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Volunteers make the Beargrease tick

A team takes off at the start of the race in 2010. File photo. 1 / 3
Volunteers gather around a fire at the Highway 2 checkpoint near Two Harbors at the 2010 race. File photo / Bob King 2 / 3
Natalie Harwood and her team during the 2013 Beargrease. Photo by Dudley Edmondson. 3 / 3

The mushers and the dogs aren’t the only ones working hard during the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon.

Bundled up and lining the route to make sure the race goes smoothly, hundreds of volunteers are out and about at all hours during the four-day event.

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“I get very little sleep,” said Jean Vincent, the volunteer coordinator, who has been volunteering for 12 years. This year is the 30th running of the annual marathon.

Over 700 volunteers are needed along the 323-mile course. There are three checkpoints in Lake County and numerous road crossings that need supervision.

“We can always use volunteers,” Vincent said, adding that a full four-day commitment isn’t necessary. Some shifts are just a couple of hours in duration.

The Beargrease has found new footing this year after organizers made the decision in October to cancel the race. Unwilling to see the event fall by the wayside, mushing enthusiasts rushed to the rescue. A new board took over and they’ve managed to accomplish a year’s worth of organizing in just three months.

“I thought it was a shame,” Vincent said of the plan to cancel the race, so she and others camem up with a solution. “We went in and asked for a change of leadership. We reenergized the race.”

Mike Tonder of Two Harbors said he remembers when he and his wife Jody got sled-dog fever – the first time they attended sprint races in the 1970s. When they moved to the North Shore in the 1990s, they saw the Beargrease for the first time.

“We just thought, this is obviously a thing we’re interested in, we should see if they could use some help,” Tonder said.

In 1996, they became the co-coordinators of the Two Harbors checkpoint on Highway 2. It’s the second checkpoint after the start of the race and the last checkpoint before the finish for the marathoners. The Tonders gave up their position two years ago, but still visit the checkpoint, fondly recalling their time as volunteers.

“I’ve really enjoyed it over the years,” Mike Tonder said.

The checkpoint is located 8.5 miles up Highway 2 at the North Shore Trail Parking lot. On Sunday, teams start showing up at about 5 p.m., four hours after the start of the race. Most of the teams arrive by 9 p.m. and leave the checkpoint by 2 a.m.

“It’s chaotic and exciting and busy and crowded,” Tonder said. “The dogs are still really excited and charged up.”

The Beargrease consists of two races – the marathon and the mid-distance. Both races start at the same time and place, but the mid-distance racers are finished upon arrival in Tofte. The marathoners continue into the Boundary Waters and then return along the same path, so volunteers at the Highway 2 checkpoint see the teams again just 35 miles before they finish. Mushers arrive Tuesday night through Wednesday and are required to take a six-hour break at the checkpoint. Tonder said the mood changes remarkably on the return trip.

“They’re beginning the last leg of the race,” he said. “It’s much more subdued and quiet and not nearly as crowded. There’s a lot of time sitting around the fire.”

Checkpoint volunteers tackle an array of duties. When dog teams cross the road, they create a human barrier so the dogs know which direction to go. Other volunteers count dogs, check gear, handle the timing and direct traffic. Particularly important are provisions – hot coffee and bars must be available at all times, Tonder said.

“When you get a big, burly musher coming in after he’s been on the trail a long time, you don’t want to tell him the coffee pot is empty,” he said.

Tonder said about 30 volunteers are needed at the Highway 2 checkpoint on Sunday afternoon and evening and then again on Tuesday evening through the night. In the wake of his and Jody’s retirement from coordinating the checkpoint, he said a group or organization would be the best candidate to take over.

“It’s a very cool job,” he said. “I really hope that some other local folks get the bug and want to do it.”

Being part of the race gives you camaraderie and a closer look at the nuts and bolts of one of the longest sled dog races in North America, Tonder said, and calls the experience “magical.”

To become a volunteer, contact the Beargrease office at (218) 722-7631 or send a message to There is also a form on the website at


• The Beargrease starts at 1 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 26 at East High School, 301 N. 40th Ave. E., Duluth. It consists of two races: the mid-distance and the marathon. The mid-distance race ends at the AmericInn in Tofte and is about 110 miles long. The marathon, an out-and-back event of around 350 miles, ends at Billy’s Bar on the West Tischer Road. Most of the mid-distance racers finish Monday and marathoners hit the finish line on Wednesday.

• The race is named after John Beargrease, Beaver Bay-born Anishinabe man who carried mail between Two Harbors and Grand Marais for 20 years in the late 1800s before a road existed. He often used a dog sled in the winter.

• The Beargrease offers a “trail mail” service where mushers carry letters, just like John Beargrease did. You can purchase commemorative envelopes at Enclose a letter, address it, affix postage and pop it in another envelope and send it to Beargrease Trail Mail, P.O. Box 500, Duluth, Minn., 55801. Beargrease mushers will carry the letters along the route and a descendant of John Beargrease will pick up the letters at a checkpoint and drop them in the regular mail system for delivery.

•Much of the race is run on snowmobile trails groomed and maintained by local volunteer snowmobile clubs.