Every person visits Alaska for a reason. Some travel to the Last Frontier in search of an adventure, while others hope to learn something new about themselves while observing the state’s unmatched beauty.
Twenty-two mushers brought their sled dog teams to Fairbanks, Alaska, from March 16-18. They shared one common goal: Compete in the GCI Open North American Championship. The teams arrived with different expectations, though they all took part in the three-day ONAC, North America’s premier sprint race and the end-of-season celebration for Fairbanks’ enthusiastic mushing community.
This year’s race was a little different.
Unlike 2017, when temperatures hovered around -30°F and left mushers and spectators chilled to the bone, the weather for the 2018 ONAC was stellar. Temperatures around 30°F brought a good showing of eager spectators to the Jeff Studdert Race Grounds throughout the weekend. The large, passionate crowds made the mushers feel like they were involved in something special. “The electricity in the air at that race isn’t something I had experienced at other races,” said Alix Crittenden, an ONAC rookie, who made the trek to Fairbanks from Jackson Hole, Wyoming. “You feel like you’re really a part of something huge.”
All eyes were on Blayne “Buddy” Streeper and his wife Lina, who own and operate Streeper Kennels together with Buddy’s father Terry Streeper in Fort Nelson, British Columbia. In 2017, Buddy finished seconds behind 66-year-old Roxy Wright, who came out of retirement for one last ONAC. Wright claimed victory after having not raced the ONAC since 1996. That year, Lina Streeper finished third, bolstering the Streeper’s motivation to sweep the top two spots in 2018.
After capturing his sixth Fur Rendezvous Open World Championship title in late February in Anchorage this year, Buddy was determined to rid the aftertaste of the 2017 ONAC from his mouth. Losing to Wright fueled his training throughout the season.
“That was my motivation,” Buddy Streeper said. “I don’t think about my victories, I think about my defeats. That’s what drives me. That’s what makes me get up in the rain and go outside in the dark and stay out in the cold weather and work harder than anybody. It’s because of that.”
The mushers were met with a challenge during this year’s opening heat. Between 30°F weather and fresh snowfall, the front runners had trouble separating themselves from the pack as they navigated the 20.3-mile trail – which starts and finishes at Musher’s Hall, and curves through nearby Creamer’s Field, Army Road, Tanana Valley State Fairgrounds and the Fairbanks Golf Course.
Rob Peebles, a veteran from Westlock, Alberta, built an early lead after finishing first in 66 minutes, 2.3 seconds. Even though he was in front after the first heat, his time barely created a division from the other 21 teams. The top 11 teams finished within 2 minutes and 51 seconds of each other, and the top nine were separated by only 1 minute and 30 seconds.
Some of the mushers viewed the logjam as a result of the trail, which many described as “rough” during the first day. Buddy Streeper said one trailbreaker told him he counted 20 moose before the opening heat. Buddy saw one moose and plenty of moose holes as well as fresh scat on the trail during the first day, when he began his quest for a fifth ONAC title. Others agreed with the veteran’s assessment. Crittenden, who long dreamed about competing at the sacred race grounds in Fairbanks, was startled by the trail at first.
“I thought it was tough trail conditions that first day,” she said. “I was kind of surprised. I expected to get to the ONAC and run on the finest trail I had ever seen.”
The race ground workers transformed the trail into something magical before the teams arrived the next day for the second heat. “What was amazing was how they got it together for the second day,” Crittenden said. “I thought it was going to be way, way worse.” With an improved trail and continued warm weather, the teams began creating separation from one another during the second day.
Buddy Streeper made a massive leap in the standings with a second-heat time of 69:28.2. That mark gave him a two-day time of 136:49.3, which bumped him into first place after finishing the opening heat eighth. Buddy cited an old strategy he learned from legendary sprint musher, the late George Attla, an eight-time ONAC champion. “Attla always said day two was moving day, and I’ve been kind of copying that thought for the last couple of years,” Streeper said. “The reason he liked to move on day two was there was still gas in the tank with the energy level of the dogs.”
While Buddy Streeper elevated himself to the top of the leaderboard, Michael Tetzner, a veteran from Burg, Germany, didn’t move in the standings. Tetzner’s first-heat time of 66:38.3 was enough for second place. After running the 20.3-mile course in 70:54.7 on the second day, Tetzner had a firm grasp on second place with a two-day time of 137:33.0.
But Lina Streeper was on his heels. Her second-heat time of 72:15.5 lifted her into third with a two-day total of 139:35.2. Peebles had the fastest time in the first heat, though his second-heat time of 73:37.4 put him in fourth place with a two-day total of 139:39.7. That was the end of his race, as he and Armin Johnson, a rookie from Whitehorse, Yukon, were the only two mushers to scratch before the third day.
Although the front of the pack was taking shape ahead of the last run, there were plenty of mushers happy to be racing at the ONAC, regardless of their team’s time. Among them was Doug Butler, a rookie from New Haven, Vermont. Butler, a quick-witted dairy farmer, always wondered what it would be like to run dogs in Alaska. “The dream of my life was always to get to Fairbanks,” he said. His opportunity to fulfill that lifelong mission came when a group of students from Millbury College approached him about filming his trip to the ONAC for a documentary. Butler agreed to their idea and it was put in motion. He and the camera crew packed into his 1995 Ford truck with 22 dogs and more than 500 pounds of dog food. Just like that, they began the 4,000-mile journey from Vermont to Fairbanks in a truck that had already amassed more than 200,000 miles in its lifetime.
The drive to Alaska was part of the group’s adventure. They stopped in Fergus Falls, Minnesota, to spend a night with another farmer Butler knew. Then, on their way to Minot, North Dakota, they got caught in a blizzard when the highway they were traveling was shut down because of a shooting. That delay came during the dogs’ bathroom break, giving Butler an opportunity to introduce his energetic team to other travelers on the closed highway. “Our dogs are kind of crazy,” he said. “They’ll jump up and kiss you. You have to dance with them and all that.” There were more maintenance stops for the truck along the way, including an overnight stay in Whitehorse that allowed the New Englander to drink beers and share dog stories – and laughs – with a helpful group of friendly mechanics.
Each step of the way, the film crew captured Butler’s passion for the sport, a part of his personality he admitted he sometimes struggles to contain. “You can smoke dope, snort coke, pop pills, drink beer and chase wild women, but you can’t get as high as when you’re on a dog team,” the 62-year-old Butler said. “I just lose it. I get so wound up. I even get caught singing on the trail. It’s something about this sport.” Part of the Vermont musher’s excitement stems from an overlap he views between farming and running dogs. Those similarities were on display when he made it to the ONAC and started mingling with Fairbanksans. “All these people were helping us with the dog team,” he said. “They helped us get harnessed up and to the start line. The sport of sled dog racing is what agriculture used to be like – one person helping another and everybody working together.”
Butler’s team finished the third heat in 111:50.9, giving him a three-day total of 262:53.5. He finished 19th place, ahead of last-place finisher Bob Chlupach with a time of 300:30.3.
At the top of the pack, the Streepers were trying to capture the top two spots they’ve always coveted. Buddy occupied first place, but Lina had to jump Tetzner in the standings on the final day to secure the sweep. She accomplished the feat by posting the fastest time of the day – finishing the last 27.83-mile run in 97:25.1. Her time guaranteed her a second-place finish with a three-day total of 237:00.3. Tetzner held on to second during the first two heats, but his third-day time of 100:34.0 let the Streepers earn the top two spots. He finished third in 238:07.0.
“When I came here, I would’ve liked to get in the top 10,” Tetzner said. “After the first day, when I finished in second, I was thinking maybe I went a little too fast. Then the second day, when I was still in second, I felt like I did something right in training. I tried to stay in it as good as I could, but I knew the Streepers would catch me eventually.”
Buddy Streeper was able to win his fifth title, as his team of 14 dogs posted a total time of 235:30.6. The team’s third-heat time of 98:41.3 could’ve been better, but Buddy strategically didn’t pass Tetzner in an effort to make things a little harder on him. In doing so, he caused Tetzner’s last run to be slightly slower, providing Lina and her team ample space to make up ground. “I didn’t pass Mike, and I could have with four miles to go,” Buddy said. “I didn’t need to because we’re running a draft. Like two cars on the racetrack, two travel faster than one. I didn’t want to pass him and let him draft me all the way home.”
While Tetzner’s team of 14 dogs started to slow down during the longest run of the weekend, the Streepers were primed and ready to go. They had been through this before – Buddy’s other ONAC victories came in 2003, ‘07, ‘15 and ‘16, and he had finished second seven different times. He compared racing at the ONAC to baking a cake. “Once you get the formula and know the strategical moves you need to make, you know the recipe,” he said. “You can bake that beautiful cake that everybody loves because you know what it took.”
This year’s recipe wouldn’t have been possible without his leaders, Bobby and Elvis, a pair of 3-year-old males born and raised at Streeper’s Kennel. “Bobby is focused 900 percent of the time,” Buddy said. “Elvis is like a big relief pitcher. When it’s late in the game and the starting pitcher is doing good, you don’t even have to take him out, but you have a guy that can throw a 105 mile-per-hour fastball and smoke it right by them. That’s Elvis. When the game is on the line, that’s who you want to have the ball.”
Lina Streeper counted on her leaders, two-year-old Grace and seven-year-old Skeeds, during the comeback. The duo led her team throughout the Rondy, and she knew they’d do it again at the ONAC. “This is the shortest race for us all season,” Lina said. “The dogs weren’t tired. Not one bit.”
Lina said she and Buddy get all the credit, but recognized their success wouldn’t be possible without support, particularly from their daughters, Clara, 5, and Alva, 7. “They travel with us like champs,” Lina said.
Buddy Streeper said he’ll remember the 2018 ONAC as the year they finally took the top two spots. “We’ve been racing two teams in a lot of the big races for the last couple years, and never have we ever swept the North American.”
The Streepers head to Fairbanks to win each March, but others were happy just to be there. Crittenden was the fastest rookie, finishing 11th place with a total time of 250:14.5. She was happy and said she can’t wait for her next mushing adventure in Alaska. “We had a great season,” she said. “We accomplished all the goals we wanted to accomplish.”
The race course covers 20.3 miles for the first two days, 27.83 miles for Day 3.
Results (total time in minutes):
- Buddy Streeper, 235:30.6
- Lina Streeper, 237:00.3
- Michael Tetzner, 238:07
- Amy Dunlap, 240:57.9
- Mark Hartum, 240:58.5
- Marvin Kokrine, 22:11.8
- Ken Chezik, 243:22.1
- John Erhart, 245:20.1
- Greg Taylor, 245:26.1
- Emilie Entrikin, 245:32.2
- Alix Crittenden (R), 250:14.5
- Andria Bond, 251:27.9
- Don Cousins, 253:17.7
- Jennifer Sterling, 255:30.3
- Tommy Bird, 256:41.3
- Nikki Seo, 260:39.4
- James Wheeler, 261:42
- Evan Hahn, 262:15.5
- Doug Butler (R), 262:53.5
- Bob Chlupach, 300:30.3
Scratches: Rob Peebles, Armin Johnson (R)