While it took John Beargrease two to three days to travel one way with four dogs from Two Harbors, northeast of Duluth, to Grand Marais, it took musher Nathan Schroeder about two days to complete the entire 383 miles circuit with a team of eight dogs…capturing the winner’s trophy February 3rd marking the 36th running of the dogsled event that bears the Beargrease name.
Born in 1858, John Beargrease, son of an Anishinaabe chief, was known as a sinewy man just under six feet tall whose mail delivery career to the north shore’s small towns was heralded by his frequent singing and the bells attached to his dog harnesses.
Until Lake Superior got too icy each winter, Beargrease and other mail carriers used a rowboat with sails. “It was the North Shore version of the Pony Express,” said Daniel Lancaster, whose book John Beargrease, Legend of Minnesota’s North Shore was published in 2008 by Holy Cow Press. While researching for that book, Lancaster was struck by the friendly interactions between the Ojibwe and European immigrant families in the North Shore and a new white settlement. “It’s a great story because it’s very much a symbiotic codependency that formed between those two communities,” he said. “What I enjoyed… was to see how the one culture influenced the other culture. And it seemed to be a really positive relationship on both sides.”
Story has it that Beargrease got his job after a mail carrier fell through the ice with horses and a sleigh. That man made it out alive but immediately quit. Beargrease knew his environment well enough that he and his four-dog team, and later his two-horse team, rarely encountered such disasters, though they were occasionally stranded by blizzards. However, his death in 1910 may have been caused by Lake Superior’s icy waters.
Interestingly, before the modern Beargrease Dog Sledding event, The Grand Portage Passage was the other long-distance sled dog race held from 1999 through 2003. In this edition of WTIP’s Moments in Time Podcast, the meaning of the name and why the race was special are discussed.