In the territory, it’s the poor cousin to the Yukon Quest. But that doesn’t mean local sprint mushers aren’t making news.
A week and a half ago, at the Junior World Championship Sled Dog Race held in Anchorage, Alaska, the territory was represented by two mushers, siblings Ben and Rachel Kinvig.
After three days of racing, Ben’s combined time resulted in a first-place finish in the seven-dog 12.9-kilometre class. Racing in the five-dog 9.6-kilometre class, Rachel finished fifth.
“Usually his age would have made him eligible to run in the five-dog race,” said Darren Kinvig, president of the Junior Association of Mushers in the Yukon and father of Ben and Rachel. “But because of his experience he was able to move up to the seven-dog class.
“(Rachel) ran in the five-dog, but because of her experience she moved up from the three-dog.”
The locale of the World Juniors, taking the mushers through the city on ski and hiking trails, added an element of distraction for the dogs.
“The World Championship is one of the hardest races because of that,” said Kinvig. “There’s a moose on the trail, there’s spectators on the trail, there’s skiers on the trail, there’s bridges to cross, there’s tunnels to go through. That makes it one of the hardest races for sled dogs to get used to.
“You need a well-trained team that’s really focused.”
Both Ben, 15, and Rachel, 12, experienced problems because of their dogs’ unfamiliarity with such distractions and obstacles. On his third day of racing, Ben lost precious time when his team decided to chase after an unleashed dog belonging to a spectator. For Rachel, bridges and tunnels were the culprit as her less experienced dogs were prone to stopping before crossing or entering.
“Some things like that you can’t train for or predict,” said Ben. “But they eventually got going again.”
“I thought I did pretty good the first and second day,” said Rachel. “On the third day my leader stopped at the tunnels and bridges, but I still wasn’t that far off of first place, which is pretty good.”
As unique as the Junior Worlds may be, if it took place in the territory it would be unique for other reasons.
According the Kinvig, sprint racing in the Yukon has gone the way of the dogs.
“There isn’t any junior sprint mushing in the territory and that’s why we have to travel so many miles to get to these sprint races,” said Kinvig. “We’ll go down south and race and then we’ll turn around and go to Alaska.
“To be competitive – to go to competitive dog races – we have to leave the territory unfortunately.”
The Yukon used to have regular mid-distance and sprint events but lately the races have been occurring sporadically or not at all. Within the last few years, the Chilly Paw event in Haines Junction, a Carbon Hill race at Annie Lake and the Wilfred Charlie Memorial in Carmacks have faded into the ether.
“The Rendezvous races come and go,” said Kinvig. “Sometimes they’re cancelled and sometimes they’re on.”
Furthermore, the Junior Association’s membership has dropped from about 10 to fewer than five in recent years, with some growing past the junior age and leaving for school. But replacements have failed to step in.
Kinvig explains that there are other younger mushers in the Yukon, but most only compete in Copper Haul Twister races.
“That’s about the only option for short-distance mushing,” said Kinvig. “Most other races don’t exist any more in the territory.
“I’m not sure why, but when you go down south or Alaska, sprint mushing is what’s it all about. Within the territory it just died, there’s just a real lack of interest.
“I’m not sure why.”
Kinvig is, however, not without theories as to why sprints have fallen from the scene.
“We’re overshadowed by the long race, which is the (Yukon) Quest,” said Kinvig. “It makes it really hard for us to put on races, to ask for prize money, to get the volunteers and to get the interest in the sprint mushing.
“All the education that happens here in the Yukon, all the public knowledge, all the media, is based on long-distance mushing.”
Back on the road, Ben and Rachel will be racing in the Junior North American Championship this weekend in Fairbanks, Alaska.
“I hope I do better,” said Rachel. “There’s no tunnels or bridges there.”
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