The sound of barking fills the air as dogs leap and sing with excitement when they see the dog racing sled getting prepared for a practice run. Ice coats their whiskers, outlining them in white against the dark fur, like a grizzled old man. Their breath vapor floats on the cold air, then disappears above the dogs as they tip their heads back and howl.
Veteran Beargrease musher Billie Diver, 26, prepared to take some of her older dogs on a run to exercise them on a cold January day that warmed up to about -8 degrees Fahrenheit.
The dogs she chose to take that day are mostly retired from mushing and were beside themselves with excitement when they discovered they were being led to the sled. Her affection was evident as Diver pet the dogs and talked lovingly to them as they were being put into position.
When the dogs were hooked into place, Diver put on her favorite grey fox pullover jacket and other warm weather gear she gets from Empire Canvas Works (one of her sponsors), and said, “Let’s go.” Diver is also sponsored by B&B Market and Fond du Lac Reservation.
The dogs eagerly set off down the trail leading through the pretty snow-covered woods, barking all the way.
Billie Diver, of Carlton, has been around dogs and the musher life as long as she can remember.
She credits Richard Loucks, family friend and her mentor, for her entry into the mushing world at the tender age of 7.
“Richard has been a big inspiration because he knows so much about the dogs and the sport,” Diver said.
“My first race I ran was the Flute-Reed challenge. Jen (Freking) was 16, [but] I won it that year because I was light. I was 7 years old,” Diver said with a smile.
Diver ran her first John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon when she was only 15 years old and continues to run three or four different races every year, in addition to the Beargrease.
This will be Diver’s seventh time competing in the Beargrease. She explained that she competes in the mid-distance race as the full Beargrease is more physically challenging and twice the training as the mid-distance racing, not to mention the expense involved.
“I think there is a big interest in sled dog racing, but a lot of people do it recreationally because they only need five or six dogs,” said Diver, who is also a director and mid-distance musher representativeon the Beargrease board, where she organized the Cub Run, a one-mile run geared for children ages 5-12, in its third year.
“This year we have a 3-year-old running. She made a video that made it onto ESPN,” Diver said, adding that the girl is Jen Freking’s daughter.
One of Diver’s favorite race memories was three years ago when she took seventh place in the Beargrease and beat Nick Turman, a family friend.
Diver works as a nurse full time and spends several hours after work with the dogs, as well as weekends.
“She’s on call, sometimes she gets on the trail and gets a call from work,” Loucks said.
Diver runs Alaskan huskies mixed with breeds such as the German shorthair, saluki or greyhound for better endurance.
Loucks used to race sled dogs and has entered the Beargrease as well as many other races in the past.
His first race was 1989. Loucks is mostly retired now and enjoys sharing his many exciting stories he accumulated over the years. He only admits to being over 70 years old, but the energetic Loucks has only slowed down, not stopped. He still participates in several short six-dog sled races each year.
Loucks also helps Diver and her mother, Betsy Diver, care for the dogs, maintain the equipment and train the dogs.
Diver trains out of Loucks’ property in rural Wrenshall. They also breed and raise their own dogs, as do most mushers.
The trio keep detailed charts of each dog — which days they train and how long as well as the time it takes each dog to finish the practice run.
“We put a harness on them when they are young, about five months, so they get used to it,” Diver said.
Diver’s favorite part of racing is the dogs themselves.
“They each have their own personality and quirks,” Diver said.
In winter they need to feed the dogs food with higher levels of fat as the dogs burn it off faster when it’s colder. The ideal age of the dogs used for sled racing is 2 to 5 years old because they listen better, according to Loucks.
“They’re too enthusiastic, they work their butt off until all of a sudden they think, ‘Oh shoot, I don't know if I like this any more’ and they slack off,” Loucks said of the younger dogs.
While playing with the dogs is a fun perk, dog sled racing is hard work also.
“I work full time, then I come out here a couple of hours each night,” Diver said. “It's like another full-time job coming out here after work. I spend up to eight hours then 10 hours a day on the weekends.”
The dogs need constant training, the gear needs to be maintained, parts need to be ordered, not to mention the countless hours spent.
“Booties are everywhere!” Loucks said holding out a small bin filled to the top with dog booties. “You have to sort them, the dogs wear them, then they get wet and you have to dry them. Then you have to repair them, they are $30 apiece and we have a few more bins of the booties!”
They can get most of their supplies from one company, Ten Squared Racing, which helps.
“They have any kind of dog products,” Loucks said. “All of our supplements such as dog food and booties come from there.”
This winter was not ideal for practice runs with the dogs due to the warmer weather making the ground a muddy mess from all of the rain.
“Pretty much every day you have to run,” Diver said. “We keep track of how much the dogs run. On the warm days we run shorter or not at all.”
Once in awhile a wild animal will cross the musher’s trail, like a moose. Luckily Diver has not seen one as she doesn’t like the long-legged animals.
“I’m afraid of moose. One jumped in front of a team in front of me (during a race) and the people behind them saw it also,” Diver said. “They all know I am afraid of moose. I never saw it, I thought they were joking but they weren't.”
Diver’s favorite racer is the female Iditarod racer Dee Dee Jonrowe, who has won many dog sled races over the years as well as awards for the great care she gives her dogs.
“She made it through breast cancer. She’s an all around tough lady,” Diver said. “I've admired her since I was about 8 years old.”
Diver and Loucks said they’re not sure how much longer they’ll stay with the racing, as it’s too much work since Betsy had two knees replaced and can’t work as much with the dogs.
“She is mostly moral support now,” Diver added.
Betsy also raced sled dogs in the past in some of the smaller races around the area.
“Remember, she beat you,” Loucks said.
“No,” Diver quickly replied.
The challenge this year will be the 50-mile run.
“Our main focus during training is the dogs, just to keep them healthy and happy,” Diver said noting that “it’s always fun to beat Nick” with a big smile, explaining he is a friend of Loucks. “It would be nice to be in the top 10.”
“Top 5,” Loucks countered. “You've got to be competitive.”
IF YOU GO
The 2016 John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon will begin in Two Harbors instead of Duluth this year. The event kicks off at 8 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 30, when all of the dogs participating in the race will receive a vet check in Beaver Bay, followed by a ceremony at the Chippewa Indian Cemetery honoring race namesake, John Beargrease, at 12:30 p.m.
Opening ceremonies to introduce the mushers will take place at 5:30 p.m. Saturday at the AAD Shrine Temple, 5152 Miller Trunk Highway, Hermantown. Reservations are required. Tickets are $20 and include dinner. Mushers will also be sworn in as temporary United States Postal Service letter carriers as they will be transporting real U.S. mail on their journey up the shore, just as John Beargrease did.
Dress warmly and come early to meet and greet the mushers before the race. Remember to ask permission before petting the dogs.
The Beargrease race will begin at 11 a.m. Sunday, Jan. 31, at the Highway 2 Gravel Pit, also known as the Alger Grade parking lot, Two Harbors (9.6 miles from Hwy 61 on Lake County 2) near the North Shore State Trail. Watch for the signs posted along the way.
The halfway mark of the full race is the Grand Portage reservation. The mid-distance race will finish at the Trail Center on the Gunflint Trail.
The marathon finish point is Billy’s Bar, 3502 W. Tischer Road, Duluth (intersection of Jean Duluth and West Tischer Roads).
For more information go to www.beargrease.com.