In This Issue...
Passing the Torch
F.I.D.O.: Kevin Slater
Dog Yard Noise
Road Food Inuit
in Mushing: Greenland and Arctic Canada, Part III
How Much is That
Doggie in the Window?
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Inuit Sled Dog International
Sled Dog International (ISDI)
is a consortium of enthusiasts whose goal is the
preservation of this
arctic breed in its purest form as a working dog.
The ISDI's efforts
concentrated on restoring the pure Inuit Dog to
its native habitat. The
ISDI's coordinators welcome to your comments and
|Former Inuit Dog Owner.....
Kevin Slater and some of his Yukon Husky pups
Mahoosuc Guide Service
Newry, Maine, U.S.A.
TFH: Tell us about your background
KS: I always had dogs and to my parents' dismay, sometimes too
many of them. I always had at least one and often two to three dogs.
I always liked having dogs and working with them. The first time I ever
got on the back of a dog sled was the winter of '82. I was helping some
guy up in the interior of Alaska starting a guiding business. So my introduction
and my interest have primarily been with freighting expedition travel.
I've never raced. I really don't have any interest in racing or working
with breeds of dogs that I perceive to be hyper. I knew that first winter
that I was "hooked" and some day I was going to have my own dog team.
That eventually came about in 1989. There was a fellow from Alaska down
here in Maine and he had a motley collection of dogs and he was looking
for a home for them. I had "sucker" written all over my forehead.
TFH: Were these the kind of dogs
that you were interested in?
KS: No, they weren't at all. But when you live in Maine, how
do you get freighting dogs, especially when the trend was towards lighter
boned, no-coated, floppy-eared dogs for racing, not really northern dogs.
I've always been interested in the more traditional dogs of the North.
No matter what I do, whether it's building wood-canvas canoes or timber
frame houses I tend to take a more traditional approach. So I like the
traditional indigenous dogs that were bred for their working qualities.
The dogs I adopted were a real mixed bag, but they were definitely bigger
and stronger in terms of freighting. Most of them came from the interior
of Alaska, bloodlines from the smaller Athabaskan villages, trap line dogs.
The guy I got them from aspired to be a racer of some type but he definitely
had dogs too big and too slow to be competitive. So they were probably
going to be put down if someone didn't adopt them. There were some good
dogs. There were seventeen in that group. I didn't want all of them so
I convinced some friends of mine into adopting. I think we each ended up
with roughly three five-dog teams. That was the beginning of my own dog
team even though I don't think I now have any of the bloodlines of those
original dogs because they really weren't what I was looking for. But they
needed a home and I wanted to start a dog team. So we learned alot together.
I gave them a good home and they got to do what they wanted to do, and
I feel good about that. The first leader I ever had, Sitlik, was already
a fairly well trained leader. She was probably eight or nine-years-old
and beyond her prime. She was probably about seventy-five pounds (34 kg).
She was leggy, a nice dog for what I was looking for. She was intelligent
and as devoted as she could be given she'd been bounced around most of
her life. That team was the nucleus for my first year.
Around 1990, Polly and I met. I also just happened to be given a dog
at the same time from a woman I knew up on Indian Island. This was a dog
from up north, I think either from one of the interior villages in Alaska
or perhaps the Yukon Territory. Nikki was a big dog, probably eighty-five
pounds (38 kg), which was very big for a female, leggy, good feet, black
pads, a good coat, just exactly what I was looking for. Polly came to Maine
with her dogs from the Yukon Territory. Some of their lineage went back
to the very last RCMP team. The bloodline of quite a few of her dogs can
be traced back to Old Crow, the northern-most Gwichi'in village. These
were much more the kind of dogs I was interested in. That was sort of the
real beginning for me. We bred Nikki a few times to some of Polly's males
and the result was nice big dogs. The males were seventy-five to ninety-five
pounds (34 to 43 kg) and rangy, just what I was looking for for pulling
heavy loads in soft, deeper snow conditions. The leggier dogs have a real
advantage in these conditions.
After we started building our own dog teams and doing some breedings,
we weren't getting the time with our dogs, because we were working the
traditional sorts of jobs, even though working for Outward Bound wouldn't
be considered "traditional". I was a program director and there was office
time. We wanted more time with our dogs and to be out with them so we said,
"What the heck. Let's try to make a living at it. If twelve outfitters
can survive in Ely, Minnesota which is in the middle of nowhere in terms
of being close a population center, we should be able to do it here in
Maine." And that's when we decided to chuck the jobs and start Mahoosuc
TFH: Are your dogs the breed you
refer to as the Gwichi'in Dogs?
KS: Yes. But we call them Yukon Huskies now because it's easier
for people to say and remember. As you know northern dogs have specific
traits within certain geographic areas. Even within Inuit Dogs I'm sure
you could find specific traits so that someone who really knew the dogs
could probably look and say that a dog is from a certain area.
TFH: I know the issue of the British
Antarctic Survey dogs is a sensitive one for you, but could you talk about
that a little? What was the reason for sending them to Nunavik?
KS: I am sensitive about it, but you could pretty much sum up
the British Antarctic Survey dog relocation effort as very good intentions
with a very good initial plan. Depending on whose version of the story
you listen to, there obviously was - for whatever reason seems to be still
disputed - a massive extermination of the traditional Inuit Sled Dog up
the eastern coast of Hudson Bay. So the breed did not exist as a pure breed
any more and hasn't probably since the early nineteen-sixties. Me, being
the idealistic person that I am, I thought, "Well, what a better thing
to do with the last Canadian Inuit Dogs down in the Antarctic than to return
them to the people they originally came from". I have no doubts or
regrets about what we did. I only wish that I would have had the foresight
to have built in more follow up provisions for the care, treatment, et
cetera of the dogs once they did get back to Inukjuak We naively thought
that once we got them back to Inukjuak they would probably be bred. You
know, hindsight is always twenty-twenty. [Editor's
note: Most of the fourteen BAS dogs that were relocated from Antarctica
to Nunavik in March/April 1994, as a result of the treaty banning non-indigenous
species, died within a year after their arrival. Three or four lived
another seven or eight years. According to Kevin, there were no successful
Ivalu (Geronimo x Misty), one of Kevin’s last pure ISDs
TFH: When did you get your Inuit
Dogs and how did you come to get them and why did you decide to get them,
since you already had Yukon Huskies?
KS: I had been around and worked with natives that had Inuit
Dogs and was familiar with the breed and I greatly admired their working
qualities. There's probably not a tougher canine on the planet, especially
if you measure it in terms of their ability to do amazing amounts of hard
work in extremely cold conditions with little food. There's no match for
them. I had a tremendous respect and appreciation for the breed. After
an article or two in Mushing Magazine about the whole British Antarctic
Survey relocation, some mushers from the interior of Alaska, Peter Zimmerman
and Enrica Nadalini, who had some Canadian Inuit Dogs contacted me and
said, "We happened to be having a litter and read with great interest the
story in Mushing Magazine…"
Michael Wald in Fairbanks did either a skiing or snowshoe expedition
in the Brooks Range with Geronimo
and Misty, the parents of the pups that I got. He borrowed Geronimo and
Misty from Peter and Enrica to do this expedition because he and his friend
wanted additional freighting power. The dogs were pulling toboggans. Michael
was impressed and couldn't praise the dogs enough, especially Geronimo.
I trusted Michael's opinion and that's how I knew about their working qualities.
Geronimo, a GISD, and Misty, a CISD, and a pup from their
litter Photo: Zimmerman
In 1994 Peter and Enrica sent three littermate pups, two males and a
female, to me which, became my mostly Inuit Sled Dog team. When I got the
pups I just put them in a pen loose with Hammish who had a fair bit of
malamute in him and was similar in build to an Inuit Sled Dog. The pups
basically grew up with Hammish. He was "Dad", their boss and their leader
and I never had a lick of trouble. Those three Inuit Sled Dogs never got
in a fight, never fought among themselves; well, I mean scraps, yes, but
a serious fight they never had. The pups worked it out. They all knew their
pecking order. It worked out well. It was a very strong and powerful four-dog
team. I think I had that team for five years.
The primary reason I decided to not stay with the Inuit Dogs is that
I don't think they are as "user friendly" for beginners. I did love those
Inuit Dogs dearly. They were great dogs. We try to get out with our dogs
for our own personal trips, but primarily our dogs are used for guiding.
I think for guiding you need to have the temperament of dogs that if they
get tied up in a knot in the gang line their first reaction won't be to
bite the dog nearest to them, like Inuit Dogs would. When we're guiding,
clients don't want to break up dogfights. I don't want my dogs fighting.
Our dogs have to be very forgiving because our clients who are beginners
at driving a dog team are going to make mistakes. That's why for guiding
we need a breed of sled dog that's very beginner user friendly. Specifically
the quality I look for in such dogs is that no matter what happens, they're
not going to get ugly with each other. Like most of our dog teams, you
couldn't get a fight even if you tried. I just felt that our own bloodlines
were just more suitable. Polly's been working with the bloodlines of these
dogs from the Yukon since 1979. So over the years we steadily reduced the
amount of aggressiveness in the dogs.
TFH: You don't have any more ISDs
in your dog yard, but you obviously still have an appreciation for the
breed. Why is that?
KS: I think I mentioned already that you're not going to find
a tougher dog, especially a dog that can work hard on a small amount of
food under extremely adverse conditions. They're survivors. They're amazingly
tough, spirited animals. If it was just me and my dog team doing my own
expeditions I probably would end up getting back into Inuit Sled Dogs.
There's no question I have a tremendous respect and appreciation for the
TFH: You've guided tours above
and below the treeline. Are different demands put on the dogs by the two
KS: Definitely. Our dogs from the Yukon Territory, where it
can get sixty below Fahrenheit (-51ºC), don't have as thick and heavy
a coat as Inuit Dogs. Sure, our dogs might get by above treeline for extended
periods but they would not be happy. The weather would take its toll on
them. Conversely, when I had Inuit Dogs, I did a few informal experiments
where, after a big snowfall - sixteen inches (40 cm) of new snow on a packed
base - I mixed the team up. I put a couple of Inuit Dogs next to a couple
of my bigger males like Guinness and Seámus. Seámus was probably
thirty inches (76 cm) at the withers and a very leggy dog. And in those
kinds of conditions it was just amazing. The leggy Yukon Huskies could
keep a tight line, even in those conditions. It's like the difference between
a deer and a moose trying to get through deep snow. The longer legs are
definitely an advantage. But in terms of just raw torque the Yukon Husky
probably doesn't have the torque that the shorter, more compact Inuit Dog
has. But we're not running on sea ice with hard, wind packed snow conditions.
We are primarily in the boreal forest in deep, soft snow. I think for that
kind of pulling the leggier freight dogs have an advantage.
Pauloosie Koonaloosie settling his team Photo:
TFH: How is the arctic experience
different for your clients when done by dog team as opposed to snowmachine?
KS: It's so much more of the history and the culture. It's a
shame to see that there are fewer and fewer Inuit or non-Inuit for that
matter who have dog teams for tourism-related purposes but do not use the
dogs also for serious hunting and traveling. Right now it looks like
a big percentage of Inuit Dog teams are going to be used only when guiding
tourists. But they won't really be used for hunting and traveling. [Ed:
For twelve years Mahoosuc Guide Service took clients to Qikiqtarjuaq on
Baffin Island where they traveled with Pauloosie Koonaloosie.]
In talking with Pauloosie he would reminisce, "You know, when I had just
one dog team and I was hunting and traveling with them that was the best
trained dog team I ever had." When he started guiding and he had three
twelve- to fourteen-dog teams, it wasn't the same. Tourism in the north
may be a viable way to help keep the population of Inuit Sled Dogs up and
keep sled dogs being used, but the disconnect is - and this is only my
opinion - if you have dogs you shouldn't use them just whenever you're
doing a tour, even if you have them for that reason. The dogs should be
worked and used pretty much year-round when the conditions need and permit,
because there's a world of difference between keeping dogs to give rides
to tourists as opposed to living, hunting and traveling with your dogs.
There are some very good practical reasons to go by dog team as opposed
to snowmachine. Although not all dogs have it, some can sense bad or thin
ice conditions. Dogs often, can find the trails, especially if you're trying
to get back to your camp or igloo in whiteout conditions. Dogs often have
a better sense of direction than people. Dog teams don't break down like
snowmachines do. And if you're in polar bear country, your snowmachine
isn't going to alert you to that but the dogs will. There are very good
practical reasons for not traveling in the north by snowmachine.
TFH: It is well known that you
have a very special connection with Inuit beyond your relationship as an
outfitter working with guides when you take clients above the tree line.
Why is it important to you that your clients experience this, too?
KS: I have a strong personal interest in the North. And I guess
that strong personal interest or connection with the North and the native
people is sort of what led me to work with various Cree and Inuit families
over the years to offer some guided trips. So for me I would never even
consider offering trips or guiding in the North where native people live
without working with them. It's their land, their country so I wouldn't
even consider it any other way. And then the secondary benefit for guided
trips is that I prefer to work not just with hiring a guide, but we like
it when the whole family is into it, likes to be out on the land in the
bush, when the guide's wife comes with him. We're not doing this primarily
as a dog sled trip in the arctic. Sure that's part of it. But an equally
big part of it is the whole cultural experience. And I know that it's a
totally different experience when you include a guide plus his wife and
the grandkids or one of their sons or daughters. That is completely different
as opposed to when you have only one or two male guides out there dragging
the tourists around just to show them the polar bears and the seals. It's
a world apart. It's a much richer cultural experience.
And the other reason I'm sort of personally committed to working with
natives in the north in developing cultural tourism is this. What other
wage job option do natives have that actually reinforce traditional cultural
values? They can drive a dog team, they can show tourists about hunting
and teach traditional life and get a paycheck at the end of the day. The
reality is they all live in homes, they all buy gas, they have bills to
pay, too. Guiding and doing cultural tourism trips bridges the gap between
the western wage economy and tradition Inuit culture. Most wage jobs in
the North have nothing to do with traditional culture, if anything they
help erode it.
Pauloosie Koonaloosie’s team Photo: Slater
TFH: When you take clients above
the treeline, what do you hope your they learn from their mushing experience
about the use of dogs in general and the Inuit Sled Dog in particular?
KS: A lot of people aren't even aware that there was and
is an indigenous breed of dog left alive. The Inuit Sled Dog is the indigenous
dog of arctic North America and Greenland. A lot people don't realize that.
They think blue-eyed Siberian Huskies are the sled dogs of the North today.
So that's a big part of it. It was great when were able to work with Pauloosie
because he could really capture the essence of the closeness and importance
of the subsistence hunter and his dog team. It's harder to convey now that
people grow up in villages, and not on the land as subsistence hunters.
Those days when people were born in igloos and grew up in a subsistence
hunting unit are gone. With some of these older hunters and guides that
are still running dogs, it is possible to very clearly see that connection
between man and dog, to see the importance of the dogs in helping find
aglu (seal breathing
holes in the ice), protecting the rest of the family from nanuq when they're
out hunting. Inuit could not have done their circumpolar migration from
Chukotka halfway around the globe without the Inuit Dog.
TFH: Is there anything else that
you want The Fan Hitch readers to know?
KS: Yes, there is. We were told by Allen Gordon of Kujjuuaq
that the initial interest in the Inuit Sled Dog really sort of spread at
the time of the return of the British Antarctic Survey dogs. He said it
was part of the motivation to start talking about and having Ivakkak,
the Nunavik dog sled race. So even though we weren't successful breeding
or getting any litters of pups from them those Antarctica dogs, it seems
like they were the real stimulus because it brought back a lot of memories.
When we arrived in Inukjuak elders came down to meet us and they were crying.
It was really moving! I know that it happened. So in closing I still hold
on to the hope that there's going to be some greater good that came from
the British Antarctic Survey dog relocation, that it seems to have rekindled
a renewed interest in the pure Inuit Dog. There's Allen Gordon and another
musher in Kangiqsualujjuaq who is also interested in having purebred
dogs. I am optimistic that the rekindled enthusiasm will continue to spread.
It would just be great if in my lifetime I can see a very healthy, viable
population of Inuit Sled Dogs in Nunavik villages.
TFH: And Nunavut too!
KS: Yes, but I say Nunavik because I had more experience trying
to reintroduce them there. Nunavik doesn't have any or darn few! For me
that would personally be very satisfying if in my lifetime Inuit Sled Dogs
were once again in all those villages on the coast of Hudson and Ungava