Photo by Jon
A good crowd turned out to watch the start of
the Grand Portage Passage on Saturday, March 15.
An insider's look at
By Mark Dunlap,
The Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa
canceled last year's Grand Portage Passage Sled
Dog Race due to marginal winter conditions and a
lack of snow. This year may have been even
worse, but the Passage organization overcame the
obstacles and did a remarkable job of holding a
quality event. Under a bright sun and in forty
degree temperatures, forty-five mushers and
teams headed north into Canada last Saturday
afternoon. I was wearing a baseball cap as my
team and I blasted out of the starting chute,
something I've never done before. It would be
several hours before I pulled out my cold
weather hat with the ear flaps.
Earlier in the day I had walked out on the trail
near the start and was relieved to see that the
surface was fairly firm. However, by the time
the teams started at 2:00 p.m., the trail had
become soft and wet, which included a long,
slushy stretch of the Pigeon River.
In the day preceding the race start, the higher
temperatures and sun had melted the snow on
parts of the trail. What resulted were several
miles of dirt, mud and gravel which can chew the
plastic right off a sled runner if a musher
isn't careful, not to mention slowing down the
team. So, I ran beside my sled for long
stretches until my heart was pounding and I was
wondering how many others were also running.
There had been no mention of bare ground in the
pre-race meetings and I think the situation was
as much a surprise to race officials and the
trail crew as it was to the mushers.
My friend and handler, Julie O'Conner, was
waiting for me at the checkpoint. Detailed,
organized, knowledgeable, and optimistic as
always, Julie had set up an excellent spot for
my dog truck and had straw bedding, water, and
food ready for my team. In less than half an
hour we had watered and fed my dogs, Julie had
applied leg warmers to their front legs to keep
them from stiffening up and they were bedded
down in the straw. While the dogs rested, I ate
a burger and fries in the restaurant, talked
with other mushers about the trail and relaxed
as much as I could, watching the clock tick down
until I could leave the checkpoint, enroute back
to the start at Mineral Center on the U.S. side
of the border.
As my departure time approached, I traded my
soaking wet mukluks for a pair of lightweight
hiking boots, another first in my racing career.
Usually, I'm reaching for the warmest footwear I
can get my hands on.
Teams started blasting out of the checkpoint
just before 2:00 a.m. Sunday, many of them
literally within seconds of each other, heading
pell-mell back the way we had come.
Overnight, the trail had changed from soft and
slushy to hard and abrasive, prompting some deep
thoughts as to whether or not to use booties to
protect the dog's feet. I opted to run without
booties rather than have to pull them off in
tatters a few miles down the road.
I was sitting in 19th place when I left the
checkpoint and was optimistic that I had a shot
at moving closer to the top. Instead, as the
miles went by, the weaknesses in my team began
to show as one dog after another stopped
pulling, until half of them were basically along
for the ride. Over the next few hours, I passed
a few teams, but ended up getting passed by
more. Even as my hopes for a decent finish
faded, I was awed by the beauty of a partial
moon, deep with color, setting on one side of
the sky, while the sun, full and orange, came up
on the opposite side, adding depth to the layers
of fog hanging across the landscape.
I remembered that few people in the world will
ever experience such a combination of sled dogs
and nature and I slipped out of race mode and
started concentrating on just getting my team to
the finish line in as good a shape as possible,
noting that some of my dogs were developing
tender feet on the rough trail surface.
Miles later, after crossing the Pigeon River
back onto U.S. soil, a race volunteer at a road
intersection informed me that the finish was
just over a mile away. Shortly after that I
encountered two final, incredibly steep hills
that sucked away the last of my strength and
left me aching from head to toe as I got off the
sled to help my team.
People were cheering as my team and I slipped
across the finish line. A race official checked
through my sled bag to make sure I had all the
required equipment and then Julie led us to the
truck, where she flew into motion, setting down
dog pans for water. With my eyes watering and
burning, I staggered around hugging each dog. It
took me awhile to realize that tails were
wagging and they were still standing tall. I was
a wreck, but they were actually in pretty good
shape, humbling me once again with their heart
and toughness. Later in the day, I found myself
thinking about the future.
Earlier in the race, someone asked me if I was
having fun and I had to say no, I was not having
fun in this particular race. But then I added
that I do love what I'm doing, if that makes any
Having experienced success as a racer, I
understand now what it means to falter, to
consider quitting and moving on to other things
and to realize that I would be deeply
disappointed in myself if I don't once again
search for that certain level of excellence.
Perhaps for me, this particular race represents
a deeper learning experience-and more
importantly, has become something of a passage.
Mark Dunlap is a wild
land fire fighter and freelance writer. He moved
to Cook County in 1993 for the specific purpose
of working with and raising sled dogs. Mark has
many wins under his belt including the 1996
Beargrease 100, 1997 Crocker Hills Classic, and
the 1998 Madeline Island Dog Sled Race. Mark has
finished consistently in the top five at many
other mid-distance races since 1995, including
the Empire 130, Beargrease 100, and the Great
Trail Sled Dog Race.
12- Dog Passage, 8-Dog