The Open North American Championship sled dog race comes to a close

Salcha musher Amy Dunlap lets a spectator pet one of her dogs after the race.
(Photo by Robyne / KUAC)

Roxy Wright won the Open North American Championship sled dog race in Fairbanks over the weekend.  The hometown favorite was followed by defending ONAC champ Buddy Steeper of British Columbia, and his wife Lina Steeper, in the three stage, 70 mile sprint competition.

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This is the fourth time 66-year old Roxy Wright has won both of Alaska’s two big sprint races in the same year. (1989, 1992, 1993 and 2017.) That’s the Open North American in Fairbanks and the Fur Rendezvous Open World Championship in Anchorage. But she had a two-decade gap – Wright retired from sprint mushing in 1996 and didn’t expect to compete again. Until last year when she entered the Open North American and came in second, behind Buddy Steeper. This year she won by 24 seconds.

Race Marshal Mike McGowan said the third day really mattered this year. Going into Sunday’s heat, Roxy Wright held a 20-seconds lead over last year’s champion Buddy Steeper, who was two minutes ahead of Salcha rookie Amy Dunlap.

“This race this year turned into one of the best races, competition-wise, that we’ve had in a long time,” McGowan said.

A clear sky and temperatures around 20 degrees Fahrenheit kept the dogs from over-heating and the fans happy at Jeff Studdert Race Grounds. Friday and Saturday’s course was 20 miles long, but Sunday’s is nearly 30 miles.

On the third day, the starting order is reversed, with the slowest team going out first.

It makes for a lot of passing as faster teams catch up. So at the end of Sunday’s heat, seven fast teams all came across the finish line within three minutes of each other.

“Emilie Entrikin is over, welcome home, Emilie Don Cousins…the Cripple Creek, Alberta musher is over the finish line… John Erhart from Tanana… Buddy Steeper passing on the fly, right there on the corner, he is roaring in here,” The announcer said. “James Wheeler is over, and we have Michael Tetzner in the finishing chute now and roaring up the hill, here comes Roxy Wright.”

That quote was edited for time. And what wasn’t said was Amy Dunlap’s fast team standing still, within sight of the finish line, while others passed her.

Until the last minutes of the race, fans spent Sunday afternoon watching Dunlap zing through checkpoints. She started the day in third place, but made up enough time … to have fans madly calculating to see if she would knock Buddy Steeper out of second place. But Sunday’s longer 28-mile heat may have caught her lead dog by surprise.

“I had a really good run, but my leader got tired coming home,” Dunlap said. “I had to load him, and it kind of went haywire from there.”

Dunlap lost all her made up time and more to drop to fifth place.