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Daughter of longtime musher to compete in her first Beargrease race

Jan 27, 2018 02:24PM ● Published by Editor

Andrea DeBoer, shown here with two of her puppies, is competing in the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon mid-distance race for the first time this year. Photo courtesy of Andrea DeBoer

By Lisa Kaczke of The Duluth News Tribune - January 26, 2018


Since her mother Robin Beall retired from dogsledding seven years ago, Andrea DeBoer has been slowly learning the ropes of operating her mother's dog kennel north of Grand Marais. And after five years of learning to train and run a dog team, DeBoer is ready to take part in her first John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon mid-distance race.

"I'm excited. I'm very excited. I'm sure my nerves will set in come Saturday on the way to vet checks," DeBoer said from Grand Marais on Thursday.

The John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon is scheduled to begin at 11 a.m. Sunday at the Alger Grade gravel pit north of Two Harbors. The marathon teams start first, followed by teams in the mid-distance, rec and junior Beargrease races. The top teams in the 373-mile marathon are expected to finish near Duluth on Wednesday morning.

The trails are looking good for the race, Beargrease spokesman Jason Rice said. Starting about 10 miles from the gravel pit, the snow is thick and nicely groomed.

DeBoer won't be the only first-time Beargrease mid-distance musher on the trail. The combined number of mushers competing in the Beargrease's mid-distance and junior races, which both travel 120 miles to the finish at Trail Center on the Gunflint Trail, doubled this year. Rice noted that race organizers would have been happy if the number had increased from 17 last year to 20-something this year. To increase to 35 mid-distance and junior mushers is "a really nice bump for us," he said.

The increase mirrors a trend in the mushing world where more mushers are choosing to compete in shorter-distance races that take less time commitment and smaller kennels.

"This year, for whatever reason, we just wound up with a few more people choosing to do us than to do some of the other races, like over in Michigan," he said. "There's competition between five, six different races in the Upper Midwest and you just always hope that you have the right mix of things to attract them to come do yours."

Taking over the kennel

DeBoer and her husband knew they were going to move up north from La Crosse, Wis., at some point, but they thought "up north" would be Duluth or Two Harbors. When Beall retired, DeBoer decided to take the reins of her mother's kennel. Five years ago, she and her husband made the move with their three children to the kennel, about a 15-minute drive from Grand Marais.

"Just basically dove in, sold everything we owned and moved to Grand Marais and started mushing dogs. Quite a change," DeBoer said.

Beall became interested in dogsledding just as DeBoer was moving out of the house as a teenager, so the kennel wasn't an activity that was a large part of her childhood. Before DeBoer took over the kennel, her dogsledding experiences were going on the trail when visiting her mother, and watching two of her mother's Beargrease mid-distance races.

Beall completed in the Beargrease mid-distance event 10 times and finished in the top 10 in nine of them. Beall said she decided to retire because she was tired of the cold and it was taking a toll on her body — her legs were covered in bruises at the finish of her last Beargrease. A lot of her mushing peers were retiring and a younger group of mushers was coming onto the Beargrease scene, and she realized that competing against younger mushers wasn't for her anymore.

Her favorite memory from her years at Beargrease was when she finished second in the mid-distance race and took home the award for having the best-cared-for team. Beall just let the dogs do their thing on the trail and "it was phenomenal and a privilege to be on the runners behind them," she said.

Her last Beargrease finish was a memorable one.

"My daughter and her family were all up there at the finish waiting for me — and that's when we finished in Tofte — and I came down a hard-right turn and barrel-rolled. I must have rolled three or four times. So here are my little grandkids watching Grandma wiping out major. My dogs just stopped and waited for me," she said.

DeBoer's three children were mixed in their reactions to moving to Grand Marais, but the move has been a good one for their family, she said. They didn't have internet for their first three years in Grand Marais, and going without technology was good for their family.

Since the move, they've started from scratch at the kennel, adding new dogs and raising young dogs the past few years, DeBoer said.

Although this will be DeBoer's first Beargrease, she has finished the Gunflint Mail Run sled dog race in Cook County, and the Midnight Run in the Upper Peninsula. But the Beargrease mid-distance race will be her first race at a longer distance with multiple checkpoints.

"That was the ultimate goal. I've put it off and finally this year, I've got a super-young dog team so it's just kinda getting our feet wet and seeing what happens after this year," DeBoer said.

She's treating this year's Beargrease as a training run for future races, she said, adding that Beall keeps reminding her to have fun, too. Beall has advised her that her dogs are young and to not go into her first Beargrease expecting to finish in the top 10.

"My goal is for (the dogs) to finish the race, all eight of them, and be happy and healthy at the end — and hopefully, in the next couple of years, get more competitive in it," DeBoer said.

She and her mother have talked about feeding, preparing and training for the race, and DeBoer has reached out to experienced Beargrease mushers for their thoughts on how to handle checkpoints and training. DeBoer was a dog handler for Hovland musher Mary Manning in the past two Beargrease races to gain more experience.

When she trains, she takes the team on her own trail system. With three kids and a full-time job with Cook County Public Health and Human Services, it's difficult to truck the dogs to the Beargrease trail for training, she said. Fitting in the training along with work and the family's other activities means that they're "very scheduled," DeBoer said. As her kids have grown, they've helped more around the kennel. Her youngest child can hold the lead dogs in place while the older two children help her hook up the dogs when she's taking the team out for a run.

"We've just made it work. Some days, I don't know how, and other days, it's busy, it's very busy, that's all there is to it," she said.

Beall said she's proud of her daughter and what she's been able to achieve with the kennel so far.

"It's truly been fun for my husband and I to watch that grow and the stuff she's learning. It's a real honor and treasure to be able to watch her," Beall said. As for words for her daughter days before Beargrease, Beall said, "I wish my daughter the best and have fun in your rookie year."

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