Junior mushers take the long road to the Arctic Games

With just one veteran musher returning to the Arctic Winter Games in March in Yellowknife, and three rookies possibly making the trip, Yukon’s…

With just one veteran musher returning to the Arctic Winter Games in March in Yellowknife, and three rookies possibly making the trip, Yukon’s dog mushing team is looking a bit green.

Ben Kinvig and his dogs took a gold ulu and a pair of bronzes at the 2006 Arctic Games in Kenai, Alaska. Sophia Daniels won a silver for Yukon in Kenai as well, but isn’t returning to the team.

Four mushers, Ben and younger sister Rachel Kinvig, Jeff Diment and Eilidh Lucas competed this weekend on the Copper Haul Road for the Arctic Games trials.

Lucas was the only competitor in the junior division (14-19 years old) and ran her six-dog team over the 15-kilometres on Saturday (52:27) and Sunday (1:27:09).

In a surprise twist, Rachel Kinvig posted the best combined time in the juvenile (11-14) division over the two days. She ran the five-kilometre route with her four-dog team in 9:24 on Saturday, and 9:42 on Sunday.

Ben Kinvig, also running four dogs, completed the five-kilometres in 10 minutes flat on the first day, and bounced back with a 9:30 time on Sunday.

“I’m usually training eight to 10 dogs, and I’ll take the best six to the Arctic Games,” said Ben.

Rookie Jeffrey Diment, running a team from his grandfather Ian Campbell’s kennel, had some trouble early in his first race, when his leader turned the team around, taking them back to the starting line.

Diment hopped back on the sled and finished in a time of 27 minutes. Things improved considerably on the second day, when he finished the five kilometres in 11:35.

With the team set, and two and a half months to go before the Arctics, there’s plenty of time for these local mushers to get their teams in shape.

The Kinvigs have a fairly hectic schedule leading up to the Games, with races in Northern BC, Fairbanks and Anchorage before March.

The Kinvig family is used to being on the road — in fact, that’s where they like to be.

“We’re all set up to do this,” said Darren Kinvig, Ben and Rachel’s father and also Team Yukon’s mushing coach. He pointed to his truck with a dog box trailer and sleds lashed to the top. “Everyone’s all together, the dogs are with us — it’s really fun being out there.”

It’s fortunate that they enjoy it, because Kinvig estimated that the trip to Yellowknife will take around 24 hours of driving, depending on how many bison are crowding the highway.

In many ways, the Arctic Winter Games dog mushing competition stands apart from the rest of the events at the circumpolar, biannual gathering.

The most obvious difference is, of course, the dogs. While skiers can put their skis on the plane and fly, and wrestlers can doff their boots after the match — mushers travel to, and live with, their dogs during the Games.

“We don’t get to stop our sport at the end of the day, with the dogs it’s 24/7,” said Darren. “The mushing kids don’t get to fly with the team, and arrive with all the hurrah that goes with that.”

It’s also a sport that isn’t easy to get into — most junior mushers come from mushing families — Darren used to race himself, and now focuses on the junior racers.

Lucas’ parents are also mushers, and organize the Copper Haul Twister League.

“This sport requires a huge amount of parental support,” said Darren. “That’s one of the reasons we started the junior association of mushers— we wanted to have a bit of a support for kids that wanted to get a foot in the door, otherwise, where are you going to start?

“You can’t start with a 1000-mile race. You’ve got to start here, with sprint racing,” he said, adding that Yukon mushing is more focused on long-distance, endurance style racing.

In comparison, the Alaskan mushing scene has a wide variety of races, from sprints to the long Iditarod, and a lot more opportunities for young mushers to get competitive experience.

For Ben, it’s all about the speed and excitement of sprint distances. When asked if he’d like to eventually run the Yukon Quest, he said, “Not really — I like the short races.”