Nunatsiaq Online
NEWS: Nunavik April 25, 2017 - 11:45 am

Nunavik dog sled race unpredictable, challenging but rewarding: race marshal

Johnny Oovaut retires after many years on the race route

SARAH ROGERS
Ivakkak race officials watch dog sled teams complete the final stretch of the race April 15 from a Nunavik Rotors helicopter. (PHOTO BY P. DUNNIGAN/MAKIVIK)
Ivakkak race officials watch dog sled teams complete the final stretch of the race April 15 from a Nunavik Rotors helicopter. (PHOTO BY P. DUNNIGAN/MAKIVIK)
Long-time Ivakkak race marshal Johnny Oovaut chats with another crew member during this year's race, which wrapped up in Ivujivik April 15. (PHOTO BY P. DUNNIGAN/MAKIVIK)
Long-time Ivakkak race marshal Johnny Oovaut chats with another crew member during this year's race, which wrapped up in Ivujivik April 15. (PHOTO BY P. DUNNIGAN/MAKIVIK)

From a Nunavik Rotors helicopter, Johnny Oovaut could see Puvirnituq musher Aisa Surusilak and his partner Aiplie Qumaluk running alongside their dog team, encouraging the dogs to run faster.

It was April 15, the last stretch of the 2017 Ivakkak dog sled race and the team had the finish line community, Ivujivik, and a first-place win in its sights.

If one person gets off the qamutik, it’s usually the assistant musher, who will jump off to run; in this case, the two were moving.

“I could see the frost on their faces,” said long-time Ivakkak marshal Johnny Oovaut, who got to watch the race’s final moments from the air.

“They were really making a push for the finish.”

Ivakkak, which spanned 19 days this year, rarely offers a finish-line ending—teams are timed for each day’s travel over the period of many days.

But when Surusilak and Qumaluk completed the race and secured their win, they had finished just two and a half minutes sooner than the second-place competitors, mushers Peter Boy Ittukallak and his partner Putugu Iqiquq.

It didn’t help that, in that final stretch, one of Ittukallak’s dogs got caught in a race marker, slowing the team.

But the people waiting for the teams at the finish line in Ivujivik didn’t notice any of the drama, they were just excited to welcome the dog teams at the end of a long race.

“People were happy to see them,” Oovaut said. “Especially the elders, because it reminds them of who they are.”

Even though he travelled the race route by snowmobile, Oovaut and other race officials were equally happy to reach Ivujivik; the 2017 edition of the race was long and difficult.

The race route along the Hudson coast was more than 800 kilometres. Mushers left Umiujaq March 28, but teams rarely raced two days in a row, forced to rest until bad weather passed.

Then, dogs from at least six different teams started having diarrhea and vomiting. Two teams, one from Kuujjuaq and another from Tasiujaq, withdrew from the race.

“Dog team races are unpredictable,” Oovaut said. “You don’t expect your dogs to get sick.”

Testing later revealed the dogs had an intestinal tract infection called clostridium perfringens, a fairly common food-borne illness.

But it was the first time Ivakkak co-ordinators saw so many dogs fall ill on the race route. On some days, there were as many as nine dogs riding with the race veterinarian.

Oovaut suspects last year’s Ivakkak winner, Willie Cain of Tasiujaq, would have won the race again this year had his animals been healthy. Instead Cain placed third.

2017 marked Ivakkak’s 16th anniversary. Each year the race’s organizers, Makivik Corp., continue to tweak the rules to create a more level playing field for all participants.

This year, for example. Ivakkak decided to add an additional five minutes on the time of any team who had a loose dog.

“We started this year and suddenly, there are no more loose dogs,” Oovaut said.

Race co-ordinators also now apply a 60-minute penalty for teams that require assistance, such as a snowmobile pick-up, to reach the next stop on the route.

Oovaut has enjoyed his years on the race trail, but he has decided to retire as marshal this year. The experience is rewarding, he said, but physically demanding.

“It’s not easy being outdoors more than 12 hours a day,” he said. “You hardly have time to eat. You have to camp and it’s not always warm.”

“But there’s a lot of camaraderie,” Oovaut added. “It’s a nice way to preserve this particular tradition. After some 20,000 dogs were slaughtered, it’s good to see the dog team culture has survived.”

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