ARCTIC ODYSSEY: THE 2008 HUDSON BAY QUEST

Raging Blizzards, Whiteouts, Waist Deep OverflowOver the years the Hudson Bay Quest had been tough on mushers and dogs. But if you think it couldn’t get any worse, the Arctic will teach you otherwise. The winter on Hudson Bay’s coast had been fierce. Temperatures hovered around minus 50˚ Celsius. The unforgiving wind constantly howled over the tundra until lakes and ponds were as polished as skating rinks, leaving the tundra bare in many spots. Where the snow stuck, the tongue-like drifts were hard as rock.The morning of the race start was crisp and sunny. Nineteen teams set out on March 24th for the 5th annual Hudson Bay Quest. With a temperature of −18˚C and the forecast calling for sunshine, mushers were hoping to be spared the annual blizzard that dutifully called in year after year. Out on the Hudson Bay, the jumble ice had created rugged ice sculptures, reaching majestically into the blue sky. For years I had dreamed of traveling in the Arctic by qamatiq. This year my dream had come true: I was running the sled given to us by Darryl Baker from Arviat. The 12 foot long sled runners took the roughness out of the trail and the sled rode smoothly and was stable. I was sitting comfortably on my sleeping bag, wrapped in a warm caribou anorak and sipping a quickly freezing juice package. “That’s the way to travel,” I thought.The trouble started when the trail led inland across glare tundra ponds and lakes. As soon as my lead dogs stepped on the ice, their legs flew every which way. When they stumbled back to their feet, they took me on a wild ride around the ice over hard frozen drifts. My qamatiq was bouncing behind, getting airborne at times and I was hanging on for dear life – without a brake. I commanded my dogs to run straight across the ice, but as soon as half of them were dragging on their bellies, the rest would stop. Trying to stay on my feet, I untangled the mess, but before I got back to my sled, the dogs were piled up again. The dogs’ legs were shaking. Foot by foot we made our way across the glare ice. As soon as we hit the trail again, the dogs took off full blast. Until the next pond… My average speed dropped from 10 miles an hour to 2 mph. Dark fell before I reached Catton Lake checkpoint, 80 miles into the race.With trail markers every half kilometer, the trail was better marked than in any of the previous races. Nonetheless, the ‘reflective’ yellow paint barely showed in the light of my head lamp. I was worried about losing the trail at night and waited for Burton Penner. I knew his leaders would not have trouble following the trail across the ice. But running together is not that easy if you are trying to stay behind with the faster team and no brake on your sled. Screaming ‘watch out!’ as my qamatiq came dangerously close to his team, I passed and stayed ahead until I lost the trail. Again I tried to follow Burton, then passed and was re-passed on a stretch of glare ice, where my dogs… You know it by now. From there on I stayed behind. Stop and go. The half way checkpoint did not seem to come any closer. When Burton’s dogs grew tired, he stopped. I offered to lead, but Burton just asked “All the way to the next pond?” We spent a miserable, sleepless night curled up behind our sleds, as temperatures had dropped far below −30˚C. At first daylight we quickly tended to our dogs. I ran ahead again. The dogs were getting better at carefully passing over the glare ice, or so I thought. When we reached a little island of snow right in the middle of a small lake crossing, the dogs huddled up together, refusing to move. It was a sunny morning, and after the endless-seeming cold night, I sat down with my dogs. I was running out of energy. The fierce cold, sleep deprivation, the battles on the glare ice, and being scared of not finding my way across the vastness of the Arctic landscape, all of a sudden overwhelmed me. ‘Stay here until you get bored and then we run to Nunalla and scratch,’ I told my dogs. They didn’t seem to get bored. In fact, my dogs climbed on the qamatiq and made themselves comfortable beds. I carried dog by dog back to their spots in team and gave them time to gain confidence on the slippery ground. An hour later the dogs ran the last stretch to Nunalla fairly sure-footedly straight across the glare ice.When I announced at the checkpoint that I intended to scratch, there was no dog box to transport my team back to either community. “Someone dropped the box last year on the land. We are still looking for it.” I looked at my dogs exposed to the wind. “What’s the weather forecast?” “Minus 44 and blowing.” My knees started to wobble. I thought I was safe, but safety was still another 100 miles down the trail. “How’s Big River?” I asked. “Good. Really good. The trail goes way out on the sea ice.” “No overflow?” “Nope. And not so much glare ice any more either. It’s gonna be easier from now on.” I had set my mind on scratching, but was undecided now. My dogs were in good condition; it was the musher who wasn’t tough enough.When the Inuit mushers heard I wanted to scratch, they encouraged me to keep going. Moses Kigusiutnak brought me a windbreaker to wear over my caribou anorak, “For the cold.” And Peter Mamgark promised me a pair of seal skin mitts if I finished the race. I knew people would be looking out for me if I continued. My mandatory layover was over, so I packed up, watered, and snacked my dogs. The vet quickly looked at my dogs when I had arrived. I mean that literally. He looked, asked if everything was good and excused himself as he was cold. Then he came back. “Here are some painkillers for your dogs when you get injuries.” He was not kidding. I got upset. “I would never run an injured dog.” He stuffed the pills in my pocket. “Just take them.” Last year it had already upset me that mushers were using baby aspirin for their dogs without being disqualified. I had hoped the vets and race organization would have learned from the arguments we had. Instead, they gave out drugs for everyone. I felt sorry for the other mushers’ dropped dogs at this forlorn place, but I was happy to be with my dogs out on the trail again.Temperatures were dropping constantly as we were running into the night, a long chain of head lamps blinking ahead in the distance. Each time we passed a team my dogs sped up with new energy. The night was clear and the northern lights danced above. A few miles down the trail I ran into teams setting up camp. We were getting close to Big River, but nobody dared the crossing in the dark. Burton and Steve invited me into their tent. Exhausted and thankful I crawled into my sleeping bag, but sleep did not come. It was bitterly cold and I could not relax. With the first daylight I got up. My fingertips were frostbitten and doing anything with my hands became a painful chore. I watched the four Inuit teams leaving silently one after the other into the rising sun. “Hurry up,” I thought, but my hands didn’t move any faster. I was the last team leaving our night camp.The trail across the river was good, until my lead dogs jumped into the water. The team followed. For crying out loud, they won’t set a step on glare ice, but run right into the water in freezing −40˚C. For luck the water was only up to their bellies. I still had dry feet thanks to my sealskin kamiks, but my sled had a smooth layer of ice around the runners. A small set of rapids was flowing over the slush. Mist was rising out of the river. “This is no good,” I thought and turned the dogs west to try to run around the water, but then remembered not to go inland, but further out. Before I got my team turned around again, I saw Ed the Sled approaching. “Turn right, there’s water.” He ran straight towards me. While his dogs were visiting mine, Ed walked up to the water and stuck his foot in there. “It’s really water. Didn’t look like it,” he said. “That’s what my dogs thought,” I pointed at their ice covered legs and bellies. We went around the overflow and I left Ed behind. Hardly back on the trail another stream blocked the pathway. Again, I went out towards the flow edge. I was scared to run into overflow I couldn’t bypass while my way back would be cut off by the fast incoming water. I called my dogs up to a faster pace and we quickly left the river behind. After we passed Burton and Steve again, my dogs started to lose their enthusiasm. Tobi got diarrhea. When I caught up to Peter ahead of me, we took a break together. “How cold is it?” I asked. “Oh, it’s warm.” he said. “What temperature?” “I don’t know, but it’s warm.” “What about last night?” I asked. “Oh, last night was cold. Really cold. How come you didn’t lose your voice?” Only then I noticed that his voice was toneless and he talked with great effort. I was cold until we stopped. But yes, it felt warm now. I decided that that was what was wrong with Tobi: He was too hot. I took off dog coats and the dogs curled up in the sunshine. Later on I found out the high for the day was −33˚C, but after running through −44˚C, Peter, the dogs and I agreed: It was warm.Peter waved as I passed him and when I turned around I saw his dogs against the late afternoon sun, passing a field of ancient Inukshuks. I felt safe and relaxed and for the first time I thought about racing. But soon the hamlet of Arviat came into sight. I could hear the rustling noises of town. My dogs ran flat out toward the finish line. There was barely snow on the ground, my hook did not grip, and bouncing along I ran straight through the finish until people grabbed my dogs and sled.Kids came running carrying straw and helped me to bed down the dogs. My friends in Arviat were waiting with a hot meal. With the last light of the day old Philip came in, celebrated by every child and adult. Tired, but happy, he was lifted up on his qamatiq so everyone in the cheering crowd could see him.David Oolooyuk of Rankin Inlet claimed the championship in this year’s race, 2nd was Darryl Baker of Arviat and 3rd Ernest Azure of Churchill. I came in 7th. But for most mushers the important experience was the companionship of the trail and being back to safety at last. When the most sportsman-like mushers were nominated, everyone had met someone special out on the unforgiving land. Outstanding though was Philip, who helped Charlie Lundi to undress and crawl in his sleeping bag when tiredness and arthritis pain disabled him to look after himself. “I felt old Philip had adopted me right there on the spot,” said Charlie and the sportsmanship award went to Philip.The race was over. Mushers and dogs were safe. Or were they? A musher who had scratched at Nunalla finally ran his team to Arviat when he realized no Bombardier with dog box would come. Another musher, in an attempt to bring his team closer to Arviat, had left one of his injured dogs at Nunalla, and took another musher’s dropped dog instead with no protest from the vet. A dog froze his leg as a result of an injury and had to be put down by the vet. Another dog bit his line south of Nunalla and was left behind: his musher finished the race without penalty. But the biggest shock came when the last volunteers arrived in Arviat with the dropped dogs: Burton’s two dogs were missing. “There was one more dog, but we couldn’t catch it,” the Canadian Rangers explained. Where was the other one? Nobody had kept track of the dropped dogs, but the fact remained: Burton’s dogs were not there. While a storm was moving in Burton went in vain to every single dog yard in town hoping his dogs had followed his trail to Arviat.Trail boss Claude Daudet offered to Burton to travel back to Churchill by snow machine, Lorne and Mike of Arviat volunteered to accompany them for a safer journey. The storm closed in and the search crew was forced to set up camp at Big River. When they made it to Nunalla the next day, there were no fresh dog tracks. Burton had to leave without his dogs. Two days later we were back home. I had nightmares day after day, dreaming my dogs were somewhere out in a blizzard and I couldn’t find them. Relieved, I would awake in my bed at home, with our dogs howling happily in the dog yard. But where were Burton’s dogs?Lorne found them by Big River on his way back to Arviat, but he could only reach one. Deep overflow separated him from the second dog. Two days later and more than a week after he was left behind at Nunalla, the dog showed up in Churchill. How did he find the way across the rivers? What did they live off? And, above all, what went through their faithful little hearts in search of Burton?After three years of running the Hudson Bay Quest, I continue to hope that dog care will improve in this race, but until then I know I will not return with my dogs. But I also know I will be back to visit. The Arctic is an intriguing place: She might come across you as a forbidden beauty or the unleashed beast, but once she’s laid her grip on you, you will be captured forever. L

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