History and tradition come to vivid life in Manitoba at this annual dogsled race.
Suggested tweet: Thrill to the sights + sounds of the annual Hudson Bay Quest dog sled race http://ow.ly/qMYMQ #explorecanada @TravelManitoba
That visual splendour is in contrast with the cacophony of barking from 17 teams of eight to 10 huskies, straining at their traces. They’re keen to run, and that’s what we spectators are anxiously awaiting: the start of the Hudson Bay Quest. The 11th annual race leaves Churchill on March 13, 2014, bound for Gillam.
Suddenly... they’re off. A team of these canine athletes dashes past, tongues lolling, fur flying. They run like the possessed across the frozen river, straining at their traditional fan-hitch style trace formation. Behind them, an Inuit musher perches upon his komatik (sled). Watching him in his sealskin parka, for a moment I imagine I’ve slipped back in time. Just as suddenly, they vanish into this magical white and blue-sky world.
A second team of dogs runs by, pulling a musher wearing modern gear. It made me wonder which outfit was the warmer. Such concerns don’t bother the dogs. This second team, just like the first, is focused on giving its best to win the Quest.
The knot of spectators cheers wildly as the teams sweep past. Our voices rise as David Daley, the visionary who founded the Quest, and his dogs pass by. Earlier, Daley had explained how it all began. “I started the race because I wanted something to do with my dog team,” he said. “So I invented the Hudson Bay Quest. Also, the art of dogsledding really needed a boost in the north as it was dying out.”
The 17 racers from Canada and the US, plus their dog teams, race the approximately 360-km (223-mi) route. Some—usually not all of the dogs and sometimes not all of the mushers—complete the race in around 46 hours, hauling their komatiks or sleek modern sleds. Whatever the style, all are loaded with gear, as well as dog and human food, because this is a challenging race where mushers must look after their team and themselves without assistance.
Vets, however, do examine the dogs’ health during the Quest, ensuring they’re fit to continue. Some get pulled if they’re at risk; each team can drop two dogs at the midway point without a penalty, an added anxiety for this competitive event. Indeed, the stringent standards that Daley and others established for this race won it recognition as a qualifier for the Yukon Quest Sled Dog Race.
Tradition remains the key. “I think it’s important to keep the art of dogsledding alive because it is part of our Canadian cultural history,” said Daley. “It’s unthinkable to lose an art with such history.”
This sense of history is palpable as the teams dash past. The race recalls the history of northern Canada’s fur trade that heralded the opening of Fort Churchill in 1717. Back then, First Nations Cree, Inuit and Dene loaded their komatiks with furs and raced to the trading post.
For now, I rejoice in the continued celebration of this awe-inspiring northern sport. Reflecting on the spectacle, I return to the Churchill start line. It’s time for a hot chocolate in Frontiers North Adventure’s cozy Tundra Buggy parked at the start line—a more modern local tradition to enjoy.
Follow us on Twitter @DestinationCAN