But for lack of a little luck, Don and Val Beland — who in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s traveled from Alaska to Austria to race sled dogs — might have been Olympians.
“For a while, we thought it would happen,” Don Beland, said last week from the log home outside Ely where he and Val live. “We had an excellent demonstration event at the Calgary Olympics in 1988, and after that, we thought the sport would be accepted by the Olympic Committee.”
Beland’s long life as a woodsman, trapper, resort owner and all-round free man groomed him well for competitive sled dog racing.
Dreaming to live near the boundary waters and making a living as a trapper, he left his home in Illinois in about 1950 and came to Ely alone. He was 16 years old, and before heading north, he shipped a canoe to Minnesota by train, a double-ender he crafted by hand.
When he arrived in Isabella, not far from Ely, Beland built a small shack for himself in the woods and set his traps, deciding then and there to live life on his terms.
“I’ve never had a job,” he said, “because I did what I wanted.”
Leading up to the Calgary Olympics, sled dog racers from Minnesota and elsewhere in the Lower 48, as well as from Alaska and Canada, were so enthused about the possibility of becoming Olympians that some refused to accept race prize money, worrying that if they did they might lose their amateur status.
“I did that a number of times,” said Merv Hilpipre, a now retired racer who owns an auction company in Waterloo, Iowa.
Interest in various sports ebbs and flows. But sled-dog racing’s long and storied past, and its stable of colorful characters, would seem to have laid the groundwork for inclusion in the Winter Games.
Watching dogs, sleds and mushers careen through wild country, after all, must be at least as exciting for TV viewers as watching … curling.
But the opportunity seems now lost forever.
Though the sport remains popular recreationally among rural people who own enough land to house a team or two of canines, and who possess the dedication to care for them, interest in big-time sled dog racing has fallen off.
The decline in part can be blamed on dog-food manufacturers and other sponsors who once supported racing, but who have pulled out.
The lack of snow that has fallen during some recent winters has been another buzz killer.
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The bid to include sled dog competition in the Olympics first began in 1932 at the games in Lake Placid, N.Y., when five Canadians and seven Americans ran two demonstration races using six-dog teams over a 25.1-mile course.
The matches drew widespread interest because they pitted legendary Canadian racer Emile St. Godard against his longtime rival, Leonard Seppala, a Norwegian-born American who lived in Alaska.
St. Godard, of Manitoba, is the only sled dog racer inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame. His lead dog, Toby, a husky-greyhound cross, was fast and smart, and won a lot of races for St. Godard.
Annually over six years, he and Seppala were pitted against one another at a major race in Quebec, with St. Godard winning four times, and Seppala twice.
Setting the stage even more dramatically for the demonstration at Lake Placid, Seppala by 1932 had become known virtually worldwide, having completed the most treacherous, and longest, leg during the 1925 diphtheria serum run in Alaska that covered 674 miles in 5½ days.
Balto, the lead dog on fellow Alaskan Gunnar Kaasen’s team, completed the final leg of the serum run in a blizzard and received the greatest media attention, including a statue in New York City’s Central Park.
But it was Seppala and Togo who traveled the most treacherous and longest stretch of the run, in a white-out driven by hurricane-like winds, carrying the serum 91 miles, or about double the distance of any other team.
Like Balto, Togo was memorialized for his accomplishments. When he died in 1929, he was mounted and is displayed at the Iditarod museum in Wasilla, Alaska.
Yet renowned as he was, in Lake Placid, Seppala could not hold off St. Godard, who crossed the finish line over the course of the two races about eight minutes ahead of second-place Seppala.
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Beland first bought sled dogs in the 1970s, when his high-school age daughter, Ruth, wanted to run a team.
“I remember one night she and I were out on the trail,” he said. “I was on the sled and she was in the basket. The moon was full and the night was beautiful. It was a great time.”
After his daughter graduated from high school, Beland raced throughout the U.S., Canada and Alaska, often traveling with a young Ely protégé, Stu McEntyre.
Don met Val at a race outside Toronto.
“I used to show Siberian huskies, but I got out of it because politics played too big a role in the judging,” Val said. “I thought it was unfair at times that my dogs didn’t win and others did, when I thought mine were better.
“So I switched to racing, and if my team won, we won. If we lost, we lost. Either way, we did it on our own merit.”
The more the Belands traveled with their dogs, the more the good times rolled. At age 55, with Butch, his favorite lead dog in the front harness, Don won a world championship in Laconia, N.H., running an 18-dog team, a feat he repeated two years later.
Val won also, in Canada and the U.S., while traveling with her dogs as far as Austria, where the world championships were held in 1993.
In all, the Belands raced almost 30 years, a stretch highlighted in 1989 by a publicity-stunt race down Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis.
Also, on multiple occasions, they flew into remote Alaskan villages, where they befriended, and raced against, native Alaskans and their teams, including those piloted by the mythical Alaskan musher George Attla, subject of the movie, “Spirit of the Wind,” which was filmed partly in Ely and which won best picture at the 1979 Sundance Film Festival.
But the Belands never ran dogs in the Olympics.
Instead, in their log home outside Ely, when the mood strikes, or when someone asks, they recall fondly the times now winters ago when fast dogs ran on cold days — the whoosh of sled runners crossing snow the only sound.
“Baby,” Don said, “if I had it to do all over, I wouldn’t change a minute.”