Running a Marathon in the Canadian Arctic
“Polar bear” someone yelled. I whipped my head towards the window of the rickety school bus where I was sitting with thirty other adventurers on a tour of Churchill, Manitoba.
This was the starting point of my eight-day Cruise North expedition to the Canadian Arctic. In a few hours, we’d board our ship Lyubov Orlova, a Russian icebreaker, and set sail our Arctic Odyssey across the Hudson Bay, down the Hudson Strait, and finally to Kuujjuaq.
Whales and Walrus and Polar Bears, Oh my!
I’d signed on partly because the cruise promised icebergs, beluga whales, musk ox, walrus and polar bears, and partly because Cruise North is an Inuit-owned tour operator with Inuit staff onboard, and we’d be stopping at Inuit villages along the way; but mainly because midway through the voyage, there’d be a 26.2-mile marathon to be held on top of a 3,000-foot-high fjord.
Now, as I stared at the 300-pound polar bear foraging in the tundra less than 50 yards away, I hoped I wouldn’t have a personal encounter with one on that fjord.
Churchill is the polar bear capital of the world, our bus driver/guide said, but that’s in the fall when polar bears migrate out to the ice; this was July. That was one surprise. Another was that the temperature here was 90 degrees Fahrenheit, not the 50-degree average for July.
The polar bear disappeared down an embankment, and we continued on, stopping in front of a huge Inukshuk. These lifelike figures made of large stones have always been used by the Inuits to help herd caribou, indicate direction, and serve as both guardians and the Inuit symbol of the Canadian Arctic. They’re everywhere – in front of stores, in yards, at the dock where we boarded our ship.
As soon as I settled into my cabin, with its own bathroom and a porthole that opened, I grabbed my binoculars, and scurried up to the top deck where many of the other passengers were shooting pictures of white caps in the distance.
A second look and I realized they were not whitecaps; they were belugas! These whales, indigenous to the Arctic, are easy to spot because of their color.
Byelukha is the Russian word for white, and as the whales surfaced, their milky bodies glistened in the sun. Maybe it wasn’t the season for polar bears in Churchill, but it was the right time for some 3,000 belugas that migrate there every summer before entering Hudson Bay.
The expedition staff, trainees, and lecturers sat with us at meals and at any time we might find ourselves next to a naturalist, ornithologist, botanist or one of the Inuits.
There were also daily lectures on every subject from polar bears and arctic birds to the history of whaling and Inuit culture. At the first dinner, in the middle of eating a delicious Atlantic char, I began to feel the ship sway.
Henry Hudson, for whom Hudson Bay was named in 1610 while searching the Northwest Passage, didn’t know what he found or what he was talking about.
This is no bay. This is a body of water, 900 miles long and 600 miles wide that leads to the Arctic Ocean, and at this moment, in the middle of my dinner, it was acting like an angry ocean. I popped a seasickness pill.The Great Migration
The next morning, feeling like a zombie from Dramamine, I read an article on the bulletin board: “The first people to have migrated out of Africa to modern day Middle East and Mediterranean did so 100,000 years ago. The first people to reach the Bering Straight in modern East Russia got there 18,000 years ago and crossed over to North America.
“They are thought to be ancestors of Native American Indians. The early ancestors of the Inuit are believed to have crossed the Bering Straight 10,000 years ago, migrating from the area currently known as Mongolia.
“It seems unfathomable to think all the world’s people simply went about roaming the earth ceaselessly. Yet, the logistics of such a migration offer a realistic perspective. The circumference of the earth is approximately 40,000 kilometers (about 25,000 miles).
If we take a conservative estimate of 80,000 years of migration, the people pushing eastward out of Africa would have had to move only half a kilometer a year to cover the distance of the earth in a straight line.”
Icebergs and Whales
After breakfast, I stood outside on the deck, looking out at the endless sea. There wasn’t another vessel in sight because hardly anyone comes here by ship.
We were to be at sea all day, and there were a series of lectures beginning with “Intro to the Arctic.” Only 10% of the Arctic icebergs come from Canada – the rest are from Greenland.
During “The History of Whaling,” Richard Elliot, the naturalist from the American Museum of Natural History told us that the narwhale is also known as a unicorn, and its one ivory-like tusk can grow to eight feet. The beluga was once hunted for its skin, especially for white beluga shoelaces.
After, I donned a fleece, grabbed my book, and found a wind-sheltered spot on deck because the temperature had dropped to 53 degrees.
There’s something so meditative about sitting in the warm sun, watching the horizon, the ship gliding up and down on the inky waves, the water sluicing against the hull.
But I didn’t read much because I kept talking to the other passengers on deck. Most were from Canada, though there were a few people from England, Belgium, France, and one couple from America.
But the ones I bonded with right away were the eight who planned to run the marathon. They were serious racers who’d each racked up anywhere from 16-52 marathons. I’d only done two, and that was eight years ago.
The Arctic Marathon
The first Cruise North Arctic Marathon took place two years ago on the plateau of a 3,000-foot fjord with four full marathoners, a couple of half-marathoners, and a few relay teams.
Jay Glassman, the race director who also heads the Toronto Marathon, and was on board, told us that the Arctic Marathon is the fastest growing marathon in the world, because this year, it more than doubled the number of full marathoners to nine.
Even though I had fewer marathons under my belt, it wasn’t the kind of race I needed to get nervous about.
Wearing our wet gear and rubber boots, we were taken to shore by Zodiac (a rubber motorized dinghy), and from there by truck, a couple of miles up the road to the top of the fjord.
The out and back course (13.1 miles each way) was held on an old mining road with gently rolling hills (which felt as though they only went uphill in both directions).
There were no spectators, but Inuit volunteers from Kangiqsujuaq, a village three hours away, had come out early to build Inutshuks out of rocks at each kilometer marker. They manned the water spots every four miles, and cheered us on.
The average time was four hours and change. I was out much longer because I hurt my foot on a rock. That left me little choice but to walk the entire second half of the race.
We were having another hot day – a good 85 degrees, and besides it was above the treeline, there was no shade. And, there were no spectators.
Still, I will remember this race as the most memorable I have ever run in one of the most exceptional locations on earth. And my medal, complete with an Inutshuk logo, is the largest and heaviest I have ever received.
Hiking on the Tundra
Most mornings after breakfast we’d grab our binoculars and cameras, don rain gear and rubber boots, pile into the Zodiacs and motor to shore, then wade to the beach, pull off the wet landing gear and boots, and hike on the wildflower-filled tundra.
The people who liked life in the slow lane meandered along with researcher/botanist Susan Aiken, and those who wanted a longer hike joined George Sirk, an ornithologist who has a radio show in Canada and is so full of joy that he reminded me of Peter Pan.
We might see a herd of musk ox (from the cow family, but it looks more like a wooly mammoth) or caribou – both mothers with calves and males with huge antlers. One day we saw a red-throated loon sitting on her nest, another day, an arctic hare.
We walked through archeological sites and ancient graves on Opingivik lsland, then saw an old fox trap, and the vertebrae and rib bones from a bowhead whale.
On some of our excursions by Zodiac, there was no place to land, so we cruised close to the rocks or cliffs and one day saw hundreds of thick-billed murres, known as flying penguins, most sitting on their nests.
There were six-foot swells the day we visited Walrus Island, and those of us who chose to board the Zodiacs were soaked through our rain gear, but it was worth it because on shore were hundreds of slick walruses basking on the rocks.
And, on top of a hill about 100 yards away from the walruses was a polar bear! Just when I thought the day couldn’t get any better, around midnight, I saw the Northern Lights (aurora borealis) as they danced in the sky, bursting into displays like fireworks, and going on for at least two hours.
Meeting an Inuit Elder
One of my favorite experiences was the day we visited the 762-resident Inuit village of Kangiqsujuaq (where the marathon volunteers lived), and met Quananak, a traditional hunter, carver, and storyteller. He entertained us with stories about his family and explained that in Inuit culture, it’s everyone’s job to share food and look out for each other.
When a hunter goes out, he catches for the entire village. As in most Inuit villages, there is a community freezer and anyone can take meat. Quananak told us that when he grew up, they hunted with harpoons and used dog teams. These days, they use shotguns and get there by ATV or plane.
More About the Inuits
Jason Annahatak, an Inuit trainee on board (who studies in New York City at Columbia University), told us that the Inuits come from four places: Greenland, Canada, Alaska, and Eastern Siberia.
Some Inuit words which we use include igloo, nanook (polar bear) kayak, and ulu (knife).
In Inuit, there are hundreds of words for snow, but Jason knows only ten of them. Fishermen and hunters describe snow differently.
Inuits eat food you can’t buy such as caribou and seal. In winter, Inuits harvest mussels by poking a hole in the sea ice, finding a hollow, and crawling into an ice tunnel during low tide to gather the mussels.
So what were those hot days all about? It’s a known fact that the Arctic waters are warming, the permafrost is melting, and the polar bears have to wait longer on land till the ice freezes.
Some say the Arctic waterways could be ice-free by as early as 2015. Aisa, a 21-year-old Inuit trainee on board said that when he was five years old, it was always cold and snowed by September. Now, there’s no more snow in September. In June, he used to hunt by snowmobile, but now by May, the snow is melting.
Global warming is a reality and it is changing life among the Inuits. Eventually, the animals they hunt will move further north, the melting permafrost will jeopardize homes, and rising sea levels will displace entire communities.
So if you want to see the Arctic, go now –before the animals and birds and ice are gone and the Inuit have to invent a whole new way of living. (#10 Arctic sunset)
Want to Go?
To find out about any of Cruise North’s Arctic Expeditions, go to cruisenorthexpeditions.com
Want to try the Arctic Marathon?
The 2009 Arctic Marathon will take place aboard Cruise North’s July 22 – 31st 2009 Arctic Odyssey Cruise at Douglas Harbour, the South shore of the Hudson Strait in Nunavik, Canada. For more information, go to: torontomarathon.com
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