Small mushing team has big hopes

Veteran racer Rachel Kinvig and rookie Katharina Wirth make up Team Yukon’s entire dog mushing squad. The two will be the ones to watch when Whitehorse hosts the Arctic Winter Games for a sixth time this March.

Based on history, the Yukon’s surest bet for a gold medal at the upcoming Arctic Winter Games is from its smallest team.

Veteran racer Rachel Kinvig and rookie Katharina Wirth make up Team Yukon’s entire dog mushing squad. The two will be the ones to watch when Whitehorse hosts the Arctic Winter Games for a sixth time this March.

“It’s going to be here which is awesome,” said Kinvig. “And it’s just going to be a great time.”

Kinvig, who will race in the junior female division, brings a wealth of experience to the trails. The 15-year-old is already the most decorated musher in Arctic Games history, winning a total of six gold medals over her two previous appearances. In fact, she has never lost a race at the Arctic Games.

So does an unblemished win record and a hometown crowd place more pressure on her?

“No,” she said matter-of-factly, “but I’d like to not lose.”

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In addition to her half-dozen Ulus (Arctic Games medals), Kinvig has a world champion title to boot. Kinvig won her division at the Junior World Championship Sled Dog Race in Anchorage last February. She won all three of her races, setting a course record in the five-dog, six-mile class to become a world champion.

A few weeks later, she won gold in the four-dog and silver in the six-dog classes at the 2011 Junior North American Championship in Fairbanks.

In 2009, Kinvig was awarded the Junior Alaskan Sled Dog and Racing Association’s Sportsmanship Award. The same year, she took first place in the four-dog class at the Junior North American Championships.

A family passion, her older brother, Ben, ruled the junior male division at the 2010 Arctic Games, winning two golds and a silver. He has since retired from competition.

Kinvig, who is heading to Anchorage for a series of races this week, will choose her dog team when the Games get a little closer.

“I have to go to my races and I’ll pick my strongest dogs,” said Kinvig. “It depends on the weather too. If it’s hot I don’t want to take that dog because he overheats a lot. He’ll slow down and then he’ll start biting snow and will slow me down even more.

“I’ll pick my two leaders who pass well and go past obstacles well. It depends on stuff that happens through the year.”

Whitehorse’s Wirth has a need for speed. The 12-year-old also made Yukon’s speed skating team for the Arctic Games but eventually had to choose between the two sports.

“I like the speed of mushing a bit better,” said Wirth. “I’ve done speed skating competitively for longer so I wanted to try something new.”

Wirth, who will be competing in the juvenile division at the Games, races in the Yukon Brewing Twister Race Series and also won a division at the Carbon Hill Sled Dog race two years ago. She has an older team – Rachel’s former team, in fact – that’s she’s been running for the past four years.

“I think it’s going to be fun,” said Wirth of the Games. Kinvig’s father, Darren, who is also the team coach is lending her some dogs for both the four- and six-dog races.

“It’s going to be fun because this is the first time I’m representing somewhere,” said Wirth.

Kinvig’s father and mother, Leanne, are also chairing the dogsled event at the Arctic Games.

They plan to hold the races near their home in the Mount Lorne area, overlapping some of the trails used in the Carbon Hill races.

The Kinvigs want the event to be as spectator friendly as possible.

“Because it’s an international event, I’d like to see as many spectators as possible,” said Darren. “In order to do that, you can’t have them all in that parking lot – they watch a team leave and that’s it. Then the team comes back – that’s not good enough for the Arctic Winter Games as far as I’m concerned.

“So we’ve proposed to move it out on the golf course … and the teams will run past spectators and they’ll come back that way. So spectators can watch for a fair distance.”

What’s depressing for the Kinvigs is that this will be the second Arctic Games in a row in which only two Yukoners will race even though the team has four spots for athletes. They advertised the team trials, which took place at the start of the month, even explaining they would provide both dogs and sleds if necessary.

“But we got no responses,” said Darren. “We’re just trying to get kids in the Arctic Games and dog mushing.

“There are just no kids running dogs.”

The lack of interest also presents an ominous future for junior mushing, especially if the Kinvigs are no longer involved in the next Arctic Games.

“It’s not a sport that you can attract new juniors to. When juniors want to start, the parents realize the commitment involved,” he said.

“Most of the kids we’ve had prior were sons and daughters of dog mushing families, but they have all left. Now we have some kids whose parents run the (Yukon) Quest, but they don’t have to time to dedicate to their kids like we do. It’s hard for them to commit to a junior event and have their kids out to race at the Arctic Winter Games.

“I sure hope someone else takes over when we’re gone, but I haven’t seen that commitment from anybody else yet,” he added. “So in 2014, we probably won’t even field a dog team.”

Contact Tom Patrick at tomp@yukon-news.com