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Mushing a break-even business

Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Mar 30/05) - To be successful in dog sled racing nowadays, mushers need to be as savvy in the boardroom as they are on the trail.

"There are maybe 20 kennels that do it for a living - the rest do it for fun," said Sam Perrino, a Yellowknife racer who has gone further in the sport than most, having competed in the Iditarod.

When it comes to the business of dog sledding, Yellowknife's Grant Beck is one of the best. Even so, he says mushers need to do tours, sell dogs and other things to make ends meet. -Stephan Burnett/NNSL photo

Operating as a competitive musher is not cheap.

The cost of buying a team of sled dogs starts at about $8,000 and goes up from there.

It costs about $400 a year to feed a dog - so on average a team of 10 will eat through $4,000 of chow.

A good sled will last three to four years and costs about $3,000.

And that's to say nothing of travel and accommodation costs to races in places like the Yukon, Alaska and Europe.

Most of the pros are either Alaskan or European, he said, adding most competitive Canadian mushers are lucky to break even.

There are, however, bucks to be made in several areas for dog sledders in the know.

The most obvious source of income for a competitive racer is by ending up in the winner's circle at the end of the race.

"You have to get into the big races where overall prize money can be as high as $750,000," said Grant Beck of Beck Kennels, thought of in Canadian mushing circles as one of the most successful people in the business.

The big purses are at events like the Iditarod, several races in Europe and one in Jackson Hole, Wyo., he said.

Winner of the 50th Annual Canadian Championship Dog Derby, Fort Nelson, B.C.'s Buddy Streeper, is one of the hottest prospects on the mushing scene.

Since turning pro five years ago he's racked up about $300,000 in prize money.

"But I've also nearly won every race as well," he said, explaining prize money alone is not enough to sustain most dog sledders.

Winning, however, opens up another key source of revenue for the racers: Sponsorship.

Steeper's truck looks more like a European hockey player's helmet emblazoned with all of the logos of his corporate backers.

From dog food to his sled, there are companies paying him big bucks for endorsement deals.

Sponsors important

Top dog sled racers say you can make as much as $80,000 a year if you land the right sponsors.

"It's much like car racing, everyone's trying to get the Number 1 player," said Beck.

For many mushers, one of their key sources of revenue supporting competitive efforts is breeding and selling sled dogs.

Streeper and his father Terry run Streeper Kennels.

The company has sold almost 200 dogs over the last four years, with some animals fetching as much as $10,000 apiece.

He said the average racing dog is worth between $1,000 and $2,000.

In Yellowknife, Beck Kennels also earns a fair penny selling dogs."The pups go for $500 apiece," said Beck.

Beck's location gives him another ace in the hole as far as revenue goes.

Tourists visiting Yellowknife in winter expect to take a ride on a dog sled as part of their experience.

Beck estimates he's picked up 80 per cent to 90 per cent of mushing tied to the aurora tour business.

"When you bring in 10,000 Japanese it means quite a lot," he said.