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Yukon mushers golden, but lonely

Rachel Kinvig swept the juvenile class last week in the Arctic Winter Games dog mushing event, winning three gold ulus.

Rachel Kinvig swept the juvenile class last week in the Arctic Winter Games dog mushing event, winning three gold ulus.

Her big brother Ben took a gold and silver as well.

But unlike other Arctic Games athletes, you wouldn’t see them around Yellowknife, shopping, hanging out or watching other events when they weren’t competing.

“We don’t have as much time to do that stuff, not as much as everyone else, anyway,” said Ben.

After all, they have 23 dogs to care for.

The Kinvigs travelled to the Games in the family dog truck, with all the dogs, three sleds, two weeks of food and all the assorted lines and harnesses required to compete.

“It’s so much easier to jump on a plane, and you’re there, and you’ve got your basketball, or whatever,” said their father Darren Kinvig.

It’s a big operation, but the Kinvigs have the logistics figured out after years of travelling to races in Alaska, Yukon and Northern BC. 

In a good year, Ben and Rachel compete in seven to 10 races, including the Junior North Americans and the Junior Worlds in Alaska.

They skipped the Junior North Americans to compete at the Arctic Games instead, and they’re happy with the decision.

“The Arctics are totally different than any other race, you get to stay in the dorm with other people, and there’s a lot more competition, people you don’t see at other races,” said Ben.

There were 14 teams at the Arctic Games event, including Jeffrey Diment and Eilidh Lucas from Yukon, (whose families travelled together in another dog truck).

With a course that ran in a loop around Back Bay on Great Slave Lake, the mushers faced a hard, fast and windy run. During Friday’s races the temperature dipped to minus 37 with the wind chill.

Darren Kinvig was pleased with the results, but wasn’t surprised.

“We had a pretty good idea that Rachel would be tough to beat — but it’s a dog race, you never know for sure.”

And the medals were just the icing on the cake.

“If everything goes well, it’s a success no matter what the result — that’s what we teach the kids; have a clean run, go out there and do the loop without any mistakes — that’s half the battle.”

Ben had some shakeups on his team before the Games; one dog was injured and another died unexpectedly. “He was really healthy, so it’s weird,” said Ben, “The injured dog was a real strong one, and the one that passed away was probably one of the best dogs we’ve ever had.”

Competing as junior mushers came naturally to the Kinvigs, they grew up with Darren’s kennel, and have been behind the sled for eight years.

When Darren got injured, he was unable to ride the sled, so the kids became the mushers, and they started racing competitively not long after.

Darren’s seen the enviable state of junior mushing in Alaska and wants to bring Yukon interest in the sport to something similar — but it’s a big challenge.

Rachel and Ben are just two of a small handful of kids running dogs in the Yukon.

“It is a dying sport, at this level … we really need more kids in it,” said Darren. “Who’s left? Who’s left in Whitehorse? There really isn’t anybody passing it along, generationally.”

“There are some parents committed to longer distances, but if you’re going to run the Quest, you won’t have time to mess around with kids’ races — that’s a huge commitment too.”

With that in mind, Kinvig, Sean Fitzgerald and Richard Anderson formed the Yukon Junior Association of Mushers to spread the word and get new kids out working with dogs.

“We’re not geared to heading toward the Quest, we’re geared to building more of a sprint/short-distance community,” he said. “Yes, there are similarities, we all have dogs — but you’re not going to get a kid started running 500 miles, you’ll get them started running four miles.”

Kinvig said he’s always encouraged kids to come out to his kennel on Annie Lake Road, where he teaches them how to work with sled dogs.

“We’d show them how to get into it, how to train, how to feed, how to look after them — at least plant the seed, and maybe it’ll stick and it’ll grow.”

He concedes that it’s easier for kids from mushing families to take part in the sport —

“We’re racing against kennels with 200 dogs in them, you’re racing the Charlies, the Baxters, the Becks … they always have good teams.”

But for a city kid with an interest in dogs, it wouldn’t be that hard to get started. Yukon Junior Association of Mushers is working to build support for kids that want to carry on the mushing traditions.

“It’s not like a basketball season — for us, training for next year starts today; these are animals, they’re alive, you can’t take a break.

“Some kids are totally addicted right away, and those are the ones that are comfortable with their dogs, or animals, period — those are the ones that become committed mushers, and good mushers.”

Last winter Kinvig helped organize a youth event in Carmacks, part of the Wilfred Charlie Memorial Race.

“I think we had 29 kids come out for that, to do a little one-dog run.

“There’s always kids that love to try it. That was geared more toward the First Nations — getting some of those kids back on a dogsled.

“And if you get one out of 29 into it, it’s better than none, so