Robin Eschner


Every winter since 1967, people have gathered at Will Steger’s Homestead just outside Ely Minnesota to lend a hand in the harvesting of ice. It was my good fortune to find myself included in the activities this weekend. My gratitude to Marian Moore (thoughtful, kind, funny, beautiful, creative and be-slippered) to her sweet circle of friends, and to Will Steger for the welcoming.

People collected down by the edge of the lake with their various saws and shovels, picks and pry-bars, tongs, chainsaws…
Harvesting Ice phase 1
A top layer of softer snow is removed, the surface is scored and sawing begins.
Ice Ball Scoring the ice
And out comes the first cube:
Ice Ball popping ice out of the hole
Time to begin another:
Ice Ball Sawing 3
Next, chainsaws are used to cut the large blocks into segments:
Ice Ball cutting ice into cubes
Smaller blocks are then loaded onto the sled and the horses take them up the hill to the ice house:
Ice Ball Ice loading onto sled
While horses are some tough competition, dogs have had their day helping out with the hauling. To watch these horses in action you may click here!  And here’s a still:
The Horses Ice Ball
Yes, it makes you happy.
Robin at Ice Ball
The Mess Hall exterior:
Steger Ice Ball Mess Hall 
Today I am homeward bound. Thank you Minnesota… to the two and four-legged, ever-onward.


About 7 hours after leaving Trail Center, teams began pulling in to the next checkpoint – Devil Track. Again this was now dark of night so, from the vantage point of someone awaiting arrivals, you’re standing down at the edge of Devil Track Lake watching a tiny point of light approaching from across a broad expanse of horizon. Behind you is the ever-present bonfire (these people know how to make a fire!) and the Devil Track Lodge, lit-up and welcoming.
Nathan coming in to Devil TrackNathan Devil Track 2
As the dogs come to a stop the mushers are asked to hand over their mailbags. I think I forgot to mention this part earlier. Before the start of the race all mushers were sworn-in as official mail carriers for the duration of the race. The same oath that I imagine John Beargrease had to recite back in about 1880?         “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter.”      They were each given a mailbag to carry, filled with letters one may purchase through the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon website. (these are then addressed and returned in time to be carried during the race) These are great keepsakes and will reach their destinations with a special stamp saying the letter was carried by sled dog during the race. This is not a great shot but you can see the size of the mailbag here – being given to  revered musher Jamie Nelson, during opening ceremonies:

Jamie Nelson getting mail bag

And this next image is of Nathan Schroeder handing over his mailbag at Devil Track. Nathan was the JBSDM winner last year and went on to the Iditarod where he received the Rookie of Year Award.
Nathan in to Devil's Track handing over mailbag

From Devil Track the mushers are headed back down the loop and by then I really had to go grab a few hours of sleep. When I woke up I decided to drive on to the Finland Checkpoint (missing the return swing through Sawbill) so I could intercept the leading teams again. It was actually difficult to keep up with these guys. They were flying! Here are some shots of the trail coming in to Finland from a musher’s point of view. The glow sticks that are hanging from trees as you approach the checkpoint:

Glow stick Finland

The signs for unsuspecting cross country skiers or the like:

Trail signs FinlandSign to Finland 2

Here’s a YouTube of Frank Moe coming in to the Finland Checkpoint. And, a still:

Frank Moe coming in to Finland

When the dogs are resting – if you inch up too close to take a picture – a handler will often suddenly appear and ask you to stay back so that the dogs can rest. Pretty great of them, handlers are awesome. Letting sleeping dogs lie:

Letting Sleeping Dogs Lie


Monday morning, day two. New snow and the landscape transformed, pristine.  As marathon teams headed up toward the Trail Center checkpoint, mid-distance mushers were completing their 103-mile journey down at Devil Track, with Martha Schouweiler, Frank Holmberg and Joanna Oberg taking the top 3 spots.

Very sweet scene at Trail Center. Everyone tromping in and out of the restaurant, enjoying Sarah’s fantastic food – mushers, handlers, families, volunteers, spectators – while dogs are fed and blanketed and/or resting on beds of straw alongside the Gunflint Trail. Mushers also find some time to sleep. Some images from the Trail Center Checkpoint:

Time to Go?Resting at Trail Center

Getting ready to head out for Devils Track

Mike Keyport, great-great-grandson of John Beargrease (and member of the JBSDM Board of Directors) was there to greet mushers and share a eulogy written for John Beargrease by Viola Keyport (Mike’s Mother and great granddaughter of JB) Here is Mike Keyport and his son Justin, next to the photo-board display Mike put together for the occasion. In the photo on the right, Mike is reading the eulogy to Bruce Langmaid from Ontario, who (sadly!) made the tough decision to scratch at this checkpoint:

Justin and Mike keyportMike Keyport reading Eulogy to Bruce

The eulogy, as written by Viola Keyport:
2008 Eulogy Beargrease

Shawn McCarty (#13) was the last musher to arrive. I overheard a conversation between handlers as he was coming in… about the fact that it’s easy for people (spectators) to think that ALL the mushers are here to race all-out, with a winning position being the goal. He said people don’t realize that, for a young team, the goal can be something very different – for the dogs to have fun, to get to know the route, stay in the game and gain experience.
Last in Trail Center Shawn McCarty

Judges. Sleep deprived and dedicated. Dan, on right:
Race Judges Trail Center

Erin Altemus and dogs readying to head back out – next stop Devil Track:
Erin Altemus team

Teams and photographers out there waiting:
Teams and Photographers

No idea what to say about this, but the dogs were looking happy about it: