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Building & Testing Astrup's Dog Sled
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Driving Jonas Moe’s reproduction Astrup sled, Gisle Uren admires
his Kennel Rennfokk Greenland Dog fan hitch team in action!
The Eivind & Kolotengva Project
Building and testing Eivind Astrup’s dog sled
by Jonas Warme Moe, Norway
When I was about two or three years old, my father, a professor of Veterinary Medicine at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, brought home a Malamute bitch. Kaisa had the rare disease polyneuropathy, making her unable to pull a sled or run, if not to say walk. Of course I fell in love with her at once.
The relationship I formed with Kaisa, I think instilled in me a deep and lasting affection for polar dogs, and no doubt this love developed into an interest of polar history.
By sixteen I had read most of the works by Norwegian explorers Fritjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen. Although Nansen probably is held in higher esteem by many due to his scientific research (valid still today), Amundsen was my hero. How he set out to become a polar hero, and managed to do so, never stops to fascinate me. I loved to read about the race to the South Pole where little Norway beat the great British Empire and Robert Falcon Scott. My attitude towards that so-called race has altered over the years after reading more about Scott's expedition. Amundsen’s book about how he and his men became the first to reach the South Pole is still a great tale, about courage, about friendships…and about dogs.
My new replica harnesses photo: Jonas W. Moe
Four years I ago, I started a project that eventually I called Eivind & Kolotengva. The project was named after the Norwegian polar explorer Eivind Astrup and his Greenland Inuk friend Kolotengva. In the December 2012 and March 2013 issues of The Fan Hitch journal, I have explained my initial research into recreating his leather harnesses and the story of his life and suicide at only twenty-four years-old.
After my harness test together with Gisle Uren of Kennel Rennfok, I came back home wondering what to do next. Almost jokingly I said to my Grand Uncle, Hans Jørgen Lønne, a curator at the Norwegian Ski museum, that what we should do next is to make a copy of the sled and test with the harnesses. He looked right at me and said, "Yes!"
Thus started a whole new adventure.
The original sled, in the Ski Museum in Oslo
photo: Jonas W. Moe
When Eivind Astrup returned from his second Greenland expedition he brought with him to Norway three Greenland Dog puppies. (Originally he bought five, but two died on the long sea bound journey). He kept them on a small island outside the capital of Christiana (now Oslo). Having left the sled he built with Kolotengva in Greenland, he asked a sports manufacturer in the city to construct a similar sled for him to train his dogs with. What a sled they built for him! From Astrup’s own meticulous drawings, the skilled craftsmen built a beautiful, sleek sled from knot-free ash wood tied together with leather straps and shoed with long, thin metal runners. My first thought when I saw it in the museum storage was: this thing is built for speed! This is not a freight sled, but a light, small sled for a few dogs.
The first thing my grand uncle and I did was to copy all the sled parts to thick drawing paper and to measure all the parts. We then bought a large ash-log that was cut into two halves and later trimmed down to form the two runners.
The other parts of the sled were also cut from ash and finished with sandpaper. Then we drilled all the holes for the lashings. Finally, we painted all the parts with an old tar-paint, the kind used to protect old Norwegian wooden skis. No screws or plugs were used in the construction.
Working on the Eivind & Kolotengva replica Sled
photo: Jonas W. Moe
Only in one aspect did our new sled differed from Astrup’s in construction. As seen in the picture above, our sled originally had another pair of runners, sled-skis from an old ambulance sled attached underneath the boards. The reason for this modification was the simple fact that like most Inuit sleds, Astrup's sled was built to run on hard sea ice. In Norway however, even on a large lake like Femunden, we were bound to encounter large stretches of deep snow where the sled inevitably would dig itself down and get stuck. In order to counter this, we took inspiration from Roald Amundsen who, my grand uncle told me, stuck his spare pair of skis underneath his sled for storage. The result was the same. Like with a toboggan, the extra pair of skis would – or at least we hoped – lift the sled up from deep snow, preventing it from being mired down in snow. All through this project I have stuck to a "similar or identical" philosophy when it comes to recreating the gear. Although this clearly was a leap from the original design, we figured, after weeks of discussion, that "if it was good enough for Amundsen, it's good enough for us".
PUTTING THE SLED TOGETHER
Because of my work with the harnesses, I knew it would be virtually impossible to get my hands on seal leather, so I decided to use straps from cow hide for crafting the lashings for the sled. Early on I did have a worry about whether these would be strong enough, but I decided to try. Plastic ropes were clearly out of the question.
Testing leather lashings on the unfinished sled
photo: Jonas W. Moe
A strap cutter was used to cut pieces from the neck and shoulder region of a cowhide. Unlike the harnesses, I did not grease these straps. Rather, I placed them in warm water before I started lashing the sled together. This is important because when wet and warm the leather stretches and allows for a tight fit. Then, when dried, the leather shrinks and tightens even more.
In December 2015, after two years work the sled was finished, just in time for the 120-year anniversary of Astrup’s death.
In the autumn of 2015 I was approached by a producer friend in the Norwegian Broadcasting Cooperation (NRK) who proposed to do something about my project that could be sent on the NRK radio commemorating the 120-year anniversary (27 of December 2015) of Astrup’s death. He interviewed me for a couple of hours on the telephone and cut together three great mini-episodes. To my surprise the shows got quite a lot attention. After the show I talked to Eivind Astrup’s grand-nephew, Eivind Astrup, Jr., and we agreed to arrange a Memorial March to visit the Monolith marking the location and the date of Astrup's death in 1895. It would have been a great way to both honour Astrup and test the sled for the first time.
Unfortunately I got pneumonia and we had to postpone our trip.
THE MEMORIAL MARCH
Finally, in late February, I was well enough again to do the trip. So I packed harnesses and sled in my old car and drove six hours north to the Dovre Mountains and met with Gisle and Eivind Astrup, Jr. at the Hjerkinn Fjellstue which was in fact the very same hotel where Astrup had started his doomed ski trip into the unknown 120 years earlier. A special place, 120 years ago it was the place to go for high society in Christiania. Eivind himself had been here celebrating Christmas. On the day of his departure he told the other guests that he was going to visit friends in a nearby valley. That was the last time he was seen alive.
The reproduction sled waiting to be loaded
photo: Jonas W. Moe
Gisle and I lifted the sled out of the car and the three of us looked at it. Next to Gisle's Greenland Dogs the sled finally was in its right habitat. However, looking at the broad valley between us and Hardbakken - the place of Astrup's death - one thing was clear. Because there was so little snow this year, and we worried about our "Amundsen skis" being broken on rocks, we took them off. So much for all our consideration and worry.
Gisle attached the dogs and off we went!
The dogs pulled us three and the sled effortlessly through the landscape. The dogs had been accustomed to working in tandem. Gisle practiced for this project running them in a fan hitch, which they now did as they never have done it differently. Again and again I thought about Gisle's unique work with his dogs and how lucky I have been to meet him. To be realized, the project really has depended on his good will, knowledge and hard work.
We crossed a frozen river. The terrain was getting steeper and steeper, so we decided to tether the dogteam and continue on skis for the last stretch up to the Memorial Monolith. Finally, we stood at the huge granite block, carved soon after Astrup’s death. It struck me how large it was and how heavy it must have been to pull this large stone so high into the mountains – sign of how important and famous Astrup was in his day.
At the Memorial Monolith (left to right):
Gisle Uren, Jonas Moe, Eivind Astrup, Jr.
photo: Jonas W. Moe
UNDER THE STARS
The next day Gisle and I left Hjerkinn Fjellstue to test the sled in the Dovre mountains. We set up our tent camp and headed into the mountains. After hours on the trail we arrived back at the tent just before dark. We cared for the dogs and then got into the tent. Gisle made dinner and we talked about Astrup, the sled, and exploration in general. What should we do next? A couple of years back Gisle shared with me his dream of going to Greenland to do an expedition there. Maybe an expedition in Astrup's sled tracks now could be realized?
Our winter camp under the stars
photo: Jonas W. Moe
Later that night I went out with my camera to take pictures of the tent. I thought about Astrup again. Did he look up at the same stars when he was here? What did he think about? Why did he decide to end his life here? Although we know some of the answers, the truth is still complex and his personal reasons probably well hidden behind the veil of history. But now, having stood behind his sled, having visited the last place he stood, I feel I know him better. Eivind Astrup was smart, intelligent and a warm soul in a cold, competitive world.
This Eivind & Kolotengva Project has evolved into something I never would have imagined. It was really only meant to be something to fill my time after a failed film project. I never set out to write articles or even build a sled. It just happened. It was fun and interesting.
And that's what it is all about.