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Hillsboro man mushing his way to happiness

by Joe Holleman

HILLSBORO • Hard to say for sure, but Richie Camden may be the greatest sled-dog racer in Jefferson County history.
Training with little money, less snow and a dog team that includes a Gordon setter, Camden leaves this week to compete in a 90-mile mush in Marquette, Mich.

This will be Camden’s third race on snow. He made an inauspicious, by his own account, debut last February in Marquette. Then in December, he finished a 44-mile race in Montana.

Has anyone told him this all sounds crazy?

“Pretty much everyone, including my mom,” said Camden, 28, a dog trainer and dog day care supervisor at Murphy Animal Hospital in High Ridge.

“But when I see how happy it makes the dogs and how good it is for their health, I just want to keep doing it,” Camden said.

Camden lives in Hillsboro with his girlfriend, Leah Dasal, and seven of the team’s eight dogs, in a house with five acres and not enough bedrooms.

“It’s all on a ‘first come, first served’ basis for the one bed, and that includes Leah and me,” he said. “And sometimes, we get there late.”

THE EARLY YEARS

He was born in Affton to Kevin and Barb Camden. The family moved to Iowa and then Illinois. He played hockey in high school and at the club level at Northern Michigan University. Did something spark the interest there, maybe studying animal science or a similar subject?
“I majored in film studies and minored in writing,” Camden said. “I figured I’d move to L.A., become a film editor.”

In a hint to his current passion, he opted not to move out West because he didn’t want to leave someone Football behind. “I couldn’t afford an apartment in L.A. that allowed dogs,” Camden said. “And I’d bought a Siberian Husky puppy, Koivu, and I didn’t want to leave him. He’s like a best friend.”

Camden moved back in with his parents, who had returned to St. Louis. He worked at Circuit City but realized he had a knack for handling dogs. He learned to train them and pitched his idea of day care for dogs to Dr. Shannon Flegle and her husband, Jeff, who own the animal hospital.

“We’d been thinking about starting a day care operation, and then Richie walked in and told us how he would do it. It’s been a great success,” Shannon Flegle said.

Jeff Flegle said working with Camden is easy. “He’s the all-American kid: polite, hardworking, wholesome. That’s Richie.”

THE RACING BUG

To stay in shape, Camden likes to inline skate. One night in 2010, Camden was out rolling with Koivu on a leash. Koivu, like most of his dogs, is named for a National Hockey League player.
“Koivu’s dad was a sled dog, which was cool. But I never gave it too much thought,” he said.

A stray Husky ran up and wanted to play. So Camden rigged the dog to Koivu’s leash and they both began pulling.“It was awesome,” Camden said. “With two dogs, you can get some decent Cat speed going.”

Camden found the stray’s owner, but the mushing bug had bitten. He began checking rescue shelters and slowly built a team.

“I picked up Fleury, and he was a total nightmare. I tried to get him to pull, but all he wanted to do was sniff and pee,” Camden said. Eventually, Koivu and Fleury began working together to pull Camden on trails and roads. Then Camden rescued Spezza, Roenick, Chara and Mandy.

Mandy? No hockey-player name? “Well, she was older and already answered to Mandy. And she’s more than a little crazy, so I just left her alone.”

Camden also laid out $400 for a sled and $300 on harnesses and rigging.

To fill out the team, Camden borrowed two of the Flegles’ rescue dogs: Jared, the Gordon setter, and Sophie, a retriever mix.

Camden said Jared is still on the team “and does really well for not being a sled-dog breed. But Sophie, she likes the first mile. Then she just turns around and comes back to me to get petted.”

THE RACE IS ON

Last February, Camden, Dasal and the dogs all piled into an SUV to drive to the race in Marquette. Upon arrival, Camden thought for the first time, “Maybe everyone’s right. I might have gotten in way over my head.”
The parking lot was filled with customized trucks with separate compartments for each dog. “They had the names of the dogs printed above the compartments, and the trucks had storage areas for food and all the rigging.

“And here we were, Leah and me, with the dogs rolling out of a Yukon and us sneaking them up to our third-floor hotel room because we couldn’t afford to board them,” he said.

If Camden wasn’t totally intimidated by then, he was when he talked to other competitors.

“One guy asked me how many training miles we had, and I lied. We had 100 miles, but I said 200. Then he tells me his team had 2,000. I thought, ‘uh-oh.’”

After two miles in that cheap jerseys first 90-mile event, a race marshal suggested they drop out and take part in the next day’s 30-mile “fun run.”

They did, and finished. “I was real happy with that,” he said.

In December, Camden took the team to Dream a 44-mile race in Montana. With seven dogs (Sophie had officially retired), Camden finished ninth out of 15 teams.

And that is his goal for this next race, to finish with all of his dogs. “I’ve added an eighth, Cookie, who I’ll probably rename after a hockey Buying player,” he said.

Camden admitted some people question using dogs this way. But people forget Huskies were bred for sledding, he said.

“Some of my dogs, being wholesale mlb jerseys rescue dogs, had some aggression problems. But since they’ve been sledding, that’s all changed,” Camden said, adding that a race official in Montana said he had “the happiest team on the trail.”

“To be honest, that was probably the best compliment of my life. Because in the end, it’s about the dogs and not the race,” he said. “And I can guarantee you these dogs have never been in better shape.”

He also noted that all races require dogs to be examined by an on-site veterinarian. “They check them before you start, at checkpoints, and when the race is over,” he said.

And mushers, Camden opined, are among the world’s greatest dog lovers. “One of the teams we met up in Michigan actually named their two kids after their favorite dogs,” he said.

With no visions of Iditarod victories in his future, Camden said he will race his dogs “as long as they want to.”

“When they quit having fun, that’s it,” Camden said. “And they won’t be going back to shelters. They’re my pets, they’re part of our family.”

Camden plans to visit schools to tell children about sled-dog racing and adopting rescue dogs.

“I think the thing I’m most proud of is that seven of the eight dogs came from rescue shelters. These are dogs that now have homes,” he said.

If there is one thing Camden would change, it would be his number of sponsors.

“The Flegles cover my entry fees (usually $100 or more). But I’m working on getting a dog-food sponsor, to save money. I pay $27 for a 33-pound bag. But to get that price, I have to buy it by the pallet. That’s 65 bags.

“I spend a lot cheap jerseys of money on dog food.”