Dogs lead the way at Beargrease

 

February 3, 2023

Amber Nichols

All the dogs get ramped up at the start of any leg of the race, but the start is by far where they are the most excited. Photographer Amber Nichols said the dogs love being out in the snow and will often drop down and roll or play in the snow as they wait to be released to start running.

Mother to three kids under age 6, Cloquet's Billie Thompson had a unique routine among mushers when she and her dogs reached the first checkpoint during this year's mid-distance Beargrease 120.

"I took care of the dogs first, getting them fed and bedded. Then my next priority was to nurse him," she said of baby Camden, now five months old.

Having a strong support team - mom and dad, Betsy and Charlin Diver, and husband, Cameron - helps. So does a great kennel partner/mentor in Rock Creek's Richard Loucks, who has taken Thompson under his wing, "like a grandpa," she said.

But the love of the dogs is what keeps the wife, mother and neurotrauma nurse making the drive to Wrenshall five days a week to train, and entering the Beargrease and other races each winter.

"My motivation is the same as it was when I started at age 15 - being with the dogs," Thompson said of the past 18 years. "Experiencing them and their personalities, seeing how far they can go, watching their athletics. Being out in the woods with them is one of the most fun things for me."

Photographer Amber Nichols, who has been volunteering for the Beargrease nonprofit for four years, said the energy of the Beargrease race is "uplifting and contagious."

It was love at first sight for her. Dogs howling, jumping, lunging forward in the harness to get moving, hardly ever standing still.

The dogs are the real stars in the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon and its associated races, say Cloquet musher Billie Thompson and Esko photographer Amber Nichols. Thompson and her dogs (pictured) ran the first leg of the mid-distance Beargrease 120 in below-zero temperatures Sunday. Nichols was there to capture the moments.

"The dogs are, of course, the main attraction and they are amazing athletes," Nichols said. "Each one has a personality, but they all absolutely love to do this. You can see and hear that excitement when they are hooked up and waiting to be set loose. They have an amazing pulling power and it takes a small village - 'handlers' are what they call them - to get the teams in place to start the run."

Thompson and her dogs decided to call it quits in Two Harbors this year, after a little over three hours running on a "hard fast trail" in subzero temperatures and with three dogs in questionable health. It was more of a training run for her yearling dogs anyway, she said, noting the young dogs hadn't been exposed to large crowds, other dogs, or passing on a trail before. Plus, they'd missed a significant stretch of training this winter when a blizzard covered the trails with 2 feet of snow and broken tree branches that had to be cleared.

She expects to really compete in the 120 next year.

"We'll definitely be there," Thompson said. "These dogs are really awesome."

This year's Beargrease race winners were Keith Aili for the marathon (over 300 miles), Joanna Oberg for the 120 and Ashley Thaemert for the 40.

 
 

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