Nunavut Quest returns to keep sled dog tradition alive in Baffin region

The Nunavut Quest is an annual springtime event in the Baffin region but it was cancelled the last two years because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Race has been slowed this year by blizzard conditions along the way

A Nunavut Quest musher in Arctic Bay, Nunavut, participating a time trial race ahead of this year's event. Thirteen competitors left Arctic Bay on Monday, heading for Igloolik. (Mark Long)

It was a long wait since the last Nunavut Quest sled dog race — and even the event now underway has involved some waiting.

"Today, they were staying in camp three — they weren't able to travel today because of high winds," said Tanya Haulli, one of the race organizers, on Friday. Haulli is based in Igloolik, Nunavut, where the mushers are expected to arrive in the coming days.

"I thought it was just windy, but [my husband] said it's a pretty full-blown blizzard right now."

The Nunavut Quest is a big event in the Baffin region but it was cancelled the last two years because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Thirteen mushers started the race on Monday, to run their dog teams from Arctic Bay to the finish line in Igloolik.

It's a remote route of more than 400 kilometres, over sea ice and tundra, in sometimes harsh Arctic weather. There are no communities along the way, and seven designated camp spots roughly 50 kilometres apart.

As of Friday, one musher had dropped out of the race because dogs had chewed up his harnesses and lead ropes. 

"We're constantly shifting our plan of events [in Igloolik], in accordance to their anticipated arrival," Haulli said.

"Sometimes they're able to try to catch up and run a little further. But for this one, since they're a little bit more behind, we were suggesting that they can carry their dogs over to the next camp and then they can start their race from there and finish here a little earlier — so they don't get stuck."

Two snowmobiles are permitted to travel with each musher, as help and support. The whole crew — mushers, helpers, organizers — camp in the same spot at the end of each leg of the race.

A time trial event held last weekend, ahead of this year's race. Mushers are expected to arrive in Igloolik sometime after the weekend. (Mark Long)

Niore Iqalukjuak has been keeping in touch with some of the racers and organizers on the trail, from his home in Arctic Bay. 

"It's been a struggle, even though it's a little easier than the past," Iqalukjuak said.

"I've been doing it the old-fashioned way. A couple of people have been calling me on satellite phones, rather than texting."

'Amazing' to see people together again

Iqalukjuak said it wasn't clear even up until a few weeks ago how or if the race would proceed this year. It all depended on COVID-19 and any public health restrictions.

He's grateful that things eased up enough for organizers to be given the go-ahead. It's an important way to bring families and friends together again after a couple of years when some have lost loved ones, he said.

"I don't know how to really explain it. It's been kind of amazing to watch people get back together again," he said.

Spectators at the start of the Nunavut Quest dog sled race in Arctic Bay on April 18, 2022. (Mark Long)

"It brings people from other communities into town who have not seen each other in a while. And for some, it's a healing type of trip."

Haulli agrees. This is her first time being involved in the race as an organizer. Her husband and her brother are in the race.

"This is my little brother's first race. We're very proud of him," she said. 

The first Nunavut Quest was run in 1999, to mark the creation of the new territory that year. The event was designed to celebrate and preserve the Inuit tradition of travel by dog team. 

A dog team in Arctic Bay ahead of the 2022 Nunavut Quest dog sled race. (Mark Long)

"Dog keeping in general is really important, and [the race] is a big part of keeping that tradition alive. And it honestly brings a lot of us together, to achieve, like, the whole Quest," Haulli said.

"A lot of the participants are fairly young and it's great to see them reclaiming this part of their culture." 

The winner of the race this year will receive $20,000, while second- and third-place finishers will receive $10,000 and $5,000, respectively. Everyone else who finishes will receive $1,000.

"It's only fair, because they are working very hard. I know it's tough for them out there," Haulli said.