DULUTH, Minn. — Dogsledding keeps Kathy Topham returning to the Northland during the coldest month of the year.
She became involved in sled dog races like most veterinarians do, she said.
“My first exposure was when I was living in Duluth,” she said. “One of my classmates swung by work and said, ‘Hey, we’re doing pre-race vet checks for Beargrease, do you want to come hang out?’ So I did. It seemed like a lot of fun, and certainly the dogs are cool, and all the other veterinarians seemed like like-minded veterinarians who like to be outside, don’t mind a little adversity when it comes to cold and snow.”
After volunteering as a veterinarian for the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, she decided it would be fun to volunteer at a new race and discovered the Gunflint Mail Run. She leads the veterinarian team at the race, paying her own expenses to travel to the Gunflint Trail for the race. She has also volunteered as a veterinarian at other sled dog races, including Race to the Sky in Montana, the U.P. 200 in Michigan and the now-defunct Grand Portage Passage in Minnesota.
“I really do love the spirit of the mushers and the heart and soul of the dogs. Sled dogs are amazing athletes, and I find them very inspiring,” she said.
The Gunflint Mail Run is scheduled for Saturday through Sunday and begins at Trail Center Lodge. Twelve-dog teams leave for a 110-mile race at 8 a.m. Saturday, followed by the eight-dog teams an hour later for a 70-mile race. The teams will run along the Gunflint Trail, turning around at Sea Gull Lake and Loon Lake, respectively. Spectators can pick up maps at Trail Center Lodge for good places along the route to watch the race.
Race director Sarah Hamilton, owner of Trail Center Lodge, said they’re working to make the race more spectator friendly, and this year will include warming fires at the road crossings, and a fire at the race start with s’mores and hot dogs. Hamilton said they hope people make a weekend out of it by staying in the area, watching the race and going on a dogsled trip with any of the half-dozen kennels in Cook County that offer that service.
The Gunflint Mail Run is one of several sled dog races in Northeastern Minnesota each year. The John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon begins Jan. 29 in Two Harbors and the WolfTrack Classic takes place in Ely in February.
“We’re trying to make it a nice, big, fun race, kind of like the Beargrease but different — just trying to bump up the dogsledding in northern Minnesota. Between this and the Ely race, it’s kind of wonderful,” Hamilton said.
Before spectators watch the mushers take off for the Gunflint Mail Run, Topham will be busy with pre-race veterinarian checks. Veterinarians are primarily checking the dogs to ensure that they are fit to run and that the dogs don’t have any issues that would slow them down or cause them to be scratched from the race, Topham explained.
“Obviously, we would like to see as many dogs cross the finish line and in the best shape possible. Starting with the pre-race vet check, if we find something, we can bring it to the musher’s attention, and then they can decide if they want to run that dog or not,” she said.
The pre-race vet check is the only required check at the Gunflint Mail Run. The veterinarians then work in a supportive capacity during the race to provide assistance if a musher has problems or questions about a dog, she said. They work in cooperation with the mushers as an “ad hoc part” of the musher’s dog handling team to ensure the dogs remain in the best shape possible.
When it comes to interesting experiences she’s had as a race veterinarian, she responded, “In years past, we’ve probably diagnosed more frostbite in the mushers and handlers than we have in the dogs.”
Dogsled teams travel throughout the night between checkpoints sometimes, but races hopefully have enough veterinarians that they can catch up on sleep between shifts.
“I know with some of the races, that first night, everybody is up and part of it is, you’re excited because it’s the beginning of the race. But eventually you work into a pattern where you’re going to get a few hours rest here and there,” she said. “I don’t think we’re quite as sleep deprived as the mushers are. I think we have a little bit better opportunity to sleep than they do. But that’s all kind of part of the fun.”
This is Topham’s fourth year volunteering at the Gunflint Mail Run, which was previously called the Gitchigami Express, but she said it’s still the “same race, same people, same great location.”
The Gunflint Mail Run started in 1977, but ended in the 1980s. Hamilton said, “Then I and two of the guys that started it originally sat around and talked about it for 20 years, 15 years, and then Jack Stone and I started it up again six years ago.”
Race organizers are trying to increase the Gunflint Mail Run purse in order to draw more mushers, Hamilton said, and they’ve gotten a lot of support from local businesses and residents.
“The whole community has jumped on board,” she said.