Racing at the edge of the Arctic

    Last training run before the race — the author’s team on slick ice on the Churchill River in 2010.

     From dog musher to writer 

    “What compelled me to enter this race?” My ten sled dogs and I looked equally intimidated across the vast expanse of Hudson Bay, the jumble of ice on the Churchill River rugged like mountain ranges. 

     The year was 2006 and I was about to set out onto the trail of the annual Hudson Bay Quest Sled Dog Race from Churchill, Manitoba, to Arviat, Nunavut. By ‘trail’ I mean wooden stakes stuck into the snow every hundred meters or so that may or may not be visible in a blizzard; that may or may not be standing when tidal overflow flooded the rivers. 

    While Inuit racers packed their caribou sleeping bags onto sleek qamutiit, I was trying to cram my rookie bulk into a sled bag that seemed three sizes to small for the journey ahead. The night before, I was killed by polar bears at least three times in my dreams. When I did survive the bears, I fell through the ice or wandered blindly through raging blizzards. 

    Peter Mamgark Sr. at the start line of the 2010 Hudson Bay Quest Sled Dog Race in Churchill, Manitoba.

    So, what did compel me — a qallunaaq from northern Saskatchewan — to run a 250-mile race in one of the harshest places I had ever been? If you are expecting me to ramble on about the “Call of the Wild” and the “Great White North” I must disappoint you — it was as simple as a radio feature I listened to on CBC. Racers must be self-sufficient for the duration of the three-day race as there are no communities along the way, the reporter had said. An extended camping trip of sorts. I liked camping – although I had never been blown away in my tent and rolled across the tundra before. 

    What really caught my attention though was the mention of Inuit Elders who would compete in the race. Inuit — amongst other circumpolar peoples — have depended on dogs for winter travel, hunting polar bears, sniffing out seal holes, and packing in summertime. In short: their survival depended on their dogs. Children grew up raising pups, and a well-fed and well-trained team earned the owner deep respect — and still does today. I knew little about Inuit dog culture, but entering the race sounded like the perfect way to change that. 

    The first thing I learned is that qamutiit have no breaks and when we pulled our snow hooks at the start, the Inuit mushers’ dogs — eager to run — took off at breakneck speed. That was the last I saw of the Inuit teams. What they knew — and I didn’t — was that the weather was about to change. Travel when you can, an old Inuit saying goes, and they did. 

    The storm hit my team somewhere between North Knife River and Nunalla, an abandoned trading post and half-way checkpoint of the race. Within minutes I could barely see my lead dogs through the blowing snow. The dogs veered leeward. I was worried about getting lost. Not that I knew where I was to begin with but having a trail had given me a small sense of comfort and that comfort was gone. 

    How had Inuit people survived on this land before being forced to relocate to coastal communities? I wondered about how they knew where to go without a map, how they were able to feed themselves and their dogs without peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and commercial dog food. 

    Maybe there was a reason I was the only woman in the race — the ones who were smart stayed home. And that was exactly my plan from now on, if I survived this race that is. That was before the winds calmed and the sun reflected onto the tongue-like drifts that turned the tundra into a land sculpted by snow. That was before I ran into the barren ground caribou returning north to their calving grounds, their joints clicking like music when they ran. That was before I was invited to people’s homes, sitting together on the living room floor, sharing maktaaq and other delicacies. 

    It wasn’t long after the race and the frostbite on my cheeks had healed that I began to dream about returning to the Arctic. In the years between 2007 and 2010 my husband and I took turns competing in the race. Each year, we travelled along side teams from Arviat and Kangiqtiniq (Rankin Inlet), learning about landmarks, about weather, and about life at a time when travelling by dog team wasn’t just an annual racing event. 

    During the race, the Inuit mushers looked out for the qallunaaq who knew so little, sharing food with me, gifting me clothing and a special dog by the name of Qaqavii. Little did I know that one day he would inspire me to write a novel. 

    Quincy Miller from Saskatchewan hooking up Fuzzy and Vicious for a last training run before the 2010 race.

    When there was time to share stories, the mushers’ deep love and respect for the land came through in every story. Slowly my own relationship to the land began to change. The unforgiving coast of Hudson Bay appeared just a little less unforgiving. Late Jimmy Muckpah told me about the first time he’d made the trip from Arviat to Churchill by dog team to visit his wife in the hospital. Andy Kowtak talked about hunting polar bears with his dogs. Late Phillip Kigusiutnak spoke about Nunalla, the place where he was born with longing in his voice for days gone by. Late James Tagalik taught me about our relationship to the land. He shared a glimpse of a knowledge with me that was passed on from generation to generation and I started to wonder what if, when the Europeans came here, they had learned and listened and understood? What would Canada look like today? 

    And so, I embarked on a different kind of journey. I wrote a novel for young adults and adults. Qaqavii (Red Deer Press, 2019) is about 15-year-old Emmylou, who moves to Churchill, Manitoba, with her single mother. It’s the last place on earth she wants to be, until she meets Barnabas, a young Inuk, who is training sled dogs for the Arctic Quest. In many ways Emmylou’s journey parallels my own journey from a teenager that feels she doesn’t fit in to finding a place of belonging. Although Emmylou learns a bit faster than me, she also has inherited my way to ask questions, questions I’ll be seeking answers to as long as I live. 

    While writing the novel I re-read old journal entries, looked at my photographs, talked with friends who did Inuktitut translations for me and helped me understand life before and after European contact. Many of my experiences became part of Emmylou’s story — just like many of the stories I was told became part of Barnabas’ grandparent’s memories. I hope readers will be able to embark on a journey of their own from the comfort of their armchairs when they read Qaqavii. But what I hope the most, is that they will begin to ask their own questions and seek answers out on the land or among the people who know it so well. 

    Putting myself back to the start line of my first Hudson Bay Quest, I might have a different answer now about what compelled me to enter this race. I think there has always been a longing; a longing to be on land unchanged by industrial development, a longing to be amongst people who can help me regain my connection to the land, and a longing for a world where we haven’t forgotten how to take care of the land we all come from. 

    Miriam Körner is an award-winning writer and children’s book illustrator. She lives with her husband and their nine sled dogs in a small cabin tucked away in the bush in Northern Saskatchewan. Qaqavii is her second novel. 

    The Hudson Bay Quest Sled Dog Race now runs between Gillam and Churchill, Manitoba, along the Hudson Bay rail line and Wapusk National Park. 

    Editor’s Note: The 2021 Hudson Bay Quest has been cancelled due to the pandemic. A qualifier race for local mushers has been tentatively set for March 20, 2021. Watch the Hudson Bay Quest website and Facebook for more information.