Hudson Bay Quest -
Lords of Dogtown
Story & photos by by Kelsey Eliasson, www.polarbearalley.com
Reporting from the Middle of the Hudson Bay Quest and the Edge of Nowhere
Its 6:30am and dog city is collapsing fast. Last night, twelve mushers arrived at Nunalla checkpoint for their mandatory six hour layover. Nunalla is an old Hudson's Bay Company trading post, lying on the Manitoba/Nunavut border, one hundred miles from Arviat, Nunavut. It is the mid-way point and the key to the Hudson Bay Quest dog sled race.
This is the fourth time the Quest has run between Churchill, Manitoba and Arviat, Nunavut. It covers a barren and moody piece of Hudson Bay coastline. The trees wither and drift away just north of Churchill, leaving a whole lot of nothing that can wear you down with cold, wind, snow, rain or simply sun. The only constant being that it will wear you down.
All of this nothing brings together teams from Nunavut, northern Manitoba and beyond for a mix of mushing styles, dog breeds and of cultures. Of the fourteen starting teams, seven are running traditional fan-hitches. In a fan-hitch, each dog has its own line, a controlled chaos where the musher must untangle the dog lines at each stop.
You can find modern racing sleds next to traditional Inuit komatiks, low-lying sleds where the musher simply packs his camping gear and sits down on top of it. Caribou-skins mix with Canada Goose parkas, worn canvas tents with geodesic goretex domes. Southern mushers (in this race, Churchill is considered 'south') boil water as the Inuit throw a chunk of seal to their dogs before cutting off some for themselves. Even the dogs are no exception, their bloodlines a tattered mix of everything from African hound to Siberian husky to Canadian Eskimo dog.
After fourteen hours on the trail, this mishmash of teams were greeted and guided into Nunalla by the Canadian Rangers, a volunteer, reserve arm of the Canadian military. It is the Rangers who man the checkpoints, providing logistic support and ensuring that the race runs safely. Without their participation, the Quest would be simply too dangerous to run.
With Rangers from both Manitoba and Nunavut stationed here, Nunalla's two weathered Hudson's Bay Company buildings were already surrounded by canvas tents and snowmobiles. As each team pulled up, Rangers barked orders, ushering mushers into camp and recording their arrival times before turning their attention to the next team, already sighted in the distance. Dog city was slowly coming to life. By 2am, Nunalla was a mass of mushers, tents, sleds and dogs. Headlamps bobbled through the night, mushers foregoing sleep to feed their dogs and fix their sleds.
But that was then and today, it's a whole new race. Despite arriving third, Quincy Miller, from Potato Lake, Saskatchewan, is the first musher out of the blocks for the final push to Churchill. It is a position he will hold for the remainder of the race. In eighteen hours, he will win the fourth annual Quest and set a new record of 37 hours, 57 minutes, one hour ahead of David Oolooyak of Rankin Inlet but only minutes ahead of the Quest's annual blizzard.
His departure is heralded by the anxious barking of his competitors' dogs, still tethered to their sleds but now wide awake; their jealousy overriding the need for sleep. A domino effect has begun as mushers rise from their tents and dogs begin to stir, the fate of dog city is sealed.
Former champion David Oolooyak and newcomer Darryl Baker are still breaking camp. They hurriedly pack their sleds and set out after him. After dominating the race throughout the first day, they have been at Nunalla for seven hours and are now forced to play catch up on an unseasonably warm day. The trail is quickly turns soft and heavy, a bad day not to be in the lead.
Ed Obrecht, a turbulent mix of red neck and hippy from Lady-Smith, Quebec, is next on the trail, running on zero sleep and a newly (albeit temporarily) repaired sled. He is soon followed by Churchill musher and originator of the Hudson Bay Quest Dave Daley. It is still dark and both initially lose the trail, Ed Obrecht recovers just on the edge of Nunalla but Daley heads out towards the sea ice before correcting the mistake. He returns to camp and captures the HBQ 'Best Use of Profanity' award before getting back in the race, now behind Andy Kowtak's team as well. Daley runs strong, arriving fourth at the next checkpoint along the Caribou River, but here he loses the trail and eventually withdraws with two injured dogs.
Tents continue to fall as four more mushers follow suit - Charlie Lundie, Philip Kigusiutnak, George Sinclair and Dominic Pingushat leave with the first light of day. Arviat's Jimmy Mukpah, an ordained minister and community elder, watches intently, savouring his morning tea as he awaits his announced departure time. All will eventually finish the race a little worse for wear but still in tact. For Harry Towtoongie and Gerald Azure, Nunalla is the end of the line, both scratch after a long and frustrating day.
Its 9:30am and as our Bombardier track vehicle pulls away, dog city is all but gone. The chaos has dissipated quickly and silence looms, ready to reclaim Nunalla for another year. Canadian Rangers watch the last teams leave before settling in for some much needed army rations, campstove coffee and their last day at Nunalla. What was a bustling community of mushers only eight hours ago is now little more than sled tracks and dog scat.
by Kelsey Eliasson
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