In 1996 Frank Teasley, with the help of public health nurse Jayne Ottman, launched the International Pedigree Stage Stop Sled Dog Race to showcase the beautiful state of Wyoming and to make sled dog racing more accessible to the public. In addition, the race committee worked to spread the word about the need for childhood immunizations and promoting responsible dog care. Each year, the race makes a contribution to each host community on the race route to support public health or fund local animal shelters. As the title sponsor since 2000, Mars Petcare & Pedigree brand dog food makes an annual contribution of dog food to animal shelters in the hosting race communities.
At its beginning, the race covered more than 700 miles, featuring 13 stages and several overnight camp outs, with a combined overall and day-money payout of $100,000. Early champions included several well-known Iditarod and Yukon Quest mushers like Rick Swenson, Jeff King and Hans Gatt. With its stage format and top level of competition, the Stage Stop was known as the World Series of sled dog sports.
As the race has progressed, it gradually changed to fewer and eventually to no camp outs and shorter stages of 40 to 60 miles and a payout of $165,000.
The new format includes a ceremonial start in downtown Jackson, Wyoming followed by seven distinct stages that are hosted by eight different communities. Running over nine days, the race traverses through five mountain ranges bounded by five different national forests. The participating host communities this year included the western Wyoming mountain towns of Jackson, Alpine, Pinedale, Kemmerer, Big Piney/ Marbleton and Lander with Driggs, Idaho in the mix.
Over the years, some changes have been dictated by the local host communities and by what’s in the best interest of the race, the competitors and the sport. New this year, was reducing the runs to 30-35 mile stages (previously the runs varied from 58 to 32 miles), a reduction in the dog pool from 16 to 14 dogs and the maximum daily team size reduced from 12 to 10 dogs. These changes resulted in an amazing early sign up that filled the roster within days. An impressive field of competition came from across North America with two teams from Alaska, nine teams from six Canadian Provinces and the remainder of the field hailing from seven U.S. states.
With the help of title sponsor Pedigree Food for dogs, the Stage Stop Race has always been a leader in evolution of the sport. Mushers having a pool of dogs to choose from, combined with some of the world’s best sled dog veterinarians undoubtedly heightened the benefits of dog care. With all stages now being out-and-back, veterinarians are not only readily available before and after runs for dogs running that day, but also were there to assist handlers with questions about dogs.
Although temperature and snow pack are dictated by Mother Nature, the race benefits from cooperation with Wyoming State Trails who pack and groom the remote trail systems. The race course varies, with mountain climbs and descents, as well as long sections of valley flats. As with all races, daily weather can vary from extremely cold to relatively warm temperatures. Wind and fresh or falling snow can be factor as well. Experienced, well-trained leaders can be a deciding factor. Executing smooth passes, following mushers instructions at intersections and turn-arounds, or keeping cool and focused when the weather effects trail conditions and visibility can make or break you day, or even your race.
The Stage Stop is a series of daily races. The winner of each stage not only gets top payout of day money, they also don the yellow bib on the next day’s stage. Quite a prestigious, and perhaps ephemeral, thing to get as it becomes a target for the others to try and take. This year, the yellow bib changed hands four times. The overall winner takes the yellow bib home for keeps along with cash prizes and possession of the Champions Trophy, embossed with all the previous winners names and year of victory.
Speaking of kids, the 12 mushers meet with over 1,400 students for school demonstrations plus several groups visited quite a few stages. The teacher on the trail Katie Williams provided teachers with Common Core aligned curriculum materials to use when studying the race.
In the race’s JR musher program kids learn to give back to each community by doing community service projects and then getting to mentor a musher for a day and ride in the sled at the ceremonials start in Jackson.
From the ceremonial start in Jackson to the last stage in Teton County it was a roller coaster for many mushers with the highs and lows that usually accompany any race.
It was an interesting mix of veteran stage racers and newcomers, more accustomed to two to three-day races. With the changes in format and the addition of several high level competitors, expectations were uncertain.
In the end, it proved to be a highly compelling race with no one team ever securing a locked spot. Unfortunately, four teams (Tommy Bird, Eric LaForce, Anny Malo and Lina Streeper) took a wrong turn off the marked trail on the second to last stage. Only Malo figured out she was off-track quickly enough to salvage her run. LaForce, Streeper and Bird eventually realized their error and returned to the race course. LaForce and Streeper completed the course, loosing significant time to the field and dropped several overall positions. Bird, deciding his team was not prepared for the additional distance, opted to return to his truck and withdrew from the race. To their credit, Bird made an honorable decision based his team while Streeper and LaForce were able to manage their team exceptionally through the ordeal and pull of first and third place finishes, respectively, on the final stage.
Éric LaForce captured the first and third stage. Anny Malo won stage two. Lina Streeper took stages four, five and seven. Emilie Entrikin won stage six. The field was tightly packed with the top 16 teams having a solid shot at the top 10, and 12 teams in the hunt to break top five. Anny Malo kept steady with strong performances every day to capture the title of overall champion. Emilie Entrikin returned after a few years off from Wyoming to come back with a vengeance and she finished in second place
Returning stagers Alix Crittenden and Jeff Conn finished their best yet in third and fourth places, respectively, with Dave Torgerson rounding out the top five.
Rachel Courtney had an amazing showing in the sixth place spot while Richard Beck, Lina Streeper, Bruce Magnusson and JR Anderson rounded out the top 10.
For a complete breakdown of daily and overall times, visit the race website at www.wyomingstagestop.org
Jerry Bath the current commentator for the Pedigree Stage Stop. He is a nine time veteran of the race and has been involved as a volunteer and/or Lander chairperson since the race began in 1996.