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The first camp site on the trail. Photo: Sanguya
Akunnirmuit Nunavut Quest, Part 1
April 23-40, 2012
As told by dog teamer Jolie Sanguya
(edited by Sheri Gearheard)
While there is still only the one, original Nunavut Quest, in the last two years this race has taken place on the west side of Baffin Island and very far for communities on the east side of the island to attend. So communities on the east side decided to hold their own, more regional race called the "Akunnirmiut Nunavut Quest", now in in its second year. Ed.
Beginning in the Fall of 2011 and throughout the winter, two Nunavut community committees that support dog sledding, Isuraqtujuq (meaning pack leaders of the team) in Clyde River and Qimualajut (meaning serious hard, fast pulling of the team) in Qikiqtarjuaq, worked hard to raise funds for the Akunnirmiut Nunavut Quest dog sled race. This fundraising allowed for the purchase of gasoline, oil, kerosene and other supplies for the racers and support crews for the whole dog team race. The purpose of the race was for us, the Nunavut Quest racers, along with race supporters and youth, to talk, joke, laugh and heal. We heal through the hard work of the whole event and through talking with youth and amongst ourselves.
After the required materials were bought for the event, the race began with support crews leaving the community of Clyde River an hour before the qimuksiqtiit (dog teamers). All racers wore a big number printed on a vest worn over our parkas. These were chosen by pulling numbers out of a hat before the race. On the first day the racers started according to their numbers. The other days dog teamers departed according to best time of the day, with the overall winner having the fastest overall race time. As I pulled number 2, for the start of the race I left as the second racer, a minute after Jake Gearheard, another qimuksiqti from Clyde, who pulled number 1. As we were ready for our turn to leave, my dogs wanted to go somewhere. At “3, 2, 1, go!” instead of racing down the trail, my dogs took off to where they were ‘parked’ before the start, with me on my tummy dragging behind and the dog team anchor hook in the snow. I was dragged through the snow of the ‘parking area’ where the ground was full of dog poop and pee. This must have been a nice show for people nearby watching the start of the race.
After that initial misdirected start, my dogs started running all the way to point “B” where thirty miles away the first camp was set up by our support crews. My dogs ran the thirty miles near Jake and his team and with two other teams catching up to me at the end. All the while my mind was traveling much faster than the dogs were running. This was a quick thirty mile trip for the first day of racing and our dogs were so happy at the end of this run with their tails up while we chained them up for their overnight rest near a place called Iqirut, near Pangniqtuuq. The dog teams were all chained side by side to rest for the night. One of my dogs broke his chain and I had to spend time chasing him for few miles because he is a wild dog. Meanwhile, my grandsons Jordan and Victor had gone back to Clyde because we forgot to bring our ground sheet for the tent on the trip.
Late that night, I heard a commotion and I thought maybe an argument between a couple had occurred for few minutes. Then I fell back to sleep for the night. In the morning when I woke up, after having coffee, I went to visit another racer, Charlie Innuaraq from Pond Inlet, a very close friend of mine. He had heard something last night too, the sound of snow machines leaving. On my way back to our tent, I met another person and he told me a tent in the camp had burned down along with other supplies the occupants brought for the trip. It turned out that the father as well as the son in the tent received minor burns, but no one else in the tent received any burns at all. This family had to travel back to Clyde because getting resupplied was their best chance for continuing on the trip. The next day the family was able to get another tent, some free supplies from the Northern Store and more supplies for the trip and returned for the race in the afternoon.
The tent burning situation made me think, “I’d better make sure all the Coleman stoves do not leak out from the tanks so that our tent and my family is fine for the trip.” I’m sure that others at the camp thought for their own safety too.
At this first camp one of the dog team racers from Clyde River quit the race and left for home. He didn’t agree with how the race was being timed. The person timing the race was new and he was just learning and didn’t seem to understand the correct way to record and add the time. So this racer decided to leave because of this and because he also had some other things to do back in Clyde. This meant we had ten dog teamers left in the race.
Support teams leave an hour before dog teams.
As we prepared for the trip to Ninginganiq (Igaliqtuuq - Isabella Bay), we knew this section would be more over land than on sea ice. Before the day’s race start my dogs did another show for the whole camp. We took off before the race began. But this time, I stopped the team and turned them a few times to get right back to the starting point. We left camp again, going from point “A” to “B”. This is how the whole Akunnirmiut Nunavut Quest was planned, a race from one camp to the next, an average of 50 miles (80 km) per day. With each day dog teaming was different. Sometimes you would be passed by one dog team and then you would pass another dog team. We racers tend to act as though not much is happening because our little secrets are still hidden within us. But it gets to the point where we try harder in the race because some of us wished to pass another team and we didn’t really want to be passed, but things turned out the way they did for our own teams.
Our support crews left the island an hour ahead of we qimuksiqtiit, heading for Nilaktarviruluk (meaning unsalted ice/fresh drinking water collecting spot) at a mountain called Niaqurnaarusiq (meaning tiny mountain resembling a head).
As my team and I climbed the hill we got to the steep part. I urged my dogs to work harder with more of their strength, but they stopped and all looked back at me. In this situation I probably looked more colorful in my dark wind-burned face as a little more frustrated anger was rising in me on this race. We had started the race traveling on sea ice for miles then had to climb about eight hundred feet as we reached the land we call “Arvaaqtuuq”. As we climbed on the side of the river, I saw a lonely ski-doo that was left behind by one of our support drivers and it looked like our ski-doo. At this point, “It shouldn’t be our ski-doo,” was my hope within the reality of the unforgiving land of our dog team race. As I approached the snowmobile, I knew that there were other snowmobiles that looked exactly like ours. As I passed by it, it turned out that it was our machine.
Meanwhile, I urged my dogs to work harder because they weren’t listening to me when I asked them to turn one way or the other. I kept looking at one team ahead of me and another team behind me to see what situation I was in during this particular run. During this time, I got closer to the team that was ahead of me but not close enough to catch up and pass the guy. These working dogs should have been listening to more of what I want but they just didn’t do what I wanted them to do. A white out developed and I just urged my dogs to travel faster so that I could catch and pass the other guy. With a strong voice and not being so nice to my team (who didn’t listen to me anyway), I knew my dogs could feel my situation but I just kept on trying.
The trail twisted and turned, up and down, and at a sharp turn the guy ahead of me stopped for a moment and then turned his dogs to the left. When I got to that point, my dogs went straight ahead leaving the trail, and not very nice words came out of my mouth. The dogs didn’t listen to me as I went up a slight hill. I saw and knew that I would now be travelling over rocks so that the qamutik (sled) runners would grind on rocks and causing my dogs to have to work harder as rough plastic runners are much harder to pull than smooth ones. “Let it be,” I thought in anger, “You will get what you deserve by not listening exactly to what I told you to do,” were the not very nice words that came through my mind.
In a short while my dogs started running down a gentle slope. They ran off the trail much more and longer than I expected. Ahead of me I could see a spot of orange so I knew this was the trail. I looked around the landscape. There was no other dog team anywhere nearby although I should have seen another team off in the distance. As the time passed by, I looked around the area some more. My dogs still ran and I saw a dog team, maybe the same dog team, way behind me. I thought to myself, “My dogs, you did the right thing and I didn’t.” At this point, my feelings became normal again because my dogs did the right move and I thought that they didn’t know the area. With a much more relaxed and friendly mushing voice, I urged the dogs to run more.
Before we reached the shore, my dogs turned their heads to the left as they smelled something in the wind but they just kept running on the trail as I wished them to do. The weather turned whiter with snow coming down as the wind got stronger late in the afternoon. As I reached the shore, the weather visibility was little more than a mile. I told my dogs to turn right more and more but they just kept running on the sea ice and I had to stop three times, using the anchor hook to turn the team in the right direction. As we neared the camping spot, there were no tents. The camp was not set up at this place and the dogs wanted to run further. Then I saw flags in the distance. The checkpoint was over there, in the calmer spot of the mountain. My dogs were right again and I wasn’t.
Many people had camped and lived in this place in former times. Natanine Kautuq (now deceased) once said, “When we lived here at Niaqurnaarusiq, Arctic hare used to come to the sheltered area on a nice day and that usually meant the weather would turn into a blizzard. It happened all the time.” That night in our camp someone saw an Arctic hare and a blizzard came. We had to retrieve three snowmobiles that our supporters left behind on the trail. We ended up staying at this same place for three nights, catching up with snowmobile repairs and few other things that required attention, although many of us were restless for the race. As the weather cleared we prepared for our next travel to near “Pilaktuaq”, about seventy miles (113 km) away from this camp.
The morning the race resumed was perfect for travelling, so we began by packing our belongings for the trip. We had our tent right next to another Clyde River racer, Aisa Piungituq, and his wife Raygelie. Because of the storm’s wind, the corner of our tent had been tied on to his qamutik. As Aisa was packing up, he pulled his qamutik with his snowmobile and the corner of our tent tore off in two layers. Raygelie had tried to warn him, but we knew he wasn’t going to hear her. Looking at Raygelie in the moment, it was more than a surprise. Sometimes things go through your mind very fast and she had that look. We laughed and knew that it would just take some sewing to put the tent together again. Little unplanned events like these made the mornings slightly more exciting and added more fulfillment to this dog team race.
So it was the fourth day we had been waiting at this camp and it was now good enough to travel to an island near this island mountain called “Pilaktuaq”. Throughout the day we travelled through some rough sea ice. At the end of one rough area my lead dog’s trace got stuck around an upright broken piece of ice and I had to get this dog loose. As I freed my lead dog, “Atiittuq”, from the piece of ice, the team took off without me and I ran to get to my qamutik. I didn’t get close enough to leap to get hold of the moving qamutik and I was thinking, “I should have anchored the snow hook as I helped out the dog.” Other words that came out of my mouth were not those for pleasant conversation as I started to sweat right through my body on this walk-run to get the sled. As I looked back, two dog teams were not too far behind as the snow I walked on was soft. While I was sweating and panting, Aisa Piungituq caught up to me and invited me to sit on his qamutik. I ran to his qamutik to get a ride; so this was one was racing situation.
Brink of leaving the sheltering mountain. Photo: Sanguya
Another dog team was less than a mile behind us, Ulaajuq Barnabas, from Arctic Bay. He was catching up to us because of the added weight I put on Aisa’s qamutik. Although I wanted to go faster to get to my dogs, Ulaajuq slowly caught up to us as we travelled off the trail chasing my dogs for few miles. Meanwhile my dogs got back on the trail and Ulaajuq passed Aisa’s team and then caught up to my team, stopping them and turning over the qamutik so that the team would not be able to go too far. When I caught up and got my team going again, the attitude and the speed of the team had changed to a slower pace.
As we travelled towards Cape Hooper, an old DEW line site, two dog teams were getting further and further ahead and I thought, “So what, at least I am sitting on my own qamutik now,” although slowing down did affect me a great deal. As I passed Cape Hooper to get to our destination, an island off Pilaktuaq, an unexpected site came into view a few miles before the island. I thought, “What is going on? Is it a change of plans?” I could see something that looked slightly longer than regular dog team ahead of me. “Is that an unplanned new camp? It can’t be. The destination is still a few miles up ahead. That’s too long to be a dog team but too short to be a camp. Oh well.” As I travelled closer to the area, I saw another skidoo off to the side. “That snowmobile looks so out of place. Maybe that guy is waiting near a seal breathing hole to catch more dog food?” As I came closer to the area there were snow machines and qamutiit (sleds) all over the vicinity of the main trail. “What is going on?” This activity looked so different although Jaypoody from Qikiqtarjuaq had mentioned about getting stuck in bad ice two times near this area. “This activity looks so different and interesting in it own way.” In front of me were the two flags, the timing spot, but they were sitting before the planned “B” destination. “There must be something odd about this trip for our support crews.” Then I realized these snow machines were stuck on the sea ice. Some qamutiit were left behind so the drivers could help others. People were stuck in what looked like normal soft snow, but this area had slush hiding beneath what looked to be plain snow.
As I travelled on, I caught up to Igah (my wife), two of my grandchildren, and one other snowmobiler, Jayko Enuaraq (Jake Gearheard’s support driver) trying to get our support qamutik out of the slush. I stopped my dogs to help out in any way I could. Two snowmobiles hitched together and to the sled with strong rope could not pull out the twenty-four foot qamutik that Igah, Victor, and Jordan pulled throughout the trip. Another ski-doo helper, Jusa Iqaqrialu, came to help out so the three machines finally pulled out the stuck qamutik while Jaypoody Mosesie came by and told us that he would tell other drivers to make camp in a good camping spot where there was no slush. I asked Igah to be part of the support team for this race and now I felt bad because her feet were wet inside her boots.
After we travelled for a few more miles, our qamutik plus two other qamutiit were dropped off at one place. There was a mother with a baby in her amauti (traditional coat that women use to carry children), a small child, plus a few more people that had been dropped off but had no snowmobile. I dropped off Igah there and went to find the main camp though I wasn’t sure exactly where it was.
Along the trail, I caught up to Jake Gearheard. He was cold. His feet were soaked through and he was wet up to his thigh and freezing. Also his dogs were slower at this time because he had been helping another snowmobile and qamutik to get out of the slush. I left him behind as his dogs had slowed down in this situation. After a few more miles, I got to the island while snow machines were travelling back and forth helping to get all of qamutiit to that main camping spot. Late that night, everyone and everything were finally in the main camp.
Aisa and Raygelie Piungituq had the HF radio set up so I was able to talk to my brother Philip Sanguya from Qikiqtarjuaq. He was out at a different camp but I asked him to come and help us with the rest of the trip. And later on Alan Kooneeloosie offered to help because he was also camping near the area. Talking to people over the HF radio, people welcomed me and other people on this trip and thinking about those people supporting us brought my spirits up. This is my Nunavut home, and people offered their knowledge and strength on this difficult and unplanned section of the race.
Throughout the night people dried their wet mittens, socks, boots, their pants and more. We could not tell exactly what was ahead of us but we would travel to the next camp no matter what may lay ahead. This is our unforgiving land, but some of us already wore clothing ready for any condition, while others didn’t think about encountering a situation like what we just came through. Either way, we all had to face what lay ahead.
Atulauqtavut (this is what we experienced),
In Part 2: Conditions continue to challenge dog teamers and their support crews both during the final days of the race as well as on the return home to Clyde River.
Joelie Sanguya was born into a traditional Inuit family on the east coast of Baffin Island. He received schooling in the community of Clyde River and later, outside Nunavut, to become a teacher, then school principal and education administrator. In all, Joelie worked in the Nunavut school system for 25 years before taking on consulting assignments as a group facilitator and mediator. He is currently chairman of the board of the Ilisaqsivik Society, a social service agency in Clyde River. In 2002 Joelie acquired his first group of sled dogs since his boyhood and proceeded to build a team that participates in the annual Nunavut Quest long-distance race on northern Baffin Island. Joelie began to work in film and television in 2003 and joined with Charlotte DeWolff and Ole Gjerstad in forming Piksuk Media in 2005.