History

Picture of mushers from the original Gunflint Mail Run Sled Dog Race

History

Dogsledding on the Gunflint Trail

Picture of a sled dog team hauling a large load of grass

Who is it? The Quetico Library knows they are hauling grass but they don’t know who is doing it.

Dog sledding has been a part of the Gunflint Trail for years. Today it is generally thought of as racing or giving rides to tourists. The dogs are small fast animals that love to run at full speed. They follow trails through the woods and across the lakes.

Originally dog teams were used as work animals by the Native Americans. These sturdy animals could go anywhere in the woods during the winter. They responded to commands and didn’t need a trail to follow. They towed huge loads at a steady speed and could go all day. Sometimes the loads were rather unusual. The first picture here shows a load of marsh grass on Saganaga Lake. The Quetico Library isn’t sure if it is George Plummer hauling marsh grass for an ice house or one of the Powell’s hauling grass to feed their cow.

One of the most common uses of dog teams was to use them for winter trapping of beaver and other animals for the fur. Irv and Tempest Benson’s dog team could be often found out with them on the trap line. Pete LaPlante was another Native American well known for his teams. In addition to trapping Awbutch Plummer used her dogs to haul firewood.

Benson-dog-team-on-trap-line

Irv and Tempest Benson’s
dog team on a trap line.

As outsiders came in to open resorts, some of them learned to use dog teams. Justine and Bill Kerfoot used their dog teams for trapping and for giving rides to tourists. Of course, there was a lot of work necessary to keep the team and its sled in good condition. The fourth picture here shows the two of them repairing harnesses.

Perhaps the best known white man to use dog teams was Charlie Boostrom. The newspaper records many trips by Charlie from the early days of the Gunflint Trail. In 1921 it was noted that Charlie’s team of 3 huskies and a toboggan brought the family to town for the winter. That same year Charlie and his dog team brought in 80 beaver hides, more than any other trapper.

After the road came to Clearwater Lake in 1926, Charlie still used his dogs to bring supplies into Clearwater Lodge. The roads were not plowed enough and the cars were not good enough to depend on them for supplies. The dog teams could make it just as fast and they were a lot more reliable.

Another use for the dog teams was hauling in game from deer hunting. Both Charlie Boostrom and Justine Kerfoot recalled many trips with a sled full of deer.

Sometimes supplies had to be taken to men camped away from a road. The plan might have been to use airplanes but slush building up on the lake made that impossible. At 35 degrees below zero in 1935, Charlie Boostrom and his dogs were hauling supplies to an acquisition station 12 miles northwest of Seagull Lake. Jimmy Dunn at Windigo Point on Seagull recorded in his diary that same year that Charlie and a Civilian Conservation Corps man spent the night with their dog team on the way to Jasper Lake.

The advent of the snowmobile changed this life style. The machines were not as efficient as the dogs but they did not have to be fed all summer. Also most activities during the winter now tend to be close to a plowed road.

Enter the Gunflint Mail Run

During the summer of 1977, the North Shore Sled Association, the Cook County mushers group, started talking about organizing a “long distance” dog sled race in the county. The race was to be called the Gunflint Mail Run.

The first race event began with a “community dinner” on February 11th, 1977 at Hungry Jack Lodge followed by the race on February 12th and 13th. The race started at Borderland Lodge (now called Cross River Lodge) on Gunflint Lake. From Gunflint, the race trail went onto North and South Lakes up the old South Lake road and over to Poplar and Little Ollie Lakes then down to East Bearskin, Aspen and Flour Lakes and finally finishing at Hungry Jack Lodge. Over the two days, the race course covered some 70 miles. Winner of the first Mail Run was Tim White. Finishing second was Raleigh Jorgenson, followed by John Patton.

It should be noted that much of the route traveled through the BWCA. Shortly after the race, the organizers were informed by the USFS that conducting competitive events was illegal in the BWCA.

The following year, the mushers suggested holding the Mail Run in conjunction with the sprint race sponsored by the Tip of the Arrowhead Association–Cook County’s tourism association. The sprint race was held at Devils Track Lodge. Bud Kratoska, the Arrowhead Association’s director, opposed the idea. After a bitter dispute, the Musher Association decided to proceed on their own.

The second Mail Run was run on February 11th and 12th, 1978. The race started with a mass start at Coast Guard Point in Grand Marais and ended at Windigo Lodge. The second day’s race began with another mass start in front of Windigo Lodge and ended in Grand Marais. Tim White took the top spot again that year.

On January 27th and 28th, 1979, the third annual Mail Run was held. Tim White placed first for the third time. That year two races were held–a 50 miler and a 25 miler. Mushers in the 50 miler race were: Jim Cowper (Duluth), Arleigh Jorgenson (Cook County), Bruce Moe (Cook County), John Patton (Cook County), Kevin Turnbough (Cook County), Paul Fleming (Cook County), Phil Fleming (Cook County), Pete Redman (Buyck, MN), and Ted Young (Cook County). The 25 mile race included: David From (Finland, MN) and Jim Stevens (Cook County).

The fourth Mail Run was held in mid-January (not sure about the exact date), 1980. This time Arleigh Jorgenson was the winner. According to a January 31st issue of the Cook County News Herald from the year of the race, “There were some exciting times during the races. On West Bearskin Lake, Pete Redmond’s gangline separated from his team and he was left hanging on to a sled with no team. Mark Nordman yelled to a cross county skier to take off his pack and skis and catch that team. And he did.”

Following the race, John Patten, one of the prime movers in organizing the Mail 
Run from the beginning, was contacted by WDSM radio in Duluth to put together a sled dog race from Grand Marais to Duluth. Patton’s reaction in a letter to local mushers stated “We have recently have been given the opportunity to initiate a long sought after dream of a distance race on the North Shore of Lake Superior.” He suggested that this race should be planned for the next year but the radio station insisted that it be held that year.

On March 15th and 16th, 1980, the longest sled dog race in the lower 48 — the John Bear Grease — was born. The race began in Grand Marais and traveled to Finland, where the teams spent the night and then went on to Duluth. The race followed some of the Minnesota DNR’s newly constructed North Shore snowmobile trail.

As a footnote: sometime prior to the first Beargrease, at a North Shore Musher Association meeting, where the new race and its route along the new snowmobile trail was being discussed, Barbara Young suggested that we should ask the DNR to name this new trail the John Beargrease Trail. Later Patten picked up on this name and the new dog sled race was so named the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon.

Information and photos provided by Sue Kerfoot, Gunflint Trail Historical Society and Ted Young, Boundary Country Trekking.