John Beargrease’s descendents keeping his legacy alive

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This Sunday mushers will depart Billy’s Bar in Duluth for the 39th running of the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon.

The history of the race route dates all the way back to the 1870s when John Beargrease himself rode up the North Shore. Now, over 150 years later, his descendents are working to keep his legacy alive.

“I think just the history kind of gets lost on people sometimes,” said Justin Keyport, the great-great grandson of John Beargrease.

In 1858, 122 years before the start of the longest sled dog race in the lower 48 states, John Beargrease was born to an Anishinabe chief. They lived on the edge of Minnesota’s first North Shore settlement, Beaver Bay.

Wildlife and harsh weather isolated the area from the outside world inspiring John Beargrease and his brothers to deliver mail on the Lake Shore Trail Trap Line running between Two Harbors and Grand Marais from 1879-1899.

His efforts, pivotal in the area’s development, live on through mushers and his living family.

“Connecting communities back in a time when there was no connection, especially in the wintertime when these people would be basically stranded in the wilderness and the only connection they would have is the U.S. mail. To hear those bells coming through, it was kind of a big deal,” Justin said.

Justin’s dad Mike Keyport, the great grandson of John Beargrease shared, “we do what’s called trail mail, where the mushers actually carry U.S. mail and are actually sworn in as United States mail carriers.”

Mike said he started getting involved with Beargrease race operations in the 1990s serving as a judge, board member, and later president.

“The organization as a whole, overall these 39 years, has done a wonderful, wonderful job of not forgetting who the namesake of the race is and always involving the native culture in our race.”

He explained, “we have a drum at the opening ceremonies, and I believe we have a pipe ceremony at the start of the race.”

Even the finish line has indigenous roots.

“The race ends in Grand Portage, which is the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior which is an Indian community that John Beargrease once belonged to.”

This year Keyport helped out at the Cub Run held last Saturday, where 27 young pups tested out the sport. Even more looked on like Mike’s 3 year old grandson, John Beargrease’ great-great-great grandson, Calvin.

“It’s kind of fun to see Calvin enjoying it now, so maybe we will get more involved,” Justin, Calvin’s dad, said.

Calvin has great role models with his dad’s cousin Marcia Eiynck, also a descendent of John Beargrese, running her own kennel out of Sturgeon Lake.

The Beargrease begins Sunday at 10 a.m. WDIO will have live coverage of the start on WDIO or on, plus Alicia Tipcke and Baihly Warfield will provide coverage along the trail throughout the full and mid-distance races.