Meet Michael Inuarak, the youngest musher in the Nunavut Quest
'That's what I always wanted to do — run my dogs with my family,' says 22-year-old musher
As spring arrives in the Arctic, the days are getting longer.
And for 22-year-old Michael Inuarak living in Pond Inlet, Nunavut, the change in seasons couldn't have come soon enough.
Winters are tough for those living above the Arctic Circle. Months of darkness can leave people feeling drained and depressed.
But Inuarak has a cure for the mid-winter blues — a vocation that not only recharges him but also gives him a sense of purpose.
For the past six years he's raised and raced a traditional Inuit dog sled team.
"It takes a lot to own a dog team. You have to be willing to take on a lot of responsibility."
Inuarak grew up in Pond Inlet, the youngest of 10 children.
Running dogs is a family tradition. His older brothers have their own teams, and so did his father and his grandfather before that.
That family legacy has left Inuarak with a deep sense of pride but also obligation.
It helps me a lot to get through the dark days up here.- Micahel Inuarak
"My father wants us to own a dog team and he wants us to pass on the tradition to our children and our grandchildren," he said.
"It's a very big part of the Inuit way of living up here. They were like our snowmobiles back in the days before we had snow machines, and they had [a] very close bond between the owner and the dogs."
For the past few weeks, Inuarak has been preparing for the 20th annual Nunavut Quest — a grueling, week-long traditional dog sled race where competitors traverse the unforgiving sea ice and tundra, racing from one high Arctic community to another.
This year, the Quest starts in Inuarak's hometown of Pond Inlet and ends more than 300 kilometres away in Arctic Bay.
"I love the race. It's a very exciting time," said Inuarak.
"There was one time when my dogs were running after a polar bear and I had no rifle. So I was sweating and trying to avoid the polar bear as much as I can."
The last three times Inuarak participated in the Quest, he placed third — an impressive feat for such a young musher.
Inuarak is proud of how well he did, but hopes he will do better this year.
"I'm not worried. I'm just a bit nervous because of all the fast racers who are going to be ahead of me. And I'm not using as [many] dogs as I normally do."
Several dogs injured
Inuarak spent last year living in Cambridge Bay, another Nunavut community about 1,000 kilometres southwest of Pond Inlet.
Moving home and getting his team into racing shape has been hard work, made only more difficult when several of his dogs became injured.
Through these challenges, Inuarak has kept a zen-like attitude. He's competitive but says winning isn't everything.
"I don't actually want to be first this year. I want my brother to be first." he said of his big brother. "I look up to him so much."
Inuarak says the main reasons he competes in the Nunavut Quest is to strengthen his culture and connect with other Inuit.
"We only do it once a year and that's when you get to meet people from other communities."
The Nunavut Quest is a big deal in the Arctic. The winner will take home $15,000 and plenty of bragging rights.
For Inuarak, whatever glamour or celebrity being a musher grants him is secondary to the more grounded benefits he sees of having a dog team.
"First of all, it keeps me nice and fit and I am able to run fast. But especially with my mental health, it helps me a lot to get through the dark days up here."
Beyond that, running a dog team is about family and keeping the Inuit way of life strong, he said.
"My happiest moment was dog sledding with two of my other brothers and my grandfather, all at the same time," he said.
"That's what I always wanted to do — run my dogs with my family."