A Musher with a Message

“Win that race, my boy”

John Campbell


Those were the last words of Canadian fur trapper John Campbell on his deathbed to his 22-year-old son Albert, exhorting him to win one of the greatest dogsled races in history, the Winnipeg to St. Paul 522 mile Winter Carnival race in 1917. The Campbells were part of the proud Cree Métis families in and around Le Pas in far northern Manitoba. The Matis were the half-breed children of the temporary commerce marriages that occurred between the French and English fur traders and their Native wives during the fur-trading era.

The race was sponsored by Lewis W. Hill, president of the Great Northern Railway Company to bring attention to the region between Winnipeg and St. Paul, one of the main corridors of the railroad. It was held in conjunction with the St. Paul Winter Carnival, with the race starting in Winnipeg and terminating at Como Park with a prize of $500 to the winner.

Both Albert and his brother Gabriel had entered teams of skilled dogs they used on their extended trapping runs in the remote wilderness of northern Manitoba. Due to the extreme racism at the time, several promoters recruited teams of Icelandic fishermen from the Winnipeg area and a young American who was in the region by the name of Fred Hartman. It was Hartman who would become the darling of the American press, but his lack of experience quickly showed in the race as he lost his lead dog due to poor handling.

The Winnipeg fishermen soon faded as their dogs were not used to the long endurance test that was an everyday occurrence for the Campbells’ dogs. Despite a brutal blizzard and temperatures dropping to -25 below, the Campbells made steady progress. They were known for great compassion and care for their animals. As a result, the dogs responded to the rigors of the 522-mile endurance test, reaching Como Park 8 days later to a throng of 5000 cheering onlookers. The Campbell Brothers finished 1st and 2nd only 40 seconds apart with Albert fulfilling his dad’s dying wish by being the first to cross the line.

Papers all over the US and Canada covered the eight-day race and Albert went on to be a national hero in Canada. As part of his duties as the race winner, he delivered a letter later that day to Gov. J.A.A. Burnquist at the state capitol from Manitoba officials proclaiming goodwill between the neighbors.

Some 95 years later, Minnesota’s great outdoors has its own sled dog champion carrying a message to the state capitol. Frank Moe set off from his beloved hometown of Grand Marais this week on a great dogsled journey to raise awareness about sulfide mining pollution and the threat poses to our precious lakes rivers and streams in and around our state’s boundary waters.

Like Albert Campbell of so many years before, Frank Moe is a seasoned dogsled racer. He has also demonstrated a great deal of love for his sled dogs, recently winning the Tom Cooley Award, given by the race veterinarians to the musher and handler with the best cared for team. As a result despite the brutal weather he is facing now, he expects his team to respond well over the 260 miles to the state capitol. You can follow their progress on Twitter, Facebook, or at ConservationMinnesota.org where you can get the latest reports and photo of the journey.

Like Albert Campbell, when Frank reaches the state capitol he will have a proclamation for the governor and the rest of our policymakers. This proclamation from this former state representative will not be one of good tidings, but one of warning of the potential dangers of sulfide mining pollution. Several new mines are being proposed in the region he comes from that pose a great risk for our great outdoors. He points out that “most people aren’t aware that this new type of mining is nothing like traditional iron mining.” When iron is exposed to air and rain, you get rust. When sulfide ore is exposed to air and rain, you get sulfuric acid that contaminates ground water and can eliminate all life from the lakes and streams that it touches. “We have important choices to make that impact every Minnesotan,” said Frank. “The more people who have the facts and participate in these decisions, the better off we will all be.”

Thank you, Frank Moe, for being our sled dog champion for the great outdoors.  “Win that race, my boy”

*Hapless Hero, by Merrill E. Jarchow, Minnesota History – Winter 1971, Minnesota Historical Society. P.282

About John Tuma

John is a former state legislator and litigation attorney. He served in the Minnesota House of Representatives for eight years from the Northfield area, beginning in 1994. Elected as a Republican, John was known for his independent thinking and ability to work across party lines. He is well-known in Minnesota state government circles.
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