The recent Beargrease Marathon revived some memories of the early days of the event that became the Beargrease of today. Early on, the race was nothing like it is today.
I am sure that my recall is incomplete. My purpose is to enjoy some highlights from the early days.
The route of the race ran from Grand Marais, across the Grade road and then on back roads, ski trails and snowmobile trails through the county. Trail markers were just signs warning motorists and truckers that a race was in progress. The teams were disposed to running on the wrong side of the road; but fortune smiled and no one got hurt as the occasional car went into the ditch rather than colliding with a team.
Some of the early teams were interesting. Many teams were made up of what might be called classical Huskies. Big dogs, strong dogs, beautiful dogs, but not bred for speed. Actually a team of these freight haulers on one occasion pulled a car out of a ditch.
There was a picture-perfect team of Samoyeds. Snow white, affectionate, great crowd pleasers; but Samoyeds are guard dogs for flocks of sheep. They are not racers and are useless for pulling serious sleds fast. We got a harness and put one of our Samoyeds into a dog team. She laid down with her feet in the air and said, "Who me?” That ended her racing career.
Then there was the famous team of standard poodles. These were large dogs, very fast for their size for very short distances. That team lasted as far as the Sawbill Trail and then was mercifully withdrawn.
There was a carnival atmosphere at the Sawbill checkpoint. Locals set up a cook tent and made gallons of hot stew. Local volunteers directed traffic, both vehicle and personal. Rumors about the positions of the different teams, who had dropped a dog, the condition of the trail. Each and every rumor was spread by usually ill-informed pseudo-experts. Good spirits ruled the day.
Gradually the race gained prestige and attracted some very famous racers from Alaska and many other states. The simple arrangements became more specific. There were rules and officials and, along with all that, a need for communication.
At that time there were no cell phones, so communication with the checkpoints was difficult. Ham radio operators pitched in, but the ethics of ham radio as interpreted by the hams on the spot prohibited traffic tainted in any way by commercialization. So other kinds of communication were needed.
At Sawbill Outfitters we had radio telephone service, both a base station which sent a signal to a tower on Maple hill in Grand Marais, as well as mobile units in our cars and vans. We loaned a van equipped with a radio to the Sawbill checkpoint so information from that checkpoint could be sent out.
Transmitting from the checkpoint worked well, but receiving messages was confusing. The radio was our business radio, so all incoming calls were answered at the outfitters. We would take the message, explain to the caller that we would forward the message, and then call the checkpoint on the two-way radio. This was difficult to explain to radio and TV people who had no idea of the circumstances.
For a few years Cindy Hansen of Sawbill was the boss lady at the Sawbill checkpoint. That job was daunting. Cindy did enjoy the job in spite of all the difficulties. She got to talk to the famous racers and soon found out which ones were great folks and which ones were not so great. The job was exhausting but exciting.
There was chaos and high energy at the checkpoint for a couple of days and then it was all over. All that was left was the straw from the dog beds and trash where the handlers’ trucks had been parked.
This is the kind of event where the folks who are deeply involved say immediately after it is over, "Never again, not me.” Then they take a breath and say, "When do we start getting ready for next year?”