In March 1972, the 3rd St. Vital Scouts gathered at Laberrier Park, just south of Winnipeg’s Perimeter Highway, for a day of activities inspired by the Klondike Gold Rush. In March 2022, 40 teams, of over 200 Cubs and Scouts accompanied by dozens of Scouters and volunteers, brought their sleds to Camp Amisk – across the street from LaBerrier Park – for the 50th running of the Manitoba Klondike Derby.
The Klondike Derby concept is simple: youth pull a sled to Dawson City – also known as headquarters – and receive their map. The town “mayor” collects their food bank contributions, confirms that everyone is dressed for the weather and has their team identification and flag displayed, and checks their enthusiasm level. “Are you READY???” The starting pistol sounds and the team races to their first stop. They return to Dawson City four or five hours later with a sack of gold nuggets earned for achieving goals at the 10 towns on the trail.
Klondike Derby tasks are based, sometimes loosely, on the challenges that faced prospectors seeking riches during the Klondike Gold Rush. “The snow is melting and there is a risk of flooding. Find a way to raise your sled off the ground so it doesn’t get washed away.” “A member of your team has become lost. Lash together a flag pole to help him find his way back to you.” “Your teammate has fallen and injured her leg. Deal with her injuries and transport her back to camp.”
Good Scouting skills – the ability to tie knots, read a compass, follow a map and light a fire – contribute to a Klondike Derby team’s success. Some groups build much of their winter Scouting program on improving these skills. Of even greater importance are team work and communication. When youth encourage each other, work together to solve the challenges, and focus on fun, they finish the course with smiles and a sense of pride in a job well-done.
It is the youths’ smiles that keep the Klondike volunteers returning every year. The mayor and staff at Klondike Derby towns are primarily Venturers and Rovers, the majority of whom ran the course as participants when they were Cubs and Scouts. Almost universally, they report that helping younger youth have the same fun experience they had is what gives them the greatest satisfaction.
One town team did admit that snacks help too. It is not unusual for Klondike teams to offer a “bribe” to the mayor in exchange for favorable scoring. A participating Pathfinder (Girl Guides) team was known for bringing home-baked cookies to each town and anything chocolate is always well-received. While the incentives don’t affect the official scores, they are a big part of the fun and get everyone laughing. And they let the town volunteers know that the teams appreciate their efforts.
Klondike Derbies are not unique to Manitoba: they occur throughout Canada and the USA. What is probably unique to Manitoba is the March weather. In 50 years, the Klondike Derby has only been cancelled once, by Covid in 2021. Weather has never stopped it, though it has certainly presented enormous challenges. In 1983, 16 teams were unable to finish the course because of rain. Two weeks of unseasonably warm weather in 2000 – it was +17C on Derby day – inspired some teams to add wheels to their sleds. A morning temperature of -39C (not counting wind chill) in 2014 resulted in 29 of 43 teams cancelling. Extra precautions were implemented to keep the survivors safe. Near-record snow fall this year almost brought about the second consecutive cancellation. Hurculean efforts of the Klondike Derby organizers, aided by the loan of some heavy equipment, managed to clear roads and paths to allow the event to continue.
The Manitoba Klondike Derby has evolved over its 50 years. The original six towns became 10. Cubs have been part of the event since 1974 and Girl Guides began participating in 1985. A short-lived event for Venturers lasted from 1975-1981. The derby moved to Seine River Provincial Park in 1974, then moved again in 1998 when a highway expansion closed the park. For a while, Scouts used backpacks to carry their gear instead of a sled. As many as 105 teams have competed in a Klondike Derby, though this year’s 40 team compliment is now average. Rope bridge, tire swing and fire lighting towns are part of nearly all courses and youth frequently identify one of these three as their favorite town – along with the lunch stop. All other activities change each year to keep the event fresh.
Teams all over Manitoba travel to Winnipeg for the Klondike Derby, some from as far as 800 km away. In 2020, the Klondike Derby was, for many groups, the last thing they did together before the world shut down. The camaraderie and team spirit that carried them through the Klondike Derby also carried them through months of lock-down and uncertainty. When they were finally allowed to be together again, they continued where they left off – friends sharing a common purpose.
Thank you to the amazing team who work so hard to make the Manitoba Klondike Derby happen. It is an incredible event that brings incredible results.