In the Qimualaniq Quest, canines rule the road

Have paws, will travel

By JOHN THOMPSON

KIMMIRUT – Lynn Peplinski could be mistaken for a mad woman when she stares at a shaggy sled dog and enquires, "Mother, may I?"

Other times she may be heard, when all alone on the sea ice with her dogs, yelling "Duck duck goose" and "Simon says."

She owes this to her children, who provided some of the more eccentric names for her family's dog team.

As luck would have it, the dog named "Mother May I" has a knack for wriggling free of his lead, so Peplinski has little choice but to shout his name a lot.

She likens him to Houdini. One minute he's tied up tight. The next he's free, yowling for attention.

Other dogs on Peplinski's team bear the names of Roman emperors, such as Tiberius, the team's elderly lead dog, who lost his tail in a fight but still has enough pull to set the team's pace.

Then there's the Mexicans. Taco's here, but Burrito's been left in Iqaluit.

Despite the goofy names, the team is obedient, fast, and eager to please Peplinski. They helped her win the second annual Qimualaniq Quest, a 320-km race from Iqaluit to Kimmirut and back, which wrapped up Sunday, March 23.

She finished in 43 hours and 49 minutes – two to eight hours ahead of her competitors.

Peplinski was followed by Siu-Ling Han and Sarah McNair-Landry, both of Iqaluit. Women dominated this year's race – a fact not overlooked when the teams reached Kimmirut, and one onlooker shouted "woman power."

Bad weather hit during the return to Iqaluit. Blizzards paralyzed the race for two days. White-out conditions made the trail nearly invisible. New-fallen snow reached racer's waists.

"The dogs were literally swimming in the snow," Peplinski says.

Canadian Rangers helped break trail on snowmobiles. One, who returned to Kimmirut for extra spark plugs, flipped his machine in the storm. He lay stuck beneath his snowmobile for nearly a day until he was found and medevaced out.

Even in good weather, it's a challenging trail. Elevation ranges from sea level along the scenic Soper Valley, where the frozen river sparkles against the sun like a sapphire, to 2,000 feet atop Mt. Joy.

There are plenty of obstacles. Drift off trail and you may hit a rock and flip the sled, or plunge 10 feet and find yourself trapped in a wind well.

Dogs present their own challenges. One morning, Peplinski's team took off without her, and a helper had to chase them down by snowmobile. She was penalized 15 minutes, but managed to hold her lead.

Later, she almost forgot one dog, Tugboat, who had punctured a paw on a sharp rock and had been taken off the team. She thought he'd follow, but instead, he curled up on a steep hilltop Peplinski had already descended.

She checked the rule book. No dogs are to be left behind.

After much hollering, Tugboat eventually came down the hill and rejoined the team. By next day, Tugboat had healed and ran with no limp.

When Peplinski and fellow racers reached Kimmirut, they were greeted by a big crowd, and a long row of inuksuit, built from snow and painted bright orange and yellow, which glowed like lights on an airstrip.

By the time competitors arrived in Kimmirut, several were limping, including Peplinksi.

"I've run more in the past three days than I've done in the rest of my life combined," said Ben Horton from Colorado, another competitor.

The second day of the race was gruelling for Horton. It lasted 12 hours. It wasn't until after 10 p.m. when he and his team-mate reached the group cabin where competitors stayed for the evening.

And, for Horton and two other teams, this race is just a warm-up lap for their upcoming expedition. They're part of Global Warming 101, a 2,250-km dogsled expedition across Ellesmere Island that begins March 28 and is expected to stretch on for 65 days.

The Qimualaniq Quest gives members of this expedition, led by Will Steger, a chance to test out new equipment, and give team members with little Arctic training, like Horton, a taste of what's to come.

As an extra challenge, each team had to haul 80 pounds of flour to Kimmirut, which was later given away during a community feast.

The race, organized by L'Association des Francophones du Nunavut, aims to revitalize dogsled racing in South Baffin.

It was once common for dog teams to run the trail from Kimmirut to Iqaluit to purchase tea, tobacco and bullets, or to visit family. Then snowmobiles took hold.

They're faster. They don't require constant exercise. And they don't need to be fed copious amounts of seal meat.

Few Inuit run dogs in South Baffin today. Last year, all competitors in the race were qallunaat.

This year saw one entry of an Inuk dogsled racer from Kimmirut. But he dropped out on the first day.

Tommy Kilabuk joined on short notice, after an elder who planned to compete, Gotilia Judea, fell ill. But Kilabuk had trouble with the dogs.

They're well-trained, he says, but too young. He called it quits at the first cabin across Frobisher Bay.

"I was really disappointed," he said later, "but that's how it goes."

Still, Akavak, who owns the other dog team in Kimmirut, would like to compete again next year. And he knows one young resident in town who's interested in learning how to race.

"Maybe I'll go with him," he says.

For Peplinski, tending the family dog team for the past 16 years has been an all-absorbing activity. It provides exercise, companionship, and a treat for the kids.

It's also a reminder of just how hard life was for Inuit who lived on the land.

"Our lives are so easy," she says. "Those guys had to work so hard."

Peplinski won a $6,000 prize. She plans to spend it on a family vacation somewhere hot.

Race times
Lynn Peplinski 43 hrs, 49 min
Siu-Ling Han 45 hrs, 47 min
Sarah McNair-Landry 48 hrs, 44 min
Eric McNair-Landry 54 hrs, 15 min
Toby Thorleifsson 55 hrs, 14 min 

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