“It is extremely Canadian. You have not injected some phony act
or mimicked some foreign show. You have taken the snow, the ice,
the trappers and the dogs and have made them play and live.
More power to you!”
– John Fisher, internationally renowned journalist, 1950.
The third weekend of February is a very exciting time in The Pas. It heralds the beginning of the annual Northern Manitoba Trapper’s Festival, a dynamic celebration of Canadian history, culture and diverse northern pioneer heritage. The festival draws worldwide attention.
The Trapper’s Festival, as it is more commonly known, is Manitoba’s oldest festival and one of Canada’s oldest winter festivals. In addition to the World Championship Dog Race, the festival celebrates other skills and activities that were, and in many cases still are, a matter of survival for life in the North.
The King, Queen and Youth Trapper events give spectators a glimpse into northern life. Contestants with the highest total score in the contest categories are crowned the king or queen. The contest consists of various skills necessary to the trapper’s survival. They include tasks such as tree felling, wood cutting, wood splitting, canoe packing, flour packing, trap setting, moose calling and axe throwing. Other categories include making a fire and boiling tea and baking bannock with provided materials in -20 C to -30 C weather. The event is a favourite for spectators.
An arts and crafts show, amateur talent show, children and senior events, a parade, pancake breakfasts, tea houses, evening events and the Fur Queen competition round out the festival. In true northern hospitality, everyone is warmly welcomed. As Canadians, this is a bucket list event!
Mushing through the snow
Teams of dogs have been pulling sleds throughout the North for what seems an eternity. As dogs provided the main method of transportation for fishermen, trappers, prospectors and traders, it was only a matter of time before someone decided to hold a race.
The year was 1915, and three of The Pas’ local old dogs, C.B. Morgan, William Bunting and William Hughes were discussing the problems encountered in the local community during the Fur Exchange. Seeing as most of the trappers, traders and others who gathered in The Pas during the winter lull for provisions, supplies and trade used dog teams as their means of transport, they discussed the possibility of organizing some events around a competitive dog race. The hope was that this might prevent the spontaneous races on the streets that endangered public safety. And, perhaps it would also raise awareness about the North and increase northern development in lumber, fishing, mining and tourism.
The first race was held on March 17, 1916. It took place over a wind-chilling and mind-numbing 150 miles across frozen ice and snow. It was the longest course in the world. Nine teams entered The Pas Dog Derby that first year to compete for the grand prize of $1,000.
Unfortunately, the war silenced the derby in 1917 and 1918. It was revived again post-war and continued to run annually until 1931 when the Great Depression brought it to an end once again. During those years races could vary between 140 and 200 miles, with courses running from The Pas to Flin Flon, Carrot River, Cranberry Portage or Cumberland House.
After 17 long years, Henry Fishman and Wilf Walkinshaw helped revive the festival and it has occurred every year since 1948 without fail. In an effort to unite communities, the two men invited all the northern communities to take part in the event. The first Northern Manitoba Trapper’s Festival included Flin Flon, Cranberry Portage, Sherridon, Churchill and The Pas. It only made sense to hold the festival in The Pas, as it was a central location and the event could be held in conjunction with the Fur Advisory Council’s convention and fur table in January.
Thanks in part to the power of the press, the event was successful, showing a profit of $1,400 to start the next year off in the black. The trend repeated itself year after year with nary a penny spent by the taxpayer. Eventually the Fur Advisory Council discontinued their conventions, which led the organizers to move the festival to the third week of February, in hopes of warmer weather. Over time the other communities went their own way and began their own festivals, but in the friendly manner of the North they still get together and share ideas with one another. Until 1976, the race was run in three daily laps of 50 miles each but it was then shortened to 105 miles over three days.
With even larger purses and over $55,000 in prize money the World Championship Dog Race has opportunities for all categories of mushers to participate. Today, the race is run in three 35-mile heats held over a three-day period. Racers begin each day at 10 a.m. on Halcrow Lake for a mass start. Mushers who achieve the lowest combined time score in each category over the three-day race are declared the winners.
Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the race is that it is run on farmland and ditches adjacent to Highway 10, a public highway, allowing spectators to view the entire race. A race of this magnitude attracts all sorts of dog mushers – fishermen, trappers and others whose dogs are part of their livelihood, and racing enthusiasts from all over the world. It requires intense training and stamina by both the musher and the dog team.
Watch contestants compete in the King Trapper categories or admire craftsmen carving with chainsaws. (Photos by Darryl McKinney)