ROCHESTER, Minn. -- Some people think working like a dog is a good time. One of those people is Rochester resident Noelle Roberts.
Roberts recently volunteered at the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon. The race, which spans about 400 miles in Minnesota, is the longest and most difficult of its kind in the lower 48 states. It's a qualifier for the famous Alaskan Iditarod Sled Dog Race that starts in March.
This past summer, a 45-mile hike on the Superior Hiking Trail led Roberts to learn about the Beargrease.
“A part of the trail was different than the rest, groomed wider. It turned out it was a part of the John Beargrease Sled Dog race. I went down the rabbit hole of learning all about John Beargrease, whom the race is named after, and the history of the race, and there was no going back,” she said.
Roberts was one of about 1,000 volunteers who made the race possible this year. She volunteered at the Community Center in Finland, Minn. Since it was her first experience with a dog sled race, she learned a lot.
“Safety of the dog athletes as a No. 1 priority is iterated often, and you can tell it is a pillar of how the race is facilitated,” she said.
She said it felt like a reunion of welcoming people passionate about the North Shore, the dogs, embracing winter, and showing up for each other when needed.
During the race, Roberts helped make sure road crossings were safe for the passing dog sled teams, helped get bales of hay to handlers for the dogs to rest on, and helped stoke fires to provide the racers and their teams with warmth.
Kirk D. Weber, a Stewartville resident and Rochester Fire Department captain, coordinated the checkpoint in Finland where Roberts volunteered. He first went on a mushing trip in Alaska in 2013, and has been in love with the sport of dog sled racing since then.
Weber is on the Beargrease board, and helps out with the race any way he can. He helped maintain the website, registered mushers, and coordinated a checkpoint. Before the race was finished, he’d driven over 1,000 miles.
“I followed the race and ensured we had people at all of the road crossings all the way to Grand Portage,” he said.
The John Beargrease Sled Marathon began in 1980, and is named after the mail carrier who made deliveries between Two Harbors and Grand Marais between 1879 and 1899. His father was Moquabimetem, an Anishinaabe chief. Depending on the season, John Beargrease would use canoes and horses to deliver the mail, but his legacy as a musher has never been forgotten.
With only four dogs, he once made the trip in 28 hours. Today’s modern mushers with lighter sleds and as many as 16 dogs can’t complete the race much quicker.
This year’s Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon first-place purse of $3,000 went to first-time musher Erin Letzring, who finished the race in 32 hours, 43 minutes and 35 seconds. She was followed across the finish line just 7 seconds later by Ryan Redington.
Weber said the dogs who run the Beargrease aren’t the big fluffy dogs you might see in the movies.
“It is really hard to explain how quiet and beautiful it is out on the trail when a team goes by — all you hear is the runners gliding across the snow and the breathing of the dogs,” he said.
Roberts marveled at the drive of the dogs working together and described them passing by silently at almost 8 mph as “eerie.” But before the dogs leave the chute and head back out on the trail, they are anything but silent.
“It was full of squeals, yelps, howls and barks,” she said. “The dogs amp themselves up. Almost like their own little locker room with a pre-game ritual. They ‘popcorn,’ where they jump up and down in excitement,” she explained.
Since the fall, Weber has been working with Rochester-area mushers Damon Ramaker from the Deep Root Kennel in Fountain and Cindy Gallea from Snow Crest Racing in Wykoff.
“We hope to have the team ready for Cindy to have a successful Iditarod,” he said.
While Roberts was dog tired after her all-night volunteering shift on the Beargrease course, she said she plans to do it again next year.
For Roberts, volunteering “felt like being a part of something bigger that felt meaningful, special and historic.”