Discovering Manitoba

Churchill to Arviat by Man and Dog

The frigid air turns into ice crystals the moment it hits the warm breath of man and dog, gliding across the snow on the edge of Hudson’s Bay. While others in the South may be dreaming of spring and already noting the snowmelt, here between Churchill and Arviat on March 21, the solstice, there is no hint of this yet except for a slight change in the hours of daylight.

For now, all that matters is speed and a muttered prayer that the clear weather will hold, keeping blizzards at bay. The mushers are at one with the dogs and the land. There is no sense of time or space, just the pace and the joy of the race as they skim the top of the world. This is the first day of the 2009 Hudson Bay Quest, the dog sled race along the coast of Hudson’s Bay between Churchill and Arviat, 450 miles to the north.

Dave Daley started it all. “I’m the crazy guy, “ he proclaims modestly. “ I used to watch the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest on TV and always wished I could be one of the racers. And I started thinking, “Why can’t we have a race like that?” He started talking about it too, and suddenly, a lot of other people were thinking the same thing. In a little while, the whole town of Churchill got behind the idea and Dave had a race on his hands to organize.

“I’ve got this great committee,” he says. “It’s mostly women,” including his wife Valerie. “They’re the ones that get things done. Them and Claude Daudet, the trail boss, and Jack Batstone, the race marshall.”

They started the first race in 2004 with just six teams. It was a brutal test, but they’re tough in the North and at the end of the race, it was David Oolooyak of Rankin Inlet who came in first. Third place went to 71-year-old Philip Kigusiutnak of Arviat who ran every race since it started until last year, never doing worse than fourth.

It was an exciting challenge. Everyone was still learning. Feeding the dogs was one of the lessons for the Churchil mushers. Those from Arviat had a better model. According to the race logs, "When it came to feeding time, Inuit mushers could simply chuck seal meat to their dogs while still in the fan hitch formation and then maybe keep a piece for themselves too!”

To make matters worse that year, there was a storm: “ Dogs are not really thrilled with running headlong into 80 km winds, therefore they slowly alter their course to something a little more comfortable.

In fact, one racer flagged down the Canadian Ranger’s bombardier to find out what direction he was going. His dogs had turned him around in the storm and were heading back to Churchill!” Dave Daley himself got blown across the tundra while still in his tent! But all turned out well and, in the end, there was the traditional feast in Arviat with traditional Inuit food. “I bring a sandwich,” jokes Dave.

A lot has changed since that time. The race has grown in reputation and organization. They’ve had as many as 22 kennels participate and, this year, in spite of the problems with the railroad heading north to Churchill, they expect 13 teams. The racers come from all over. In year three, the winner was a musher from Duluth, Minnesota and teams come from as far away as Quebec and Saskatchewan. The Hudson Bay Quest isn’t the longest dog race, but it has gained a reputation as the toughest, which has a cache of its own in the land where being tough is a necessary ingredient for survival. It is now classed as one of the big three races – right up there with the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest.

The top prize is $8,200 plus a thousand dollars credit at the Hudson Bay Store and, most valuable of all, bragging rights. But the money prize is not the motivator. Dave Daley estimates that it costs him $23,000 a year just to feed his dogs To pay for this, he runs a sideline tourism business for visitors who come from all over the world to see the northern lights. He and his wife also own and operate the Wapusk General Store in Churchill. On top of all this, Dave runs the maintenance department for Calm Air, one of the race’s biggest sponsors. So just how long does it take for a team of dogs and a man to fly across the tundra the 400 km from Churchill to Arviat? Last year, the winner made it in just 35 hours and 5 minutes, two hours faster than the year before and a huge improvement over earlier race times that exceeded 52 hours.

As for Phillip Kigusiutnak, now 77. He was inducted into the Hudson Bay Quest Hall of Fame and won the Calm Air sportsmanship prize. He also won a trip to the Olympics, when the person making the draw announced, “I sure hope I draw Phillip’s name.” And then he did!

LATE FLASH: This year’s race was being run just as this story was being written. It started March 21. The mushers ran into a blizzard and didn’t finish till the 26th. Dave came in second!

- By Dorothy Dobbie

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