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The 'wilderness' checkpoint: Sawbill a special place for Beargrease mushers, volunteers

Jan 30, 2018 06:58AM ● Published by Editor

John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon musher Nathan Schroeder covers his wheelers Yoda (standing) and Bambi with an old sleeping bag at the Sawbill checkpoint on Tuesday. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com

By Brady Slater of The Duluth News Tribune - January 30, 2018

ON THE SAWBILL TRAIL — With its canvas tents tucked among the pines of the Superior National Forest, housing travelers from near and far, the Sawbill checkpoint along the 373-mile John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon course is reminiscent of a Bedouin camp.

Just substitute snow for sand, boots for sandals, dogs for camels.

The volunteers call it a "wilderness" checkpoint. Stacks of wood and campfires abound. Upbound, the racers weren't allowed to use any of their handlers here. Downbound, as the mushers were on Tuesday, was a different story — as told by the drumming diesel pickups starting to line up in the hours after sunrise.

There are no bars, restaurants or permanent structures of any kind at Sawbill — save for the bridge over the mostly frozen Temperance River. The volunteers camp here, some for as long as a week. Some of them buy sleeping bags rated to 20-below and tuck cheaper models inside for an extra layer of good measure.

"We don't have this in Chicago," said Frank Bisceglie, a medical supply salesman for Minnesota-based Medtronic who caught Beargrease fever on business trips to Duluth hospitals. Bisceglie has since made Sawbill a personal vacation five years running. The company donates $500 to the race every year for his volunteerism.

"I could not escape the buzz," Bisceglie said. "I thought, 'What is this Beargrease?' It was something I had to check out."

Defending John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon champion Ryan Anderson nears the Sawbill checkpoint on Tuesday. Steve Kuchera / DNT

Race leader Ryan Redington, of Northwestern Wisconsin by way of Alaska, was the first one into Sawbill on Tuesday, on the way home to the finish line at Billy's Bar near Duluth. Redington was being chased by a clot of other mushers and their dog teams a couple hours behind — the arrival of which would turn Sawbill into a bustling pit row.

But mid-morning Tuesday was still a time for casual stepping and laconic conversation. Redington had the checkpoint all to himself as he came in and went out alone. Since he controlled the race, he bartered with time and caught a short nap. His dogs did, too. They slept still as statues in the shadow of the trees — curled up tight like caterpillars and so discreet that only their pointed ears caused the double-take that gave them away.

They finally stirred when their musher stirred. Some of them voided themselves and colored the snow after booties were applied and they were clipped in line. It's something the dogs made sure to take care of before they were off and running again, the volunteers noted.

Frank Bisceglie

Frank Bisceglie 

"They're feeling quick," said Redington, clad head to toe in puffy red gear. "But we've got a lot of good teams behind us. The snow is going to make it interesting."

Perley Boulanger, of Virginia, pulled from a foam cup of warm Tang and explained that he caught on with Team Redington just before the start of the race by asking the musher if he needed help. In the days since, Boulanger has come to admire Redington, who finished as runner-up at the Beargrease in 2017.

"He's been in Ashland and from Nov. 1 to before the start of Beargrease he put 2,000 kilometers on the dogs," Boulanger said. "That's an Alaskan musher for you."

When Boulanger isn't harvesting potting soil from peat bogs on the Iron Range, he's chasing sled-dog races around the lower 48 states. He's worked the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and with the popular Swingley brothers, Greg and Doug, in Montana.

"I do it because I'm nuts," Boulanger said, before rethinking for sincerity. "I just enjoy it."

It's Boulanger's goal to catch on at the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race across Alaska one day. Were he to go this year, he'd be with the right team. Among Beargrease mushers, only Redington will leave Minnesota and carry on to Alaska this year, looking to improve upon an impressive 14th-place finish a year ago.

Nearby at Sawbill, a cast of veterinarians walked in a line Tuesday, carrying on in the down time before the coming crush.

"I smell bacon," said one of them, Anna Mitchell, before she pulled back the flap and ducked into the headquarters tent. Its stovepipe exhausted silently into what was a morning of anticipation.

"I've never seen any other part of the race," said Bisceglie, a Sawbill devotee and outdoor adventurer who was asked if he'd ever consider running dogs. He hardly thought a moment.

"Living in a high-rise in Chicago," he said, "doesn't warrant it."

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