Beargrease Primer

©Kyle Krohn. Used with permission.

A very wise and wily mushing veteran once told me, “there’s a hundred different things that can happen when you’re mushing…and 99 of them are bad!”

Those were the words of John Stetson, the two-time Beargrease mid-distance champ responding to a question I asked as a reporter covering the race in 2001.  But those words would stick with me like glue as I learned the art and science of running sled dogs from Stetson a year later.

©Lisa Johnson

Over thirty years and 125,000 miles behind a sled later, when John Stetson talks about training dogs, he comes back, over and over again, to trust. How it can enable a person to control 14 fast-moving dogs with only a brake and their voice.  And how easy it is to lose.  

There are no prima donnas on John Stetson’s dog teams.  That goes for the dogs and the human mushers he trains.

"The Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon is all about dogs," you say.  "So of course my dog is welcome, right?"

Beargrease organizers say please, leave your pet at home.

Two words: disease and dessert.

There are thousands of dollars and days invested in creating a competitive sled dog team, an investment that could be down the tubes if a sled dog picks up a bug from an unvaccinated or sick pet.

Here’s the thing about dogsleds for racing: aside from the runners and the lightweight design, they’re not so much about “go” as they are about “stop.”

And if you’ve ever seen sled dogs being harnessed up for a run, you know why. 

No wonder most mushers use a snub line to attach their rig to the dog truck or some other stationary object! 

Dogsleds

This is called a “track” or “drag mat.”  Chances are, you’ll see mushers standing on it as their teams explode from the starting line. 

Anyone who’s ever tried to pick their next best friend out of a stampede of big feet, slurping tongues, wiggly bodies and whipping tails knows that, when faced with a litter of puppies, the temptation is to just take them all home.

But when sled dog racers get a litter of puppies, it takes a while to know which puppies have what it takes to make a good sled dog.  So all they can do is hang out with the puppies … and wait.