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Area musher has seen sport change

Stephen Peterson of rural Backus had a mixed season of dog sled racing this year, finishing in the top three in Ashton and losing time waiting on moose in at least one other race. Submitted Photo 1 / 3
Stephen Peterson of rural Backus says racing sled dogs has changed over the years. Winter temperatures are often too high to race the traditional, cold-resistant dog breeds, leading to more racers using greyhound mixes. Submitted Photo 2 / 3
Stephen Peterson of rural Backus had a mixed season of dog sled racing this year, finishing in the top three in Ashton and losing time waiting on moose in at least one other race. Submitted Photo 3 / 3

Stephen Peterson, of rural Backus, has been a sled dog racer for more than 20 years - nearly half his life - and over that time his experience and the sport itself have changed a great deal.

Peterson was introduced to the sport by a world champion in dog sledding - Eddy Streeper, who lived in Osage.

"I met the world champion when I was 11," Peterson said. "He was a big influence on my life. I moved away and rodeoed and toured the country, but when I returned, I decided to come back and get a hold of him. I helped him quite a few years before I started racing."

Peterson said it is a right of passage in dog sledding to work for a mentor, feeding and caring for animals. In turn, you learn from them and even borrow their dogs and equipment. That's how he got started, and that's how young racers get their start to this day.

Being a sled dog racer was for the bold back then. Early on, even without much financial security, Peterson put everything he had on the line to live the life he enjoyed.

"When I first started out, I started with some knowledge, good dog bloodlines and no money in my pocket," Peterson said. "I used to drive 500 miles to my race without money to get home, knowing I fed my dogs well enough and trained them well enough to finish in the money."

Peterson made a life out of racing. For a long time, Peterson said there were races he could attend fairly locally as well as across the country. There was a race in Crosslake, as well as what he called the largest race in the lower 48 states in Frazee, and then Fergus Falls. Unfortunately, sled dog racing has always been at the mercy of volunteers, young racers and weather, all of which are unpredictable. The Frazee race ended in part because of a lack of volunteers, as well as extreme work to groom trails in years when snow cover was almost non-existent.

Peterson said sled dog racing nationwide is at risk for the same reasons. He didn't weigh in on a cause, but Peterson has witnessed a significant change in weather patterns in the last 20 years that has retired many traditional dog breeds with thick fur coats and caused delays and cancellations in races.

"I don't have traditional huskies," Peterson said. "I have big greyhound/pointer cross dogs. I've been using them over 20 years. A lot of mushers run greyhound/pointer crosses. I like the heat resistance, speed and short, slick coats."

In addition to warm weather dog breeds taking over the sport, unseasonable weather has been a problem for many years. Peterson said the Open North American Championships and Limited North American Championships in Alaska were threatened by 60-degree temperatures earlier this month, once an uncommon problem.

Peterson, who intends to race in 15 races next season, doesn't even know when his season will start because of warmer weather.

"My first race in the whole lower 48 is the Rodeo Run at West Yellowstone," Peterson said. "They generally get snow. Last (season) they couldn't even have it. When it doesn't snow on top of the mountains anymore, that makes me a little nervous."

For now, Peterson is preparing for rides and races at his rural Backus home, and looking back on a tumultuous season that just ended for him.

"This season I've had two of my most disgraceful finishes I had in the last 20 years," Peterson said. "I normally finish toward the top."

That's how Peterson started Dec. 15, 2018, at the West Yellowstone Rodeo Run, where he said there was nearly as much gravel as snow on the track. Peterson was in the open class and was fourth on day one of the race. Day two he dropped to 11th.

He traveled to Eukanuba's Jackson Hole, Wyoming-based three-day Stage Stop race Jan. 25. He finished the race eighth overall in his class, in part thanks to a moose/calf pair on the race path. His biggest finish of the year was in Ashton, Idaho - his home away from home.

"I was trying to peak my dogs to win at that race," Peterson said. "I live here, but that's my second hometown."

Peterson said there was snow on the ground in Ashton with rain the night before. The morning of the race, the temperature was down and the snow was almost perfect for the race. Day two, the conditions were even better.

"We had good, clean road crossings across the highways and a good turn around on the loop," Peterson said. "It was a good run on the first day. It was a pretty good run. The second day the trail was a lot better."

The American Dog Derby in Ashton started Feb. 14, where he claimed second place on the first day of the race, and third on day two.

"I stopped on the trail to help my girlfriend, who was seventh the first day, but she was first the second day by 2 minutes because I cut the drag mat off her sled," Peterson said.

Helping his girlfriend, Patricia Probst, cost Peterson time on his race, but he was determined to make her first professional race enjoyable. Her times, combined over two days, put her in fifth place. Peterson took third in his class. John Nunnez, a friend driving another team of Peterson's dogs (also the photographer for this story), took sixth in the race.

Peterson stuck around to help clean up at the Ashton race, which is more than a competition for him. He is not only a racer there, but an organizer. He volunteered approximately 100 hours to planning, setting up and cleaning up after the Ashton race.

Next for Peterson and his dogs is several months of "vacation" time for the dogs at his home near Highway 64 west of Backus. Training begins anew in September. Peterson is looking to harness break new, young dogs, whom he considers professional athletes. He has big plans for next season.

"I have a true passion for the dogs and the sport," Peterson said. "I'm really fortunate I have gotten to live my dream the last half of my life. A lot of people can't say that."