DULUTH – Mushers and volunteers will miss the few thousand spectators that usually pack the area by Billy's bar, wildly cheering at the starting point for the annual John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon.

But organizers are forging ahead with plans for this year's race, scheduled to start Jan. 31, after months spent plotting how to hold the Minnesota tradition safely during a pandemic that ravaged many of its usual funding streams.

No fans will be allowed to attend the upcoming Beargrease, and mushers and handlers must use outdoor portable bathroom facilities throughout the course of the multiday event. A smaller-than-usual corps of volunteers will be assigned tasks in pods to avoid the possible spread of COVID-19.

"It's bittersweet, but we're all banding together to make this happen," said Beargrease spokesperson Monica Hendrickson.

The Beargrease is the longest sled dog race in the Lower 48 and a qualifier for Alaska's famous Iditarod. In addition to the marathon — a 300-mile route from Duluth to Grand Portage — there are 120-mile and 40-mile competitions.

The race, gearing up for its 37th run, was named after an Anishinabe man who delivered mail along the North Shore of Lake Superior using sled dogs in the late 1800s.

Organizers are working with local media and international sled dog race officials to offer more opportunities to view this year's race online. Hendrickson said she expects some fans may head to public trails to catch a glimpse of the race but warned that onlookers should stay far away from the sled dogs' paths.

The so-far mild winter is raising some concerns that trail conditions could be dangerously rocky in spots. The race has been previously postponed until March due to weather.

Fewer regular Beargrease volunteers may travel to the North Shore this year due to COVID-19, but some new mushers are joining the race because they cannot access Canadian competitions and other U.S. contests were canceled.

The Beargrease is a nonprofit that relies on donations and sponsorships, many of which have been hampered by the pandemic. Hendrickson said volunteers are doing more work on their own dime, and some mushers have said they would race even if the purse was cut; they just want the show to go on.

"But I think this kind of reflects what the race is about," Hendrickson said. "It's kind of like true grit. We're going to get this thing done."

Katie Galioto • 612-673-4478