Coming Soon the Gichigami Express

     There’s a new race in town and it’s coming soon.

Cook County boasts new sled dog race

From transporting voyageurs centuries ago to delivering mail up and down the North Shore to helping open up the Gunflint Trail, sled dog teams have played a recurring role in the story of Cook County.

By: Andrew Krueger, Duluth News Tribune

From transporting voyageurs centuries ago to delivering mail up and down the North Shore to helping open up the Gunflint Trail, sled dog teams have played a recurring role in the story of Cook County.

A new three-day sled dog race set for next month aims to highlight that heritage, while also boosting local tourism and giving county residents a better chance to experience the sport.

The Gichigami Express Sled Dog Race is scheduled to begin in Grand Portage on Sunday, Jan. 6.

“It’s just such an integral part of the history of the county,” race director Beth Drost of Grand Portage said of mushing. “To be able to celebrate that is kind of neat.”

The race features a $25,000 purse underwritten by the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. It will be a stage race, with mushers completing set distances each day — a different format from the long-

established John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon held later in January.

Race officials said the field of about two dozen mushers for the inaugural event features several past Beargrease champions, including Ryan Anderson, Nathan Schroeder, Blake Freking and Keith Aili. Trail conditions were looking good this week across interior parts of Cook County.

Race origins

The Gichigami Express is not the first sled dog race centered in Cook County in recent years; the Grand Portage Passage race took place for several years starting in 1999. Its demise left the Beargrease as the lone major race in the area.

Last winter, a lack of snow forced the cancellation of the Beargrease. Some Cook County residents quickly arranged a shorter substitute race, the Gunflint Mail Run.

It went well, and organizers decided they wanted to keep having a race based in Cook County. While the Beargrease passes through parts of the county, it starts and finishes near Duluth; Cook County race organizers wanted an event that would have a more lasting impact on local businesses, and have a more unifying effect on the community.

And so the Gichigami Express was born. Organizers envision it as complementary to the Beargrease.

“I wouldn’t push a race this hard if it would do anything to hurt the Beargrease,” said Jack Stone, a member of the Gichigami Express race board whose business, Stone Harbor Wilderness Supply in Grand Marais, also sponsors the Beargrease. “We are fully supportive of the Beargrease. This is a different style of race; it’s a Cook County race.”

And Beargrease organizers say the more mushing, the merrier.

“It’s a totally different event,” said Beargrease race coordinator and board president Pat Olson of Duluth. “Anytime that anybody wants to put on a sled dog race, I encourage it. It keeps the mushers happy. … Mushers want to run their dogs; they train so hard all year.” If organizers can stage a new race, “more power to them.”

The Beargrease’s namesake, John Beargrease, was a member of the Grand Portage Band who carried mail between Two Harbors and Grand Marais — by dogsled in winter — in the late 1800s.

Gichigami Express organizers say they want to highlight the long history of mushing in the area, too. Stone said they want to work with local schools to get students involved — learning about that history, and perhaps playing some role in the new race, such as working with race veterinarians.

Covering the county

Another goal of the new race is to unite several Cook County communities — Grand Portage, Grand Marais and the Gunflint Trail. Its route includes all three with this itinerary, subject to slight changes because of snow conditions:

  • Jan. 6: Grand Portage (Mineral Center) to Hungry Jack Lodge
  • Jan. 7: Windigo Lodge to Devil Track Landing
  • Jan. 8: Cook County School (Grand Marais) to Grand Portage

    Each stage will begin at 9 a.m., with mushers expected at the finish line between 3 and 6 p.m. each day, followed by banquets each evening. That’s different from marathon races like the Beargrease in which there’s just one start, after which mushers are constantly on the move along the course.

    Gichigami Express organizers say the stage format will make it easier for visitors to watch the action at the start and finish lines, and allow for more interaction with mushers. The team with the fastest cumulative time over the three days will win the event.

    “It’s a fantastic style of race for spectators,” Drost said.

    There also will be a pre-race potluck banquet at 6 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 5, in Grand Portage. For a complete schedule of events, and more information about the race, go to