David takes down Goliath for Stage Stop victory
Peck beats fellow Canadian Streeper, the reigning champ.
By Miller N. Resor, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Date: February 6, 2013
From the blowing snow and wintery trails of the 2013 International Pedigree Stage Stop Sled Dog Race emerged a heated battle between a reigning champion and an underdog.
The thrilling race — which began Jan. 25 on the streets of Jackson, wound 350 miles through four Rocky Mountain states and ended Saturday on the windswept plains of southern Wyoming — could be compared to the battle of David and Goliath.
Goliath was Buddy Streeper, who had won the Stage Stop for the last three years. His list of championships in every major dogsled race in the Northern Hemisphere in the past year alone is the stuff legends are made of. He owns a kennel in Fort Nelson, British Columbia, that produces the top competitive racing dogs in the world.
With a decade of world-class racing experience and an army of high-caliber performance athletes, Streeper brought two teams of 16 dogs to the Stage Stop this year.
Aaron Peck, on the other hand — the David in this story — runs a buffalo ranch in Grand Prairie, Alberta, in the summer and races professionally during the winter. He selected his best 16 dogs from a pack of 20 but was still forced to bring three female yearlings that were admittedly young for the race.
Peck has been on the rise but has never been able to beat Streeper.
“The Streepers come here with two powerful teams,” Peck said Jan. 28, referring to Buddy Streeper’s team and a second Streeper team led by Lars Lindh, of Sweden. “They’ve taken first and second in two of the last three years. Last year I split them up and finished second. I want to beat them both this year.”
Peck met his goal in the 2013 Pedigree International Stage Stop Sled Dog Race, but it did not come easily. He battled back from an early setback, relentlessly chipping away at Streeper’s lead with five consecutive first-place finishes over an already difficult course made more challenging by warm conditions, falling snow and blowing wind.
Peck, 34, started mushing when he was 13. On his blog he writes that he was “awe inspired by this amazing mode of transportation. I love to travel, I love dogs, and I love winter. ... I had found my passion in life.”
At 21, Peck competed in the Iditarod, a 1,100 mile-race across Alaska. He took seventh in the Stage Stop in 2008 and, since returning to the race in 2010, has steadily improved, placing fourth, third and second.
But he could never beat Streeper.
The incentive to win the Stage Stop is huge. Peck calls it the world’s toughest stage race and the Tour de France of dogsledding. Add in the big-time purse and the sponsors that are involved, and you have plenty of reasons for the world’s best racers.
First place overall takes home $10,000, and each of the top 13 takes home at least $1,000. Prize money also is awarded to individual stage winners.
Frank Teasley, owner of Jackson Hole Iditarod Sled Dog Tours and a former professional musher, started the Stage Stop in 1996. The route now winds through Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and Utah, the only dogsled race in the United States that travels through four states.
The ceremonial first stage is held in Jackson every winter. Dogsled teams race through the downtown streets in a 2-mile sprint to determine the starting order for the first timed leg of the race.
This year’s race began with a 56-mile stage from West Yellowstone, Mont., that followed snowmobile paths through falling snow to Ashton, Idaho.
The fresh snow slowed Peck. Streeper, who started after him, passed through on the track that Peck’s team had packed down.
Peck finished sixth in the first stage, 11 minutes and 37 seconds behind first-place Streeper. In second place was Streeper’s other team, driven by Lindh, which was only 3:04 behind the leader.
Going into the third stage of the race in Alpine on Jan. 28, Peck said he had to decide how hard to attack the longest leg of the race.
“This stage here in Alpine is always one of the toughest because its length is 60 miles,” he said, “and it is always a balance between how much speed to let your team run at so that they will have reserves to make it back.”
He could be conservative in the first 30 miles up the Greys River Canyon and finish strong on the return, or he could go for it, take a chance and hope the team could finish strong.
“That’s what we did today,” Peck said after the Alpine race. “We just went for it, basically let them run.”
Going flat out, he pushed the sled on level ground and ran behind the team as it challenged the uphill portions of the course.
“You absolutely have to work with your dogs,” Peck said. “They feed off that energy.”
The strategy worked, Peck’s team beat Streeper’s by 1:57 on the Alpine stage and began the process of whittling away at the champion’s lead.
At the fourth leg in Pinedale, Peck’s win from the previous day meant he would be the last to start. About halfway through the race, he caught Streeper and Lindh but was unable to pass them.
However, because of a three-minute staggered start, catching his opponents meant Peck had gained three minutes on Streeper and six on Lindh. He had chipped another 2 minutes and 54 seconds from Streeper’s lead.
This cycle repeated itself in the next two races in Lander and Big Piney. Peck would catch Streeper about halfway through, and then the two would battle head to head. In Lander, Peck managed to gain only 1 minute and 52 seconds, but in Big Piney he beat Streeper by 2 minutes and 59 seconds.
At the end of the sixth leg in Big Piney, Peck still trailed by 1 minute and 50 seconds.
For stage seven, the competition moved to Kemmerer, where racers were greeted by blowing winds that Peck said made it hard to see the dogs directly in front of them.
The course also challenged the teams with multiple hills and a soft trail, which is harder for both sleds and dogs.
“Sometimes you couldn’t see your dogs,” he said. “Mushers were going off the trail and getting stuck. I was worried some people would not be able to make it in and they would have to rescue people on snowmobiles.”
But Peck thinks the tough conditions favored him.
“In good conditions you see who is the fastest,” he said after the race in Alpine. “On a trail like today, you get to see who is the toughest, and that’s my style.”
In Kemmerer, Peck said, he knew he was a better climber than Streeper.
“His dogs are very fast, but I knew I could beat him in the hills,” he said. “I continued to pull away from him throughout the race. I was really proud of my dogs. They just kept going. They had wings. The snow was deep — they could hardly see the trail — but they kept loping.”
Peck finished 14 minutes and 55 seconds ahead of Streeper in the penultimate stage, jumping to a 13 minutes, 5 seconds lead.
In the final stage, competing over a hardpack trail in beautiful conditions outside Evanston, Streeper took advantage of the fast trail to win the final leg by 4:13. But his effort was not enough to overtake Peck.
Peck won the 2013 Stage Stop with a time of 24 hours 35 minutes and 25 seconds. Streeper finished second in 24:43:40, and Lindh, his teammate, turned in a third-place performance of 25:11:06.
“Winning is incredible,” Peck said. “It puts the race in a new perspective. For the past few years it has seemed impossible to beat the Streepers. A lot of racers have felt it was impossible to compete with them. They are always trying to win this race, and they have such an impressive operation.
“It was truly a David versus Goliath moment,” Peck said. “It gives the small guys hope.”