On the land
In winter, dogteams were the usual means of winter transportation until the 1960s, when the snowmobile began to be readily available. The dogs originally used were members of a hardy breed that came across the Bering Land Bridge with the people when they migrated into North America from Siberia . These are now actually a breed called the Canadian Eskimo Dog, or by some, the Canadian Inuit Dog. Today, a combination of different breeds are used for sled dogs, with specific breeding for sprint dogs, long distance dogs, freight type dogs, etc. For much more on sled dogs, visit www.sleddogcentral.com
Peopleusually did not have many dogs. A family might have only one or two dogs, and the adults in the family, especially the women, would often pull along with the dogs. The sled (qamutik) was small, and people walked while the dogs pulled the load. Harnesses were made of sealskin or caribou skin in the old days and there were different styles of hitches in different areas.
As people acquired more goods through trade, there was a need for larger teams. This had its disadvantages, however, as a dog ate about the same amount as a person, and the hunter had to hunt harder to find meat for his family plus a larger number of dogs. The dramatic image of huskies plunging through the arctic landscape is fictional. Racing teams pulling light sleds can travel at speeds averaging 10-14 mph, but working teams gallop when leaving home and then quickly settle into a ground-eating trot. Freight teams usually travelled at no more than four miles per hour. Families that traveled by dogteam walked as much as they rode, though small children often rode on the sled (qamutik).
Many people still use dogteams in the Arctic . Now, most teams are recreational or racing teams. Sport hunting guides must use dogteams on polar bear hunts, so they keep teams as well. Dogsled races are a part of spring festivities in many communities.
The dog racing club, Qimmuqsiktiit in Rankin Inlet, put on a three-day race during Pakalaak Tyme in the spring, as well as long distance dog races about every other year. In addition, there may be fun races for children or pet dogs.
In the old days, harnesses were made of sealskin or caribou skin and the traces were made of the skin of the bearded seal (ugyuk). During the trading era, people made less edible harnesses out of lamp wicking or cotton webbing. Today, a few people still use traditional sealskin harnesses, but the majority use colourful nylon webbing harnesses with padding around the neck and where the dog leans into the harness with its breastbone. In the Arctic , bone or antler (or even Teflon) toggles are often used instead of snaps to fasten the harness to the traces.
Hitches varied across the Arctic . In the western arctic, where the tides are small, people used long lines of dogs hitched in pairs (called the gangline hitch or Nome hitch). In the eastern arctic, where large tidal fluctuations create zones of jumbled chunks of ice along any shore, a fan hitch worked much better as the dogs tend to run in a tight bunch, and can maneuver through the tidal zone more easily than a long hitch.
The sled (qamutik) used in the Kivalliq region is low and long. Long wooden runners are spanned by crosspieces and the whole thing is lashed, originally with sealskin thongs, but now with more durable nylon. No nails or screws are used to fasten the crosspieces, as the qamutik must be able to flex as it rides over the sea ice. The driver usually sits sideways on the sled with the snow hook in easy reach, jumping off to pull the front around or to encourage the dogs.
In the old days the runners were shod with mud that was carefully thawed and molded onto the wooden runners, and then planed smooth. Warm water was taken into the mouth and sprayed onto a polishing “mitt” made of polar bear or grizzly skin. This mitt was then used to polish the runners, coating them with layers of ice. A sled prepared in this way would glide easily over the snow.
However, the mud could easily be knocked off, so a good driver was careful to avoid obstacles like fresh dog feces and rocks. If the mud was knocked off, the qamutik had to be re-mudded and re-iced, a long process.
In the trade era, qamutiks were shod with steel runners, but today most runners are nylon or Teflon, so they are both durable and glide smoothly.
A fan hitch of sled dogs is guided by the use of a long signal whip (ipirauti). While waiting to start, the dogs are trained to lie down so they do not tangle their traces. The whip is seldom used to actually strike the dogs, although the butt end is often used to break up dogfights. Instead, the whip is unfurled alongside the team to cause them to sheer away from the whip into a turn. At the same time, verbal commands are given. These vary a lot by the driver, but “ha ra, ha ra” usually means to go left, and “auk, auk” to go right. “Hii, hii, atii” means “Let’s go.” And “whoa” means to halt.
Few activities equal the enchantment of riding behind a good dog team. You glide over the sea ice, passing islands cloaked in snow, watching incredible bands of colour in the sky. Despite what’s shown in the movies, a team moves without barking – the only sounds are the creak of the sled, whisper of runners on snow, breath of your dogs and the beat of their feet on the trail. Travelling by dogteam is not at all boring. You watch the dogs, talk to them, encourage them, and watch the interactions between teammates.