Up North: Volunteer breaks into Beargrease racing

Beargrease volunteer begins mushing

Longtime Beargrease volunteer Judas Bardon will be competing in the Beargrease 40 for their first time.

Beargrease is just around the corner, and musher Judas Bardon has been hitting the trails in preparation. While Beargrease is a race, winning is not always the goal.

“I go by what the dogs want to do,” Bardon said. “If they’re happy, I’m happy. It’s all about them. They set the pace. They set the distance, and I’m just in it for having them do their best and be smiling at the end, wagging tails.”

For Bardon, mushing was a childhood dream.

“Mushing is actually a life-long passion, and I didn’t get into it until later in life,” they explained. “I read a lot of Gary Paulsen books as a kid. So just reading about going out, on your own, into the wilderness and having to survive. Experiencing different things and temperature extremes and hunting to get your food and everything was really appealing to me. I was probably not an average child, but I’ve met a number of mushers who were also hugely influenced by Gary Paulsen.”

After years of volunteering for Beargrease, Bardon was finally able to get a team of their own a few years ago.

“It was really satisfying to finally get there. It felt like it was never going to happen,” Bardon said. “I had to get a lot of things in order in my life to be able to care for the dogs and afford them and have a suitable place for them. I had already started a farm, so we had the acreage to be able to keep them on and places for them to run and get exercise.”

Now a team of seven, this team started out small.

“I started with three puppies that were all roughly the same age, and I had an old sled that was kind of gifted to me that someone had built as a hobby,” Bardon recalled. “I just started taking them out and seeing what they would do. So just a lot of trial and error. I wasn’t really connected to the mushing community at that point, so I really didn’t know what I was doing. I had some books and I had some basic information, but actually going out and doing it is different than hearing how to do it.”

As a beginner, Bardon had many lessons to learn.

“There were definitely learning curves for different personalities,” they explained. “Learning the importance of good brakes. When they see wild animals or dogs on the trail, they want to take off. Proper winter gear. Definitely all that got upgraded pretty fast, you find all the holes in that. You go out with cotton socks and you learn really quickly that wool socks aren’t just a marketing ploy, they’re super important.”

This year had a slow start to training for Bardon and their team between the lack of snow, broken sleds, adding a dog to the team, and now a pregnancy.

“My best leader is pregnant. She’ll have puppies about a week before the race,” Bardon said. “The pregnancy was planned, but the timing was not. So it’ll be an interesting year, and I think one of the other dogs is going to step up to the plate and show some extra responsibility.”

Despite the difficulties preparing for this year’s Beargrease, Bardon’s eager and ready to go.

“Once we get going, it ramps up pretty fast,” they said. “We’re up to about 15 miles per day, then we’ll get up to twenty, then we’ll get up to thirty, and then bam forty. And we’ll be ready for the 40 mile sportsman’s race.”

While Beargrease is only once a year, Bardon stays busy year-round.

“We’re still there whether or not we’re on the trials,” they said. “So we set up pools. We dug a pond so they can use that in the summer. They play and they run. They have a huge area, fenced in, that’s about five acres that they can free-run on. And then I have a farm. So it’s all animals for me. When I’m not taking care of the dogs, I’m milking goats and doing all that. So it’s a pretty busy life, but it’s a good one.”

This year’s Beargrease will start on Sunday, January 30th. Bardon will be mushing in the 40-mile race, leaving at noon from Billy’s Bar in Duluth and going to the Highway 2 Checkpoint in Two Harbors. All Beargrease 40 teams will be wearing green bibs.