After a few years working to refine research goals, reading about Arctic explorers and communicating with key stakeholders to gain a better understanding of Inuit culture and different points of interest, I am heading back to the Arctic.
I was here in 2014. Examining perceptions of learning success. It was a part of an undergraduate project and an excellent learning experience. Not only did I return with an open mind but a new appreciation for the things I do every day.
This is a school trip and I am fully committed to this project. The simple fact is that I like to run. Running is a part of who I am and who I have become. It is most certainly something I will do in some way shape or form for the rest of my life. While I am here I will be doing just that.
To get started… lets flash back to the winter of 2014.
Racing against the Arctic
Pocket knife, check, hot pack, check, mipku check. I take a deep breath and push the door open. The cold air rushes in, creating a vortex to the outside world. I propel myself into the frozen environment and bound through the -40oC air. When my shoes hit the ground they create a base sound that travels through the cement-hard snow and echoes off the buried shale rocks. Every breath I take slowly pushes my lungs to inflate, developing a powerful rhythm that labors to keep beat. I approach the first hill and attempt to lift my frozen eyelashes; I smile but my teeth immediately freeze. The bright red sun, which has been absent for the past two months, is slowly emerging on the horizon above the frozen ocean. The sun will bring the sky alive for almost two hours and then make room for tonight’s display of northern lights. I admire the beauty of this place: the allure of what seems to be an endless landscape, the solace of running on top of the world and reflecting on where my life has brought me today. This moment of wonder, however, is short lived when a fierce gust of wind hits me with an icy force that throws me off my feet; welcome to running in the Arctic.
It is not solely a winter training camp that brought me to the small Inuit hamlet of Ulukhaktok in the Northwest Territories, but also the pursuit of my undergraduate honours thesis. I eagerly took the opportunity to work with Dr. Tristan Pearce and Dr. Benjamin Bradshaw in the Department of Geography at the University of Guelph on a research project that would examine Inuit perceptions of learning success in the context of renegotiating how education is delivered in the community.
I have always enjoyed exploring. As a child I would venture into the forest in my backyard, leap through the maple leaves, climb the tall trees, and wander into other worlds. My parents encouraged me to try virtually every sport. Running was the one sport that I truly enjoyed. From chasing my brother and sister around, to racing local cross-country meets it eventually led me to compete internationally. As my running career progressed I was fortunate to meet some amazing people along the way. I would follow them through many great runs, and many more life conversations. With their help I have had the opportunity to travel the world, but most of all, gone on some amazing adventures.
This time, standing on the frozen landscape in the high Arctic, running seems like a whole new type of adventure. I get back to my feet, brace myself against the powerful wind and pull my facemask down over my mouth before it freezes from the condensation of my breath after trekking up the three glaciated hills. I stand overlooking the half moon shape of houses lining the ocean bay and reflect on some of the successes I have had during my time here.
The Polar Bear Scare
“The Arctic is always ready to kill you” – the words of an Inuit hunter before heading out on my first solo run. “You might feel alone but there is always something watching you.” Those words resonated with me as I disregarded the confusion among community members for why I was going running and headed north down a desolate winding road that lead to the airport. The road was more of an icy trail, used by service vehicles and snowmobiles and it is sometimes easy to forget that the settlement is located among an array of other life, wildlife. A few days earlier, an Elder and local hunter caught a polar bear nearby and this morning two wolves were spotted in the hills.
Each stride took me further from the community and deeper into the wild. As I ran I scanned the incandescent landscape to ensure that I did not see anything suspicious. There was a split in the airport trail leading around the backside of a hill composed of jagged rocks and ice, to the opposite end of the community. In an attempt to run at a faster pace I opted for the longer route. A few minutes in I suddenly got the feeling that I was being watched. I was far enough from the community that no one could see me. I strained my frozen eyes to peer into the landscape and could make out a discoloration against the white backdrop. A hint of beige that looked like the movements of a …POLAR BEAR… My heart sank, I panicked, and I ran as fast as I could towards the community. If the bear saw me it could easily catch up and overtake me. I thought ‘well if I die today I have had a pretty great life.’ I looked back and hopelessly pretended I was invisible in my black running attire. My lungs so dry felt like a fire had erupted in my chest. My legs began to crumble beneath me. I made my way back to the community and managed to catch my breath to stand up, and breathe a sigh of relief. That run would be deemed unsuccessful to me.
Running in the Dark
The trip to Ulukhaktok was scheduled for the beginning of January, which is also the start of the Indoor track and field season. I am in my final year with University of Guelph Gryphons Track and Field team and preparing for another season with Speed River Track and Field. January also happens to be the coldest, darkest and possibly one of the most dangerous times of the year to travel to the Arctic. After some discussions with my coach, Dave Scott-Thomas, we decided that it would be best to focus on the experience and not to worry about training until my return; however, that was not going to stop me from running in the Arctic.
Before I left, I was given advice by friends and family such as, “you can’t run up there, it is way too cold” and “you’re going to burn your lungs.” These concerns would not compare to the energy that I had locked inside waiting to run along the icy land. Since I began to run competitively I’ve looked forward to that moment when you push your physical strength to its limits. As you step away and take a deep exhalation, there is a sense of energy being released. It is a feeling of happiness, of peace, almost a personal sense of pride. Running has given me that feeling everyday, one might even say it is how I evaluate success. The fact that I was now heading to one of the coldest and darkest places on earth, I was not about to let that go.
I would soon find out in Ulukhaktok that no one would ‘practice running’ as the locals called it. The population is approximately 98% Inuit, and hunting, fishing and trapping continue to be important activities in the lives of most Ulukhaktomuit, for subsistence, income and culture. Inuit are known for their stamina, perseverance, forbearance, observation skills and ingenuity, but you will rarely see an Inuk in Ulukhaktok going for a run. To them that would be a silly waist of time and energy. This led me to a discussion with an Inuit man who has built his life using traditional knowledge passed down by his Elders.
“ On a good day, I’ll eat my traditional foods (a combination of fresh or dried fish meat, tea and bannock) and I’ll head out far onto the ice exposed to all of natures’ elements. I will stand very still and watch my seal hole for as long as six hours. It gets really cold (below -60oC), everything but my mind shuts down, until the right moment…you have to be patient, the slightest movement and you won’t get the same result.”
His experience reminded me of those races when you have hit the pain threshold and you can no longer control your steps but your mental capacity allows you to believe that you will reach your goal. You take a chance with the energy you have stored deep within your muscle fibers and it may or may not last you until the end. You cross the finish line and instantly breakdown. You look up at the result and are often surprised. You thoroughly gave it your all and the feeling of success is undeniable.
The Fastest Race
My running might not bring me home with food, nor could I do it for six straight hours without being completely frostbitten, but I continued to ‘practice running’ while in the Arctic and strive for my personal success. After the polar bear scare I was instructed to run along the three hills that overlooked the community and follow the tracks of arctic hares, foxes and the odd wolf. I would be close to the community and people could keep an eye on me. This gave me the freedom to explore, but also the safety that my mother would not be receiving a phone call notifying her that I had been an animal’s dinner. Soon enough it became well known that I could run fast. In the children’s eyes if I were put up against a polar bear, I would win.
As the sun began to set each evening I wandered outside wearing all of my winter gear to watch the sky come to life. The swirls of green and blue lights dancing in the darkness would drift your thoughts deep into the Milky Way. Inuit children would be skating up and down the ice covered main road, which turned into an expanded hockey rink at this hour. A young boy snuck behind me and tapped me on the shoulder. I looked at him with a frightened stare. “ I saw you running up the hills,” he said. “You did?” I replied. I knew that they could see me but I did not know they watched me. “ Can we race?” he asked bluntly. I was wearing large boots that I would stumble around in and my coat was zipped up around my face, but I had nothing to lose. We set a finish line—the lamppost at the end of the road—he would skate and I would run. Although I had heard the words ‘ready, set, go’ before, this time seemed different. It was the fact this was an impromptu race, purely the act of running as fast as I could.
The word “go” struck and he was already off. The sound of his skates where grinding against the ground, reminding me of the pack of girls I trained with back in Guelph and their shoes grinding against the gravel roads. I ran as fast as I could, hardly knowing what direction I was heading. As soon as he finished he turned to me and said, ‘lets race again!’ The night drifted onwards and the northern lights dimmed. I continued running up and down the road followed by children laughing until my legs successfully called me to bed. The next morning I would practice running again.
As I stand here overlooking the Arctic Ocean reflecting, I realize that everything, including the inside of my coat is beginning to freeze. For a moment I forgot where I was but I now feel the frostbite crawling up my cheeks. The sun has reached its peak low in the horizon and I quickly descend the hills back to the community. A melody plays in my ears, the sounds of children laughing and playing in the streets, the wind blowing and my heart pounding. I think about the idea of success. It does not have to be determined by a rank, or the hours you spend waiting for that one moment to come. Success is the happiness that resonates in your soul, that something that makes you smile. Running is my success even if my face is too frozen to smile!
By Geneviève Lalonde
A collection of stories and tales. Reminiscing the past and exploring the future.