HUDSON BAY QUEST 2007

“If only I had a qamutik…” Racing at the Edge of the ArcticThe temperatures were above zero, unusually warm for the Arctic, when fourteen mushers from Nunavut, Manitoba, Quebec and Saskatchewan lined up at the start line in Arviat, Nunavut for the 4th annual Hudson Bay Quest on Saturday, March 24th. The dogs were eager to go and excited barking filled the air. Teams using the tandem hitch started first, followed by the seven Inuit mushers from Arviat and Rankin Inlet, who run their teams with qamutiks and fan-hitches. This way – so race officials had hoped – the risks of tangles would be reduced. Little did they know about the qamutiks! With no breaks, other than snow hooks, the Inuit racers left the start line like sprinters. Even though mushers set off in two minute intervals it wasn’t long into the 400 km race along Hudson Bay’s coast before David Oolooyuk, Bib # 8, started passing the tandem teams. When rookie Ed Obrecht, alias “Ed the Sled,” from Quebec, Bib # 2, saw David’s wide spread team approaching, he became nervous. He had never encountered a fan-hitch on the trail, but vividly remembered what people from the South had warned him about: “Watch out for those ferocious, man-eating Eskimo dogs!” He had fallen for one of the most wide-spread myths about Inuit dogs, but found out quickly that they are no more aggressive nor any different than most dogs in the Hudson Bay Quest. Nowadays, Inuit dogs are Alaskan Huskies with a little bit more fur and a little less hound than the southern breeds. Ed had stopped his team, and while he was trying to pull his leaders off the trail, David’s team passed Ed’s sled – one half of the team on the left side, the other one on the right side. The tangle was beyond anything he had ever seen, but to his relief the dogs did not start to eat him. Both mushers were throwing dogs over and under their lines to separate their teams. Soon Ed learned his second lesson about racing against the Inuit: The qamutik, suitable for navigating through rough jumble ice and running along rocky beaches barely covered with snow, is a much tougher sled than the stanchion sled. When David took off after successfully sorting out the two teams, the 12′ long and six inch high runner of his qamutik hit Ed’s sled and his runner snapped off – leaving Ed, now “Ed the broken Sled,” behind cursing in at least two different languages. Due to the unusually warm temperatures the trail was soft and slow going. Nevertheless, the 14 teams kept moving fast, worried about the weather forecast that predicted rising temperatures with a possibility of rain. “I was dead scared of the rain,” said Quincy Miller from Saskatchewan, who was running the race for the second time. “Rain in the Arctic is the worst weather condition I could imagine. Dogs have a tough time running in high humidity and once mushers and dogs are wet, drying out is next to impossible. If it then turns cold it can become a life threatening situation.” Quincy arrived at Nunalla, an abandoned Hudson’s Bay Company trading post, roughly at the half way point in 3rd position. Ahead of him were David Oolooyuk, winner of the inaugural race, and 26 year old Darryl Baker on his first Quest. More and more teams pulled in during the night. The sky was clear and the northern lights were dancing above the mushers sleeping in their sled bags, looking after their dogs, setting up tents or – in Ed’s case – trying to fix broken sleds. After their mandatory six hour rest, the three leading teams left the Nunalla checkpoint to get as far as possible during the cool morning hours. Quincy left first. While he was pulling out of the checkpoint, his sled came to a sudden stop. A rope was tangled on his break and without spending any thoughts to it, he undid it and was out of sight within seconds. The excited barking of his dogs had prevented him from hearing the furious swearing from two wolf hunters, who had set up their canvas tent earlier that night. When Darryl Baker caught up to Quincy, he learned the whole story. The rope that was caught in Quincy’s break was a rope from a 20′ qamutik, that the wolf hunters pulled behind their snowmobile. They had tied their tent to it and when Quincy took off, he pulled the qamutik through their tent and the barely dressed hunters woke up under the stars, swearing that from now they would hunt the one who pulled down their tent. Darryl was still laughing about the episode hours later, when he told Quincy the story. The wolf hunters, he reassured Quincy, had a good laugh themselves after they got over the initial shock. The three leading teams continued the race together. When the sun got too hot for the dogs to run in comfortably, they camped. Dogs slept with their legs far spread out, trying to cool off in the snow. Darryl and David offered Quincy some of their frozen caribou fat and stomach mixed with dried caribou, but Quincy was as reluctant to try out the northern specialty as they were taking a piece of his pineapple trail snack. While waiting for the dog water to melt, the mushers were sitting in t-shirts in the sun shine. “There was barely a cloud in the sky,” remembers Quincy, “but Darryl knew already that a rainstorm was on its way. ‘It’s gonna rain’ he said ‘and it’s gonna be bad.’” The teams moved on, the sky quickly clouding over. “The rain hit so hard, I could see fish swimming in it,” tells Quincy. Within minutes dogs, mushers and gear were soaking wet. The trail, already soft from the heat, turned from bad to worse. Tidal overflow would not freeze as usual, but lay hidden under the snow, creating unwanted swimming pools for the rain drenched mushers. “Trail conditions were really bad. The visibility was poor and tidal overflow forced us to pick a different route. I was traveling with David and Darryl and was really glad for their company. One of our three teams would stay on the trail, the other two would venture out on either side, looking for the next trail marker. The one who found it would signal the other two teams to follow.” Quincy was impressed by the way the Inuit dogs listened. David’s fan turned immediately to his commands in one fluid movement. Every now and then he had to untangle their lines. He would tell his dogs to lay down, and while he unhooked the whole team from the sled, teams could pass by and his the dogs would not get excited. Each musher seemed to have different commands for their dogs – mostly short one or two syllable guttural sounds. When David was asked how he would train his dogs to listen, he answered with a quizzical expression on his face: “We talk dog.” Puppies are taught from an early age to lay down and -if a danger call is made- to run and hide in their houses. As for running in a fan hitch, it appears to be more natural to the dogs. Dogs are pack animals and the fan allows them to run like a pack. The long tug lines give the dogs more freedom to move and going over rough terrain is smoother for the dog that doesn’t get jerked by his short tug line or neckline. Not only does the fan hitch have its advantages, but also the sled itself. While the southern racers had to endure long hours on the back of their runners, Darryl was seen laying on his qamutik smoking a pipe in all comfort – when the weather was still good. Just after dark, rain turned to snow. The wind picked up to 80km/h and the situation started to get nasty for the ten teams that were still in the race at that time. Four mushers had already scratched and were accompanied back to safety by the Canadian Rangers, the race’s invaluable volunteers. Nobody wanted their dogs to camp out with the ice built up in their furs and no way to dry out. Quincy, David and Darryl decided to push on, hoping to get to the finish line Sunday night. The distance between the three teams started to grow. Tidal overflow was more and more challenging to see in the dark and before Quincy, who was in lead, knew what was happening he found himself in waist deep water. If a team hooked up in a fan hitch encounters leads or unsafe ice and one of the lead dogs breaks through, the dogs can spread out and get back onto safe ice. The lead dogs in a tandem hitch, pull the whole string of dogs with them into the water. Quincy’s dogs pulled out of their collars trying desperately to get to dry shore. He was able to calm his team down, but he couldn’t get his sled out by himself. Quincy gave his lead dogs a belly-rub and told them: “Come on guys. Let’s go!” The dogs instinctively knew they had to, and even though they were tired they pulled the sled up from under the water and back on the ice. At that time he had only one thought in mind, to get “the hell out of there”. Camping on the sea ice did not seem appealing and he kept moving to stay warm for his own and the dogs sake.At 10:35 pm on Sunday night Quincy Miller won the Hudson Bay Quest after 37 hours and 57 minutes of racing in the thawing snow and ice at the edge of the Arctic. David Oolooyuk from Rankin Inlet followed an hour later, and late at night Darryl Baker from Arviat made it back to safety. The remaining seven teams followed on Monday and Tuesday. During the banquet on Wednesday, Darryl, who had enjoyed traveling with Quincy, remarked that “Quincy was the eleventh dog. He worked hard all the way, standing up all the time.” With a smile in face he added: “You need a qamutik” and with these words he gave Quincy his qamutik as a leaving present. Although Quincy is extremely grateful for the gift, he is not quite sure if it was given to him out of compassion or to slow him down for next year’s race… In any case, Quincy is looking forward to meeting his trail companions again in the 2008 race, with or without qamutik – depending on how the training runs on the sled without brakes go.To find out more about the Hudson Bay Quest visit www.hudsonbayquest.com. Calm Air (www.calmair.com), the race’s main sponsor offers great seat sales during Quest time to see the racers take off at the start and arrive at the finish line.Miriam 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 ran the Hudson Bay Quest in 2006 and followed this year’s Quest by bombardier as a photographer.

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