Now that we are Duluthians, it seemed only right that we take in the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon. With family in town, it was a natural to head over to the starting area ahead of time for Meet the Mushers. In a parking lot filled with dog kennels, sleds, equipment and people, it took on the aura of a festival. Dogs and mushers were easily accessible, and more than willing to be petted and talk about the race and their experiences. We could feel the excitement build as we perused the starting chute, and it was hard to tear our granddaughter away from meeting the “puppies.”
Once the race was in progress, Rich and I headed out to more remote spots to try our hand at photographing the action. Our first stop was at the top of Seven Bridges Road. While only the half-marathon teams took that route, we had great fun watching them navigate the downhill that ended in a hairpin curve. Not all dogs understood that they needed to turn, which was comedic. And I quite enjoyed this team’s lead dog, who seemed more intent on checking me out than leading the team!
Still early in the race, the mushers eagerly waved and appreciated our cheers as they passed by. One in particular seemed to be having a great time – and it was a woman to boot! What spirit she showed.
When the action slowed there, we moved to a post further out of town, which proved to be a beautiful viewing point. Without warning, mushers came around the bend and traveled down a gently undulating and curving path heavily lined with thick and snowy pine trees. There we had ample opportunity to let our cameras shoot continuously, catching them all the way down the trail.
It was there that we saw our first full-marathon teams, with up to 14 dogs pulling the sleds as opposed to only 8 for the shorter distance racers. The teams seemed to stretch forever, and were amazing in their ability to coordinate their movements in a compressed space without getting hopelessly tangled. And they proved to be a challenge to fit into the viewfinder of the camera! We particularly enjoyed those with brilliantly colored booties – a necessity for the dogs’ feet out on the icy trail.
We quickly learned that photographing the race required more waiting than it did clicking the shutter. We never knew how long it would be between teams, and keeping warm was a high priority. Fortunately, we were decked out in our warmest gear, and found that talking to other spectators was entertaining and helped pass the time. Once a lead dog appeared, then it was a scramble for the camera, getting it lined up properly and shooting either with clumsy mittens or frigid exposed fingers. When using continuous mode, I felt like I was shooting blind, and came out with some headless mushers in the process. And while the photos taken from far away were not great, I enjoyed replaying them later in rapid order, seeing the dogs advance down the trail in stilted stop-action form.
We were relieved to return to the car at the end of each stop, to feel its warmth and let the seat warmers work their magic on our chilled bodies. The mushers weren’t nearly so lucky. It was hard to imagine them continuing on mile after cold and windy mile, and on into the night through the dark. They are heartier souls than we, still out there, following their dogs.