The Fan Hitch Volume 10, Number 3, June 2008

Journal of the Inuit Sled Dog

In This Issue....

From the Editor: The Fan Hitch... Enhanced

F.I.D.O.: Andrew Maher and Julia Landry

Fan Mail

In the News

Out on the Ice: Three Days with ISDs in North Greenland

Two Friends, Fourteen Dogs…One Quest!

The Nunavut Quest’s 10th Anniversary Run

BAS Vignette: Lampwick Harnesses

Sledge Dog Memorial Fund Update

CAAT’s 2008 Northern Schedule

The Chinook Project Returns to Kimmirut

Product Review Update: Double Driver Sled

IMHO: On Feral Cats and Inuit Sled Dogs

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Index of back issues by volume number

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Editor: Sue Hamilton
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Featured Inuit Dog Owners....

Andrew with Ukaliq,  Julia with Siqsiq and Ukaliq
                        Photos: Julia Landry,
Andrew Maher

Andrew Maher and Julia Landry

Pond Inlet, Nunavut, Canada

A year in the life of rookie ISD team owners

My first experience with Inuit Sled Dogs was in the late 1990s in Resolute Bay, Nunavut. I was at the local co-op picking up food before returning to a research camp when three dogs ran up from the "dog beach". The puppies were no more than three or four-months-old and I was awestruck by their physique. When I asked what kind of dogs they were, I was told, "Qimmiq".

Upon returning to the south, I began to investigate Qimmiq and the Inuit Sled Dog breed. At the same time, my brother was running dogs for an Outward Bound school so my interest in dog driving and this breed began to grow.

A few years later, I returned to Nunavut for my masters research and this time I made a point to visit local dog beaches in every community along the way. In Resolute, Grise Fiord and Iqaluit, I checked out dog after dog and really began to appreciate both the breed and the running of dogs in Nunavut. I came back south with a camera full of pictures and a head full of ideas.

Nearly five years passed before I ended up back in Nunavut and this time it wasn’t temporary. I had taken a job at Sirmilik National Park on Bylot Island across from the hamlet of Pond Inlet on northern Baffin Island. In my first few months I borrowed every book in the library about the ISD and its history, and I was constantly scoping the local dogs and multitude of dog gear (qamotiqs, traditional harnesses, whips). I also noticed the work and dedication that drivers had to put into their teams. Most teams in town were owned by elders or older hunters, and many had their sons or local youth assisting them.

Despite my lack of helpers, I decided to dive in. I had mentioned my interest in starting a team to a few friends in Iqaluit and within weeks there was a team looking for a home. The seven available dogs, all ISDs, were a mishmash of old expedition dogs from Matty McNair and dogs from other Iqaluit teams. Although from different owners and varying experience levels, one test drive and I was hooked. The dogs weren’t terribly fast or especially well behaved, but they ran together and I knew that being a novice this was preferable for me than taking on a team of puppies. In the end I decided to take five of the seven dogs; two old dogs who knew commands and the three younger ones who would continue to learn and were reasonably compatible.

Over the next few weeks I convinced every friend and co-worker returning here from Iqaluit to check a dog as extra baggage in exchange for future outings. Soon, five dogs were living next to a small stream out on the tundra in Pond Inlet. My spouse to-be and faithful dog helper, Julia, had also arrived in town and over the summer we got to know the dogs and they us. As I observed the dogs' interactions, I realized my inner zoologist was recognizing behaviours I previously studied – including pack behaviour and dominance structure. My intrigue with the breed continued to grow, and I was soon dominating dinner party conversations with my dogs' pack-like interactions.  Strangely enough, we began getting invited to fewer dinner parties of non-dog owners. While our dog talk averted the attention of some, many locals were amused by our "unconventional" habits, like trying to walk the dogs on leashes, carting bags of kibble around in a bike trailer, and building houses and platforms – a frivolous luxury, dog drivers here would say.

That summer, my team gained some new, young members. Another dog driver in town had a female who had recently given birth to five puppies which we gladly adopted. The dogs were all ISDs, also originally from Matty McNair.

Most litters in Pond Inlet are born and raised on the beach where the mother protects them and integrates them into the team. However, Julia and I preferred a more secure method of assuring the future of the puppies so we built a pen next to the house. Although the dump runs for salvaging materials and the construction itself was a big job, the task to follow was far greater.  I soon realized that the local approach had its benefits: puppies on the beach can't wake you throughout the night, they don’t attract throngs of kids at the pen, and they integrate immediately with the team which strengthens their connection with the team as the puppies grow up.  

                                            Photo: Andrew Maher

For Julia and I who don’t yet have kids, it was our first test at parenthood. The time we spent socializing the pups made for some adorable situations, but the midnight yelping from an overly-adventuresome puppy made for some painful early wake-ups. My brother, who was visiting, naturally fell in love with the puppies and shared some of the responsibilities. Having run dogs before, he was a great help with managing it all.  After a few weeks, he was easily convinced to bring two of the litter back to BC to start a team of his own.

After about two months we started introducing the puppies to the rest of the team. The first time was a little scary for us and the puppies, but they were cautious and smart, remaining out of reach on the adults on their drop chains. Over the next few visits there were minor scuffles, only one of which I had to break up, and the puppies became comfortable enough to run in between the big dogs. Although they seemed to integrate well enough, you could tell that the puppies were still much more comfortable with each other rather than the team, and although the team tolerated them, the pups were still outsiders.

At eleven or twelve weeks, the mom went back to her team and I took two female pups down to my brother in Prince George, BC. The remaining three joined the team which was now living on the dog beach.

The fall and impending dark season came fast. ATV and snowmobile training sessions started to set the dogs up well but, in hindsight, with my lack of experience I didn’t run them enough in the dark time. Some of this was due to the lack of a qamotiq. After some begging, the local high school shop teacher took pity on me and he and the class built me one as a student project.

Exercising the puppies at this time was also proving challenging. Most people have multiple generations on the line and puppies, having grown up running free around the team, develop a strong connection with them. For local dog drivers there isn’t really an issue with the puppies trying to run away or chase a snowmobile or the dog team to get a work out. Unfortunately, although it resulted in very well socialized dogs, my raising methods made them more likely to run away when they were off the picket line. I had an especially bad run away when the pups were about six-months-old, which saw me and several friends driving around town in the dark and making local radio announcements about my loose puppies. With the town’s standard solution to stray dogs being a bullet, I was definitely worried that this was how their freedom would be ended. But we found the pups first, after a few hours of freedom, having the time of their lives.

In taking old dogs, you accept a bit of the good with the bad. My two oldest dogs were over ten and, despite knowing the commands very well, they were starting to look a little rickety. At Christmas, after being my own vet for a stressful week, I put down my lead dog, Bert. Having gone around the circumpolar arctic on various expeditions, he had run his course. It was going to be a big loss for the team and my control of them, but I was confident we would get by.

                                                   Photo: Ainsley Hunt

In February, when the sun returned after about eight weeks of darkness, I moved the team onto the sea ice and started running them with the qamotiq. The work, stress and frozen fingers had all been worth it. Granted, the dogs weren’t that fast or that well disciplined compared to the other teams in town, but they were mine and I was so impressed we had made it this far.  Running dogs below -40°C (-40°F) had its own set of challenges, not the least of which was frostbite. Julia kept telling me she didn’t want me to become a weathered old man, but there was little I could do.

My winter camping, ski touring and mountaineering experience was a big help in developing a good cold weather system, but with time I gradually adopted more and more of the local clothing and techniques, almost all of which just seemed to work better at very cold temperatures. One amazing find was when I adopted the Inuit hitching system. I had always been using the fan hitch, but when I switched from carabiners and snaps to traditional toggles for the harnesses and for the fan hitch, I quickly came to appreciate that I could keep my mitts on while setting up the dogs or dealing with the lines. 

At about eight-months-old the puppies started occasional runs with the team. And by nine months they were providing a lot of the power. I was amazed at how quickly they caught on. Their drive to run was amazing, as long as they were going in the right direction. My three tended to go bounding off in the opposite direction when I called “Ready, Hike!”, but they quickly refocused and caught up with the others.

When I read about ISDs before I got my team, I found stories of vicious fights and lots of hierarchy and aggression. In my team there were, and still are, plenty of fights. Despite being well fed, well socialized, and treated with care, it’s still a big part of what appears to be their entertainment. At first these intimidated me. I was afraid they would hurt each other, but now I realize they are as tough as nails. Cuts are rarely serious and, unless there is fighting to advance in the team hierarchy, the dogs tend to forgive and forget. Finding a source for good vet supplies, antibiotics, and painkillers for dogs has been important. 

                                               Photo: Ainsley Hunt

Moving from a homemade rope whip to a skin whip I bought from an elder has helped me a lot in directing the dogs and preventing the fights. My remaining older dog, Ernie, knows the calls, but he is getting a little slow to run up front, so until a new leader presents itself, the whip is a great tool for keeping the team on track. The crack of the whip and calling a name of the offending dog is often enough to avert a fight.  In writing this, I realize that a whip is sometimes a little misunderstood and to some it should not be used. But in working ISDs up here, it is a tool necessary to running your team just like your snow brake is. Is it the only way to drive ISDs? Definitely not, but it certainly is one way which can be used humanely, safely and effectively.

With the long days now, I am running my dogs several times each week. Ernie, the boss dog, has just retired and my dogs are sorting out a new hierarchy. And with females coming into heat, there is even more excitement. I’m still learning and continually adjusting my style. But I am lucky to have great advisors so it is coming along. The recent fighting has meant more stress and a necessary (according to my advisors) adjustment to my personal aggression level. But even now I'm considering more dogs and different ways of training them this summer to develop a new leader and boss. As my first anniversary of having ISDs approaches, I look back at what I have learned and, although it is too much to list here, I definitely smile and consider my experience so far as having been a great adventure approaching an addiction.

May your ice be smooth, the wind light, and your dogs fast. Happy running!

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