Source: Laconia Daily Sun (Extract)
Posted: February 11, 2022

On the eve of the first day of the 93rd Laconia World Championship Sled Dog Derby, mushers gathered in the warm confines of Patrick’s Pub and Eatery. The official purpose was so mushers could each draw a number out of a bag to determine their starting order, but it also served as the welcoming for the competitors, many of whom came from many miles away, and have made the trip for years.

The pub was packed almost wall to wall with people. It could be any Thursday night at the popular bar, save for the large amount of dog-themed sweatshirts.

Randy Dekuiper traveled all the way from Michigan to compete for the 10th or 12th time in Laconia. Dekuiper couldn’t be too sure of his exact attempt number, but he’s managed to race for over five decades across the continent.

“I’ve never won, no,” Dekuiper said regarding the Laconia World Championship. “The best I ever did was fourth and that was when we started downtown. That was over 25 years ago.”

Regardless of placement, Dekuiper seemed happy to have the chance to race in the 10-dog unlimited class. 

“The race has a lot of prestige and there are very few unlimited class races left in the lower 48,” Dekuiper said, stating that the unlimited class has shrunk in popularity over the years. “People don’t keep as many dogs as we used to keep, and a lot of people like the four- and six-dog class because you don’t have to train as much.”

Dekuiper guessed there were about only three or four unlimited races left in the lower 48.

“This is always a very special race,” said Neal Johnson, a former two-time winner of the championship, who came all the way from Minnesota, this time just to spectate. “All the history, the history of the racers. The racers from Canada coming down, it’s always a fun race to come to.”

As for the aforementioned Canadians, their numbers were smaller this year than previous competitions, and none were present for the drawing. However, world class Quebec musher Guy Girard, who arrived in time for the first race on Friday, managed to snag the first-place spot.

“He won’t be here tonight,” said Lakes Region Sled Dog Club vice president Tony Roux, “there’s eight others that normally would be here, but they’re all afraid of COVID. The Canadian restrictions are so heavy they’re afraid they won’t be able to get back home.”

The Canadian absence may have a silver lining for the American competitors.

“The French Canadians have been pretty much the dominant teams in this race in at least half a dozen years.” Roux said. “Other than Keith Bryar.”

Bryar was a world class musher from Moultonborough who passed away from cancer in 2016. His niece, Brittany Colbath, will take on the six-dog class this year. Colbath was present for the drawing, and will be the number six racer.

As for the track itself, race president Jim Lyman expressed a mix of confidence and just a little bit of concern regarding the weekend and recent weather.

“I’m comfortable with my base because we’ve been packing it for weeks, and the Belknap Snowmobile Club has done a great job packing down our trails, but there’s not much we can do about the warm temperatures.” Lyman said. The forecast for Saturday called for temperatures in the 40s, then cooling down for the final races on Sunday. “The warm temperatures are gonna make the top two, three inches soft, it’s going to slow the speeds up, slow the dogs up, but there’s a hard base there, so it’s still real user-friendly on the animals. They’re not going to be sinking down in deep snow. The base is a good base.”

On the first day of the competition, racers gathered across the street from the former Laconia State School property and prepared their teams. The air was filled with a choir of yapping dogs and the clanking of mushing gear.

This time, a pair of Canadians,  Jean Phillipe and veteran racer Guy Girard were present.

“The others could have made it too,” Girard said of his fellow Canadians, “But we have to pass PCR tests to cross back. If we get a positive test, we have to stay here for 10 days.”

This chance of being stuck at the border for 10 days was just too great a risk for the other Canadian racers. “Last night we didn’t go to the draw, we never stop at gas stations or anything like that to be sure we don’t catch it,” Girard said.

When asked if the Americans would finally have a better chance this year due to the large absence of Canadians, Girard laughed and responded with “No! Because we are here!” and gestured towards himself and Phillipe.