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Cold to be cool

Do you really need to know how to ski to finish a winter adventure race in the Arctic? Not if you're from South Africa.



Daniel Poirier had a dream. It had grown out of a unique program run by his Orford, Quebec-based event organization, Endurance Adventure.

In 2009, the EA team and a platoon of talented volunteers began leading adventure-sport clinics for youth in the rough-and-tumble towns of Nunavik, the region ringing Ungava Bay in Quebec's far north. It hadn't been an easy sell, the indigenous Inuit being rightly suspicious of ideas parachuted in by southerners. In addition, northern peoples' timetables follow rhythms of the land, so participation was halting if, for instance, a caribou herd was sighted on the edge of town. But Daniel believed strongly in connecting kids to the land through outdoor activity, a path to improved community health that could help break the cycle of dependence and despondence that plagued northern outposts. To cap each week-long clinic, EA staged a short adventure race for the kids (passing caribou notwithstanding). Why not, Daniel thought, stage a real multi-day race somewhere in Nunavik and invite top pros from the international adventure-racing ranks? A rugged and unforgiving land was just what racers sought. Its wild beauty and outdoor possibility were something to give nascent tourism in the region a boost, and any media coverage would serve to deliver welcome good news from a place where most bulletins concerned unemployment, substance abuse or suicide. Holding the race at the end of March when the sun was high but the Arctic winter still in full swing would be catnip for the hardest of the hardcore.

As dreams went this one was considerable. But somehow, the kinetic 40-year-old and his equally energetic crew had made the Nunavik Adventure Challenge International a reality. Now all they needed were racers.

They came to Kangiqsualujjuaq (you can call it George River) from Canada, the U.S., France, Italy, and, oddly, South Africa. An elite corps of adventure-racing rock stars willing to test their eclectic titles on snowshoeing, running and skiing in the Arctic. Then again, for a group whose collective résumé included hammerhead exotica like the Abu Dhabi Adventure Challenge, Transmarocaine, Campeonato Mexicano Deporte Extremo, Alaska Iditabike, Raid Manicouagan, Huairasinchi Ecuador and Trofeo Schiaffino Italy, maybe not so crazy after all.

Though no one was truly sure what they were getting into, they all knew this much: each two-person team was required to carry a SPOT locator-beacon, satellite phone, GPS, emergency tent and sleeping bag at all times; this being the Arctic, things wouldn't go exactly as planned; and in any event they should expect to be c-o-l-d. During a long day hopscotching north from Montreal to Baie Comeau to Schefferville and on to Nunavik (a word they were repeatedly urged not to conflate with the nearby Territory of Nunavat), most stared out the windows of the chartered turboprop, tracing meteorite craters, frozen lakes and the substantial clawmarks left by Pleistocene glaciers — which perhaps spoke most eloquently to the coming days.