'It's because of the dogs'
ON THE GUNFLINT TRAIL, Minn. -- To anthropomorphize is to apply human characteristics to animals. There's a lot of this that goes on during the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon. "She's saying, 'I'm done with this race. I want to go to the truck,...
ON THE GUNFLINT TRAIL, Minn. - To anthropomorphize is to apply human characteristics to animals.
There's a lot of this that goes on during the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon.
"She's saying, 'I'm done with this race. I want to go to the truck,' " said Martha Schouweiler, giving words to the pants of her lead dog Normandy, who had just finished hauling the winning mid-distance team across the finish line Monday morning at Trail Center on Poplar Lake.
For Schouweiler, the win marked her third straight victory in the 120-mile race. She and her team hail from tiny Irma in north-central Wisconsin. Schouweiler described a literal dogfight of a race. Her team of Alaskan Huskies clicking late, she toggled ahead of runner-up Ross Fraboni of Duluth sometime in the predawn during the race's third and final stage. She then held on against Fraboni, a musher Schouweiler holds in high regard, by a slim 1 minute, 57 seconds.
"He's a true athlete," she said of Fraboni. "He runs up every hill (alongside his dogs)."
Schouweiler, 61, is no slouch herself. She tries to run the hills, too, using a ski pole as an aid. A mother of four and grandmother to four more, "none of my children can arm wrestle me," she said. "It's because of the dogs."
A retired outdoor adventure specialist for Nicolet College in Rhinelander, Wis., Schouweiler races dogs owned by her son, Chad. They live next door to each other and Schouweiler has adopted the team as her daily workout and inspiration. They feed the high-performance pups well and, in turn, Schouweiler said she eats right, too.
"They give us hope," she said. "They give us reason to get up every morning. Race car drivers, they can put their cars away in the garage for awhile. We're at it 365 days a year."
Near the crowded campfire at Trail Center, Schouweiler knelt to her dog Normandy and asked for a kiss. She took two licks to the cheek and one more for good measure. Over her shoulder, marathon teams filed out of the checkpoint at a trot across the barren white landscape of Poplar Lake and on toward Grand Portage. The teams disappeared into the faraway wilderness, 254 mostly hidden and desolate miles to go before they reach the finish line near Duluth.
The bustling checkpoint was a stark contrast to the thought of the musher's lonely journey. Humming diesels lined both sides of the Gunflint Trail, serving as the plaque that narrowed the highway artery through the woods to a single "slow-down" lane. Visitors' puffs of breath filled the air. Everywhere a person went there were reeds of straw and yellow spots of snow underfoot. Cameras trained on dogs, mushers and the campfire scene. Choruses of dog wails came from every direction.
"We think we're having a good time," said 77-year-old Richard Tripp of Minneapolis, "but those dogs are having a really good time."
Tripp came north with a group of longtime friends who used to guide canoes together at nearby Camp Menogyn on Bearskin Lake. The men gather annually in an unheated and "outdoor plumbed" A-frame. They cut a hole in the ice for their water.
"If they didn't make them stop," a fascinated Tripp said, "most of these dogs would run until they died."
Normandy may have begged to differ. She was done and appeared happy for it. She proudly wore a first-of-its-kind wreath around her yellow neck to mark the first-place finish.
The colorful spoil of victory was handmade by longtime race volunteer Patty Prudden of Duluth.
She's been helping out for 30 years, she said, and took note last year when the race's favorite son, Nathan Schroeder, wondered aloud why the Beargrease didn't give out victory wreaths the way they do at Alaska's iconic Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. After Schroeder went on to win his fourth Beargrease, "I got him a cheap Hawaiian lei as a funny," Prudden said. "But I thought about it later and wanted to do it right."
Prudden used bright blue felt, silk flowers, beads, porcupine quills and a birch medallion to craft what figures to the newest tradition at the race. She named it the Frank Bishop Lead Dog Award in honor of an original and annual volunteer whose ashes rode the trail last year.
Prudden also collects the mail that is ceremoniously carried by the mushers to Trail Center, a nod to race namesake John Beargrease who carried mail by dogsled along the North Shore more than a century ago. She takes it back to the post office in Beaver Bay. for further processing.
Said Prudden, "I'm just trying to pay my respects to John Beargrease."