This week Malena Gordon, age 11, heads off to her first international competition as a cross-country skier. She’s one of eight girls who will make up Team Nunavik’s first ever cross-country ski team at the Arctic Winter Games, but she’s not the youngest.

Malena Gordon

Malena Gordon, age 11, is one of the skiers heading to the Arctic Winter Games. (Courtesy Catherine Dumont-Poirier)

“Angelina [Mesher]

is the youngest,” Gordon says from her home in Kuujjuaq. “She’s 10 but turning 11 during the trip.”

Gordon will compete in a 5km freestyle race on Monday and the 3.75km mass start on Thursday — long distances, she admits.

Her coach, Catherine Dumont-Poirier, says Gordon is impressive and highly competitive, but winning races isn’t on top of the agenda for these games.

“I know it’s going to be really hard for them to compete,” says Dumont-Poirier. “For us, it’s an experience. We’re gonna try it, we’re gonna have fun and we’re just gonna learn from it.”

Still no ski trails in Nunavik

In Nunavik, there have always been a few people who ski, but little in the way of organization. There are no formal ski trails and the Kuujjuaq Cross-country Ski Club is the first of its kind in recent memory.

Kuujjuaq skiers

There are no formal ski trains in Kuujjuaq. The teams trains on snowmobile trails 'and sometimes off trail if the girls need a challenge,' says their coach. (Courtesy Catherine Dumont-Poirier)

It started in the winter of 2012 when the village of Kuujjuaq took on an intern from Sherbrooke University’s Kinesiology program. Dumont-Poirier quickly built a team, attracting 10 girls in the first year, and 40 the next. She says cross-country skiing is a perfect fit for a town with miles of great countryside to explore.

“I can see a lot more people getting involved in that sport,” she says. “You can go everywhere. you can do it for a long time. It’s really perfect.”

The Kuujjuaq club has a trail groomer, but Dumont-Poirier says any trails they make are quickly destroyed by snowmobiles. Now, she says, they mostly ski on snowmobile trails that already exist, “or sometimes off trail if the girls need a challenge.”

Skiing is growing

Kuujjuaq may be the first Nunavik village to have its own formal ski club, but these girls aren’t alone. This April, they’ll hold their annual Fast and Female competition — based on the non-profit organization that aims to encourage girls to stay in sports — and for the first time, they’ll have company.

About a dozen girls will come from nearby Kangiqsualujjuaq, where they’ve been training with a teacher who shares a love of skiing.

That’s a prospect that excites Nancianne Gray, Team Nunavik’s chef de mission for the Arctic Winter Games. “The other communities, they don’t have as organized cross-country ski clubs, but it is igniting. A lot of kids are doing it on their own.”

Dumont-Poirier says her next project is to take a team of boys as well as girls to the Arctic Winter Games in 2016.