to the sport.
We’ve been resigned to mostly skiing on the road up here, as the lake is totally covered in a deep layer of slushy water, hovering dangerously underneath a few inches of snow. I discovered this the hard way, when Huck decided to head for the Alton portage against our better judgment. I marched out to retrieve him, and within seconds my boots were full of icy water. My dad Bill has made falling through the ice up here something of a yearly tradition. While I very much value lots of our family traditions, this is one that I’m willing to let go of. I hustled back to shore as quickly as I could, and sloshed home cursing the January thaw.
The thaw is right on time though to inspire dreams of open water and summer Boundary Waters trips. Permits to enter the Boundary Waters can now be reserved for this coming summer. Check out www.recreation.gov to snag a permit for your favorite West End entry point to our beloved canoe country Wilderness.
(Photo courtesy of Rebecca Connors)