Dogsled racing about family and friends

Jodi Schellenberg
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Mushing isn’t just about racing -- it’s about family and friends.

Warren Palfrey, the winner of the Canadian Challenge 12-dog race, is presented a trophy by president Gill Gracie during the musher’s breakfast on Saturday.

After and intense week of racing, mushers from the Canadian Challenge Sled Dog Race shared their stories of being out on the trail during a musher’s breakfast on Saturday at the Prince Albert Inn.

The first place winner of the 12-dog race was Warren Palfrey, a long-time musher from Quesnel, B.C., who finished in the early morning hours on Friday. His son, Sam Palfrey, came in second arriving later that day close to 2 p.m.

“It was a great race,” Warren said. “We just had a wonderful time out there. It was a magic carpet ride for the season.”

Throughout the years, Warren has competed in a lot of races, including the Iditarod and Yukon Quest. He said the Canadian Challenge is a great race.

“I’ve done a lot of races in my career and this definitely tops a lot of them -- it was just a great time that the dogs had and I had,” Warren said.

The last time he raced in the Canadian Challenge was about 10 years ago and a lot has changed since then for the better, he said. The trail was amazing, the checkpoints were great and everyone was very hospitable.

“The sincerity of all the volunteers and the race officials really sets this race apart from many others,” Warren said.

Since Warren has been racing for many years, Sam has always been around dogs and racing.

“I have been around dogs my whole life so I have always followed him around to all his races and I’m now started my own,” Sam said.

Warren said Sam’s team was a last-minute entry.

“It was only a few weeks ago we decided to field another team,” Warren said. “We didn’t feel we had enough dogs to do two full teams. He was even going to potentially start the race with maybe 10 dogs, which would have been fine, but we were able to get 12.”

Fielding two competitive teams was one of their race goals, he said.

“We felt, with the competition here, with Gerry (Walker), Rick (Wannamaker) and Bart (de Marie), that it was going to be pretty tough to beat their teams with our second team,” Warren said. “I was definitely coming to win for sure, that was my main goal. I raced the whole race with that mantra. Even though I was way ahead, I kept my race schedule and continued to follow my race plan.”

He was impressed with how well Sam did in the race, as he had some semi-retired dogs that were trained earlier in the season but weren’t trained with the main race pool throughout the winter.

“It is just so nice to see those older dogs still competing,” Warren said. “Managing them properly is paramount. You have to be very diligent in the way that you race them and Sam did an excellent job of doing that. It was a testament to him and his team management to get those three older dogs to the finish line.”

Sam was also proud to come in second after his father, echoing Warren’s feelings.

“We were planning for him to have a really good team and finish first. Myself as the second team, just doing the best I can, so it was a big plus coming in second,” Sam said. “I have a lot of old veterans on my team and young dogs. I knew all the old guys could do it so I’m really happy with them.”

Warren is proud to see his son following in his footsteps and completing his first long distance race.

“It was great to have him out here,” Warren said. “I think he enjoyed it and I know he got pretty tired but as we all do get tired and the volunteers get tired.

“It was kind of neat to see him out there and overcome all of those obstacles, the weather and all the other things that make this Canadian Challenge a challenge,” he added. “Attrition rate can be pretty high in this race historically and it was great to see him persevere and keep a positive attitude and just get to the finish line.”

The Palfreys weren’t the only family to have more than one competitor participating in the Canadian Challenge -- husband and wife Jason and Jennifer Campeau from Okotoks, Alta., both raced with Jason in the 12-dog and Jennifer in the open.

“It was great -- I had a really good time and it was a really well run race,” said Jennifer, who came in first in the open. “The dogs did really well. I had a team of yearlings that were training and they did fantastic and did really good at the end of the race.”

Jason came in third in the 12-dog race and was using the Canadian Challenge as a qualifier for the Iditarod.

“The fact they are qualifiers is a huge opportunity for us younger mushers -- not that I am that young -- but starting out and trying to get to the big races,” Jason said.

The family moved out to Alberta two years ago and got into mushing because they were looking for a sport the whole family could enjoy.

“We have always had dogs and loved being out experiencing the wilderness with them,” Jennifer said. “It just made sense to us. Now that we are in it, it is something that we can all do.”

The couple has twin girls who also get involved with the dogs.

“They are young but eventually our goal is to have a race where all four of us are racing one day,” Jennifer said. “It would be lots of fun.”

Not only is their immediate family involved, but Jason’s sister and father flew out from Ottawa to be their dog handlers.

“We wouldn’t have been able to do this race without them and I know handling is -- there is not a lot of glory (but) a lot of running around and picking up dog remains and straw,” Jason said. “I know it isn’t always a fun job but I thank you guys very much from the bottom of my heart.”

Jason is also hoping to see their girls race in the Canadian Challenge on day.

“I am hoping the girls in a year or two will be entering and competing against each other as identical twins (in a couple years),” he laughed.

With four families working together and putting teams in the race, the mushers all agreed that family is important.

“That is what this sport is about because one musher and no family support you are not going anywhere,” Jason said. “You need friends and family to be there for you and surround yourself with great people who understand what you are trying to accomplish.”

Friendship was another big theme of the Canadian Challenge this year, with many amazing stories being told.

Wannamaker and Walker both came to the finish line at the same time, tying for fourth place in the 12-dog race.

Last year, after competing in the Canadian Challenge, Wannamaker was diagnosed with cancer and didn’t think he would be able to train a team this year.

His friend Walker decided he could train two teams so they both could compete in the race.

Although Wannamaker claims Walker did all the heavy lifting, Walker said Wannamaker still helped out a lot.

“He would drive six hours to my place on the weekend and we would have back-to-back runs. He did his part,” Walker said.

The two didn’t intend to run the race together, but had a lot of fun together.

“He is probably the most fun to be around,” Walker said about Wannamaker. “It was a super fun thing. We didn’t plan on running together. We had very evenly matched teams.”

Another friendship was between Jason and his training partner Christopher Wall from Linden, Alta., who won the eight-dog race. Their training sessions were a challenge this year, due to the problems the Calgary region faced last summer.

“We had major flood in the Calgary area -- that is where we are both doing most of our training,” Jason said. “The trails we trained on last year that were phenomenal were washed out and completely gone. Every bridge, every crossing was no longer there.”

They both did their best and although there were a lot of repairs their perseverance was rewarded in this race.

“I was thinking on the runners that it really is a sport that takes a lot of mental strain,” Jason said. “I congratulate the mushers in the room, whether you are doing six-dog, eight-dog or 12-dog. The fortitude that you have not only to be eager to race but what goes into it -- the money, the food, the work ethic, everything.”

Jason looks up to mushers like Warren and hopes to one day be as good as Warren.

“I look at a guy like Warren, who I consider a professional and being able to put on the miles he does and train the way he does and have the type of kennel he does, that is what it is all about,” Jason said. “Being able to work towards that perfect run is what it is all about and something I strive to do one day. It is a lot of work and I think that is what I like most about this sport is that you set goals and set targets and go after them.”

The mushers all extended a hand of friendship out to the 2014 Saskatchewan Winter Games athletes, who came to the start of the race, Prince Albert Mayor Greg Dionne said.

“We invited the athletes down to the opening of the games and they showed up in droves,” Dionne said. “I appreciate some of the mushers who had them help with the dog teams. Those athletes are still talking about that event.”

This year, the city saw the largest crowd it has ever had at the Canadian Challenge starting line.

“Thank you all for coming to our community and certainly thank you for this event,” Dionne said. “This has been a great event from our young athletes that joined our city, you certainly gave them all good memories. I look forward to seeing you all next year.”

The mushers were all proud to be a part of the Canadian Challenge.

“Thanks to the City of Prince Albert and northern Saskatchewan for hosting us out of province mushers and hosting this event,” Warren said. “It was a great event. I will definitely be looking to spread the word to other mushers at Iditarod that I talk to in the next couple weeks and try to entice more teams to come here because I think that is the only part of the equation this race doesn’t have is more participation.

“There is no reason why that shouldn’t be the case because you have a trail, you have a purse and you have awesome race organization -- all you need is some more mushers to participate and it is amazing.”


Winners of the 2014 Canadian Challenge 

The winners of the 12-dog race were:

First: Warren Palfrey of Quesnel, B.C.

Second: Sam Palfrey of Quesnel, B.C.

Third: Jason Campeau of Okotoks, Alta.

Fourth: Rick Wannamaker of Didsbury, Alta. and Gerry Walker of Pierceland, Sask.

Red Lantern: Sid Robinson of La Ronge

The winners of the eight-dog race were:

First: Christopher Wall of Linden, Alta.

Second: Jillian Lawton of Red Deer, Alta.

Third: Steve Taylor of Rocky Mountain House, Alta.

Fourth: Luke Naber of Shellbrook

Fifth: Anna Bolvin of Porcupine Plain

Red Lantern: Jackie Wepruk of Lacombe, Alta.

The winners of the open race were:

First: Jennifer Campeau of Okotoks, Alta.

Second Stijn Bouckenooghe of Vilvoorde, Belgium

The winners of the vet award were Jackie Wepruk and Rick Wannamaker

Organizations: Canadian Challenge Sled Dog Race, Prince Albert Inn

Geographic location: Quesnel, Iditarod, Okotoks Alberta Linden Calgary Ottawa Saskatchewan Prince Albert Northern Saskatchewan Didsbury Pierceland La Ronge Red Deer Rocky Mountain House Porcupine Plain Vilvoorde Belgium

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