Residents of Finland are already preparing for the mass of visitors set to converge on the Clair Nelson Community Center on Sunday, Jan. 27.
Finland has been a checkpoint stop for the John Beargrease sled dog marathon since the race began in 1980. Clair Nelson building manager and volunteer Nancy Olson remembers the old days of the race.
"Back then, we had a small community center that they'd use for all the vet checks and to rest," Olson said. "And then there were a couple of years in there that we didn't have a building, but they'd still use the site."
Today, the Finland stop is one of the biggest checkpoints along the race. In 2011, the checkpoint moved to the then newly constructed Clair Nelson Center. The stop has veterinarians on standby to check over the race dogs, a massage therapist to help mushers with sore muscles and a continual supply of warm food and shelter.
"We have volunteers who make up big batches of our version of a northwoods chili," Olson said. "We get local beef and wild rice from a lake just down the road, so we give it our own local spin."
The combination of food and warmth also makes it a popular spot for race spectators to gather to meet the dogs, watch the racers come in Sunday evening and gather out of the cold.
"I used to be a spectator many, many years ago," Olson said. "I can tell you there were some cold years there when we didn't have this big indoor space."
Olson has been volunteering with the race for many years. What keeps her returning?
"I love the dogs," Olson said. "It's so great to have all those dogs around. And to see the teams coming in with all the lights and when the teams are getting ready to take off again and the dogs get so excited and just start howling. You can tell they just want to get back on the trail."
Olson enjoys meeting the mushers as well. She had a fun experience last year when she met the grandson of legendary musher and Iditarod founder Joe Redington Sr.
Ryan Redington won last year's Beargrease race.
"When he came through the point, I got to meet him and tell him, 'I remember your granddad!' That was so fun," Olson said. "It was great to see the tradition continue."
Mushers are expected to arrive at the Finland checkpoint Sunday evening around 8 p.m., though Olson stresses it really depends on weather and snow conditions.
"We'll have to keep an eye on the weather and see what happens," Olson said. "The weather really determines how the race is going to go. We have a lot of snow back here in Finland. We've gotten three storms now and a lot of snow, so they're going to find really varied conditions throughout the race and that will make it interesting."
The stop is still accepting volunteers. For more information about volunteering and the races, visit beargrease.com.