When the opportunity to visit Grand Marais, Minnesota, one last time before our move presented itself, we didn’t hesitate. Pete spotted a Facebook post from our favorite Gunflint Trail stop, the Trail Center Lodge, about the new Gichigami Express Dogsled Race. A first time dogsled event, the Gichigami Express was organized as a non-profit with a $25,000 purse donated by the Grand Portage Ojibwe Band. This new race was envisioned as a tribute to North Shore history, where sled dogs provided transportation, delivered mail, furs and goods well into the 20th century. The Gichigami Express 3-day race period presented a variety of locations for spectators, with time available for other activities in Cook County between daily starts and finishes. I booked a room at the Best Western Superior Inn, and we were set.
On Highway 61, north of Duluth, it quickly became evident that there was sled dogging on the calendar. Various rigs with the telltale sled frames attached were headed north toward Grand Marais. The faces of curious sled dogs looked out at us from their stacked, snug mobile kennels as we passed. When we got to Grand Marais the town appeared to be filled with mushers on their way to the Gichigami Express. The race program showed entrants from as far away as Clam Gulch, Willow, and Wasilla, Alaska, as well as local Minnesotans and a team from Ontario. It was great to see four female mushers out of the group of 22 entrants on the list!
On Sunday morning, January 6, we headed out early to Mineral Center Road, just west of Grand Portage, within the Reservation. The night before, there had been a public potlatch dinner with a welcome presentation by the Grand Portage Band and a traditional exchange of gifts for the mushers. Friendly volunteers served spectators a hot breakfast with plenty of coffee inside the ancient cabin, whose wood stove warmed its frosty interior. Mineral Center was an early pioneer settlement in Cook County; very little remains nowadays.
Conditions at the start were frosty, with very little wind. The highs were predicted in the 20s for Cook County, with no precipitation. A more perfect environment for a “leisurely” 50 mile run couldn’t have been ordered!
The dogs were lively and vocal as they anticipated what was in store. We had plenty of opportunity to mingle and check out the dogs in the minutes before the 9AM start, so I took a quick video:
These dogs may seem surprisingly trim to those who aren’t familiar with modern-day sled dog racing, and while you might expect to see Siberian huskies or similar-looking sled dogs, some of the other dogs’ appearance might surprise you. The preparation and harnessing is very systematic to avoid a runaway dog sled or a false start. The dogs want to run! We took our place ahead of the starting line, along with quite a few other photographers and fans, in the hopes of getting some action shots. We were not disappointed! Click on the individual photos in the gallery for a full look.
Once the dogs begin to run, their determined joy is remarkable. No more barking; they are all business!
With a staggered start, a team goes every two minutes. The faster teams will overtake others in more open areas. By the time all teams had gone, it was after 10AM. We decided to head back into town for a hot shower in our hotel room, before setting off up the Gunflint Trail. The Superior Inn in Grand Marais has an exceptional Lake Superior shoreline setting overlooking picturesque Artist’s Point, the subject of many a photographic and painter’s composition. Our view did not disappoint. The room itself was beautifully updated in accordance with Best Western’s rebranding.
The Superior Inn Grand Marais is a Best Western Plus property, and the sophisticated finishes – modern carpet and high quality linen, granite counters, stylish lighting – reflected the designation. One of the most remarkable aspects: plenty of electrical outlets! Taking our business on the road means we have a plethora of plug-ins: camera equipment, laptops, iPhones, iPad, Nook Reader and more! What a pleasure not to have to crawl behind the furniture to find an outlet! Our room was also equipped with a stainless steel mini-fridge, microwave and plenty of coffee for the coffee maker. The steamy hot shower was even more enjoyable coming from the adjustable rain-style shower head. Worthy of note: the Bee Kind toiletries with eco-friendly paper packaging – why didn’t anyone think of this before? – and the Clean Remote. The entire room was spotless; the staff at the Superior Inn Grand Marais is working hard to maintain a high standard, and they’re succeeding.
Refreshed, we headed up the Gunflint Trail to the Trail Center Lodge. Words can’t express how much I craved a Trail Center Lodge burger. I’d been disappointed earlier in the fall when we’d weekended with two other couples in a house overlooking Lake Superior; the Trail Center Lodge was temporarily closed. Now we had a serendipitous reprieve, and I enjoyed my perfect burger immensely.
Thanks to Twitter, @gichigamiexpres kept us apprised of faster run times. We finished up our lunch and crossed the Gunflint Trail over to Hungry Jack Lodge to watch the mushers arrive ahead of schedule under perfectly blue winter skies. Hungry Jack Drive is quintessential Minnesota northwoods, winding and twisting through boreal forest, majestic pines and lake view scenery. Simply magnificent. The Hungry Jack Lodge has a storied history, and would be a fine place to stay in any season.
What an exciting end to the first day’s run! We headed back into town for a quick bite, and struck up a conversation with some friendly locals. Staggered starts weren’t always the case with sled dog races, we were informed. Trying to imagine a mass start with multiple teams of frenzied sled dogs brought about some good laughs. Folks were hoping the upcoming 29th running of the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon would be on after it was cancelled last year. Beargrease is the longest sled dog race in the lower 48 states, with a 400 mile course from Duluth to the Trail Center and back. This race is inspirational for its difficulty, as well as the attendant activities, which include “cutest puppy contest,” opening ceremonies, and gala fundraiser.
The second day of the Gichigami Express brought different conditions, with wind predominating. The Windigo Lodge (off the Gunflint Trail) start began a 47 mile course ending at Devil Track Lake. Pete learned that one of the teams the previous day had been distracted by the smell of breakfast cooking along Hungry Jack Lake. Turning time and time again toward the beckoning aroma wafting over the lake they circled, ignoring their commands until another team approached. Then their competitive instinct kicked in and they kept their lead!
Once again, Twitter proved beneficial in providing information throughout the second morning. We headed a short ways up the Gunflint Trail out to Devil Track Resort for lunch and finished up just as the first team arrived. Blowing winds created more Arctic-like conditions, but the enthusiasm remained high during the entire arrival period.
That evening, we headed over to the Grand Marais American Legion for a spaghetti dinner event with the mushers and presentation from the Gichigami Express board leadership. The intimate size of the group and the small town camaraderie was the perfect cap to our stay in Grand Marais. Even though we had to leave the following morning, we kept track of the race results using social media.
This was a great trip for us to conclude a lifetime of Minnesota winters with a visit to Grand Marais and our beloved Gunflint Trail and Minnesota North Shore. In three weeks, we’ll have left them behind.
If you are interested in sled dogging, the historic John Beargrease race is scheduled for January 27, 2013, with contingency provisions for less than optimum snow and weather conditions. Pre-race events begin on January 25th, 2013 in various northern Minnesota locations.