Monday marked the start of the Dene games at the Canada Winter Games.
And it was raining.
Big drops splashed down on the ATCO Place stage while northern athletes prepared for the female stick pull.
ATCO Place isn’t leaking, said MC Paul Andrew.
It is just condensation from people breathing and all these athletes warming up, he said.
Wiping drops off their heads, competitors from the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut prepared for the double elimination tournament while officials greased the stick.
Facing opposite directions, the competitors stand with their outside feet together, put their free hands on their hips and grip the stick simultaneously.
And it’s slippery.
Greased up with Crisco between every round, the short stick is hard to hold.
That’s the point.
“The stick pull is about being able to grab onto something that wants to get away from you,” said Andrew.
“It’s like trying to hold onto a slippery fish — you need to have strong fingers.”
But strong fingers are only part of it.
Good grip is key.
And this is where ATCO’s artificial rain came in handy.
Between every round, competitors were given paper towel to wipe the grease from their hands.
But some savvy pullers discovered the wet floor worked better.
Leaning over, the girls would pat their hands on the damp stage to combat the grease.
“Hey, tell the coach they can’t use the water to clean their hands,” a man yelled from the sidelines.
“They can pick up dust on their hands like that.”
Darius Elias knows the rules.
And they weren’t being followed.
The four-time Artic Winter Games stick-pull champ was there to cheer on Old Crow competitor Myranda Tizya-Charlie.
“Hold, hold,” he shouted as Tizya-Charlie grimaced, her arm shaking as she gripped the stick behind her.
There are tricks to this game.
Elias knows most of them, but he’d only share a few.
“You have to live with the stick,” he said. “I would carry it around with me for several months before competitions.”
And the initial grip is really important, he added.
Both competitors have to grab the stick at the same time.
Tapered at the ends, the greasy wood rod has a groove in the middle that neither hand can pass.
If a hand does grab over the line, a re-grip is called and the stick is re-greased.
“You have to concentrate on gripping — squeezing the grease out, one finger at a time,” said Yukon competitor Amanda Brown.
“And you have to make sure that little flap of skin between your thumb and index finger doesn’t get caught under your hand, or it’ll slip,” added Elias.
After gripping the stick, the competitors wait for the judge to shout, “Go.”
Then the pulling starts.
Bursts of cheering came from the damp crowd as the territories battled it out.
Both Tizya-Charlie and Brown made the finals, and ended up pulling against each other, ensuring a Yukon win.
Tizya-Charlie took it, after much shaking, grimacing and tugging.
Without much of a break, she went up against NWT’s Shawna McLeod, and lost.
“Fatigue plays a role,” said Elias.
“That’s why it’s important to win the first line — otherwise you end up having to go the long way around in the double knockout.”
With the Yukon girls out, McLeod was left battling her older sister Robyn for gold.
And because it was double knockout, Shawna would have to beat Robyn twice.
“It’s intimidating,” said Shawna.
“She’s older and she blew me away in the territorials.”
But Monday was another story.
Shawna beat her sister in the first round winning two of the three pulls.
The crowd was relatively quiet as the sisters started their final battle.
“Go Shawna,” yelled Irma Scarff from the stands.
“I met these two girls when I was serving soup and bannock, yesterday,” said Scarff.
“And I’m pulling for them because they’re not from here.
“I want the younger one to win.”
The Dene games don’t get enough recognition, she said.
“But the strength and endurance in these games … the athletes are pure muscle.”
Heaving her arm back, Shawna forced her sister forward.
Pulling the stick out of the competitor’s hand is only one way to win this game.
If Shawna can hold her arm behind her for more than 15 seconds, without Robyn gaining ground and pulling her arm forward, she also wins.
As the hand started to slip, Robyn turned and looked behind her at her team.
“I’m slipping,” she said.
But it was her foot, not her hand that lost Robyn the pull.
Competitors can’t move their feet during the competition and Robyn’s heel rose off the ground.
Shawna won gold.
And Robyn left quickly, avoiding media and teammates alike.
“She really wanted this,” said Shawna after the win.
“And she thought she had it — in the NWT she won against everybody.”
Shawna, who is bunking with her sister at the athletes’ village, was a little bit worried about “stress back at the dorm.”
The sisters are best friends, and Shawna knew Robyn wasn’t happy.
“But I know she’s happy for me,” said Shawna.
Robyn, who’s 20, will be too old to compete in the next Games.
“She wasn’t as focused as I was,” said Shawna.
“I could tell.
“And I was really focused — I’ve never felt that way before.”
The stick pull used to be a prestigious event, said Elias.
“Before contact, the Gwich’in used to gather on this mountain below Vuntut National Park and set up tents all over the mountain.
“And the men would go from tent to tent with the stick to see who was strong enough to beat all the other tents.”
Stick pull is as old as the hills, said Dene judge and elder Sam Johnston.
And it’s all strength and grip.
The competitors lift weights and squeeze handgrips to prepare for the stick pull, but Johnston never trained this way.
“All you need is a chair,” he said, lifting one up in Atco Place using only his middle finger.
“You don’t need any fancy apparatus.”
Dene games are finally starting to get the recognition they deserve, said Johnston.
“Dene” means northern people in Athabascan, he said.
And the games are played across the country.
“So, it’s nice to see them finally becoming part of competitions.”