DULUTH – In a moment of motherly instinct, Colleen Wallin bent down to check the metal hook that linked 18-year-old Ero's sled to his team of Alaskan huskies.
Then she gave her son a hug, whispering in his ear as the dogs barked excitedly. In a few minutes they would be off on a 300-mile trek through the wilderness of Minnesota's North Shore.
"She just told me to race my own race," Ero said Sunday, as he gave farewell pats to his family's younger dogs, who would run with his mother in the 37th annual John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon.
Colleen and Ero Wallin were among the 15 mushers competing in the Duluth-to-Grand Portage race, the longest sled dog event in the Lower 48 states. The Two Harbors family has participated in the Beargrease for more than two decades, but this year marked the first time Ero raced the full marathon.
For months, the high school senior took training runs with his family's dogs, observing behaviors and experimenting with matchups until he winnowed down his team to 12 race-ready canines, many of them Beargrease veterans.
Colleen, a seasoned marathon musher, originally planned to help take care of Ero's team at race checkpoints. But the Wallins suddenly had a lot more time to train during the state stay-at-home order — so much that Colleen was able to register to race against her son with a "puppy team" consisting of 12 of the family's less experienced sled dogs.
She watched for a second on Sunday as her son zipped into the woods, then she turned to her own yipping, jumping dogs. They were starting two minutes after Ero.
"Colleen Wallin, about to chase her son," the announcer said. "Maybe it takes her back to when Ero was 2 years old and she was chasing him around the house. Now she's chasing him on the Beargrease trail!"
A mushing family
Colleen Wallin first rode a dog sled in 1993. Her husband, Ward, set up the Boundary Waters trip as a Christmas present. Colleen brought along her sister and a camcorder to document the fun.
They still have the video, in which Colleen says: "I'm going to have a dog truck and own my own dog team just like this someday."
The couple had recently purchased a log cabin and 40 acres of land in Two Harbors when Ward took a job with the city of Duluth. They lived just a few miles from the first Beargrease checkpoint and made a trip to watch mushers there one frigid night after a 10 o'clock newscaster announced their impending arrival.
"She was hooked," Ward said of his wife. By 1994, the couple had purchased their first six sled dogs and signed up Colleen for Beargrease's 100-mile race.
The hobby quickly became a lifestyle as the Wallins bought more dogs and took on longer races. Ero was born in 2002 into a mushing family.
At age 5, he would join his dad for early morning chores in the kennel. At nights, he would go with his parents on training runs in a six-wheeler, often falling asleep under a pile of blankets for part of the bumpy ride.
"It's nothing we ever impressed upon him or expected from him," Colleen said. "It's just been a real natural desire. He's always loved our dogs."
Ero raced the Beargrease 120-miler last year. Even the half-version of the event is known to be draining for mushers, who run up hills alongside their dogs in the freezing cold on little sleep. But when Ero finished second in the junior division in 2020, he felt like he could have kept going for miles.
He balanced mushing with online classes at Silver Bay's William Kelley High School and sports, as captain of the football, hockey and baseball teams. After evening practices, he would often harness up the dogs and run through the 120 acres his family now owns, sometimes until close to midnight.
"I have no worries or concerns about him out there," Colleen said before the race. "Not all rookies finish, but he's smart. He's patient. He knows the dogs, and the dogs know him."
Finish line first times
On the Beargrease trail this year, Colleen's puppies — some as young as 15 months — quickly fell behind Ero's team of experienced dogs.
Marathon teams are required to rest for a total of 24 hours, broken up among the race's six checkpoints however mushers see fit. Colleen pulled into the first checkpoint in Two Harbors on Sunday 10 minutes behind her son.
The pair discussed strategy. The fresh snow was slowing down dogs, and the 30-degree weather was warmer than normal.
Ward led a team of family and friends to care for the Wallins' dogs during breaks. The small caravan of vehicles wound its way up the North Shore as Ero and Colleen glided through the woods.
Ero crossed a frozen lake just after 1 a.m. Tuesday, smiling. He had passed his mom going the opposite direction on a trail loop, and the two gave each other a high five.
The following afternoon, as they prepared to embark on the final leg of the marathon, mother and son embraced again.
"See you soon," Colleen said.
Ero, the youngest musher in the marathon, pulled across the finish line in sixth place Tuesday evening. Family, friends and Beargrease organizers cheered for the young competitor, whom they remembered as a tiny boy hanging around while his mom raced.
Colleen's puppy team arrived in 10th place roughly 2 ½ hours later with an Alaskan husky named Corona ("of the beer litter, not the virus one," Colleen joked) in one of the lead positions.
She had been prepared to not finish the race if the dogs got tired, but their tails were wagging as they received post-race rubs from their musher, who told them she was proud.
"My young, young dogs finished and my young, young son finished," Colleen said. "I just feel so good."
The dogs curled up to rest in piles of hay while Ero slept in one of the nearby trucks. The first of likely many exhausting Beargrease marathons was complete.
Katie Galioto • 612-673-4478