Buddy Streeper knows sled dogs. After 20 years of breeding and racing them all over the world, he should.
He’s raced hundreds of times, and bred upwards of a thousand dogs from his kennels just outside of Fort Nelson.
His racing season runs from January to April, and he jams as many competitions in as much as he can over that time, usually around 12 to 14, though he’s done as many as 20 races in one season. Last year he raced undefeated, something that hasn’t happened for him in about a decade.
He said it’s impossible to find dogs to race – so he has to breed them himself. But that’s something he comes by honestly. His father Terry has bred and raced dogs for 40 years. Like the dogs he rears, he’s done it all his life.
Buddy is the first person the puppies smell in the first couple of days of being born, eventually coming up to join his team, or sold to other racers.
“I have to develop this dog myself, and we do that over selective breeding process that we’ve developed over the last three or four decades of evaluating dogs and selecting our best to breed. Then we improve our team and people come to us to acquire the Streeper dog.”
He said in the past month he’s had inquiries from Australia, South Africa, Montana and New England, and has sold dogs to customers in Russia, England, Alaska, the Northwest Territories and Quebec.
These aren’t the black and white, thick-furred, blue-eyed huskies that have become associated with sled dog racing in popular culture. The breed is called an Alaskan Husky, “a glorified name for a mutt,” said Streeper, originally developed during the gold rush era in Alaska and the Yukon. “They were bringing any type of dog that could pull a sled, and trying to get them to their claim site,” Streeper explained. “If you had a good dog, and I had a good dog, regardless of their pedigree status or their breed, they interbred those dogs.”
The result is a medium sized, light-boned dog with a long back and long legs, built for speed.
They also aren’t pets. “It’s a really friendly animal and it loves attention, but it needs to be run, it needs to have exercise. In later years a lot of them can retire into the house and I’m sure a lot of them would adjust to the house lifestyle of being a pet, but they’re bred for the purpose of running. It’s kind of like a thoroughbred horse,” he said.
It takes about two years for a puppy to develop into a racing dog, and during that time requires a lot of attention. Around five weeks old he’ll take them for walks every day, and have them explore areas they haven’t seen, like his barn or shop, to get them used to new sights and smells.
After around 7 months they’re big enough to harness, and he’ll start taking them out on short, two- or three-mile runs, gradually building up their strength. After a year and a half, they can go up to 20 miles.
Right now, he’s prepping his dogs for the Wyoming Stage Stop Sled Race, the second richest in the world and the pinnacle of this year’s racing season. Unsurprisingly, it takes place in Wyoming, but it runs through Utah, Idaho, and Montana as well, over 350 miles in eight days, and crossing the Continental Divide four or five times every day. This isn’t his first time navigating that hilly, remote course – in their past six attempts at it, they’ve won five, and Streeper is hoping for a sixth this year.
Up for grabs is a $180,000 pot, split among the winners, with the first place getting $30,000. While that might sound like a lot, Streeper said it’s not quite as good as it might seem. “There are a lot of expenses. It sounds good on paper, but we only got a few weekends like that a year, and it’s a full time, 365-day of the year job,” he said. “If a guy could bring in that income every day that would be awesome, but we’ve only got 10 or 12 days a year, so you’ve got to kind of make hay like the farmers do.”
And then there are the dangers on the trail.
He recounted a time when that particular Wyoming course put him and the other racers in a bad situation a couple of years ago. They hit a blizzard just north of Salt Lake City, and even Streeper, who lived his entire life in the north, said that this was bad.
“I’ve never seen snowflakes so big, bigger than a Twoonie coming down, and it was snowing probably 4 or 5 inches an hour,” he said. The snowmobile boomers that had been leading them along the trail broke down and couldn’t get through the terrain. That left a group of racers trying to navigate the trail in a whiteout situation. Streeper said at that point they aren’t competing, they’re working together to survive. Even the dogs sensed that they were in some danger.
“They knew we were in a tough situation and knew we had to perform our best. It was pretty remarkable to watch them do that, to realize the situation we were in and the amount of trust that we needed from each other,” said Streeper.
Streeper pooh poohed questions about the famous Iditarod, dismissing it as not being his style. That famous ultramarathon runs a thousand miles from Anchorage to Nome, in Alaska, and can take anywhere from a week to over two weeks to complete. But Streeper is all about the speed.
“I’ve always considered speed to be more of the thrill that I’ve always gotten out of running dogs,” he said. “Someone who walks into my kennel and asks questions [about the Iditarod], I say, ‘Do you know who the fastest man in the world is?’ and they say, “Yeah, Lucian Bolt or Donovan Bailey or Ben Johnson or Carl Lewis.’ But if you ask, ‘Well, who wins the marathons?’ And nobody’s got any freakin’ idea right? Man has always tried to be the fastest.”