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BWCA Weather for Ely, Grand Marais, and the Gunflint Trail

An Insiders Look at the Passage, March 20, 2003

Photo by Jon Kettunen
A good crowd turned out to watch the start of the Grand Portage Passage on Saturday, March 15.

An insider's look at the Passage

By Mark Dunlap,
Musher #143

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 sense.
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.

2001 12- Dog Passage, 8-Dog

2005 Beargrease


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