Ivakkak 2019: Northern Sled-Dog Race Across Nunavik
Setting Up the Finish Line in My Village of Inukjuak
The event happened on March 10, 2019.
It was on a very cold Sunday morning that the racers of the Ivakkak race were scheduled to arrive at the finish line in the village of Inukjuak where I am now living for most of the year. Luckily for me, I have the weekends off, so I was able to go see the racers make their final stop after two long and intense weeks of traveling through the harsh winter sceneries like tundra and blizzards.
For those who have no idea what Ivakkak is, it is a fantastic race that happens in the Nunavik region every year or so. The project started in the year 2000. This year there were nine teams, each composed of two humans and eight to ten sled-dogs, mainly huskies. These beasts are amazing northern dogs that have incredible endurance to extreme weathers and a impressive sense of guidance. Better than a GPS in great storms.
Inuits have mostly stopped using the dogs as mode of transport when the snowmobiles and VTTs arrived, so the race also serves as a reminder that these animals are man's best friend and have greatly helped the Inuit people to survive and thrive in isolated conditions.
The racers are on the ''road'' which is actually mainly the river (completely frozen for a risk-free race at that time of year) for about two weeks, setting up camp along the way as they go. They can distance up to 80 kilometers each day! They have supporters, photographers, and nurses that follow them through their epic journey. Sometimes their progress is slowed or halted by terrible blizzards, and sometimes a team has to quit because of injuries to them or their dogs.
When I looked on their Facebook page, the estimated arrival time of the teams was around 11 in the morning, so I thought I'd head out a couple minutes before eleven because the finish line was fairly close-by to where I am living. Foolish me.
Around that time, I took my fully-loaded camera battery, put it in my camera (duh) and put said camera in my backpack. But what I should have done was put the battery in my pocket to keep it warm until I actually got to the place, because my camera had no more power a long while before the teams actually arrived. I didn't think I'd need anything else, really. I would later regret not bringing some snacks and a mug of hot tea to keep my body warm but hey, we learn as we go. Then, I put on the whole winter suit and made sure no skin was left uncovered because I had a feeling I was probably going to be outside for a while.
I was told that when the racers arrive in the village, the majority of the people living here show up, and the community has now almost two thousand members. It's a big deal. Even before the race started two weeks before this event, I could feel the excitement everywhere; it was on everybody's mind and most would talk about it. I didn't even know that the finish line was in Inukjuak this year until a few days before they got here. I could follow the racers on the Ivakkak website and see pictures and videos of their progress. So cool!
The only ''structure'' that was close-by was a small igloo that was made for the occasion. It was my first time seeing an authentic inuit igloo. Since it's a white structure on a white background, you had to squint your eyes to even see it properly. I was impressed at how nice and cozy the interior was. The cracks between the cubes of snow were thin enough to let the light enter but not the snow or the wind. As soon as I squatted through that hole, I wasn't cold anymore, even if I was sitting on the ice.
I went back and forth from the igloo to the flags while the community started to gather, walking or on a snowmobile and comming from the frozen beach to meet us at the river. I found walking on frozen sand was quite bizarre. At noon, there was already an impressive number of people reunited here and there, talking away and waiting for the day's event to begin. When almost everybody had shown up, I went on top of a pile of snow to take a picture but the batteries in my camera had already died out. Dang!
Only a few minutes before one o'clock in the afternoon, there was a massive (considering the accessibility of the event) gathering of people and snowmobiles near the flags. The racers were expected at any moment. The visibility was very low and we coudn't see too far, so we all waited eagerly, looking in the distance to spot the huskies leading the first team. Everyone had a smile on their face and a small Ivakkak flag in their hands. The crowd had to be told to back away a bit because everyone wanted to get closer and closer, but we had to stay at a safe distance to avoid distracting the dogs.
When the first dogs were seen, the crown roared with pride and joy. As soon as the first team stopped in front of the gathered village, all the sled-dogs immediately started rolling on the ice, looking as happy as ever to see so many people that were so excited to see them! They were the maître of the show at that moment and didn't seem to mind the attention at all.
Pictures were taken, hugs and kisses were given, hands were shaken, and dogs were pet. The challenging weather was put aside in our minds while we witnessed the other teams arrive one by one with all those happy northern dogs who were probably ready to race again, maybe not even knowing yet that their epic journey of the year had just ended. When all the teams had arrived, people could go see and pet the tired huskies.
Since I had been outside in the freezing cold for almost three hours, I finally went home to get warmth, even if all the village and the teams were all still there when I left, sharing stories and gifts.
Around six that evening, there was a massive gathering in the recreation center's gymnasium. There were speeches, prizes, live music, dancing, food, and promotional items for the race like shirts and hats. And a lot of people for the space available. Simply walking to the other end of the gym was an exercise of patience and a shoulder to shoulder dance.
I feel blessed to have been able to have witnessed this extraordinary event and see most of the community together, happy and laughing.
Hopefully I will get to see those awesome huskies next time they come and be better prepared to take pictures of their arrival.
Until next time...
If you found this as interesting as I have I urge you to go check them out on their Facebook page or website.