Grande Prairie dog sledder taking on Iditarod race
Aaron Peck wants to become the first Canadian to win the historic multi-day dog race through Alaska
An Alberta man is training to compete in the Iditarod, a multi-day dog sled race that spans 1,600 kilometres across Alaska.
Aaron Peck trains up to six hours a day, four days a week, mushing his team of eight huskies across farmers' fields around Grande Prairie, Alta.
No Canadian has ever won the historic Anchorage-to-Nome race, which started in the 1970s as a way to preserve the fading sled dog culture.
Peck wants to be the first.
"It's a lofty goal," Peck said. "And to even say it out loud, I don't know if that jinxes me or makes me crazy, but it's been a dream of mine since I was a boy."
Peck started mushing at age 13, after watching the Iditarod on TV.
"It caught my imagination," he said. "The allure of travelling across Alaska with your dogs fascinated me."
In 2000, Peck completed the Iditarod for the first time.
His team ran day and night for more than a week, sleeping six hours at a time in sub-zero temperatures on piles of straw scattered on the snow.
"It was exhilarating. It was scary. It was everything," Peck recalled. "It's hard to remember all the details but we made it."
It was exhilarating, it was scary, it was everything.- Aaron Peck, Canadian dog sledder
Peck has competed in the international event three times since, most recently in 2013.
"I have stepped away from it a couple times only to find myself missing it," he said. "It's part of who I am, really. It's in me."
Now 38, Peck said he is getting serious about winning the race.
He started training his team in 2017 but said it can take dogs and their musher up to five consecutive years to learn the trail well enough to win.
"You may have the team that's capable of winning but then it comes down to your decision-making during the race," Peck said. "There's so many things that can change the outcome of the race."
He hopes to lead the pack by 2022.
"I have a track record of doing well at races so I imagine that within a certain amount of time we would be edging toward the front of the Iditarod."
Peck placed second in his most recent competition, the Caledonia Classic Sled Dog Race, a 200-mile marathon in Fort St. James, B.C.
He also won the 2017 Canadian Challenge Dog Sled Race, a qualifier for the Iditarod.
"There's not too many people who get to win the Iditarod," Peck said. "The odds are low but I am hopeful. It is possible."
'There have been bad apples'
Peck is one of 68 mushers registered for the 2018 Iditarod. Eight others have withdrawn from the race, including four-time Iditarod winner Dallas Seavey.
Seavey pulled out of the competition in protest against allegations he used a banned substance on his animals.
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Dogs on Seavey's team tested positive for the opioid painkiller Tramadol during routine testing at the end of the 2017 Iditarod. Seavey denied responsibility, instead suggesting he had been sabotaged by a competitor or by animal rights activists.
The sport has come under fire in recent years from groups including PETA, which publicly called for an end to the Iditarod last year.
A 2016 documentary, Sled Dogs, triggered much of the backlash against competitive mushers and dog-sledding businesses, Peck said.
The film included scenes about a B.C. man charged with inhumanely killing more than 50 sled dogs after the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
"There have been bad apples in the past that have put a black eye on this lifestyle and there's people putting us all in that category," Peck said.
"It's really hard to cope with that sometimes when you know there's a part of the population that's looking at you as being cruel to your animals when it's absolutely not true."
Peck said his dogs, Alaskan huskies, are working animals that have been bred over decades to live outdoors and pull sleds.
"The majority of us out there who have sled dogs deeply love our dogs and we care for them and we can see how much our dogs love to do what they do," Peck said.
If he wins the Iditarod, Peck said he wants to use the platform to share his passion for mushing with young Canadians.
"To get outside and work with your hands and work with animals and feel what it is like to come up against some adversity and some challenges.
"What it's like to have your hands cold and to feel some of these things out there that aren't so comfortable, and then overcoming it," Peck said.
"It's like an art that can slip away," he added. "I'm happy and proud to be carrying on that tradition."
The 2018 Iditarod race begins March 3 in Anchorage, Alaska.