Grande Prairie, Alberta
Most athletes at the Arctic Winter Games this week in Grande Prairie, Alberta, have won some and lost some.
Except Rachel Kinvig.
The Yukon musher has never lost.
For the second Arctic Games in a row, Kinvig swept the juvenile female competition, winning gold in all three races this week and all three in Yellowknife, NWT, in 2008. She’s now accumulated a total of six golds and is the most decorated female musher in Arctic Games history.
“I’m very proud of my dogs and myself and my coach,” said Kinvig, 13, who also set the course record, for males and females, in Tuesday’s race. “It just a perfect run (Tuesday) and my fifth dog did really good, pulled really hard and helped the team a lot.”
Kinvig’s teammate and brother, Ben Kinvig, was also a force to be reckoned with this week, winning two golds and a silver in the junior male division. Ben and Rachel’s final gold medals were earned together in the team event on Wednesday.
“The second day (stands out) because I almost lost my team; I kind of dumped on a corner and bounced back up,” said Ben. “That was pretty cool, I thought.
“I was totally on my side, getting dragged around the corner, but as I was going around the corner my sled popped back up onto my runners again. I got pretty lucky there.”
This week’s mushing events did not have the variety they were supposed to. Due to mild temperatures and some other unforeseen occurrences, teams were forced to run the same 4.5-kilometre course each of the three days of racing between Monday and Wednesday.
“When we got here they had the trails in at the Arctic Games distances, but then we had plus 10 (Celsius) and we lost the trail – just about all of it from the sun,” said Yukon mushing coach Darren Kinvig. “Then they logged out here and they took out trees and they (cleared sections of the trail) down to the black dirt.”
While the warm weather melted sections of the original trails, forcing organizers to shorten the races, the upside was shorter courses helped prevent dogs from overheating in the mild temperatures.
In fact, the Kinvig clan received a lesson in dogs overheating at the Junior World Championship Sled Dog Race in Anchorage last month. Racing in similar temperatures, Rachel in particular, running with young, heat-susceptible dogs, had to drop a dog during one race and needed to change lead dogs during the week because of the mild temperatures.
Taking the Anchorage experience into account, the Kinvigs devised a partial remedy to the situation, not just watering down the dogs prior to competition, but forcing water under the fur and onto the dog’s underside to keep it cool.
However, aside from developing cooling techniques, the trip to Anchorage, where Ben finished second and Rachel came fifth, helped prepare the dogs for mild weather in Grande Prairie, said Rachel.
“I think it helped because the dogs kind of got used to the heat while we were down there,” she said. “So they definitely went faster, and plus they shortened trail here, so that helped a lot.”
For Ben, Wednesday’s race marked the end of an era for the 16-year-old, deciding to leave the sport after winning nine Arctic Games medals over six years and also becoming a junior world champion in 2009.
“This is my last race, probably,” said Ben. “I’m moving on to other things – trying other things.
“I’m not sure (what I’ll do). I’ll find something (to compete in) in the next two years.”
This week has been so successful for the Kinvigs that even Darren brought home a medal, receiving the Fair Play Award. He showed great support for all the competing mushers and offered his expertise. Plus, Darren lent an entire dog team to Tristen Anthony Dias from Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, who won a bronze. In fact, the team he lent Dias included the lead dog Rachel used to win her three gold medals in the 2008 Games.
“We try to help them all and motivate them to stay in the sport,” said Darren. “We just want to see the sport continue – it’s a dying sport.”
Darren is especially concerned with creating a full team to represent the Yukon when Whitehorse hosts the Arctic Games in 2012. In the fall, at the trials, Ben and Rachel were the only ones to show up, leaving two spots unfilled on the Yukon team.
“We’ve worked really hard in the past to bring mushing to a new level and it’s been exhausting,” said Darren. “We need mushers now for the Games in the Yukon.”