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Dogsled races have noble history

The 29th running of the annual John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon might be canceled again this year.

At the time of this writing, the event's Board of Directors are set to assemble Jan. 15 and determine if trail conditions are safe enough for the race to proceed as scheduled or to cancel the event altogether.

If the race is called off, it would mark the second time in five years. Back in 2007, when the 25th running of the John Beargrease was canceled for the same reason that this year's marathon could be, it marked the first time in the event's long and storied history that a lack of snow halted the race. Indeed, times are tough when a late January-early February dogsled race in northern Minnesota has to be called off because little or no snow.

For those of you unacquainted, the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon is an annual sled dog race that begins in Duluth, goes on to Grand Marais and returns to Duluth.

This grueling contest pits teams of mushers and their sled dogs against one another for top honors in the 500-mile marathon along the rugged North Shore. And for possibly the second time since the marathon's inception, there might not be enough snow for the event to take place.

I would bet if the man for whom the race is named to honor -- John Beargrease, the son of an Anishinaabe chief -- could know that this year's race could be canceled again, he would probably not believe it.

From 1879 through 1899, once a week every week, John Beargrease and his brothers delivered the mail between Two Harbors and Grand Marais. Though the mail was transported year-round by an assortment of methods by the men, including by horse and canoe, John was especially known for his dogsled deliveries.

According to the official John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon website, John's fastest trip with his team of only four dogs pulling him and his toboggan-like sled loaded with mail, took just 28 hours. That's slow by today's standards of modern dogsleds and equipment pulled by much larger teams. Nonetheless, the Beargrease brothers provided a vital delivery service in Minnesota's early history that ultimately helped to settle the North Shore.

Another famous sled dog marathon that, in this case, celebrates an important historical moment in Alaska, is the Iditarod. At more than 1,000 miles, this race is twice the length of the John Beargrease. Beginning in Anchorage and ending in Nome, the Iditarod is frequently noted as the "1,049-mile race" in recognition of Alaska becoming the 49th state. The actual length varies from year to year because of snow and trail conditions -- even in Alaska.

The first Iditarod was not a competition conducted for the fun of it. Nor did it have a name. It was quite literally a race against time and distance and a matter of life and death. As in today's Iditarod, the dogsled race Gunnar Kaasen finished on Feb. 2, 1925, commenced in Anchorage and concluded in Nome. But, unlike today's remembrance run, the first was carried out under very grave circumstances.

During the winter of 1925 in Nome, children's lives -- mostly Inuit children -- were in danger because they had been exposed to diphtheria, an illness for which they had no immunity. The highly contagious bacterial disease, which attacks the nose and throat and sometimes nerves and the heart, can be fatal if not treated with antibiotics.

Kaasen was a musher who took part in an impossible 674-mile relay race from Nenana to Nome in order to inoculate the children against the terrible sickness. Scott Bone, the then territorial governor of Alaska, authorized a shipment of 300,000 units of antitoxin serum be delivered by train from Anchorage to Nenana. But from there it took 20 mushers and more than 100 dogs to deliver the medicine all the way to Nome.

Less than two weeks earlier, Dr. Curtis Welch, the only physician in Nome, diagnosed the diphtheria outbreak and subsequently telegraphed Anchorage, Fairbanks, Seward and Juneau seeking help. The only medicine available was located at the Alaska Railroad Hospital in Anchorage.

Gunnar Kaasen, a Norwegian musher who was born in 1882, was to be the second-to-last musher in the incredible relay delivery race. Another musher, Charlie Olson, passed the 20-pound cylinder of antitoxin serum to Kaasen in the settlement of Bluff, where Gunnar and his team of 13 sled dogs, including his husky lead-dog Balto, then raced in the dark of night through a blizzard to Point Safety.

Kaasen was supposed to be relieved by Ed Rohn once he reached Point Safety, but Rohn was asleep, so Gunnar continued another 25 miles to Nome. Three and a half hours later, at 5:30 a.m., after about 54 total miles, a very weary musher and his team of sled dogs arrived in Nome with the serum for the awaiting Dr. Welch, who administered the medicine.

The Iditarod sled dog race, as we know it today, from Anchorage to Nome, officially began in March of 1973. There were two other shorter races prior to this. And like Minnesota's John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, the Alaskan Iditarod is a long and difficult race that's rich in history and tradition.

Hopefully, as mushers, sled dogs, race organizers, and spectators wait for this year's verdict with an eye to the sky in anticipation of snowfall, the John Beargrease will convene once again on Northwood's trails as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is wildlife manager with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. He can be reached at