Stan Njootli has been driving dogs all his life.
“Ever since I can remember, I was in the toboggan with my mother hauling me out there going out to Crow Flats,” said Njootli.
“When we used to check the muskrat traps, I was just a little kid, I don’t hardly remember. I’ve been driving dogs for a long time.”
The Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation member wants kids in Old Crow to have the same access to the traditional activity that he had while growing up in the North Yukon community.
So, to raise mushing’s profile in Old Crow, and raise the community’s profile in the mushing world, Njootli is organizing a sled dog race.
It would run from Eagle Plains to Old Crow and back — a journey of more than 500 kilometres.
Creating a new race is an idea that’s been batted around for years, said Njootli.
But Daryl Sheepway, who relocated to Old Crow three months ago to become the community steward, was the catalyst Njootli needed to make the race a reality.
“I ran the idea by Daryl and he got interested so I just jumped on it and we started talking about how the race would work and how practical it was,” said Njootli.
And the idea took off from there.
“The idea is to promote dog mushing as a traditional activity in the town,” said Sheepway.
“Mushing is as much a traditional activity as hunting caribou or trapping and it’s something that’s been dying off in recent years.
“People are using dogs less and less, so we’re trying to revive dog mushing for the town and promote healthy, active lifestyles.”
Njootli has tentatively dubbed the race the Vuntut 300. Vuntut comes from the name of the aboriginal people who call Old Crow home, the Vuntut Gwitchin, and it means “people of the lakes” in the Gwitch’in language.
The number 300 comes from an estimate of the race’s length, which will run about 160 miles each way from Eagle Plains to Old Crow and back.
(Appropriately, Old Crow’s population is 300.)
Mushing is big in the Yukon and it’s gathering followers nationally and internationally, said Sheepway, who has been running dogs in the Yukon for four years.
“But we don’t really have that much for long-distance races.”
With the 340-kilometre Percy de Wolfe Memorial Mail Race following the trail from Dawson City to Eagle and the 1,600-kilometre Yukon Quest running from Whitehorse to Fairbanks, there’s room for another race.
“It’s needed,” said Njootli, who has tried the Quest four times and completed it twice.
“We want to show the Yukon we can handle it from Old Crow,” he said.
“There’s going to be a lot of logistics involved — it’s an isolated community and we can’t forget that.”
The race would be the only long-distance sled dog race entirely within the Yukon’s borders.
On Monday, the race was given full blessing and a $10,000 purse donation from the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation.
The minimum goal was $10,000, said Sheepway, who hopes the race can score another $10,000 to sweeten the purse.
So organizers are on the hunt for sponsors.
“We’re looking for anybody who is interested in contributing to what will hopefully become a new northern Yukon tradition,” said Sheepway.
Organizers plan to start the race in Eagle Plains — an eight-person community, which sits half way between Inuvik and the Dempster Highway turn-off near Dawson.
“We’ve been wanting to do something with Old Crow for years,” said Stan McNevin owner of Eagle Plains lodge.
Although McNevin has a puppy, he relies on the internal-combustion engine for transportation rather than the dog sled.
Nonetheless, he’s keen to reap the economic prospects and international attention a race like this could bring to the tiny community.
The lodge can sleep nearly 50, and is accustomed to hosting adventurous types like the Fulda racers, he said.
“There’s quite a bit of worldwide interest in the dog racing, be it the Quest or the Iditarod, so we’re hoping to build this into something long term.”
Competitors would start on the evening of Thursday, March 22.
The race trail would follow the route used for the winter road into Old Crow. Although the road isn’t going in this year, there is still a good amount of snowmobile traffic on the trail, said Sheepway.
There will be one checkpoint en route; the location has yet to be determined.
Sheepway expects the mushers to arrive in Old Crow by noon on Saturday for the mandatory halfway stop. There, the community will host educational and inspirational events for the visitors and residents.
“We’re going to try and involve the community in the race as much as we can,” said Sheepway.
Mushers will be asked to tote care packages for elders in the community. If there are 20 mushers, the 20 oldest elders will receive packages, said Njootli.
“Then they’re bringing something into the community and involving the community as well,” he added.
While the mushers are bedding down, organizers plan to invite kids from the school to the dog yard to learn about canine care.
There’ll be a story hour where mushers tell short tales of their adventures and exploits.
Then, in the evening, the community plans to host a halfway feast.
On Sunday morning, competitors will get on their sleds to race back to Eagle Plains for the “pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,” said Sheepway.
Along with donations, organizers are looking for volunteers from Old Crow, Dawson and Eagle Plains to help with pretty much every aspect of the race from maintaining the checkpoints to organizing the banquet.
They hope to work with organizations like the Canadian Rangers to break the trail and to provide emergency response should anything happen during the race.
For more information, or to donate or volunteer, call Sheepway at the Old Crow steward’s office at (867) 966-3037.