Whitehorse musher Sophia Daniels finally had a clean run at the Arctic Winter Games. And she’s got the silver ulu to prove it.
In her six years as an Arctic Winter Games participant, Daniels had yet to grace the podium in an individual race.
Tuesday, at the Peninsula Sled Dog Race Association trails in Soldotna, the 17-year-old veteran finished the 10-kilometre, six-dog race in 21 minutes and 51 seconds, sandwiched between two NWT mushers who took gold and bronze.
“We had a really short training season and even then, there was so little snow that I couldn’t run more than six dogs at a time when I usually run 10,” said Daniels.
“But my dogs did an awesome job and I’m really pleased with their performance.”
Daniels has 24 dogs in her Greyridge Kennels and she decided to try two young inexperienced males, Delta and Snap, in lead for the big race.
“This is their first year racing and I was so impressed,” she said, adding that she’s been mushing for 11 years.
“All my training and racing led up to this, so it’s nice to see these results when you work your butt off all season.”
For fellow Yukon ulu-winner Ben Kinvig, the Arctic Winter Games are also the high point of his season.
Tuesday, Kinvig took gold in the 7.5-kilometre, four-dog sprint.
Both Kinvig and Daniels had to travel great distances just to get some races on their runners before these Games. They travelled to BC, and Kinvig went to Anchorage for the Junior World Championships earlier this year.
Owning and racing dogs is a big responsibility for anyone, but for a teenager, that responsibility is added to full days at school and studying. Before and after school, Kinvig, with the help of his family members, was busy with dog-yard chores and training.
It’s a lot of work, but having Arctic Games’ gold around his neck made it all worthwhile.
“It’s not like table tennis, where when the game is done you hang up your paddle and relax,” said Kinvig.
“With mushing you always have the dogs to take care of,” he added after claiming gold with Butch and Finder in lead. “We trained so much for this and travelled all over to races to get ready for Arctic Winter Games.”
In total Kinvig travelled close to 15,000 kilometres to various Outside races in order to prepare for the Games.
Training and racing have taken a lot of these young racers’ time. But such strenuous activities have taught them valuable lessons they might not otherwise have learned, said Kinvig’s father and Team Yukon coach Darren.
“Oh yeah, this keeps them right outta trouble,” said Darren. “They don’t have time to think about anything else.
“They’ve got dogs and dogs are 24-seven. We trained all year for this one but we don’t put pressure on them. It’s all about having a clean run, but it’s also about having fun here.”
The young dog drivers competing at this year’s AWG are no exception to the musher’s Code of the North which, simply put, means when another musher is in need, you help out.
Even though they’re competing against each other, Alaskan coach Rex Jones lent a sled, two dogs and all the fixings to Team Yukon’s Dylan Salvisberg, whose dad was delayed on the way to the Kenai after hitting a moose with a truck full of sled dogs.
“These Games are about competition, but they’re also about teaching the kids to work together and meet new people,” said Jones.
Jones, an accomplished sprint racer himself is the owner and operator of Arctic Paws Kennel and Sled Dog School, a mushing academy for junior dog drivers in Chugiak, Alaska.
“I teach kids from the age of four to the age of 17 to race my dogs,” said Jones adding that most of his dogs are hounds from Sweden, Norway and Germany.
Jones brought one of his protégés, Hannah Summers, to the AWG. “I help kids who need a little direction in life and boys and girls who need something they can be responsible for.”
Before Tuesday’s race, Jones walked up and down the line of dogs fixed to the frame of his trailer offering them a little water and trying to encourage them to relieve their bowels before they hit the trail.
Training a dog to poop on command is challenging at best, so Jones uses the old matchstick-up-the-butt trick.
“The irritation of the matchstick helps them clean their system and therefore run a better race,” said Jones.
“Just like any person, a dog will run better if they’re comfortable.”
Apparently that little technique works — Summers won a bronze medal in the four-dog event on Tuesday.
Here are the results from Tuesday’s sled dog races.
Junior 10-K, six-dog
1st Alyn Charlie, NWT, 20:58
2nd Sophia Daniels, YT, 21:51
3rd Aryn Charlie, NWT, 22:32
4th Shane Strausbaugh, AK, 23:04
5th Beth Callis, AK, 23:23
6th Charmaine Christiansen, YT, 27:26
Juvenile 7.5-K, four-dog
1st Ben Kinvig, YT, 14:18
2nd Rebecca Baxter, NWT, 15:12
3rd Hannah Summers, AK, 15:42
4th Gracie Callis, AK, 16:09
5th Sam Palfrey, NWT, 16:38
6th Dylan Salvisberg, YT, 18:48