HUDSON BAY QUEST SLED DOG RACE 2006
‘What compelled me to enter this race?’ I asked myself, staring at the jumble ice piled up on the mouth of the Churchill River, starting line for the 250 mile long distance race from Churchill, Manitoba to Arviat, Nunavut. In front of me David Oolooyak from Ranklin Inlet, Nunavut, winner of the 1st Hudson Bay Quest in 2004 spread out his sealskin harnesses in front of the toggles of his fan hitch. Next to me Andrew Panagoniak from Arviat tied his harpoon to his qamutik. “If a polar bear comes, I wait until he stands up. Then I take this stick and push it in his heart,” he explains with a smile as if there’s nothing to it. Amongst the twelve competitors that were getting ready for the race I myself simply stood there and looked around. I felt like the tourists that came to watch the start. After the first team had left I still couldn’t believe I was in this race. My short haired Alaskan Huskies looked out of place in comparison with the fluffy, furry Inuit dogs. The Hudson Bay Quest brings together mushers and dogs from Churchill, Canada’s Polar Bear Capital with Inuit mushers from Nunavut. This year I was amongst the four southern ‘kabloona’ teams as Inuit call the non-Inuit people that had the opportunity to join this celebration of Arctic life and sled dog culture - thanks to Gardewine North who sponsored the train transport of the dogs from Thompson, Manitoba to Churchill. Designed as a self-sufficient dog sledding adventure, racers have to carry their own supplies and dog food for the duration of the race. Canadian Rangers organize the 5 checkpoints along the trail and help teams to mush their dogs back to Churchill or Arviat, whichever is closest if they want to drop out of the race. Thanks to Calm Air - the Quest’s main sponsor - teams don’t have to mush back once they get to Arviat, but are flown back by the generous flight company that serves the remote communities of Canada’s far north. At 9:27 a.m. on April 1st my team left the start line, crossed the Churchill River to a portage, that leads into Button Bay. From there on, there would be no trees, no roads, no communities, only snow and ice all the way to Arviat. Temperatures were slightly above freezing. I tried to slow my team down and stopped regularly to let them eat snow, waiting for Quincy Miller, fellow dog musher and my partner, who had left 4 minutes after me to catch up. Our plan was to travel together. Quincy had the faster team on a hard packed trail, that was easy to follow. My team was slower, but stronger and I had the better command leaders. Our strategy was that Quincy would lead if we could follow a trail and I would break trail if there wasn’t one. Travelling across Button Bay went smoothly, even though the terrain was rough. Jumble ice and ice heaves demanded constant attention to steering and slowing down in time that the dogs feet wouldn’t get caught in crevasses. After crossing the bay the trail followed the shoreline, across frozen tundra and windswept lakes that showed crystal clear ice. Quincy took over the lead and two hours after the start we reached ‘North River Checkpoint’. We left shortly behind Charlie Lundi from Churchill and were followed by Burton Penner from Vermillion Bay, Ontario and his dog mushing partner Dick Whicker from Indianapolis, Indiana.In the mushers meeting prior to the race start we were told that we had to expect tidal overflow at the delta of the South and North Knife rivers. So I wasn’t surprised to hit water. I saw Quincy ahead of me balancing on the handle bar, feet in the air. I tried the same and got across the first stream with dry feet. The water got deeper, the trail was washed out and Quincy’s team turned the wrong way. He told me to go by, but my dogs went to visit his. He grabbed my leaders and tried to point them the right way, slipping on the bare ice, washed smoother than a skating rink by 8” of salty water on top of it. I was still balancing on my handlebar hoping to stay dry, but the sled had sunk into the ice and I had to help the dogs to get it out. We got going again, the dogs were pleasantly cooled off from the water and we were unpleasantly wet. Meanwhile Burton and Dick had passed us, while Charlie’s dogs buggered off with him towards the ocean.The trail finally turned to dry land again, following the rugged shore line over ice and exposed rock. We caught up to a group of four mushers looking like a giant centipede crawling over a white carpet. Right ahead of me was Andy Kowtak from Arviat, running his dogs in fan-hitch. I had always wondered, what it would be like to pass a team that is 10’ wide. Would my dog pass them at all or think “hey, there’s a bunch of free running dogs, let’s go and visit.” They passed like they passed any other team: Africa, one of my team dogs putting the breaks on and trying to sit down and Pompey, one of my two main leaders, picking up speed and dragging everyone stubbornly right past. Andy’s team kept going without trying to eat my team, which I was secretly afraid of. None of his dogs even growled or barked. Shortly after 5 p.m. Gerald Azure from Churchill, Burton, Dick, Andy, Charlie, Quincy and I arrived at ‘Long Point Checkpoint’, where Dave Daley from Churchill, race organizer and racer, was resting his dogs. Three of the four Inuit mushers had left when Dave had pulled in. Andy Kowtak dropped two dogs and followed them. The only one missing was George Sinclair from Churchill. Nobody had passed him nor seen him. Barking dogs that were heard further inland by several mushers, led to the assumption that he was lost. We heard later that he reached the first checkpoint and from there phoned the rescue line and was recovered by three snow machines taking him and his dogs back to Churchill.While the dogs where resting, the wind picked up. Mushers debated whether to travel on after a couple of hours rest or wait until next morning. The Canadian Rangers checked the weather report. The wind was supposed to pick up over night gusting 60 km/h and drop again in the morning. We decided to wait for day light. That night I was comfortably warm in my Ajungilak sleeping bag, that was amongst the high quality winter camping gear Globetrotter Ausrüstung had sponsored me. I could hear the wind howling around our tent and then the dogs barking. Something was out there. My heart beat. Quincy opened the tent and immediately Vicious stuck her head through the opening. She walked into the tent and laid down as if that’s where she slept each night. We were so relieved not to find a polar bear sticking his head in our tent that we didn’t object.Between Long Point and Nunalla, the next checkpoint, thousands of migrating caribou were sighted on the trail. The Inuit mushers, who hunt caribou by dog team had expressed their concerns about their dogs wanting to chase them. None of us knew how our dogs would react. Burton, Dick, Charlie, Gerald, Quincy and I decided to travel together until we had passed the caribou. Visibility was poor and the wind was blowing snow over the trail. The caribou turned out to be the least thing to worry about. The trail was becoming more difficult to find, trail markers were so far apart that we couldn’t see from one marker to the next. Burton lead our group. Home in Ontario he runs his trap line by dog team and takes tourists on extended winter camping trips off the beaten trail. His dogs were used to running without trails and listened very well to his commands, but they got tired of running in the ever increasing wind. He asked me to take turn leading. I tried my best to follow the trail, but wasn’t able to see it. Although my leaders listen to commands, I couldn’t tell them where to go. Burton, who has travelled in the Arctic before gave me a good advice: ‘Never look ahead in a white out. Look down next to your wheel dogs, where your eyes have some contrast to the white and it will be easier to see the trail.’ It helped, but I still had difficulties, especially when the weather conditions worsened. We stopped the teams. Clueless, we looked at each other. What now? I didn’t want to make my dogs run into a wind so strong that I could barely walk against it. I knew they couldn’t do it for another 40 some miles. Charlie wanted to quit. He tried phoning the rangers to come and pace him with the snowmobile back to the last checkpoint. None of our satellite phones received a signal. Our life line was cut. “Let’s go back to that old trailer a few miles back,” Charlie suggested. We turned around; Burton’s team leading, behind him Gerald, who had recorded our trail on his GPS and directed Burton. We found the trailer and after we staked the dogs out, we shovelled out the snow, put windows back in, hung tarps over holes: a shelter at last. We tied the dogs that wouldn’t bury themselves in the snow to the trailer to protect them from the wind. Iginla, who still hadn’t settled down hours later, was allowed inside where he hid under the rusty remains of an iron bed. Inside Charlie kept our mood up with his good humoured stories. Outside the storm howled and raged and shook the trailer, but sometime during the night it calmed down. The third day of the race started clear and sunny. The wind had blown most of the snow away, only the occasional drift was left behind. Old tracks were well visible in the contrast of light and shadow. We left shortly after first daylight. The dogs were happy to run again. Charlie decided to follow us to Nunalla, knowing the ranger’s Bombardier with the jumper dog box would be there and would give him and his dogs a ride instead of having to mush back to Churchill. The going was easy for all, but Quincy. All three stanchions of his basket sled had snapped from ferrying the heavy loaded sled around jumble ice and leaning on the handlebar crossing the delta. One runner was leaning dangerously inward and all that was holding the sled together were sinew ties, 3 tent pegs and his brake. Quincy was standing with both feet on the left runner and pulling the weight over with his right hand. Not daring to step on his brake he passed team after team, shouted, “I can’t stop” and was gone. He quickly became a small dot on the horizon. Caribou tracks were all over the trail. The dogs ears perked up, they picked up speed and were not going to stop anymore. Three caribou had passed right in front of us. Frank thought for a second about chasing, but Pompey went on. From the down wind side hundreds and hundreds of caribou came into sight. Every once in a while a dog tried to chase, but luckily never all ten at the same time. I could see qamutik tracks constantly leading on and off the trail, but Quincy’s tracks stayed put. It was the fastest run all of us had during the race. The dogs were literary flying, with their noses and tails up in the air.Quincy arrived 20 minutes ahead of me at the old Hudson Bay Trading Post of Nunalla. The square main building was in remarkably good shape and the rangers had made it into a comfortable check point where they welcomed us with tea and coffee. We were supposed to have a mandatory rest of 6 hours at the Checkpoint. Since we hadn’t travelled very far yet and were way behind the five leading teams, who had travelled throughout the first night and sat out the worst part of the storm in Nunalla, the rangers offered us to add the 6 hours to our total time and to go on when we were ready. Charlie scratched at Nunalla looking forward to the Bombardier ride. His sled continued the race with Quincy, who gladly left his broken one with Charlie. The remaining five teams continued until late that night pushing hard to get to ‘Big River Checkpoint’, hoping to find some shelter. The Checkpoint turned out to be a red flag in the snow and three rangers waiting to take our time.When we pulled into the checkpoint, Andrew Panagoniak, this year’s 1st place winner and 74-year old Phillip Kigusiutnak were in Arviat already, a day earlier than in the previous years. During the night David Oolooyak and Andy Kowtak, followed by Dave Daley crossed the finish line. For the five teams still in the race a long day lay ahead. After a detour inland to get around the open water of the Thlewiaza River, known to the Inuit as ‘Big River’ we were back on the coast heading for Arviat followed by a big, blue rain cloud. The rain never caught us, but shortly after our midday break, the 2nd storm hit us. By now I had learned, not to look too far ahead. One other thing I noticed: The dogs would always loose the trail down wind, which was to the right. Now, navigation seemed easy. Whenever I couldn’t see any tracks, I told the dogs “haw, haw, haw” until I saw tracks or the dogs found the scent of the trail. I stayed in lead for most of the time, but when visibility worsened I lost the main trail. Nobody had noticed where I had lost it. But none of us had seen any dog tracks or pee for quite a while, our only reassurance that we were going the right way since the trail markers had stopped shortly after the last checkpoint. While we were debating if we should turn around, trying to find the main trail or run by GPS, we saw a snowmobile passing by. We waved until it turned our way. Peter, who had been wolf hunting led us back to the main trail. Chasing Peter gave my team a break from leading, but the wind grew constantly stronger and each time I stopped, my leaders turned around quicker than I could grab them. They had enough, they wanted to go home. And home, they thought, was back. By dark we reached the trail of the challengers, big machines on rubber tracks that had left deep ruts in the trail. The trail was chewed up, slow going for the dogs, but impossible to lose. The teams spread out further and further. Each time I waited, I was having more difficulties to get my leaders going again. Finally I decided to go ahead. The clouds blew away and in the distance the lights of Arviat became visible. At least I could see now where I was going. At one point Pompey must have also decided that the lights were where he was heading to. When the challenger trail became rough and slushy, he pulled the whole team over a three foot ridge, left the trail and headed straight for the lights. The snow was hard packed and going was easy. The dogs picked up speed and kept a steady pace for miles and miles and miles. The lights stayed in the distance. At the mushers meeting we were told to turn left about 7 miles south of Arviat at a big drum. ‘You can’t miss it.’ Since Pompey seemed to know where we were going, I told him: “Turn left at the drum. You can’t miss it!” He did miss it. We hit a 10' wall of snow. I had no clue what was behind. Was I on the sea-ice? Was this the town dump? Pompey was already on top the mountain, so I had no choice but pushing my sled up to follow him. Behind the wall was the runway of the airport. Good, we were close to the finish line. But where was it? I saw the headlights of a truck and drove my team up. “Where is the finish line for the sled dog race?” I screamed against the storm. “Here. Welcome to Arviat.” I would like to end this story with a tale of a glorious musher’s banquet and the dogs happily resting protected from the wind. But the happy ending of this story had to wait. I have heard that the mushers banquet was indeed glorious, but it was over by the time the last teams arrived and the dogs were staked out at the airport. There was no shelter from the wind for the dogs and there wouldn’t be for the following days, where temperatures dropped and the wind never stopped howling. The Churchill teams were flown out the same night. The four remaining teams had to wait for the next freighter and the weather conditions to get better. During the race we were able to dry out the dog coats after each night in the wind. After camping out two nights in a row, they were frozen stiff, giving the dogs little warmth. It was a huge relief to see the freighter of Calm Air landing after three storm bound days. And it was a huge relief to see our dogs back in Churchill, where the temperatures were warmer and the dogs could run around in the spacious dog yard that the race organization had set up. Those last days in Arviat were the toughest of the whole race and although I would not want to miss the experience of this truly exceptional race, I not only think that my short haired Alaskan Huskies looked out of place, I know now they were out of place. This is a race for the musher dedicated to wilderness travel and for dogs with thick, furry coats. eMiriam Körner is a freelance writer and photographer. She lives with her sled dogs at Potato Lake, Saskatchewan and guides dog sledding and canoeing adventures for “Paws’n’Paddles Wilderness Tours”. She enjoys winter camping by dog team and wilderness racing.