Nunavut is a land of contrasts and stunning scenery. Across the treeless terrain of Baffin Island, dog teams traverse ravines filled with thigh-deep soft snow and pass through long valleys framed by rolling hills. Time and again, they travel across the open tundra or along the sea ice in seemingly endless whiteout conditions. On the sea ice, they can be dwarfed by towering cliffs and magnificent icebergs. They scramble through kilometres of jumbled pack ice along the coastline, constantly on the lookout for polar bears in the almost 24 hours of daylight. Each year, teams travel approximately 500 km between designated isolated communities in Nunavut.
The finish line is often marked only by a red gas can sitting in the snow opposite a snow machine. There the timekeeper waits to record the arrival time of each team. The finish line is set at a distance before the main camp so the dogs will not slow down and stop early. Although the teams depart each morning, one minute apart, their arrival times at the new camp can be separated by more than ten hours. These arrival times determine the order of departure the next day with the fastest leaving first. On the last day, there is a mass start.
Race rules and regulations for the next year are determined by the mushers and race committee in a meeting held at the end of each race. In 1999, there were four rules. This has now increased to thirty-two.
The Nunavut Quest is unique. It focuses not only on the dog race itself but also on the traditions, heritage and culture of the Inuit. It celebrates a time when travelling by dog team was a way of life and reminds us of the courage, patience and determination of the people who survived and thrived in those early years.
Unlike other sled dog races, the Nunavut Quest is run between totally isolated communities. There are no sophisticated support systems, no shelters situated on the land for man or dogs, no hovering helicopters, no set trails, no directional markers and no veterinary or medical presence. For the first ten years, the only contact with the outside world was a small orange spillsbury radio. Now a few satellite phones are carried by the support crews.
This race is plagued by daunting snow and ice conditions, severe temperatures, unpredictable and extreme Arctic weather conditions and the danger of polar bears. Mushers must be totally self-sufficient and prepared for any emergency. They are required to carry a grub box on the qamutik containing a sleeping bag, snow saw and knife (for emergency igloo construction), a two-burner camp stove, food and a rifle.
The traditional sled, a qamutiq, was originally made by lashing bones together using rope made from bearded sealskin. Frozen fish were laid in a row on a seal or walrus hide then rolled up to form long runners. A thin layer of soil from the land was applied to the bottom of each runner then melted snow, blood or urine was brushed on in layers and allowed to freeze between coats. Today, the qamutiq is made from wood but still lashed together with sealskin or nylon rope. No nails are used. Rope allows the sled to flex rather than break as it travels over the rough terrain. Many mushers still use the traditional ice runners when the conditions warrant.
The dogs are run in a fan hitch which permits each animal to select its own way through rough ice conditions. All harnesses, whips and traces are to be handmade.
Support crews travel in a convoy of snow machines and set up daily camps. During tea breaks on the trail, areas of good hunting or spiritual significance are pointed out and stories are shared of childhood campsites, birth places and loved ones who have passed on. Healing ceremonies are often held in the campsites. Mushers share training and feeding techniques and at the end of the race, dogs are exchanged between communities to strengthen the gene pool with new bloodlines.
The only way of getting to the starting point of the race is to mush a team from home or haul the dogs on a qamutiq so often the teams have travelled more than 500 km before the race begins. Severe weather will delay the start date.