John Beargrease: The North Shore’s Leading Musher

February 4, 2016

Musher and DogsIt sounds like a dream: gliding silently across a frozen expanse of lake surrounded by frosted evergreens, holding tight to the reins as a team of harnessed, brawny dogs bound forward through a deep blanket of snow. But that’s the essence of the rugged 390-mile Beargrease sled dog race from Duluth to the Canadian Border and back, and its rich history begins right in our backyard.

John Beargrease was born in 1858 in Beaver Bay, a remote settlement on Minnesota’s North Shore just 30 miles south of today’s Bluefin Bay site. The son of an Anishinabe Chief, Beargrease and his two brothers survived through native practices of hunting, fishing and trapping, often trading their furs with European settlers along Lake Superior’s coast.

As the Beargrease boys grew, so too did the population of the North Shore. Small settlements dotted Lake Superior’s rocky shoreline. Despite this Northern expansion, the train from Duluth only went as far as Two Harbors, leaving delivery of the US Mail – the shore’s main form of communication with the world – at the mercy of the lake’s temperamental weather and landscape.

Without a road or train, the only method of transporting mail was the Lake Shore Trail, a single rugged footpath running along the coastline. Small streams, deep ravines and raging rivers all had to be crossed on foot. Rains, hail, slippery clay, mountainous snowdrifts and thick brush crowded carriers from the trail.

The Beargrease family, already familiar with negotiating the Lake Shore Trail’s unique perils thanks to a lifetime of trapping, hunting and trading along the path, adopted the job of delivering the mail. Traveling between Two Harbors and Grand Marais once (or sometimes twice) each week, John Beargrease and his brothers were greeted with great anticipation from folks seeking long-awaited news of friends and loved ones, reports of ice conditions and other vital information at every stop. In the summer, they hiked the trail or rowed a boat. In the winter, John made the trek by dog sled, covering 30 to 40 miles per day, once making the trip from Two Harbors to Grand Marais in as little as 28 hours.

For nearly 20 years, John Beargrease, his brothers and his dogsled were the only link between the North Shore and outside world. Today, we celebrate this rich heritage with the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, the longest sled dog race in the lower 48 states and a prequalifying race to the world famous Iditarod. Mushers and their teams of up to 14 dogs brave the North Shore’s rugged trails and elements in a race along the Lake Superior coast.

Want to get a feel for dog sledding? Give Stoney Creek Kennels in Tofte a call to arrange an unforgettable winter adventure.