Saturday, May 11, 2013

Nunavut Quest

Before the arrival of modern vehicles, aircraft, and sea vessels, the traditional methods of getting around the Arctic were walking, dog teams, and canoes.  Instead of gravel and paved roads, there were trails and paths.  Travelling between communities by dog team still took days due to the sheer size of the land.  Today, the trails and paths are still used by the Inuit, but the sounds of barking dogs have been replaced by the roar of skidoos. 
When people who haven't been to the Arctic look at a map of northern Canada, they immediately assume that the only way to get anywhere is by air and sea.  However, this is not true.  Travelling between communities across the land happens on a daily basis.  It's the same as taking a road trip down south.  You just have to be prepared to spend a night, or several nights, on the land. 
Source: Wikipedia
Dog sled races have been around for a very long time, being the most popular winter sport in the Arctic regions of Canada, the United States, Russia, and Europe.  Similar to rally car racing, the event is a timed competition where participants have to complete a marked course in the least amount of time.  Generally, there are three types of races: sprint, mid-distance, and long-distance.  There are resting points along the course so that the dogs have a chance to rest and eat. 
Despite its popularity, dog sled racing has yet to be given official event status in the Winter Olympics.  It was only a demonstration sport during the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York (1932), and Oslo, Norway (1952).
Nunavut Quest is the annual six-day dog sledding race between Igloolik and Arctic Bay.  The 445-600km mid-distance race takes place in the spring.  The race was created in 1999 to celebrate the creation of Nunavut.  Fifteen mushers and 180 sled dogs participated in the first race on April 13.  The prizes were and still are: $10,000 for first place, $5000 for second, and $2500 for third.  The start and finish lines alternate between the two communities every year.  This year, the race would start from Arctic Bay on April 24.
Just like in Formula One and NASCAR, a dog sled racer (aka musher) cannot survive without a dedicated support crew.  They travel ahead of the team by skidoo, setting up camp at the designated rest points.  With them they drag qamutiqs loaded with food, water, tents, clothes, fuel, medical supplies, and camping equipment. 
Arctic Bay received a steady influx of visitors in the days leading up to the race.  Mushers, support teams, Inuit sled dogs, friends, and families arrived from other northern communities by plane and skidoo.  For many, it would also be a big family reunion.  To welcome all the competitors and visitors, two community feasts were held at the Community Hall on April 19 & 22.  Naturally, I attended both. 

Cutting Arctic char.
The first feast was organized by the health centre staff who arranged the hall to look more like a buffet.  On a line of tables at the front of the hall sat boxes of raw Arctic char & caribou, and trays of various fruit.  The community hall was packed when the feast began at 7pm.  After the opening prayer, Elders lined up first followed by everyone else.  Everyone used large pieces of cardboard boxes as plates.  I picked two chunks of caribou and many pieces of fruit before returning to my seat.  Without hesitation, I flipped out a small knife and started cutting small pieces of caribou and placing them in my mouth.  Several kids watched me eat the raw meat for several minutes before returning to their game.  I think I also caught a few Inuit adults glancing in my direction.  I only ate a little bit of the raw caribou but the amount was much more than the first time.  I was glad to see that my stomach was getting used to the taste of raw meat.  I saved the two pieces of caribou for a later date.
Raw frozen walrus meat.
Traditional Inuit games were played at the Community Hall over the weekend of April 20 & 21.  Unfortunately, I was unable to attend because of school work.  Thankfully, plenty of pictures were taken and posted on Facebook. 

Around the country food they swarm.
The second evening feast followed a more traditional approach with the meats being laid out on a ground sheet in the middle of the Community Hall.  This time, there was caribou, char, aged walrus, and non-aged walrus.  Just like the first feast I attended in February, the adults sat around the food while children ran around and played.  They made sure not to touch the meats.  Just before the feast began, the hunters and several volunteers mixed the meats around so that everyone had a fair chance of getting each type of meat.  Armed with plastic bags and bare hands, everyone pounced on the ground sheet after the conclusion of the opening prayer.  Since I already had two pieces of caribou from the previous feast, I chose to just get a piece of non-aged walrus.  The piece I picked was the ribs.  Trying raw walrus for the first time wasn't as bad as I thought.  It tasted a lot like raw caribou.  I ate quite a bit before saving the rest.

The qualifying race took place on April 22 at 2pm.  Many people headed over to the frozen bay to watch.  Inuujaq School students were escorted down to the ice by their teachers.  Despite my best efforts, I got there just as the final dog team left.  The teams would return in an hour and their recorded times would determine their starting positions.  Several teachers including myself thought the qualifying event would be longer than 15 minutes.  Deciding not to waste the trip, I snapped pictures of the surrounding landscape, Inuit dogs, and people heading back to town.  The teachers & students walked back to school to finish the last period of the day.
Northern Store.
I made sure I would not miss the actual race on April 24.  Thankfully, the event is treated like a holiday and afternoon school was cancelled.  As I quickly ate my lunch, I could see streams of vehicles, skidoos, and people make their way to the starting lines.  Low overcast clouds hung above the bay.  Throwing on my winter outerwear, I walked down to the ice armed with my digital camera.  I got there just before 1pm. 

The weather was much different out in the bay with strong cold winds blowing through.  Despite this, there was plenty of activity.  The eleven competitors were looking after their dogs, support teams were checking their supplies and skidoos, and spectators were walking around snapping pictures and talking to each other.  The support teams were the first to leave, forming a long convoy of skidoos and qamutiqs.  Many waved them goodbye.  The support teams needed at least an hour's head start to get to the first checkpoint and have it prepared.  When they were out of sight, some people went back to town because the race wouldn't start until 2pm.  I chose to stay and snap more photos.
Support Teams leaving for the first checkpoint.
Picture taken by Ryan.
As time marched on, I realized that I should have gone home for lunch so that I could change into warmer clothes.  I was still wearing my work clothes underneath my winter parka and snow pants.  Thankfully, Ryan, the media teacher, showed me what many do to warm up: they sit in a heated vehicle.  You don't even have to know the owner.  It is a generally accepted rule that if you bring a vehicle out on the ice for a special event, you should leave it unlocked and running so that anyone who is cold can sit inside and warm up for a few minutes.  When 2pm neared, I got out of the land rover and positioned myself to catch all the action on my camera.  My battery was running low so I couldn't film any videos.
Mushers still use long whips to keep control of the dogs.  This is necessary because fights can still break out and if a dog gets seriously injured, it has to be put down.  The striking motions were flowing, not forceful. 

When the clock struck 2pm, an announcer with a bullhorn walked out in front of the dog teams and announced in Inuktitut that it was time to start the race.  He started his stop watch when he ordered the first competitor to go.  While his dogs sprinted forward, the first competitor waved goodbye.  The spectators returned the gesture.  The same cycle was repeated every minute.       

There were two exciting and scary moments.  The first happened to musher #5; he fell off his qamutiq but his dogs kept running.  He hopped onto the back of a skidoo which raced off to catch up to the runaway dog team.  When the skidoo driver got side-by-side, musher #5 jumped back onto his qamutiq.  The infraction added five minutes to his overall time.  The second mishap happened to musher #9; one of his dogs refused to run with the rest of the pack.  The dog kept running to the far left, causing him to fall and to be dragged.  What was worse was that this happened repeatedly causing musher #9 to stop every few metres.  I could only hope that that rebellious dog would eventually fall in line.  When all the dog teams were gone, the crowds dispersed for the day.            

All teams arrived in Igloolik on May 3.  The final results were:
First Place: Andy Attagutalukutuk with a time of 38 hours and 34 minutes.
Second Place: Peter Siakuluk with a time of 39 hours.
Third Place: Bob Olayuk with a time of 40 hours.

Dog Team Mural created by Iga's Aulajaaqtut (Wellness) class.

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