Despite murky future, N.W.T. mushers prepare for 2020 Arctic Winter Games

The future of the North's most iconic sports is at stake at the Arctic Winter Games. Mushers say the games need mushing as much as mushing needs the games.

Alaska reconsiders decision to skip mushing in the upcoming games in Whitehorse

The 2018 Arctic Winter Games mascot, Ketchi, rode along with Alaska's Johanna Badalich for a few pictures at the games in the N.W.T. As Team Alaska mulls whether to send any dog mushers to the 2020 games, the N.W.T. is preparing for its trials in December. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Is it really the Arctic Winter Games if one of the Arctic's most iconic traditional sports isn't there? 

That's what's at stake as Alaska reconsiders its decision to keep its mushers home for the upcoming 2020 Arctic Winter Games next March. Officials with Team Alaska voted to forego mushing because they felt there wasn't enough competition in 2018 and don't want a repeat in 2020. 

Though Alaska is re-evaluating that decision, the sport itself could be dropped in future games if low participation continues, according to the games' sport policy. Games officials decided in 2018 to examine whether the sport will continue

In the Northwest Territories, mushers are preparing for the territorial trials next month, and hope Alaska will ultimately decide to send mushers to Whiterhorse. 

"I'm not convinced the door is closed," said Susan Fleck, from the Deh Gah Dog Mushers Club in Fort Providence, N.W.T. 

"We've been in contact with some Alaskan mushers who participated in the games in Hay River two years ago and they're very interested in participating," she said. "It may be that there's some misunderstanding." 

It's obvious the Arctic Winter Games are a really good way to promote sport development in dog mushing- Susan Fleck, Deh Gah Dog Mushers Club 

Fleck agrees that the 2018 games didn't have enough teams participating. Only the Northwest Territories and Alaska ended up sending mushers after Nunavut and Yukon dropped out before the games started. 

She knows mushing has deep roots across the North, with healthy interest in Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. She hopes more awareness could help bring in mushers to compete from places like northern Alberta, helping round out the field. 

Susan Fleck is a leader in the N.W.T.'s mushing community. She says the Arctic Winter Games and mushing need each other. (Kirsten Murphy/CBC)

"We know personally of dog mushers in Fort Chipewyan, Fort McMurray. If we can help them find ways to alert Alberta Sport that they are there and willing to participate, [mushing] can continue to go ahead," she said. 

Regardless of who participates, Fleck believes mushing has an important role to play in the future of the games, and the games have an important role in the future of the sport. 

For example, the upcoming trials will have 11 teams from across the territory, including from Tuktoyaktuk, Paulatuk, Fort Resolution, and Yellowknife, Fleck explained. At least three coaches from those teams have been champions at the Arctic Winter Games.   

"It's obvious the Arctic Winter Games are a really good way to promote sport development in dog mushing," she said. 

"There's lots of interest in dog sledding in all the jurisdictions. I think there are a few ways we can continue to have dog mushing in the Arctic Winter Games," she said. 

The Northwest Territories Arctic Winter Games dog mushing trials are scheduled for Dec. 12 and 13 in Fort Providence. The community will also host its annual Christmas races on Dec. 21 and 22. 

Written by Alex Brockman, based on an interview by Lawrence Nayally and produced by Joanne Stassen