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The John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon is not only an Iditarod qualifier, but is also the longest sled dog race in the lower 48 states that’s been drawing mushers and spectators alike from across the country for over 40 years. But for many Duluth and North Shore residents, it’s more than a race.
For musher Colleen Wallin, what started as a passion has become a family affair. We caught up with Colleen to hear all about how she got started and what keeps her sled going.
What’s your Duluth/North Shore story? (Did you grow up in Duluth/Two Harbors? Move to the area?)
My husband Ward and I moved to Duluth in 1991, then found our forever home just north of Two Harbors.
What do you love about Duluth/the North Shore?
It was the perfect area to raise our two sons to be outdoorsmen with the rugged beauty or our land.
How did you get started in dog sledding? How long have you been mushing?
I started as a volunteer in 1993. Ward gave me a dogsledding trip into the Boundary Waters with my sister and that is how this all started. I quickly learned and fell in love with the sport and competed in the Beagrease for the first time in 1996. That’s a race that will always be ingrained in my memory. The race finished in Beaver Bay that year, but I had to drop my main leader in Two Harbors due to a sore shoulder. I left the checkpoint with questionable leaders and two females in heat. About 12 miles from the finish line, my team decided they didn’t want to run anymore. I camped on the trail for about three hours. I started a fire and warmed a frozen pb&j sandwich on my axe handle to eat it. My water bottle had frozen as well, so I rotated it near the hot coals to melt the ice to drink. Soon I heard snow machines and it was Dan Zappa, our judge telling me that he had come to remove me and my team from the trail, as the first finisher had finished 7 hours ago. I asked him if I got my team going, could I please finish? He slapped me on the shoulder and said, “GO FOR IT.” I rubbed my team down, praised them and asked them to please take me home. We started rolling slowly and within three miles took the turn into Beaver Bay to the finish line. My husband Ward was there to greet me along with my mom and dad. Our truck was the only dog truck still in the lot. Finishing means the world to me.
How many dogs are on your team pulling your sled? Are they all yours all year around? What are their names?
The Beargrease is a 12-dog race. My sled is pulled by six males (Vault, Clayton, Diesel, Mr. Mister, Manny and Stitch) and six females (Mink, Regan, Elle, Happy, Guinness and Maple). Our family owns Silver Creek Kennels in Two Harbors where our dogs all live and train year-round.
How do you and your dogs train in the off-season?
We do a lot of free running to stay in shape. We also harness the team to pull our 4-wheeler when there’s no snow.
Any particularly memorable races or Beargrease moments?
Aside from my first race in 1996 that is ingrained in my memory, 2022 was also memorable. Our son, Ero, also competed. He had competed in the junior race previously, but this was his first year mushing in the full marathon. He had the “A-Team” and I had the “B-Team”. I finished 3rd and Ero finished 4th. Age and trickery over youth and muscle – we finished 2 minutes apart.
What is your favorite thing about the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon?
I love being outdoors for days on end. The fresh air, the beautiful sunrises and sunsets, rocks, trees, lakes.
What tips and tricks do you have for visitors coming to the Beargrease Marathon?
It doesn’t matter what you look like – dress warm and bring chapstick!
What do you enjoy doing in Duluth, both outside and when it comes to enjoying food/beverages, events, etc.?
I always enjoy sitting by Lake Superior with my family and three labs, Maverick, Baylor Bear and Piper. Nothing beats soaking up the natural beauty of the area!
Anything else you’d like to add?
Come see the race! It is so amazing, and it will move your heart in a wonderful way.