YELLOWKNIFE SLED DOG DERBY
©2006 Mushing Magazine – Nov/Dec 2006 issueThe Canadian Championship Dog Derby held in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada, is one of the oldest sled dog races in North America. Top mushers gather to test their dogs in the fast-paced, 3-day event. The mushers are focused competitors and the lean, leggy dogs are some of the fastest athletes in the world of sled dog racing. Walking around the staging area of today’s Dog Derby is a musher’s dream – dogs and gear are the best the sport has to offer. It is hard to imagine that this celebration of canine ability started with a handful of trappers running for $50.The town of Yellowknife of the 1950s was a far cry from the bustling city of today. The modern Yellowknife, with a population of close to 20,000, has one of the fastest-growing economies in Canada. Situated just north of the 62nd parallel on the Great Slave Lake, Yellowknife is urban in every sense of the word – shops, restaurants, office towers and nightlife galore. And, true to its northern roots, it is a paradise for the outdoor enthusiast with many reminders of its aboriginal heritage. Bone and stone carvings, beaded moccasins, locally trapped pelts and a hearty meal of caribou and muskox can be easily found. Even the name, Yellowknife, which many think refers to the gold mine under the city, has First Nation roots. The Yellowknife Dene, named because of their early use of copper tools, lived in the area. The local Dogrib people gave Yellowknife another name, Somba K’e, which means ‘where the money is.’ Somba K’e is a true reflection of Yellowknife. A modern airport with daily jet service connects Yellowknife to the rest of the world. The road to Edmonton, Alberta, is home to many long-distance truckers carrying all matter of goods to meet the demands of the growing population. Construction is evident at every turn and the housing market is a seller’s dream, commanding prices that one would expect to find in Toronto or Vancouver.Yellowknife in the 1950s was a small, rough-and-tumble mining town. Founded in the late 1930s, it was home to about 2,000 hardy individuals. Access was limited to air and lake travel, by boat in summer and ice road in winter. Contact and trade was maintained with the neighboring communities of Dettah, across the Bay and Richer River, on the south shore of the lake. In spite of emerging community life, hunting, fishing and trapping was still the main way of life for most living on the Great Slave Lake. Residents were mainly Dogrib, Chipewyan or Yellowknife Dene. A few of the local families were not aboriginal, but not many in the early years. Regardless of background, most northerners lived a semi-nomadic life, moving between summer and winter areas and depending on the land for their liveliehood. Dogs were an integral part of this basic lifestyle, pulling toboggans in the winter and carrying packs in the summer. The dogs were hardy and lived on a diet of raw meat and fish. Natural selection eliminated animals not suited to the rigors of life in the north. Many trappers were known to travel thousands of miles over the winter season. The north was home to tough men and tough dogs. March was the favorite month of the year for many trappers. The days were getting noticeably longer and the harsh cold was over for another year. Spring was coming and many trappers returned to town with the fruits of their winter labors – pelts and fresh meat. The end of another hard winter on the trap line meant both the men and dogs were fit and lean. All were looking forward to a slower pace and a well-deserved rest.Little did anyone know in 1955, but an idea was taking shape that was to have long-lasting consequences for the little town of Yellowknife. Members of the local branch of the NWT Fish and Game Association decided to stage a dog race. The organizers were not sure of the interest but they had high hopes for their race. The “Sleigh Dog Race” was advertised in News of the North, the local newspaper. The paper’s editorial hoped that the dog derby “might assume national importance and even attract teams from Fort Simpson and Arctic Red River.” The Fish and Game Association offered $50 to the winner and promised to pay $5 to any musher finishing the race. Several local businesses agreed to donate goods for prizes. News of the dog race being planned in Yellowknife spread rapidly and soon reached communities around the Great Slave Lake. The men welcomed a chance to visit friends, celebrate life and see who really had the best dog team in the area. On March 26, 1955, 13 trappers showed up to test their dogs. Many of the competitors drove their teams to town right off the trapline. The men and their dogs lined up to do what they did best – pit themselves against the elements of the north. The teams started in 1-minute intervals, reportedly to prevent fighting among the less-than-friendly dogs. All the entrants were aboriginal trappers from the surrounding area. Their teams were made up of five or six big dogs hooked single file to working toboggans. The dogs wore handmade leather collars and leather or canvas traces. Some dogs wore fancy embroidered duffels across their backs to celebrate the occasion. The toboggans were heavy; made of two or three hardwood boards held together with cross pieces. They were 18 to 22 inches wide with about 8 feet of board on the snow. The front of the toboggan was a high curl designed to plow through deep snow. An upright backboard was attached to the back of the sled. The cariole, a canvas sled bag, was strung from lines running from the front of the sled to the backboard. This was the perfect mode of transportation for a trapper working his line. The toboggans were narrow enough to thread between the trees, long enough to carry a large load and were still relatively easy to maneuver by the musher. They were even good enough to sleep in if the situation warranted it. A long rope dragged from the back of the toboggan for an emergency grab line.Snow hooks were not used in these early days, so the dogs were trained to sit and wait on command. All in all, the men, dogs and equipment were finely tuned for the job at hand – setting traps, collecting the rewards and transporting the goods to town. Not a fast setup, but very practical and efficient. This did not stop the men from wanting to race. And race they did…The starting line was near the Bay Store in Old Town. The teams ran down the street, much to the delight of the spectators and the dismay of many of the mushers. Soon the trail was out of town and the racers were in familiar territory again.They ran approximately 20 miles to Con Hydro and back – 40 miles through deep snow and icy trails. It was a good day for Alfred Drygeese. The 20-year-old Dene trapper from Dettah heard about the race when he drove his dogs to town to deliver some caribou meat. He finished the 40 miles in 5:27.30, winning first prize of $50 and a bag of dog food. Other top finishers won groceries, a sack of flour and .22 shells. All got the promised $5. The race was a success! The Dog Derby was born.The following year the first place prize jumped to $500. Philip Goulet of Dettah won the second running of the Dog Derby. The ’56 race was a mass start, which continues to this day. By 1959, there were 16 teams competing for the $650 first prize. The Dog Derby continued to be a trapper’s race for the next 15 years.The Elks Lodge of Yellowknife took over the race organization in 1960 and dubbed it the NWT Championship. Official rules were added and the distance was increased to 50 miles. In 1962, the race was a 2-day event (50 miles each day). The race format was changed again in 1964 to the existing 150-mile, 3-day format. The NWT Championship Dog Derby continued to evolve. Over the years the start location changed several times, the laps changed, the trail changed and the organizers changed. In spite of the changes, mushers from the communities of Dettah and Rocher River dominated the race scene for 17 races. Drygeese and Goulet led the way for Joe Tobie, Ray Beck, Danny McQueen, Jonas Sangris and Peter Sangris. These men were to own the Dog Derby until 1973, when an outsider, Larry Martin from Fort Chipewyan, Alberta, beat 16 teams and won $4,150. The Rotary Club took over the Dog Derby in 1972, changing the name to the Canadian Championship Dog Derby and offered a $14,000 purse to the 19 teams entered. Ray Beck, a NWT resident, captured the win in 1974 and 1975. Another outsider, Adolphus Capotblanc from B.C., beat 18 teams in 1976. Tim White, of Minnesota, ran the 150 miles in 14:18.39 in 1977 to win. This was the first ‘southerner’ to capture the Championship title. White won the race on a hybrid sled with leggy ‘race’ dogs. The trapline dogs in traditional gear were being challenged, and this worried the race organizers. The Dog Derby was a celebration of northern life. This prompted new rules in 1978 – a 9-dog maximum and a mandatory 100-pound toboggan.In spite of the ‘traditional’ restrictions, the 1978 starting line had teams from B.C., NWT, Yukon, Manitoba and three states. The ’78 purse was now $20,000. Racers now expected more than a rugged track made by a bombardier the day before the race start. The mushers wanted a harder, faster surface to run their racing dogs. The groomed trail now shifted the advantage to the racing dogs. The heavy trap line dogs excelled at plowing through deep heavy snow. Now they were victims of their own might and found it hard to compete with their purpose-bred racing cousins. It was inevitable that the changing face of sled dog racing would finally come to the north. The Dog Derby organizers moved with the times. When the starting gun sounded in 1987, the rules allowed for racing sleds and 10 dogs. Each year the dogs got faster and the sleds more sophisticated. The News of the North editorial dream had come true – the race had received national importance. The Canadian Championship Dog Derby is considered one of elite races and true test of a dog’s athletic ability. The names of the winners are top in their field – Grant Beck, Peter Norberg, Raymond Beck Jr., Eddy Streeper, Frank Kelly, Richard Beck, Ken Anderson, Buddy Streeper and John Beck. Last year’s winner of the NMI Mobility Canadian Championship Dog Derby, Buddy Streeper (also the 2003 winner), ran the 150 miles in 10:48.11. He drove his athletes over a beautifully groomed trail in front of cheering spectators as circling helicopters with TV cameras recorded the race. A far cry from Drygeese’s run 50 years ago. But, really, was it that different? The team of musher and dogs doing what they enjoy – running across a windswept land chasing a dream.Linda Sheesley is a freelance writer, nothern nurse, vet tech and clown (not necessarily in that order). She lives with her Alaskans in Fort Smith, NWT, Canada.