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Rebuilding the Beargrease

Mid-distance racer Ross Fraboni's lead and swing dogs kick up snow early in the 2014 Beargrease. Photo by Steve Kuchera.

Kyle Farris

They were going to shut off the lights, Jason Rice remembers. Internet and phone subscriptions would be canceled and the keys turned back to the landlord.

"It was done," Rice said of the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, a 30-year-old Northland tradition he expected would succumb last year to a drop in sponsorship money and declining interest.

But less than a year later, on Aug. 22, Rice, president of the Beargrease board of directors, accepted with a wide smile a $50,000 sponsorship check from Black Bear Casino and Resort. It was a similar gesture from Black Bear last November that helped lift the race out of uncertainty and financial turmoil, he said.

"Last year, you guys helped solidify this race as kind of a bastion of wintertime here," Rice told Black Bear representatives during the sponsorship announcement at the resort's golf course clubhouse in Carlton. Black Bear had stepped in when few others would, Rice said, signing on as a presenting sponsor and encouraging other local businesses to donate.

"We are forever grateful for that measure," Rice said.

Today, the Beargrease is in a state of health it hasn't seen in years, according to Rice.

As part of the deal with Black Bear, the resort will host a registration event on Sept. 7, complete with hamburgers and the option to play a round of golf.

Race-week banquets will be held at the resort and for the first time in the marathon's history, registered mushers will receive a complimentary room at the resort for the duration of their stay.

Rice said he is looking forward to having a full field of mushers, with the goal of eventually attracting a strong group of international mushers, like the marathon did at its peak in the 1980s.

"We didn't really see any direct commercial benefit to it," said Black Bear Marketing Director Todd Defoe of sponsoring the Beargrease. "It gives us all something to rally around in the middle of the winter. It elevates the whole community. That's what we get out of it."

The 411-mile marathon -- named for John Beargrease, a Minnesota man who carried mail between Two Harbors and Grand Marais using a dog sled and rowboat during the late 19th century -- has had a profound impact on communities along the North Shore since its inception.

"It's the one wintertime event that really honors something true and historic about our area," said Rice, who has mushed three times in the Beargrease mid-distance race. "It's not just a wonderful competition. It's also a very poignant throwback to what somebody did to bring messages from afar and to be the life link of the communities all along the North Shore.

"We're running through some of the same trees that were around when John Beargrease was delivering mail.," he said. "It's a true throwback, an honor to John Beargrease."

That throwback was in danger of being thrown out last October, Rice said.

Race officials had declared the marathon canceled, a move Rice said was concerning, considering organizers were making the decision based on finances instead of the usual weather concerns.

The Beargrease board of directors seemed ready to call it quits, too, and Rice feared the worst -- that is, until Black Bear jumped in to help.

"Being on the brink of going away, potentially for good, that really woke up a lot of people," said Rice, who also credited a network of volunteers for helping return the race to good health. "It probably took that emergency call for help that really kicked people into action."

It takes about 500 volunteers to put on the race, Rice said, but the problem in recent years has been that too many volunteers wait until race week to chip in.

A similar phenomenon occurred within the board of directors, Rice said, with organizers waiting until fall to secure sponsors and plan activities for race week.

The board and volunteers have been much more proactive this year, according to Rice.

"Something that we're looking forward to over the next five years is to have the structure of a very professional organization in place," Rice said. "We start doing things earlier and planning further in advance.

"There's a lot of people who are willing to give a lot of themselves to make this happen."

The pieces for a great race have always been there, Rice said.

"The trail is awesome and has never changed," he said. "The beauty is there. The challenge is there. The volunteers and the spirit of the people have always been there."

And with those pieces accounted for, Rice said it's simply a matter of putting them together.

"I think we envision growing this thing and having the excitement and pageantry return to what it was in the '80s," Rice said. "The top mushers used to come to run the Beargrease.

"In less than a year's time, it's gone from nearly dead to really at a position it hasn't seen in a number of years. Like the others, I just didn't want this to go away."