When the Kinvig clan arrived in Fairbanks, Alaska, for the 2010 Junior World Championship Sled Dog Race, they received a positive omen. On the front pages of Alaska newspapers was the smiling face of Yukon Quest winner Hans Gatt, who crossed the finish line with a lead dog named Kinvig that Gatt bought from the family as a pup.
However, Gatt’s success did not guarantee top results for the Kinvigs and the weather made sure of that.
While Gatt’s win appeared auspicious for the Kinvig crew, mild temperatures, reaching over six-degrees Celsius on the first day of races, produced problems for Whitehorse mushers Ben and Rachel Kinvig – perhaps more than the acclimatized local teams.
“That’s kind of our training cut off,” said Ben and Rachel’s coach and father Darren Kinvig. “Here, if it’s that warm, we won’t even bother running the dogs, because they’re trained to run so fast and hard, the heat just knocks them right off their feet.
“If you continue to train in the heat all the time, which is a way for the dogs get used to it, the dogs learn to slow down.”
Competing in the seven-dog, eight-mile division, Ben, the defending junior world champ, finished second in his three races for second overall.
“I had older dogs, so it was easier for them,” said the 16-year-old. “This was fine, but I could have been first if it hadn’t been for the weather. (The Alaskans) had more training in the warm weather because we had cooler weather over the winter.”
The mild temperatures were much more a problem with Rachel, whose team was made up of yearlings, which are more susceptible to overheating.
In her three races in the five-dog, six-mile division, the 13-year-old, had two fifth-place finishes and one fourth-place finish. Matching her result from last year, Rachel finished fifth overall.
“Yearlings have less heat resistance built into their bodies because they are so young and they don’t know enough, like an adult does, to slow down a bit, to pace themselves,” said Darren. “What the younger dogs do, if it’s hot or not, is they take off as hard as they can and suddenly they’re hot out on the trail.”
Off to a bad start, on the opening day of racing Rachel had to drop her lead dog during her first race.
“I’d have a leader and he would get hot and slow the whole team down, so I’d have to stop and pull him back out,” said Rachel. “It was a slow run and the trail was slushy.”
As a more long-term result of the temperature, after a day of racing in the uncomfortable conditions some of the dogs lost the desire to race. This forced Rachel to switch lead dogs, not just during a race, but through the week, as well.
“It turns them off; they don’t want to run, they don’t want to lead,” said Darren. “They don’t have that edge to drive and be ahead of the dog team because the heat turned them off the first day.”
The same team of yearlings racing during the Christmas break in Anchorage was running the six-mile trail in about 17-and-a-half minutes, said Darren. That’s faster than last week’s roughly 19-minute runs completed by the eventual winner of Rachel’s division.
“I learnt a lot about the heat tolerance difference between adults and yearlings,” he said. “It’s a big difference.
“Ben had most of the older dogs because the older dogs will run a little bit farther.”
The two Yukon mushers will make up the dog sledding team representing the Yukon at the Arctic Winter Games next week in Grande Prairie, Alberta, facing much of the same competition.
“We went (to Anchorage) at Christmas and beat all of them, and then we went back in the heat and they all beat us, so it’s going to be interesting what happens,” said Darren. “We were racing as many races as we could find so those yearlings would get some experience.
“Colder would be good, but it was an advantage being there racing in the heat because now we’ve built some heat tolerance in the teams.”
At the 2008 Arctic Games, on a team of four junior Yukon mushers, Rachel swept the competition, winning three gold medals, while Ben won a gold and a bronze.
Last March at the Junior North American Championships in Fairbanks, Alaska, Rachel finished first in the four-dog event while Ben took third in the six-dog competition.
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