Dog Sled Adventures

Unforgiving Coast – Hudson Bay Quest Sled Dog Race

‘What compelled me to enter this race?’ I asked myself, staring at the jumble ice piled up on the mouth of the Churchill River, starting line for the 250 mile long distance race from Churchill, Manitoba to Arviat, Nunavut. “It is an arduous journey across the frozen tundra bordering Hudson Bay’s unforgiving coast. It is a test of both man and dog and their ability to work together to meet the challenges in the land of the Polar Bear,” promises the race’s webpage.

It was already an arduous journey to get to Churchill. First, there were all those training miles – way over a thousand- that Quincy and I had spend with the dogs. Training on frozen lakes in overflow and slush; training on sunny days and in stormy nights; training on well packed trails and in deep snow. Then came the camping trips, the first nights out in the cold, the first frostbites. The dogs got used to camping on the gang line, making their beds in the snow. We spend hours and hours, building and re-building sleds, making gear, ordering gear, preparing dog snacks, organizing kennels for transportation in train and plane, finding sponsors. We had spent the whole season, each run, with one thought in mind: the Hudson Bay Quest. It was too late to back out.

At 9:27 am on April 1st 2006 my team left the start line, crossed the Churchill River into Button Bay. From there on, there would be no trees, no roads, no communities. All the way to Arviat we would be in the white nothingness of snow and ice.

Travelling across Button Bay went smoothly, even though the terrain was rough. Jumble ice and ice heaves demanded constant attention. After crossing the bay the trail followed the shoreline, across frozen tundra and windswept lakes with crystal clear ice. Two hours after the start we reached ‘North River Checkpoint’. We gave our dogs a quick snack and left the checkpoint for the delta of the North and South Knife Rivers.

I saw Quincy ahead of me balancing on the handle bar, feet in the air. The delta was flooded with tidal overflow. I tried the same acrobatic performance and got with dry feed across the first stream. Then came another one and another one. The water got deeper, the trail was washed out and Quincy’s team slipped on the bare ice, washed smoother than a skating rink by 8″ of salt water. I was still balancing on my handlebar when the sled sunk into the ice and I had to help the dogs to get it out. We got going again, the dogs were pleasantly cooled off and we were unpleasantly wet.

After miles and miles of splashing through over flow, the trail run along a rocky beach, following the rugged shore line over ice and exposed rock. We caught up to a group of mushers looking like a giant centipede crawling over a white carpet. Shortly after 5 pm we arrived with five other teams at ‘Long Point Checkpoint’.

The wind picked up over night, and the next morning the trail blew in and became more and more difficult to see. Musher Burton Penner lead our group of racers. His dogs were used to run without trails and listened excellent to his commands, but they got tired of running into the ever increasing wind. I tried my best to take turn leading, but I wasn’t able to see the trail. Burton waved me from behind when I was too far off and brought us back to the trail. “Never look ahead in a white out. Look down next to your wheel dogs, where your eyes have some contrast to the white and it will be easier to see the trail,” Burton advised. It helped for a while, but the weather conditions worsened. We stopped the teams. What now? Burton walked ahead to check if the trail would become visible again. His tracks were gone the second he disappeared in the whiteout. My dogs had curled up shortly after we had stopped. The snow was drifting over them. We tried phoning the rangers to come and pace us with their snowmobiles back to the last checkpoint. The satellite phones didn’t receive a signal. Our lifeline was broken.

We turned around and traced our way back to an old trailer abandoned on the coast. We shovelled out the snow, put windows back in, hang tarps over holes, a shelter at least. The storm howled and raged and shook the trailer, but somewhere during the night it calmed down.

Next morning was clear and sunny. The trail, that I thought would be blown away for good, was clearly visible again. The dogs seemed to be happy to run again. Going was easy for all, but Quincy. All three stanchions of his basket sled had snapped from ferrying the heavy loaded sled around jumble ice and leaning on the handlebar crossing the delta. Three tent pegs tied with sinew was all that held his sled from coming apart.

 

I did not have time to worry about Quincy though. The trail was beaten with caribou tracks. The dogs’ ears perked up, they picked up speed and were not to be stopped. Caribou passed right in front of us. From the down wind side more and more caribou came into sight. Every once in a while a dog tried to chase, but luckily never all ten at the same time. Then hundreds, no thousands of caribou came into view, so many, that the dogs didn’t know anymore which one to chase and stayed on the trail.

I kept my eyes on Quincy’s tracks, hoping his dogs wouldn’t run after the caribou. The dogs run fast, their noses up in the air, jumping, whining and complaining each time we stopped. I caught up to Quincy at the old Hudson Bay Trading Post of Nunalla. The square main building was in remarkable good shape and the rangers had made it to a comfortable check point. Quincy was busy trading sleds with Churchill musher Charlie Lundi. He scratched at Nunalla and graciously borrowed his sled to Quincy.

After a detour inland to get around the open water of the Thlewiaza River, known to the Inuit as ‘Big River’ we were back on the coast heading for Arviat followed by a big, grey rain cloud.

The rain never caught us, but shortly after our midday break, the 2nd blizzard hit us. By now I had learned, not to look too far ahead. One other thing I noticed: The dogs would always loose the trail down wind, which was to the right. Now, navigation seemed easy. Whenever I couldn’t see any tracks, I told the dogs ‘haw, haw, haw’ until I saw tracks or the dogs found the scent of the trail. I stayed in lead for most of the time, but when visibility worsened I lost the main trail.

Nobody had noticed where I had lost the trail. But none of us had seen any dog tracks for quite a while, our only re-assurance that we were going the right way since the trail markers had stopped shortly after the last checkpoint. While we were debating if we should turn around, trying to find the main trail or run by GPS, we saw a snowmobile passing by. We waved and waved and finally it turned our way. Peter, who had been wolf hunting and had turned around when his stove broke down, led us back to the main trail.

Chasing Peter gave my team a break from leading, but the wind grew constantly stronger and each time I stopped, my leaders turned around quicker than I could grab them. They had enough, they wanted to go home. And home, they thought, was back. Our teams spread out further and further. Each time I waited, I was having more difficulties to get my leaders going again when the sky cleared and the lights of Arviat became visible in the distance. The dogs picked up speed and kept a steady pace for miles and miles and miles. The lights stayed in the distance. At the mushers meeting we were told to turn left about 7 miles south of Arviat at a big drum. ‘You can’t miss it.’ Since Pompey seemed to know where we were going, I told him: ‘Turn left at the drum. You can’t miss it!’ He did miss it. We hit a 10′ wall of snow. I had no clue what was behind. Was I on the sea-ice? Was this the town dump? Pompey was already on top the ridge, so I had no choice but pushing my sled up to follow him. Behind the wall was the runway of the airport. Good, we were close to the finish line. But where was it? I saw the headlights of a truck and drove my team up. “Where is the finish line for the sled dog race?” I screamed against the storm. The truck driver hurriedly pressed the button of his stopwatch wiping sleep out of his eyes: “It’s right here. Welcome to Arviat.”

 

We would like to thank the Hudson Bay Quest organizing committee for putting on this challenging race along the unforgiving coast of Hudson Bay. Thanks to Jenafor and Gerald at Bluesky for letting us stay in their cosy B&B. We would also like to thank our sponsors:

- Globetrotter Ausruestung (www.globetrotter.de) for the warmest sleeping bag ever and for our life-saving winter tent.

- Canada Goose (www.canada-goose.com). (Needless to say: The outfitters in winter expedition clothing)

- Marion Morberg and Calm Air (www.calmair.com) for sponsoring our flights from Arviat, Nunavut  to Churchill, MB

- Jim and Guardewine North (www.gardewine.com) to get our dogs to Churchill (and back home again).

 

More stories to come:

Hudson Bay Quest 2007/2008

 

It’s a Three Dog Night: Expedition into the Barren Lands

Caribou Classic: a traditional toboggan race

 

and others