BELFAST, Maine — As Mainers dig out after a late-season snowstorm, Belfast residents won’t be able to spot a sight that became familiar this winter — Karen Miles riding through town on her dogsled.
That’s because Miles, 44, is currently traveling via dogsled over several hundred miles of northern Labrador in the company of an Inuit teen she befriended during summers of sailing north on her boat, the Wanderbird. This is a big adventure, said her husband, Rick Miles, and Karen will be photographing and filming the journey over snow and sea ice to document a disappearing way of life.
Rick Miles said Tuesday afternoon by phone from Goose Bay, Labrador, that his wife, Ommati Merkuratsuk and another Labrador man named Dennis Burden left before dawn that day to start their long trek north. It was minus four degrees outside, with four feet of snow on the ground, and 16-year-old Ommati was very excited to be on the way.
“This kid — what a smile,” Rick Miles said. “It’s a wicked good adventure, and just to see his smile this morning was great.”
The couple met Ommati’s family eight years ago on their travels to Nain, a small village in far-northern Labrador. A few years ago, the family gave Karen Miles a husky pup.
“This experience has changed my life,” she wrote on a website she used to raise money for the dogsled journey. “I’ve always wanted to give back the same kindness and care. Some young people desire to practice and respect the old ways. One of them is Ommati.”
When Karen Miles was invited to help bring a dog team to Nain from another village several hundred miles south, she wanted to include Ommati, who has long dreamed of living more in the old ways, she wrote. Through the fundraising website, they successfully raised $4,500 to fly him down to Goose Bay, to rent an emergency snowmobile for safety purposes, food, and gear.
“Our wish is to help a young Inuk discover an important part of his culture. We will continue to encourage him to one day have his own dog team,” she wrote.
Rick Miles said that his wife is calling it her trip to say thank you to the people of Labrador who have taken care of her in their years of traveling to the north. To get to Goose Bay, the couple drove 25 hours from Belfast, making it over rough roads through what he said Mainers call blizzards but what Canadians of those parts describe as “flurries.”
He said that historically, March is the season for Inuits to travel over traditional dogsled routes. January and February are too cold, he said. But March — even with temperatures of four below zero — is not.
“This is her adventure. She’s really capable,” he said of his wife, who by Tuesday night had made it to Makkovik, a fishing village of less than 400 people of Inuit and Norwegian ancestry.
In addition to traveling over traditional routes, the group will be eating in traditional ways, which include hunting for meat while on the trail. Karen Miles did pack her sled with Western-style trail food like granola, biscuits and tea, but the people and the dogs also will be eating seals hunted on the way.
“That’s what there is,” Rick Miles said. “Up here, where they’re going, the nearest restaurant will be four or five hundred miles away. It’s definitely a hunting culture up here.”
He said that his wife was thrilled to get started on the trek, and is looking forward to posting updates from the trail via satellite so that her friends can follow along. Rick Miles expects that the group will make it to Nain on Friday, in time for the 34th annual Heritage Dog Team Race that is being held there later this month. Then they will head south, again by dogsled. Rick Miles is going to stay behind to take care of other dogs, he said, and to support the dogsledding crew in other ways.
“I think that when she gets back, she’ll have a pretty awesome story,” he said.