Nunavik teens on 90-km trek across frozen tundra

Thirty-four teenagers from four Inuit villages in Nunavik trained for months to take on the challenge of cross-country skiing from one community to another.

'Dream coming true,' says 1 teen skier inspired by 4 Quebecers' 2014 trek from Mont-Tremblant to Kuujjuaq

Jaanimmarik High School students Joshua Nathan Willie Kettler, 15, and Karina Gordon-Dorais, 14, practise their 'Young Karibus' move while packing for an overnight camping trip last March. (Catou MacKinnon/CBC)

Thirty-four teenagers from four villages in Quebec's Inuit territory of Nunavik set out on cross-country skis late last week across the frozen tundra, pulling their gear behind them in sleds — plastic versions of the traditional komatik.

One group, made up of high school students from Tasiujaq and Kuujjuarapik, left Thursday. A second group, students from Kuujjuaq and Kangirsuk, left a day later because of bad weather.

They plan to meet Monday in Aupaluk, a village that lies between Kangirsuk and Tasiujaq.

Inspired by Karibu expedition

The Inuit teens call themselves the Young Karibus. 

The organizer of the expedition, French teacher Valérie Raymond, said students were inspired after witnessing four Quebecers complete a 2,000-kilometre trek from Mont-Tremblant to Kuujjuaq two years ago.

That expedition — called Karibu — recreated for the first time a 1980 trip from the south to Fort Chimo, since renamed Kuujjuaq. 

"I really wanted to be a part of this, it looked like a great experience," said Karina Gordon-Dorais, a 14-year-old from Kuujjuaq who said she's looking forward to meeting teenagers from other villages.

"I've always wanted to go on an expedition, so this is like something of my dream coming true."

Gordon-Dorais and her fellow Young Karibus spent months training, in the dark after school, for the longest cross-country ski trip of their lives, over challenging terrain.

New to skis

On a recent Saturday morning in March, a half dozen of the students met in the main hall of Kuujjuaq's Jaanimmarik High School to pack their gear, getting ready to head out for a one-night practice camping trip.

Joshua Nathan Willie Kettler told CBC he signed up after friends took part in the first such trip last year.

At the time, he'd only ever been on cross-country skis once.

"I kind of fell a few times," said 15-year-old Kettler, adding that he'd improved since but was still expecting a tough haul.

"It's probably going to be hard and cold, and we'll miss the internet there," Willie Kettler said. "But it's going to be fun."

One of the organizers of the Young Karibus expedition, Valérie Raymond, is a French teacher at Jaanimmarik High School in Kuujjuaq. (Catou MacKinnon/CBC)

No looking back

Raymond said for this second expedition, a 90-kilometre trek over four days, five times more students signed up than last year.

"It's a big challenge," said Raymond. There is no protection from the wind because of the lack of trees and hilly terrain.

"Last year, the first day was by far the hardest day," She said. "You're not too far from the village, and they can just look back ... and go home."  

She said she sat the students down and encouraged them to take the trip one day at a time — even half a day at a time.

'This is school, too'

"My goal is to show them education and school under a new lens," said Raymond. "I keep telling them, this is school too."

The teenagers have to learn how to interact with each other in less than ideal situations.

"We're tired, frustrated, it's not easy to be polite with each other," she said.

Raymond said the trip helps teach perseverance.

She recalled one student last year who developed blisters on the first day, yet she made it through the whole trip.

When the student was having trouble with mathematics, Raymond suggested thinking about it as a blister: something she could suffer and work through.

Two groups of students who call themselves the 'Young Karibus' are to converge in Aupalik on Monday, April 18, following a 90-kilometre trek. (Nunavik Tourism Association)