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The Arctic is all but empty.

The plane floats in the sky and I wander in the darkness towards the frozen sea ice of the Hudson Bay. My mind races along the clouds. It races back to the hostile and yet fiercely appealing immensity of the tundra. Back to the blistering cold. Back to the land where clouds and land melt into bliss. Back to those fourteen days during which I followed Ivakkak.

Bliss

The Ivakkak Dog Sled Race is an annual event which takes place in Nunavik. The first race was organized in 2001 by Makivik Corporation in order to revive the Inuit tradition of dog sledding. Dog teams are seldom used these days. For many Inuit, the dog slaughter from the ’50s-’60s can explain this fall in yet another showcase of colonialism. Official reports claim that the dogs were killed to prevent diseases. In northern communities, the perspective is that government agents slaughtered husky dogs to prevent Inuit from roaming. In effect, the idea was to keep Inuit in these settlements and provide them with the ‘benefits of Western civilization’.

Ivakkak Husky Ambulance

This year’s edition was on the Hudson Coast. The race began in Chisasibi on February 26 and ended on March 10, 2019 when the mushers crossed the finish line in Inukjuak. 112 dogs, 18 mushers and a support crew of 14 made up the group. I was fortunate enough to tag along for the 739 kilometers.

Where to begin?

I am overwhelmed by mixed feelings of gratitude, daze, sacredness, exhaustion, and joy. How can I possibly describe the last few weeks? There are no words to describe the pure cold that penetrated my scarred fingers. There are no words to illustrate surfing across a majestic, frozen kingdom that holds such wisdom and secrets. There are no words to recreate a race that felt as much as a competition as it did a family gathering. At the end of each day, we would gather in a circle to debrief. To conclude the meetings, the elder of the group, Peter Boy Ittukallak, would recite a short prayer. As I close my eyes, I shiver and feel the power of these collective whispers blending with the howling of the dogs and the wind.

I can’t help but think of destiny. It brings me back to a quote by Amin Maalouf, an author I deeply appreciate:

Destiny is to human what the wind is to a sailing boat. The helmsperson cannot decide the direction or the force of the wind, one can only manipulate the sails.

Amin Maalouf, Identités Meurtrières [loose translation]

I could not have fathomed that I would EVER take part in an Inuit dog sled race. The winds of destiny are mysterious and inscrutable. When we arrived at the final destination, all these men, Inuit hunters, those same ones who initially looked at me with suspicion, I could see their eyes sparkling with pride. Pride to share the beauty they hold so dear. As if we all became one.  This perhaps relates to what storyteller Clarissa Pinkola Estes calls the Rio Abajo Rio, the “river beneath the river of the world” or what Jung calls the “collective unconscious”. As if this experience awakened the interconnected universal nature in us all.

The energy that is alive in me as I write these lines is quite a paradox. I feel unbalanced and yet deeply nourished. I feel soiled by the smoke in my lungs – I would often wake up to the smell of cigarettes around 5-6am as my tent companion would light up a smoke to start another glorious day -, by the kilograms of junk food in my stomach, by the propane smell stuck to my clothing. And yet, these wither away as snowflakes. What remains is that exceptional energy that the animals of the land fed me, that the sun shined upon my eyes, that the snow reflected on my very skin, that the northern lights cemented in my memory, and that the smiles etched on my heart. The emptiness filled me. The emptiness filled my soul. The Arctic is all but empty.

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