Excerpts from letters, journals and an old Two Harbors, Minn., newspaper. Part of a eulogy, tapped out in Morse code. The names of 14 beloved sled dogs. A description of snow falling silently, erasing human footprints.
All these things and more can be heard in newly written music about the history and culture of dog sledding in northern Minnesota. The song cycle — a series of songs about a single subject — will premiere in Grand Marais, Minn., and Duluth on Feb. 5 and 6, respectively. It focuses on the legendary 19th-century North Shore mail carrier John Beargrease and the annual mushing marathon named after him that begins Sunday, the biggest in the Lower 48.
In 17 songs, “Crazy Cold Beautiful” glides through more than a century of Minnesota history.
So you might be surprised to learn that it was written by Robin Eschner, a composer and musician who lives in Sonoma County, Calif. And that she was inspired to write it before ever having set foot in Minnesota.
“I know, it can seem a bit of a stretch,” Eschner said.
But when you hear her talk about mushing, you begin to understand.
Eschner has been fascinated with dog sledding since the 1970s, when she read a profile in a California newspaper of musher Susan Butcher, 1990 Beargrease champion and four-time winner of the 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Alaska. Suddenly, Eschner’s own problems seemed minor compared to “people out in the world who are doing these things that are so incredibly difficult.” Butcher became a role model for Eschner.
When Butcher died of leukemia in 2006, Eschner wrote “Heading Home,” a choral piece in her memory.
“Heading Home” was performed several times in California; then the Century College Chorus in White Bear Lake requested to perform it. Listening to a recording, Eschner felt the Minnesota singers contributed a rich local element. “I was quite knocked out by how beautiful the singing was, and how kind of ‘inside the story’ these singers from Minnesota were.”
Flash forward to a couple of years ago: Eschner won a place in the McKnight Foundation’s Visiting Composers Residency Program, proposing in her application to write a song cycle about dog sledding.
She had never actually seen the sport in person. But Eschner, a dog lover, was captivated by the idea of “a remarkable world where dogs and people are working so closely side by side.”
The grant is awarded to composers from outside the state who visit here to share their musical knowledge in small Minnesota communities. That gave Eschner an opportunity to conduct research. In the fall of 2014, she spent 30 days traveling along the Beargrease marathon’s 411-mile route along the North Shore, exploring the terrain, meeting with mushers and sled-builders, sifting through documents at the Cook County Historical Society, recording sounds — barking dogs, the wind through the trees in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness — that would eventually make their way into her songs.
“In each community, somebody would say, ‘Oh, you ought to go talk to so-and-so, the great-granddaughter of blah-blah-blah and the family’s been here since the 1880s.’ So I would follow all of those threads.”
She was impressed by the accomplishments and survival skills of Beargrease himself, son of an Anishinabe chief who delivered mail from Two Harbors to Grand Marais from 1880 to 1900. Beargrease made the long journey by rowboat or dog sled every week in all kinds of weather. For the small communities in those days before any road linked Duluth and Grand Marais, Beargrease’s deliveries were almost their only connection with the outside world.
“Here are these people, absolutely isolated, waiting to get a letter from families that live in Finland or Norway or Germany,” said Eschner. Her finds included a postcard to someone named Knut from his sister Berit in Norway, saying (in Norwegian) how much the family missed him.
During the 2015 Beargrease race, Eschner paid a second visit, talking to mushers and taking in the sights and sounds of the checkpoints. She met a ham radio operator and asked if she could record a message in Morse code. They wound up contacting, of all people, Eschner’s uncle, who lives in Alaska and coincidentally works with the Iditarod. He tapped out part of a eulogy for John Beargrease, written by his granddaughter.
‘It’s not folk, yet it is’
Dog sledding “is very dear to the hearts of everybody who’s chosen to live up here,” said William Beckstrand, director of Grand Marais’ Borealis Chorale and Orchestra, which will perform “Crazy Cold Beautiful” along with Take Jack, Eschner’s California-based musical ensemble.
The songs range in mood and style from somber to contemplative to “flat-out romp.” Beckstrand expects local audiences will enjoy it.
“It’s not folk, and yet it is, it’s not ethnic music and yet it is. There are shades of minimalist composers … it’s very uniquely her style,” he said. “A lot of it’s very singable, very memorable.”
Of course, while she was here Eschner, 61, had to try mushing herself. She was apprehensive and didn’t exactly master it — she fell off the sled a few times, laughing as the dogs raced on without her (luckily, her guide was ahead). The experience was “way, way up there on my list of favorite things I’ve done,” she said.
“It’s gorgeous, it’s stunning, you’re flying through the trees and the sounds are soft — runners in the snow, whatever wildlife you can hear out in the woods. It’s lovely.”
Later, brainstorming a title for her composition, Eschner thought about dog sledding and wrote down the first three words that came to mind.