Already a big name in dog mushing, the Northwest Territories is now one of the only places where the sport is going ahead all but unaffected by Covid-19.
This season’s big races are being abandoned across North America but the territory, comparatively unscathed by the virus, has put together a nine-race season to be entirely contested by homegrown mushers.
Danny Beaulieu, mayor of Fort Providence, is the early leader after winning the first leg in his home community and the second stage in Yellowknife.
“Winning the first race of this year in the North – in Canada, probably, there aren’t races anywhere else – feels really good,” Beaulieu told Cabin Radio after his victory on Friday in a two-day twenty-miler that saw 10-dog teams complete 20 miles of racing each day.
Yellowknife hasn’t hosted an early January race like this in some years, but organizers revived the event using training trails that start from Grace Lake, near the city’s kennels. To do so, they spent municipal funding left untouched after the cancellation of races last year.
Races will gradually grow in length until the Canadian Championship Dog Derby, held in Yellowknife every March, where dogs are expected to complete three days of 50 miles each.
“After the first weekend of March last year, everything was cancelled. It was definitely a downer,” said Yellowknife musher Cai Reid.
“There are 11 teams here, nine of them from Yellowknife. There are a bunch of teams training all around the NWT and there’s still a strong community and circuit going on.
“We’re just lucky that the territory has done a good job in keeping us safe. We can still actively hold races without restrictions. The rest of Canada and parts of the US have restrictions holding everyone back with no races to go to.”
Grant Beck, who finished second behind Beaulieu on Friday, said: “The NWT mushing group got together and is putting on about nine races. That’s really good. The border is closed so of course, we can’t go anywhere else. It has got these mushers from the North together.”
Enterprise, Hay River, Fort Smith, and Fort Resolution are among other destinations for this winter’s circuit.
Beaulieu and Reid described the cancellation of a series of big races across the rest of North America as the Covid-19 pandemic grips much of the continent.
The renowned World Championship Dog Race in The Pas, Manitoba, was one example of a race that won’t run in 2021, Beaulieu said.
“I guess Covid has been rampant down there,” he told Cabin Radio. “Here, we got permission from the Covid people … and they approved all the races.”
Asked how important preserving the 2021 season might be for northern dog mushing, he responded: “What else is there to do right now? It’s really good.”