Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Qamaluaniq Challenge ~ Part 1

I hate competing. I loathe it. I was convinced by my teammates for an upcoming Ellesemere Island Expedition that it would be good training though. It was only going to be 7 days, and it would be fun. Besides, we weren’t actually “racing,” it was all in the name of fun. I can’t say I was in the least bit excited about covering 320 kilometers without cross country skis, and the mandatory 120 pounds of flower that we were to deliver to Kimmirut. The weight of our gear, the flower, the heavy wooden sleds, and my team mate and I was to much even for the 9 bearlike inuit sled dogs we had fan hitched to the pulling end of the sled. Fan hitch is how the Inuit used to run their dogs. In the Arctic, and near arctic, there aren’t to many trees for the dogs to get tangled up in, so having each dog separately tied to the sled allows them to pick their own path through tide tossed sea ice, and the boulders that roll down from the stone walled canyons broken off by the intense cold. All dogsledding is descendant from the Inuit. It has even been argued that the Inuit could not have survived in the Arctic without dogs. Pieces of dogsleds made from baleen, whales jaw, have been found alongside bones of dogs in archaeological sites 5000 years old, the oldest of the arctic ruins. Not to much has changed in the designs, better wood is brought in and carved into shape. It used to be the only source of wood was driftwood that washed up from the south. Imagine what you might think of driftwood if you have never seen a tree. Imagine what you might have thought of a ship sailing north full of Southlanders were you Inuit. Inuit people imagined ships carved from single gigantic trees. It seems silly to us, but try to fathom a home built from snow warm enough to wear a t-shirt in.

Arguably things have changed more quickly for the Inuit than any other culture. Just 30 years ago, people where still living in Igloos out on the land and traveling by dogsled. A friend, and a great source of knowledge in the wild is a small unassuming woman named Mika. She was number 9 in a family with 12 children, and offers a great perspective on the changes that the Inuit have been through. She sees her siblings as covering three generations, the first children where born out on the land, to a family that moved with the seasons and followed the hunting grounds throughout the year. The middle children were sent to town to go to school, while the family still lived on the land. The last generation of which Mika was a part grew up in a town, close to a school and in a world constantly in touch with what we would call the “Western World” and what they would call the “South.”

On day one of the race, I wrote in my journal that I had just been through the hardest day of my life. Even when the dogs are fresh, and the the trail flat, the dogs had trouble carrying our weight, so one of us was constantly running the flats, climbing the hills, or skating, a technique kind of like riding a giant skate board on your knees. 75 kilometers later, and 2000 vertical feet climbed. We stood atop a plateau that represented (at least to me) five more days of struggle. This same night, the temperature dropped to about -40 degrees. It doesn’t matter if you want it in Fahrenheit or Celsius, at -40 it’s the same. It’s the point where both parties can agree that it’s freezing out. We set up our tents and retreated into our many layers of sleeping bags to sleep out the night.

Do you know that feeling, when you are in your nice warm bed, and the floor around you has cooled in the early hours of the morning but you still can’t sleep because nature has been calling. Eventually you have to throw off the duvet and roll out of bed, your feet cringe as they first touch the floor. Now imagine the same feeling except in a tent at -40. Earlier that night, I had watched water freeze as we poured it into a pot, building a rough stalagmite of ice before our eyes.

Day two was far, far harder. We were already exhausted and sore from the first day, and the dogs must have realized they weren’t going home. According to my GPS we actually did more climbing on day two than on day one, but we didn’t get the satisfaction of standing on top of a peak and looking out over the bay ice to see what our efforts had added up to. The climbing was all done in long slow climbing sections quickly followed by short descents that nullified any gains we felt we had made. A rolling and mostly featureless landscape that offered no short term goals to reach for us or the dogs. Dogs love the rough ice that forms where the frozen ocean has been pushed by tides and winds against the shore into a cracked and broken accordion of Ice. To them it’s the equivalent of a racetrack, they yip and bark and growl each vying for the front position in the pack, another reason why having different length ropes tethering the dogs to the sled is so effective. The Plateau had none of that thrill. Yet, standing on the edge of the plateau at the end of the daylight hours and watching the sunset stands out as one of the most beautiful sights I’ve been privileged enough to see. After descending into that valley during the twilight hours, we lead the dogs for 4 more hours into the night and that stands out as one of the most difficult nights i’ve ever experienced.

The halfway point, Kimmirut, welcomed us on the third evening with a feast and a warm place to lay our sleeping bags. The locals were more than willing to lend a hand with any of our tasks. Even the dogs were treated as royalty, dining on the same fresh meat as the people instead of hard packed and frozen dogfood. Seeing the blend of cultures that have created Kimmirut and the way in which the people live their day to day lives in the far North forces reflection on our own cultural development. After a lengthy prayer by one of the village elders, locals descended upon raw caribou laid out on a sheet of Tyveck. To the side, a table waited with cooked caribou for those that didn’t find the raw caribou appetizing. The inuit culture like many other native peoples has found a blend of religion and tradition with those of the foreigners that have shown up over the years, this blend has paralleled the peoples adaptation to life in houses and villages, as well as having replaced dogsledding with snow-machines. As we found on our return trip to Iqaluit, the changes have their downfalls to survival in the North.

Back at camp 2, with dogs and racers well rested and inspired from an easy day traveling up a frozen river from Kimmirut. They sky held signs of a coming storm, but the racers readied for another day. The race organizer Muni held us back against our will, even though we trust him and his unparalleled knowledge of the trail implicitly. It wasn’t until waiting a full day in the tent that we found out we had been held for a search and rescue operation. Suddenly we didn’t mind waiting so much, the head Ranger, Jameson, was missing. He had left in the early afternoon the day before to pick up spark plugs for the snowmobiles and hadn’t returned. In a landscape as vast and dangerous as this, anything could have happened. Theories on his disappearance verged from the catastrophic to the mundane, but when a man like Jameson disappears without a trace something must have gone horribly wrong. After spending the night in two sleeping bags, a bivy sack, a vapor barrier and a tent, I couldn’t imagine anyone surviving a night out in such bitter cold. Mika was more optimistic, and in her way quietly gave us all hope. The wind had swept away most of the snowmobile tracks, the snow in the sky blended with the snow on the ground, and only the occasional rock added depth or contrast to the scene. In this weather, the Canadian Rangers had combed the land for two days and hadn’t turned up a sign of Jameson. It wasn’t until the next morning, after his second night out that he was found. He had veered off the trail, and had fallen over 20 feet into a ravine breaking his pelvis. He hadn’t moved in two days, and he was alive. Chills sent shock-waves up and down my spine when I heard that he had kept his willpower to live. According to Mika, your will is your strongest force against the cold, and Jameson had little else to protect him.

We had to feed the dogs their emergency food which had previously weighed down the sled even more, along with some of our extra fuel, and without the weight of the flower, climbing back up onto the plateau was tough but quick and manageable, the weather was holding, and the dogs had had plenty of rest. Throughout the day, the weather slowly started to lean towards storming, the wind began to build, and oddly enough the temperature began to rise. Dogs run slow in the warm weather. I watched my altimeter all day, and the barometric pressure was dropping faster than we were climbing indicating the onset of a low pressure system. By nightfall, we were in a blizzard, winds buffeted the tents at 60 miles an hour and our dogs had curled up into themselves letting the snow cover them for more insulation. Again, we had no choice but to wait it out in our tents.

Two mornings later, I stepped out of the tent to find our sleds buried, our tents in self created wind wells, and the dogs still sleeping under the snow. It was late in the morning, and according to the locals, it was the most snow to have dropped in over 15 years. Snowmobiles where bogging down before they even began to move, tents had been ravaged, the storm was in a lull and would begin anew at any moment. We had 50 miles to go, and not enough food to wait out the storm.

No comments: