Nunavik dogsled race, plagued by winter storms, ends with hometown victory

·3 min read
Mushers Johnny May Jr. and Ahuya Snowball May set off from the start line on the ice outside Salluit in snowy conditions during the 2021 edition of the Ivakkak Race. The grueling multi-day race runs between the isolated communities of Nunavik in northern Quebec. (Ivakkak 2021/Facebook - image credit)
Mushers Johnny May Jr. and Ahuya Snowball May set off from the start line on the ice outside Salluit in snowy conditions during the 2021 edition of the Ivakkak Race. The grueling multi-day race runs between the isolated communities of Nunavik in northern Quebec. (Ivakkak 2021/Facebook - image credit)

After more than two weeks of gruelling racing through vicious winter storms, a trio of teams from Puvirnituq, Nunavik, in northern Quebec, have taken the top three spots in the 20th edition of the Ivakkak dog sled race with a triumphant entry into their hometown.

The race was slated to start in Salluit, Que., on Feb. 22 and end in Puvirnituq on March 4, but several spells of severe winter weather forced competitors to hunker down for days at a time.

The start of the race was delayed for two days by high winds and poor visibility that prevented the arrival of crucial supplies. The official start, on the sea ice outside Salluit, went off without a hitch, but on the second day, organizers were forced to ferry teams by skidoo to Ivujivik because of rough weather.

An impatient dog leaps at the start line of the Ivakkak race. Rough conditions caused by winter storms meant organizers brought a number of dog teams to checkpoints by snowmobile at several points in the race.
An impatient dog leaps at the start line of the Ivakkak race. Rough conditions caused by winter storms meant organizers brought a number of dog teams to checkpoints by snowmobile at several points in the race. (Ivakkak 2021/Facebook)

"The snow condition on the trail was really soft, which made for tough traveling conditions for the mushers and their dogs," an update from organizers reads. Ferrying the teams "was no small feat, in some situations the support teams had to try and catch some dogs in blizzard condition." All teams did not arrive until 11 p.m.

By March 3, three teams had been forced to abandon the race, and another musher swapped out after an injury to his hand from the cold. The race weathered at a camp near the river Kuuvik for several days before finally getting underway March 6.

High winds and the transit of a caribou herd, which can mislead dogs away from the route, forced the teams to stop again in Akulivik on March 7. Starts were delayed again on March 9.

A team of mushers departs from Ivujivik in northern Quebec during the 2021 Ivakkak race. The race ended up taking a week longer than expected due to bad weather.
A team of mushers departs from Ivujivik in northern Quebec during the 2021 Ivakkak race. The race ended up taking a week longer than expected due to bad weather.(Ivakkak 2021/Facebook)

Despite the rough conditions, Puvirnituq's Aia Suuilak and Paului Amarualik crossed the finish line in their hometown after just 39 hours, 30 minutes and three seconds. The duo racked up a strong lead of nearly an hour by the second day, which they maintained throughout the race.

By the end, Suuilak and Amarualik dominated, putting two and a half hours between themselves and Jani-Marik Beaulne and Jackusi Amamatuak in second place. Kulu Tukalak and Peter Qinuajuak, in third, took another hour and a half to arrive.

Suuilak and Amarualik's easy victory is a stark contrast to last year's edition, when just over 11 minutes separated first and third place in the 40-hour race.

A musher waits to depart from Ivujivik, northern Quebec, during the 2021 edition of the Ivakkak Race. This year was the 20th time the race has been held.
A musher waits to depart from Ivujivik, northern Quebec, during the 2021 edition of the Ivakkak Race. This year was the 20th time the race has been held.(Ivakkak 2021/Facebook)

A source of pride

The race was conceived in 2000 by the Makivik Corporation, the organization representing Inuit in Nunavik, as a way to revive the culture of dog mushing that had been suppressed over time.

"Although snowmobiles now make it possible to cover greater distances in less time than it takes by dog sled, they are not as reliable as a hardy team of huskies, which are also valuable guides, able to find their way better than any GPS, even in a complete whiteout," the race website reads.

The name comes from Johnny Watt, a former Nunavik governor who delivered the measles vaccine to Nunavik communities by dog sled in the 1950s. According to the race website, Ivakkak means "when the dogs are at their best pace."

Mushers depart on March 1 during the 2021 Ivakkak race. The result, which saw teams from Puvirnituq take the top three spots, was not as close as in previous years.
Mushers depart on March 1 during the 2021 Ivakkak race. The result, which saw teams from Puvirnituq take the top three spots, was not as close as in previous years.(Ivakkak 2021/Facebook)