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Autumn Finch

United States

I'm a student from Duluth, MN. I love mountain biking, running, camping, and writing about all of those things! I also love biology, German, and math. Writing is my favorite way to explore the intersection of my varied interests.

Animal Athletes in the Great White North

September 13, 2017

Large, pillowy flakes fall from the grey sky, landing on the perked ears and stained snouts of the dogs. It’s currently five degrees above zero, with an expected high of just 15. My toes are wrapped in wool socks and thick winter boots, but are nonetheless numb. I wonder how the dogs can withstand the cold, let alone run into it.
“Let’s go people, the ATV’s here!”
The musher, a 14 year old girl who has been racing since she could walk, hooks the frayed gangline to the four wheeler, and the dogs begin to wail with excitement. I fumble with the line, my frozen, mitten-covered hands about as dexterous as the dogs’ paws. Moments later I begin a somewhat controlled slide across the ice, six lean, muscular dogs dragging an ATV, a loaded sled, and five handlers effortlessly. As we reach the starting chute, the young musher punches her snow break into the frosty ground and hollers a command to her team, and the dogs come to a reluctant halt. The four wheeler disconnects and we begin to inch our way to the starting line. Without the powerful mechanical brakes, I have to lean all of my weight back against the rope to hold back the dogs. I can barely hear the announcer through the loudspeakers over the cacophony of agitated dogs, but I do hear “MUSH!” from somewhere behind me. It’s my cue to let go of the sled and watch the team bound down the trail, into the frozen wilderness.
I’m at the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, a nearly 400 mile race through the backwoods of northern Minnesota. Mushers and spectators from around the world come to witness the raw power of a sled dog team tearing through the forest. I’m serving as a volunteer handler, and my job is to keep the dogs safe and on track as they made their way from the truck to the starting line. I had watched the race for years, admiring the beautiful huskies and the envying the mushers who cared for them. When I found out the race needed volunteers to work with the athletes themselves, I signed up without hesitation.
As the hours after the start turned into days, the mushers and their teams would weave their way through pine forests, over frozen lakes and streams, across roads packed over with snow, and eventually rest at a small bar outside of Duluth. A small crowd gathered at the finish line, mostly family and friends of the racers there to pick them up and bring them home. It had warmed up since the race’s beginning, a balmy 20 degrees, and some handlers stood in jeans and t-shirts advertising dog food. Someone’s HAM radio buzzed to life, declaring that the first team should finish at any moment. The congregation of onlookers quieted, listening for the glide of a sled or the panting of a dog. I heard only the crackling of the bonfire across the trail.
Without so much as a whisper, a pack of dogs came into view. Their tongues were out, steamy breath melting the snow from their fur. They must have been tired, but they certainly didn’t show it. Smooth, powerful muscles flexed as they ran, hauling a weary musher who kicked his foot in the snow as they approached the line. The team had spent more than 30 hours in the cold, running a route that stretched to the Canadian border and back.
The Beargrease began in 1980, but the route existed long before, as the journey mail carrier John Beargrease undertook through the early 1900s. Beargrease was the son of an Anishinabe chief in Beaver Bay, a small town on the north shore of Lake Superior. He carried mail, by dogsled, up and down the shore of the great lake, a job that was always demanding and often dangerous. Throughout Beargrease’s tenure as mail carrier, he fought dense fog, frigid, dark nights, and terrifying water crossings that haunt even the best modern mushers of the region. In 1897, the Two Harbors Iron News ran a story about John, declaring “there is probably no more reliable carrier in the land, there are but few harder routes”. Today, mushers young and old brave that same challenging route, hoping to capture some of that Beargrease magic.


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1 Comment
  • Elizabeth Bennet

    You used good grammar and good writing techniques and a very interesting subject.

    9 months ago