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Six-day Qimualaniq Quest &#39f;ollows; historic trail between Iqaluit and Kimmirut

Race aims to help revive Inuit dogsledding

By JOHN BIRD

Last year Katannilik Park manager Tommy Akavak, from Kimmirut, took over a team of young dogs for an ailing friend, and headed out on the trail from Iqaluit in the Qimualaniq Quest dogsled race.

He didn't even make it up the big hill across the bay at the end of the first day.

The dogs were young, he said. "Half of them were between nine and 10 months old. They weren't at their prime."

But undaunted, Akavak hopes to come back again this year to try the quest with his own dogs. It all depends, he added, on finding the time to prepare and train properly – both his dogs and himself.

"And maybe this year there will be more Inuit participants," he said.

"That's the idea behind the race," Akavak added, "to help the Inuit dogsledding tradition make a comeback."

This year's Qimualaniq Quest, the third, is set to start Mar. 14 from Iqaluit. In theory, it will finish 320 kilometres later back in Iqaluit on Mar. 20, having stopped over in Kimmirut for a one-day rest and a feast.

Last year, though, weather delayed the finish by a couple of days, as participants were snowed in at one of Katannilik Park's five huts.

There's a lot of traditional knowledge about dogsledding to revive.

Akavak said the ailing elder he replaced, Gutiliak Judea, would have done better than him in the race, even with the young pups, because "he knows how to get the most out of the dogs the Inuit way."

For example, he explained, Judea still uses sirmiq on his kamotiq, the traditional moss-and-ice slider that makes the sled that much easier to move. That's something Akavak still has to learn how to do.

But the young dogs Judea brought to the race, like all the dogs that are allowed to enter, belong to a unique breed: the Inuit Sled Dog.

The Inuit have been using these dogs for 4,000 years, and they are the last remaining pure breed indigenous to North America.

They're the real workhorses of the dog world, built to live outdoors in the Arctic weather, and to thrive on frozen seal meat and char. And although they may not be as fast as southern racing dogs, they can go all day, sleep rough, and pull a heavier load.

The course follows the Kimmirut trail, one of the network of traditional Inuit trails that cover Nunavut like a net, linking communities with one another, and with important hunting and fishing territories.

This one is a particularly challenging trail, Lynn Peplinski said at a gathering at the Association des Francophones du Nunavut to kick off the pre-race build-up, and to invite budding competitors to sign up.

She noted that after running straight across the bay from Iqaluit, it climbs one wicked hill and several smaller ones to reach a maximum height of 2,000 feet above its sea-level starting point.

The trail then crosses a high plateau before dropping down an even steeper hill into the Soper River valley, which it follows down to Kimmirut, back at sea level.

The second half of the race follows the same route in reverse.

Peplinski, who won the race last year, said there were times as she ran along behind the sled struggling uphill when she thought to herself, "I'm too old for this."

You can't spend too much time on the sled, she said. "You're working with the dogs." You have to walk, run and push too.

One of the things she likes about the race, said Peplinski, is that besides carrying, tent, sleeping bag and enough other gear and food to be self sufficient three nights on the trail, racers also have to deliver three 40-pound bags of flour each to Kimmirut.

It's an echo of an older time when dogsleds were the only winter freight carriers.

"I like that idea," she said. "Mind you, it's nice that you don't have to carry the flour back." It's given away to community members at the Kimmirut feast.

She loves the way both communities have gotten behind the race, too, and the welcome racers receive when they arrive, both in Kimmirut and back in Iqaluit at the finish line.

"We really want to build it up," Peplinski said, like the older Nunavut Challenge dogsled race in North Baffin, which has many more teams participating.

Last year's Qimualaniq Quest had five teams, and organizers like Meeka Mike are trying to entice teams down from North Baffin to participate in the Iqaluit-Kimmirut run.

AFN director Daniel Cuerrier is worried about the race's future, though. "We had a hard time raising funds this year," he told Nunatsiaq News.

The francophone centre paid most of the costs for the first two races, which includes a prizes of $5,000, $2,500 and $1,500, but can't afford to continue on its own, although it still provides lots of volunteers, plus organizational support and help with logistics on the trail.

"We need more money to pay for expenses," he said. "So we held a raffle, and we're looking for sponsors. We're working hard and doing everything we can to make it happen."

For more information, or to volunteer or register your team, get in touch with Daniel Cuerrier at the AFN: 867-979-4606 ext. 29, or Tommy Akavak in Kimmirut, 979-4606.

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