TWO HARBORS, Minn. -- Northeast outside Two Harbors, in their rustic home, Colleen Wallin used to put her son’s boots in front of the door when he was a toddler, so he wouldn’t wake up and go outside in his bare feet.
Her husband, Ward, would get up at 5 a.m. for sled-dog chores, and oftentimes they'd find young Ero Wallin had rubbed his eyes and sauntered out to join Ward.
“He was 3, 4, 5 years old, and he’d just get up and come out here,” Colleen said. “There was no keeping him inside, really.”
Colleen, 58, stood in the middle of the family’s kennel — a carnival of more than 30 dogs, some pacing, some pulling at their chains, some perched on the tops of their doghouses, and all with barks suggesting adoration for the 18-year-old ladling a meaty soup into their bowls.
The Northland adores its mushers, especially the ones whose names are raised over and over again at this time of year. Colleen Wallin's name is among them. She'll be racing the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon for a 16th time starting Jan. 31 at Billy's bar outside Duluth.
But it promises to be a race unlike any other for the family, as Ero will be running his first full Beargrease.
“It’s something you can’t fathom,” Colleen said.
Lately, the family has been taking their dogs on their last big training runs before they taper their teams with some shorter, fun runs in the lead-up to the race.
The state trail used by Beargrease is just a couple of turns from the trails on the Wallin family’s mostly wooded acreage.
“When you’re out on the sled, it’s like you’re in a whole new world,” Ero said. “Nothing matters when you’re out there. You’re just out there with your 10 or 12 best friends.”
Ero is named after a cantankerous, old veteran of World War II who Colleen got to know when she worked in the Minnesota Veterans Home in Silver Bay years ago.
She used to run dogs with Ero in utero, recalling a fishing trip into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
“We had a wall tent and woodstove, and we ran about four hours into the bush to go lake trout fishing,” Colleen said, adding that one of the trip's companions brought along a book about how to deliver a baby in the woods.
Now a senior at William Kelley High School in Silver Bay, Ero is a captain of the football, hockey and baseball teams with aspirations to play a sport in college. His shop teacher recently handed Ero an envelope filled with $375 raised among teachers, staff and custodians — a gesture Ero described as “incredible.”
“They said they wanted to support me through the race,” he said, humbled.
At 6 feet, 1 inch tall and weighing 217 pounds, Ero cuts an imposing figure, but the dogs respond to his warm grin and kind rubs. He can harness a team of dogs in the time it’d take to grab the ingredients and make a banana split. One of his lead dogs, a blue-eyed Alaskan husky named Marlin, sets a taut line, jumping on her back legs and reaching with her front, desperate to go.
Earlier this month, Ero was heading on a 50-mile training run. It would take about five hours, and he was expected back in time for hockey practice.
“I am very competitive,” Ero said, “which can be good and bad.”
Ward, 59, described Ero as being ornery after a third-straight hockey loss the other night.
“We’re too good of a team for that,” Ero told his dad, before committing to a training run with the dogs the next morning.
“Sure enough, he got up and pulled his hook at about 5 in the morning,” Ward said, describing the apparatus used to hold a sled-dog team in park. “I thought, ‘Wow, he’s got the drive.’”
Ward, an assistant area supervisor with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, is the family’s kennel manager. He does things in the background, filling drop bins full of supplies for two teams in the basement, cutting meat, feeding dogs and scooping dog poop.
“Ward is the one doing a lot of the work,” Colleen said. “It’s pretty easy to stand on the runners.”
She was being modest. Mushing a full marathon for the first time won’t be like anything Ero has done before. Racing since he was 13, Ero competed in the Beargrease 120 last year, and two weeks later the CopperDog 150 in Michigan. The thrill of those race experiences fueled his desire to run the marathon.
“Last year, I don’t think I’d have been quite ready,” Ero said. "But after I finished the 120, I said, 'I’m doing the marathon no matter what.’”
As Ero has grown in the sport, he’s learned some tough lessons. There was the early fall training run when he overturned the four-wheeler trying to get over a fallen log. Then, the late night phone call Ward received when Ero and the team encountered a porcupine, quilling one of the dogs.
“There’s so many highs and so many lows,” Ward said. “It’s more mentally straining than just about any sport he’s ever been in.”
Ero says his parents have meant “everything” to him. Their older son, Ian, 22, is a history and drama major at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
“We never pushed it with them,” Colleen said. “It was nothing we ever planned on. But Ero kept doing chores, and saying ‘I’ll help; I’m going to run with you, too.’ He grew to love it in a real natural way — one checkpoint at a time, one big decision at a time.”
Filled out like a lumberjack and wearing heavy overalls, Ero Wallin is reminiscent of four-time Beargrease champion Nathan Schroeder, another big man on the runners. Schroeder won’t be mushing due to a recurring nerve ailment, but his dogs are running in the half-marathon with Ely’s Nick Vigilante. In the meantime, Schroeder has taken to mentoring Ero.
“He’ll write me text messages at midnight saying he just got back from a run, so I know he’s doing what it takes,” Schroeder said. “It’s tough at that age — he’s got online school, hockey. He’s got his friends. He’s got a lot going on.”
Ero grew up around mushers — the people racing his parents. It’s a nurturing group, and Ero said it’s hard to believe he’ll be racing some of the people he looked up to as a boy.
“It is my first time racing with the big guns, you could say,” Ero said. “I just want to finish. We’ve got some really good dogs and they’re looking really good. But I can’t get ahead of myself, and I just need to finish. Because this is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done, leading up to my whole life. Definitely.”
Colleen will race the kennel’s younger team. Ero will be mushing with the top team he’s been training and evaluating since fall. When the temperature dipped below 50, he started with short 2- and 3-mile runs on the ATV while the dogs shed their summer bodies.
He’s chosen his team after careful observation on the trails. As a sign of his ascension in the family’s Silver Creek Sled Dogs, Ero bought two dogs from Alaska to introduce into the kennel.
“He’s really just bonded with them, and is fired up about having them,” Ward said.
Schroeder trusts Ero is ready. The family adjusted its training regimen this season after Ero consulted with Schroeder, whose advice was to push farther on every training run until it was time to taper and rest before the race.
“I know he wants this to be one to remember,” Schroeder said of Ero. “It’ll be not only for himself, but for his community and his family, so I hope he does really well.”
His mother is not worried about Ero’s ability to handle the nearly 300-mile, three-day run.
"When he said he wanted to do the marathon, Ward and I were just really proud," Colleen said. "I’m never scared for him, never worried about him. He’s strong; he’s smart; and he knows his dogs and his dogs know him.”