Mushers taking part in the 2018 Canadian Championship Dog Derby. Fran Hurcomb/Canadian Championship Dog Derby
The Canadian Championship Dog Derby, a centrepiece of the NWT’s dog mushing calendar, fought long and hard to go ahead as scheduled. On Saturday, it admitted defeat.
The derby is cancelled, an organizer told Cabin Radio on the same day the territory closed its borders to most non-residents and confirmed its first case of Covid-19.
The NWT has since recommended all gatherings of any size, indoors or outdoors, be cancelled.
Preparations for the dog derby had continued long after other events had announced their postponement or cancellation, largely because dog mushing is already a comparatively isolated sport.
Mushers driving teams of eight or 10 dogs are rarely in any kind of close contact with each other. The derby, which starts and finishes on Yellowknife Bay each March, had hoped to go ahead without spectators as its concession to the increasing restrictions aimed at curbing the pandemic.
Grant Beck, a longtime NWT dog musher and president of the dog derby, said the decision to cancel the race came on Saturday morning, despite months of preparation put in by organizers and mushers.
Had it gone ahead, 15 teams would have raced from March 27-29 for a cash purse of more than $50,000.
“It’s pretty hard,” said Beck. “You have a lot of people that are trained and worked all year, and spent money on trying to get their teams together.
“You know it’s the right decision, but it still doesn’t make it any easier.”
‘We’ve got to hunker down’
This year, teams were planning to attend from across Canada, including Quebec and Alberta, as well as Alaska. Travel restrictions, including both the national and territorial border closures, would have made it almost impossible for those teams to reach the start line.
Two weeks ago, organizers realized international teams no longer had any hope of reaching the NWT. From March 19, they had billed the race as one open to the territory’s mushers only.
The derby’s committee had spent all summer raising funds and signing up sponsors.
“All that work and you have to shut it down because of this, but it’s the right thing to do,” Beck reiterated. “We’ve got to hunker down, keep our distance, and try to do what’s recommended.”
Beck’s dog-sledding and aurora-viewing business, Beck’s Kennels, also shut down on Saturday. Beck said it had serviced only visitors from within Canada for the past two weeks.
His is one of the largest tourism businesses in Yellowknife, with 40 wintertime staff and over a dozen buses.
Staff from other parts of Canada are choosing to head home or stay in staff housing, for which Beck said he will not charge any fee.
With a kennel of 150 dogs to feed and look after, Beck added the work is never really over.