As mushers wait for snow, organizers consider postponing Beargrease sled dog race

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A lack of snow may delay next month’s annual John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon.

Erin Altemus’ dog sled team pauses on a recent snow-free training run near Grand Marais, Minn. The team is pulling an ATV instead of a sled. The warm and dry winter could disrupt the 2024 Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon. (Courtesy of Erin Altemus)

Mike Keyport, president of the Beargrease board of directors, said a decision will be made in the first week of January on whether to postpone the race’s Jan. 28 start date to March 3.

With the 300-mile route from Duluth to Grand Portage, Minn., nearly snowless, Keyport is hoping this winter’s warm weather will cool and enough snow will fall to reach the preferred 18-inch base of snow on the trails.

But the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center’s eight- to 14-day outlook and January through March outlook both predict above-normal temperatures and below-normal precipitation for the region.

“I would say I’m not in panic mode, but very concerned,” said Keyport, the great-grandson of John Beargrease, an Anishinaabe man who delivered mail along the North Shore via dog sled.

If there ends up being more snow further north, organizers are also considering moving the start line from Billy’s bar, just outside Duluth, to Two Harbors.

If the race is postponed to March 3-5, it will overlap with the Iditarod sled dog race in Alaska, meaning at least four teams signed up for both races will forgo the Beargrease for the Iditarod, Keyport said.

That includes Grand Marais musher Erin Altemus, who was planning to run Beargrease in the lead-up to her Iditarod debut.

Now, she’s looking for alternatives where there’s snow, like a race in Idaho scheduled at the same time as Beargrease. She’s also considering taking her team to Alaska earlier than expected to prepare there.

With no snow, Altemus has been behind her team on an ATV instead of a sled. While that’s common for fall training, this is the latest she’s had to run an ATV, forcing her to shorten training distances and repeat the same section of trail.

She came across about a half-inch of snow during her training run Thursday, but she doesn’t expect it to survive this weekend’s warmup.

“I’ve been feeling for weeks now that Beargrease isn’t going to happen,” Altemus said. “I don’t know. We’ve just been stuck in this weather pattern where every time it looks like it’s going to snow, it’ll pop up on the forecast and then within a day or hours of the supposed snowfall, it’ll disappear from the forecast.”

Linda Engebretson, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Duluth, said the unseasonably warm and dry conditions are likely to continue for the next couple of weeks. She pointed to the Climate Prediction Center’s prediction that the El Nino has a 54% chance of being “historically strong” through January. El Nino is the warming of the Pacific Ocean surface temperatures near the equator, which affects jet streams and weather across North America.

“We still have the El Nino out there that is essentially a very strong El Nino, and we’re likely to have that continue through the winter,” Engebretson said.

The climate is also warming, which has had mixed effects on regional snow. While a warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture, leading to more snow, there are fewer days with at least 6 inches of snow on the ground, the News Tribune previously reported. Mixed precipitation events are more likely, too.

Beargrease was canceled in 2007 and 2012 due to a lack of snow, but Keyport is holding out hope.

Beargrease musher Keith Aili celebrates with his dogs at the finish line of the 2023 John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon at the Grand Portage Lodge and Casino on Jan. 31, 2023. (Clint Austin / Forum News Service)

“You never know — it might start snowing and not stop,” he said.

Keyport said a postponed race would prompt race organizers, mushers, veterinarians and volunteers to work through logistical challenges, and if too many mushers back out, then that might cause a cancellation. And if there is more snow by March, the temperature will also need to cooperate.

“We can get some fairly warm days in March when snow gets a little slushy, and again, we’re talking about dog safety,” Keyport said.

Altemus said her husband, Matthew Schmidt, was planning to run a team in Beargrease, too, marking the first time the couple, who operate Sawtooth Racing near Grand Marais, would be competing in the same race.

“We are holding hope that Beargrease is going to happen, and we’re still preparing for it like it is,” Altemus said. “But I know they are going to make a decision in like two weeks here. So, it’s coming soon.”

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