Beargrease Without Fans Hard But Better Than Canceled Mushers, Businesses Say

Bar and restaurant owners said Beargrease is the busiest time of their year, so not having spectators will hurt business.

DULUTH, Minn.- The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are stretching to the Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, causing changes including not allowing fans to watch in-person.

“Safety has always been the #1 priority for our organization whether it’s a COVID year or non-COVID year,” race spokesperson Monica Hendrickson said.

Some of this year’s changes include closing all buildings used along the trail. According to Hendrickson, managing the 60 road crossings along the course will also be a challenge this year.

“There’s about 60 ft between the front of the dogs nose back to the musher,” she said, “so it’s one of the most critical volunteer points that we have is to make sure there’s no cars or truck’s coming.”

Due to the statewide limits on gatherings to slow the spread of COVID-19, no spectators will be allowed in places likeĀ  the start and finish.

“We usually have a couple thousand people at the start, it’s pretty hard to social distance even with a mask on,” said Hendrickson.

For Billy’s Bar on Jean Duluth Road, which has been the starting place for the Beargrease for many years, not having spectators is going to be a blow to business.

“This is one of the biggest days of the year I mean there’s not a day that was in comparison to this at all like there’s no comparison,” said Austin Johnson, the owner’s son.

“This is by far the biggest day of the year. So it’s going to be detrimental to that,” he said.

Billy’s has been closed throughout the pandemic. “Everyone’s dealt a hand. We’ve been dealt this hand, we’re gonna just work with it the best that we can,” said Johnson.

While Beargrease would’ve helped, he agrees it would be too risky to have the start like normal.

“We open up our parking lot; that place is going to be packed and people need to know like thousands of people come to watch this and experience this race,” said Johnson.

“It’s hard to regulate that and right now it’s just not the time, not the place, we’re not gonna even attempt to do it,” he said.

Down the road, Breeze Inn — which often fills up for fundraising events leading up to the race — will also feel the effects of not having fans throughout the month.

“It’s a big event and there’s only so many events in the community that attract the local community,” co-owner Kate Waggoner said. “Not having this year, not being able to have spectators — it’s just really sad.”

Last year the Breeze Inn raised more than $500 in one event just a week before the race, for expenses caused by the theft of straw for the dogs.

But this year, according to both Waggoner and Hendrickson, fundraising has been low.

“It’s really hard to donate money and and do fundraising and things when so many businesses are struggling right now,” said Waggoner, “it’s hard to have a fundraiser if there’s no people here.”

Hendrickson said she recognizes the pain. “Its hard to see our businesses suffering and it’s hard to see our friends suffering. I miss seeing my family. They’re kind of the off shoot of our family.”

Organizers said they’re doing what they can to avoid canceling the race altogether for the local and international mushers.

Two-time Beargrease champion and dog sledding veteran Blake Freking said with this race being one of the few still happening, it’s integral the dogs get to run.

“The dogs are trained up and this is kinda their proving ground,” he said.

“The Beargrease is where they come see where we’re at, and allows us a good opportunity to do an evaluation of our genetics and our training and everything else that we want to work the whole year,” said Freking.

Still he said the lack of cheering fans at the start will take some getting used to this year. “That’s definitely going to be a different dynamic.”

“Just like with the dogs’ energy and everything else going on, but the crowds certainly add to that,” said Freking. “So we’re certainly going to miss seeing folks there’s a lot of people that we see once a year at the Beargrease start.”

But everyone touched by the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon still believe any race is better than no race. “It’s pretty much kinda like the good ol’ days where it was ‘let’s just get the dogs on the trail and get them running'” Hendrickson said.

“We have a fire outside, and people can celebrate the Beargrease, cheer on the dogs from afar,” Waggoner said.

“You’re not there for the food, you’re not there for the beer, you’re not there for the dogs. You’re there for the experience and that’s what the Beargrease is about,” said Johnson.

“It’s not just a three day event in the middle of January, the end of January,” Freking said, “like, it’s a 365-day commitment for us.”

And especially after this past year, mushers like two-time champion Freking are looking forward to empty their mind of 2020 and think only of their dogs and the snow again.

“Really the rest of the world kind of vanishes behind us at that point,” he said.

“And that’s one of the things I really love about the race is all the concerns and bills and work and, everything else just goes to the wayside and just us and the dogs,” said Freking.

You can watch the Beargrease live online at their website on January 31st.

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