Up North: Young mushers catch Beargrease spirit

“Catch the spirit, that’s always been kind of the saying of John Beargrease.”

On Tuesday Keith Aili claimed his second John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon championship. Early Monday morning Joanna Oberg raced to her first Beargrease 120 title.

These winners have been mushing for decades, making them great role models.

“I’ve been around a lot of these people for all my life,” Morgan Martens said Monday morning outside of the Trestle Inn 120 finish line in Finland, Minnesota.

Out of 20 Beargrease 120 finishers this year Brule, Wisconsin’s Martens came in 10th place overall.

“It was an awesome race and it was very long and cold and very hilly. I was very surprised with how well my dogs did, and I’m really proud of how well they did. They exceeded my expectations.

His impressive performance becomes even more so since he raced in the Junior category as a 16-year-old.

“I was able to take everything that I learned from other mushers and equip it to my team,” said Martens. “I was able to train up my own team and race competitively, so that was really special for me.”

Martens, who placed one spot behind the only other Junior finisher Maddoux Erickson, also won the Junior Iditarod in 2021 and is returning to Alaska this February.

“That means a lot just seeing all the young ones and all the new names. This year I was reading the list and I’m like, I don’t even know half of these mushers. So it’s fabulous. We’re so proud and very thankful,” Marcia Eiynck said.

Eiynck, a volunteer and board member, is the great-great grandaughter of John Beargrease himself and is grateful to see his name live on as the sport grows.

“I feel like every year there’s more and more spectators, more and more involvement. I’m still surprised when I meet any Minnesotan that has no idea what the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon is. I’m like, where have you been?”

Eiynck also runs her own recreational kennel in Sturgeon Lake.

“I just have my own four dog team and we just go out and have fun. But that’s what John Beargrease had and he did. He ran the mail, he had three to four dogs and he ran all the way up the trail and back all the time.”

In 2024 the Beargrease will celebrate it’s 40th anniversary.

“The Beargrease itself is such a prestigious race,” said Joanna Oberg, the 2023 Beargrease 120 champion. “It means a lot to me to win this race because it is a very tough, challenging race, very challenging race course.”