On the trail, the Huskies on Richie Camden’s Breakaway Siberians sled dog team propel themselves through the snow, their eyes shining with purpose. In the living room, they flop on top of each other and go to sleep. Pets first and sled dogs second, this team of underdogs came together one rescue at a time.
They run for fun and came in last in their only competitive race last season, but the formation of Breakaway Siberians is the realization of a dream that began back when Richie was a one-dog guy. He and his first Siberian Husky, Koivu, were out rollerblading in the park one day when out of nowhere, Koivu came to a complete stop, nearly tripping Richie in the process.
“Five feet away from us was another Siberian Husky wearing what looked like a chewed-up leash,” says Richie, who hooked the other end of Koivu’s leash to the obviously lost dog, attaching the two Huskies.
“I turned around to go back to the car, hoping I would find that dog’s owner on the way back, and we just took off. The two dogs were just flying with each other.”
Richie says he remembers being pretty nervous as his rollerblades gathered speed beneath him, but at the same time he was impressed by the intuitive teamwork he was witnessing. The trio made it back to the parking lot and were able to track down the lost dog’s human, but Richie was a changed man.
“That was pretty much the moment when I realized I wanted to have a job where I could, one, work with Koivu and two, that it would be awesome to start a sled dog team,” he remembers.
Richie didn’t let the fact that he lives in St. Louis, Missouri — with its hot summers and slight snowfall — deter him from going after a dream more geographically suited to Alaska.
He went back to school to become a dog trainer, and while completing required shelter volunteer hours, he noticed Siberian Huskies were not in short supply in rescue. When he started dating his future wife, Leah, Richie told her how he wanted to create a sled dog team from rescued Siberian Huskies. In 2010, the couple adopted their first rescued Siberian, Fleury, from Indy Homes for Huskies.
Over the course of the next year, Koivu and Fleury became best friends and teammates. The two Huskies did everything together, and Richie says when it was time to add a new team member from Indy Homes For Huskies in 2012, the two pals weren’t impressed.
“When Spezza came, they kind of shunned him a little bit. They didn’t open up and receive him very well.”
A former stray, Spezza was shy and timid, more so around Richie than Leah.
“He instantly took to Leah. Still to this day, the way he looks at Leah is just with so much love in his eyes — and he finally looks at me that way too, now.”
It took time to build the trust that helped now 6-year-old Spezza gain confidence, but with love, attention and teamwork, he was able to find his role. Richie says he’s come such a long way, not just as a sled dog, but also as a house pet and the official welcoming committee of the Breakaway Siberians.
“Whenever we adopt a new dog, he is always the first one to accept them and take them in. It’s almost as if he introduces himself, and then takes them around and introduces him to the team,” Richie explains.
Over the last several years, Spezza has welcomed 10 more teammates into the household. Dogs who were surrendered because they were destructive when crated now thrive under Richie’s regiment of long runs and routine.
The roster now includes 13 Siberian Huskies, including Koivu’s sister Mikko, and Balto, who was originally Leah’s sister’s dog. The rest of the sled dogs — Kaiya, Roenick, Marleau, Backes, Bure, Mandy, Chara and Cookie — have come from rescues, including Free Spirit Siberian Rescue, Dogingham Palace Rescue, Gunner’s Run Rescue, Raven’s Husky Haven and Rescue, Dog Saver, Texas Husky Rescue, Adopt A Husky and Indy Homes for Huskies. Leah’s Pomeranian, Bebe, serves as honorary team coach.
Despite (by Richie’s own admission) having no chance of beating the Alaskan teams, the Breakaway Siberians recently picked up a sponsorship by Diamond Naturals. These professional athletes may never win a race, but they’ll always be the happiest team on the trail.