MOULTONBOROUGH — Keith Bryar Jr. had a talent for sled-dog racing like no other in the Lakes Region, and a set of instincts that set him apart from most of his peers in New Hampshire and New England.
Bryar, who lost his long battle with leukemia last Saturday night at the age of 57, knew dogs, especially sled dogs. The son of two dog-sled racers, he was the dominant driver in the World Championship Sled Dog Derby in Laconia for more than three decades.
If there was a face that represented the Laconia races over the years, it was Bryar’s, so much so that in 1985, when derby officials had promotional buttons made up to promote the derby, the buttons featured Bryar’s broad, smiling face.
Derby president Jim Lyman said Laconians had grown used to seeing Bryar’s 6-foot-5 frame standing trailing a pack of 16 or more dogs, blowing past other teams on the city’s snowy tracks every year.
Next year, Lyman said, the derby will be named in Bryar’s honor.
“He was a great man, and he helped a lot of drivers get better just by racing with him,” Lyman said. “He always had so many great dogs. It’s not going to be the same without him.”
Besides being one of the race’s chief supporters and one of the city’s most prized athletes over the years, he and his dogs were dominant. His 60 or 70 world-class huskies placed in the top three in the Open Class races almost every year, no small feat in the region, said one of Bryar’s best friends, Peter Colbath, of Wolfeboro.
“A lot of us around here, we’d feel good if we had enough good dogs to put together one good racing team,” Colbath said.
“Keith knew dogs so well, it almost wasn’t fair,” he said. “He always had so many good dogs that winning for him would come down to which dogs he chose to leave on the truck on a particular day. Somehow he always knew which dogs to race, and exactly what order to race them in.”
Bryar placed in the Top 3 spots many times and won the derby twice, in 2002 and in 2011, just months after his leukemia diagnosis. He also was the Canadian Sled Dog Champion in 2005, during a year that Bryar toured Canada, winning several races against tough teams to the north.
He won a few races in Alaska over the years, and learned a lot racing against teams from that state. He told Alaska’s Mushing Magazine in 2010 that racing against Alaskan and Canadian teams made him better.
But he held his home and kennels in Moultonborough, and his stomping grounds in Laconia, in the highest esteem. He especially loved the derby when it was run in the city’s downtown area, he said in the Mushing interview.
“Laconia is an amazing race — you got dogs loose, you got cars on Main Street,” he said. “They have to keep one lane open so you’re running out on the right hand side yet you’re coming home on the left and you got cars trying to pull into businesses, cars on the trail, cars getting stuck. You got dogs barking at you. … It’s a wild-ass thing. It’s unbelievable.”
Colbath said Bryar seemed to be winning his battle with the disease last year, and planned to race in this winter’s derby. But in December, he got very sick, Colbath said. Earlier this month, when derby officials decided to cancel the event because of a lack of snow, Bryar was in his last days.
“We trained hard together last fall, just like we always did,” said Colbath, who was a dog-sled racer, too. “We thought he was going to be fine for this year’s race, but then he got very sick. It came as a surprise to everyone.”