Lessons from the Beargrease trail

As I write this week’s Unorganized Territory, I am comfortably sitting at home on my couch, drinking a cup of hot chocolate and munching on a late night snack of pretzels. I am still shivering from my ride home from work and from the time it took to plug my car in out there in minus 10 degrees, but I’m getting warmer. As I listen to the wind howling around my house, I’m thinking that maybe it’s time to talk about the weather. I’m hoping there is a drastic turn for the better this weekend for the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon. I’m hoping for no wind, sunny skies and for temperatures of at least 10 degrees—10 degrees above zero!

These beautiful, high-energy dogs seem to love the cold. Even at check-points and finish lines they want to keep on going!

These beautiful, high-energy dogs seem to love the cold. Even at check-points and finish lines they want to keep on going!

I know that may not be ideal for the high-energy sled dogs that love the cold. I know that the colder it is, the faster they run. But for spectators and folks like me trying to get pictures of those dogs, the cold makes things challenging.

Things have changed a bit for the better since I started covering dog sled races 14 years ago. Camera equipment is much better. During the first few races I took pictures at, I had to worry about having enough film. The advent of digital cameras and camera cards with enough storage capacity to hold 1,000 photos makes capturing a race much easier.

Batteries have also improved greatly. The first time I tried to get pictures at the John Beargrease, late at night at Trail Center Resort on the Gunflint Trail, I ended up with nothing. As I stood shivering on the Poplar River shoreline, watching for the distant pinpoint of light of a musher’s headlamp, my camera locked up in the cold. The frigid temperature made for a speedy dog sled race, but it killed batteries. I had to tuck my icy camera inside my three layers of clothes to try to thaw it out, missing just about all the mushers coming in.

I learned to carry spare batteries, keeping two sets in an inner pocket. Of course the cold batteries always seemed to conk out at just the wrong time.

“Here comes a team,” someone would shout and “beep” my camera would shut down.

I got really fast at changing batteries, but not fast enough. I lost count of how many times I ended up shooting the back of the musher as the team glided past.

Thanks to the technology tried and tested by many Arctic adventurers, camera batteries are much, much better. At the recent Gichigami Express, I was able to use one battery the entire day, shooting in the cold and simply tucking my camera inside my jacket now and then. I wear out before my batteries now.

Another challenge in following the Beargrease is writing outside in the cold. I tuck the smallest reporter’s tablet I can find in my pocket so I don’t have to carry it. For some reason—it may be purely psychological— but my hand feels much colder when I am holding something than when it is resting comfortably in a glove. Perhaps it is because if I’m not writing or holding something, I can keep my hands tucked in my pockets.

Until I have to write. I like to jot down just about everything about the race—how many people are waiting at the checkpoint? Is there a bonfire? Is the wind howling? The dogs barking? What are the officials talking about? What are the amateur radio folks saying? What did the musher who just glided in say to the vet? And so on. That is what is really hard to do when the weather is bitterly cold.

Not just because my hands freeze, but because, if I don’t remember the reporter’s Golden Rule for the Beargrease, my pen freezes. After a few times covering the Beargrease sled dog race, I learned that a pen is just about worthless for the event. When we’re having a real Minnesota winter, the ink freezes in the pen and you might as well try writing with a stick. So the reporter’s Golden Rule for the Beargrease? Bring a pencil.

Finally, I’ve learned to dress appropriately. The Beargrease trail is not the place to worry about making a fashion statement. I don’t like the looks of my big clunky Sorel boots, but they are rated to minus 40 degrees, so they are perfect for a day of standing around in the snow.

Fortunately, winter clothing has come a long way in the last 14 years. Smart Wool socks and UnderArmour base layers make being outside tolerable a lot longer in the coldest of cold weather. And the beaver hat that my dear husband Chuck gave me for my birthday helps a lot too.

Despite the things I’ve learned about reporting on the Beargrease, I’m still hoping for temperatures above 10 degrees. But above or below zero, I’ll be there— with many layers, an extra battery just in case, and a pencil. See you on the trail!

    ~     ~     ~     ~

Their tails are high and tongues away—the twin banners of sled dog contentment. Clara Germani

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