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Mushers honor Beargrease after completing marathon's first leg

Mike Keyport, great-grandson of John Beargrease, reads a short eulogy about Beargrease at his gravesite in Beaver Bay as mushers Matt Rossi (center) of Herbster, Wis., and Matt Carstens from Whitefield, N.H., listen and pay homage. Photo by Bob King

BEAVER BAY -- Beneath a starry sky, frosty mushers paid tribute late Sunday and early this morning to John Beargrease at his gravesite after completing the opening 76-mile leg of the sled dog marathon named in his honor.

As the dogs received well-deserved rest on beds of straw, Matt Rossi of Herbster, Wis., and Matt Carstens of Whitefield, N.H., were the first mushers to read a eulogy honoring Beargrease, who became a legend as he delivered mail by dogsled along the North Shore in the 19th century.

Beargrease's great-grandson Mike Keyport told the mushers about the lore surrounding the race's namesake. He shared how Beargrease blazed his own trails with a team of four dogs and a loaded sled that weighed up to 700 pounds.

"It is to him that we commemorate this 2009 John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon," Keyport read. "May the spirit of the great John Beargrease guide you swiftly and safely on the rest of your journey."

After caring for their dogs at makeshift camps, the mushers walked about 50 yards to a hilltop Chippewa cemetery in a forest of birch trees. There was one gravestone with 22 names for those who died from about 1865 to 1932.

"It gives you a lot of inspiration to hear his eulogy," said Carstens who, with 13 dogs, arrived second in Beaver Bay at about 10:30 p.m.

Ryan Anderson of Ray was the first to arrive in Beaver Bay at about 10:20 p.m.

Rossi, who was the third to arrive in the small town, said today's competitors couldn't have stacked up against Beargrease.

"It's cool to learn what he did with a 700-pound sled," Rossi said. "I have a 45-pound sled on groomed trails. You gotta respect that; a real pioneer."

The harbinger of Beargrease's mail delivery arrivals during winter in Beaver Bay was the jingling bells strung to his dogs' harnesses, according to Daniel Lancaster's book "John Beargrease: Legend of Minnesota's North Shore." Beaver Bay residents would also gather around Beargrease for the news he had collected from his travels from Two Harbors to Grand Marais.

After retiring in 1899, Beargrease lived in Beaver Bay and Grand Portage. He died in 1910 after trying to save a fellow mail carrier from the frigid waters of Lake Superior. Both men exited the water, but Beargrease caught pneumonia and died months later. His age was estimated at 48.

The memorials to Beargrease in Beaver Bay are a return to the race's heritage. Poor trail conditions kept the mushers away from the community for the last few years. As a result, tributes to Beargrease were given at other checkpoints along the trail.

Jenny Mattson, of Chippewa heritage, volunteered herself and the Beaver Bay volunteer fire department she oversees to make the half mile trail to the parking lot next to the cemetery.

"We just wanted them to come back here," Mattson said.

Keyport, a construction worker from Willow River, requested that each musher sign two circular leather hoops, one of which will go to the winner of the 380-mile marathon.

The eulogies are a tradition passed down from Keyport's mother, Viola.

"I'm just very excited and honored to do this," Keyport said.

After conducting the memorials, Keyport and his fiancée, Carmen Palmer, will follow the mushers throughout the race.

"We were leaving home [Sunday]," Keyport said, "and we forgot half the things we wanted to bring because we were so excited."