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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Editor: Sue Hamilton
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Nadine and Naimanitsoq                           Photo:Gerth

Out on the Ice:
Three days with Inuit Sled Dogs in North Greenland

by Nadine Gerth

"Gehma," Naimanitsoq says. He looks at me and then at the sledge.  I jump on the pile of equipment that has been packed on the sledge for a three-day trip into the ice fjord, and off we go! Our tent, sleeping bags, mattresses, and some warm clothes are covered by a caribou skin and fastened tightly by a rope to the wooden sledge. Behind me, in a wooden box, the stove and the gasoline lamp rattle as we leave Qaanaaq in the Northern District of Greenland. Naimanitsoq, an Inuit hunter guides our team of twelve Inuit Sled Dogs through the belt of broken and stacked sea ice that spans along the beach of the village, and finally we emerge onto smooth sea ice. The leading dog, accompanied by the only bitch in the team, pulls on a longer rope in front of the other team members. The team runs in a fan hitch formation and, as I learn within the next days, each dog has its favorite position in the fan, so we don’t have to stop often to untangle the knot of ropes in front of the sledge.

The weather is fantastic: bright sunlight, no wind at -25°C (-13°F) and the dogs are eager to run after resting in the village. In front of us, the second dog team comes into sight.  Matthias, the leader of our research project, and Rasmus, an Inuit hunter, look much alike wearing the traditional fur clothes on the sledge: trousers made of polar bear and seal, mittens made of seal skin and dog fur, kamiit (boots) made from seal skin with inner layer of arctic hare, and the anorak of cotton, sheep fur and a lining of polar fox or entirely made of caribou.

We are biologists from the University of Munich, Germany and are now on our fourth field season in Greenland. We are studying adaptations of mammals living in extreme and seasonal changing environments and therefore we work with sled dogs up in northern Greenland. Last summer we examined two dog teams in Qaanaaq. The purpose of this winter trip is to gather data on the same dogs when working in front of the sledge. And, of course we are eager to travel by dog sledges, camp outside the village on the sea ice, and see “our” dogs doing what they enjoy best.

After two hours we stop to have tea. The dogs eat some snow and all the male dogs try to get as close as possible to the female. She is in heat, and this is the reason for endless fights among the males during each break. The second team encounters the same situation. We have another tea break in the afternoon and then travel at a constant dog trot pace through the fjord until sunset. Our team is faster than the second team, so after each break the second team quickly vanishes from view and it feels like I am alone in the wide open arctic with twelve sled dogs and an Inuit hunter. My mind wanders off and after a while I just sit there listening to the dogs breathing, their feet on the snow and the sound of the sledge runners on the ice. A deep calmness settles inside and I feel happy and privileged to be able to participate in this journey.

Every once in a while Naimanitsoq turns around to check on me. We don’t have a language in common, so we can only communicate with gestures and mimics. Besides, he seems not to be the most talkative of people anyway. Naimanitsoq is about 45 years old, very tall and strong. Last summer, he seemed quite reserved, very different from Rasmus, the other hunter.

Rasmus prepares an ice davit which will be used
 to tie out pairs of dogs.                      Photo: Gerth

Naimanitsoq constantly assures and encourages his dogs and very rarely uses the whip to guide them through rough passages of stacked sea ice. I am impressed by the leading dog who never gets tired and always enlivens the entire team. I feel confident sitting behind Naimanitsoq’s huge back, protected from the icy air flow.

In the evening we stop close by a small iceberg. Naimanitsoq uses a harpoon to break a chunk of glacier ice from the iceberg, which we will later melt for drinking. We unload the sledge. Then the dogs are separated in pairs of two and dispersed on the sea ice. Using a knife, two holes are cut into the ice, so that a loop (ice davit) is formed and the dogs’ lines can be drawn through and knotted together. After each dog receives his share of dog food, we build up the cotton tent over the two wooden sledges. The sledges provide a comfortable bed for the four of us and with the stoves running the tent warms up quickly. We share some raw frozen walrus liver, a tasty treat, and then for our dinner Matthias and I have outdoor bag soup. These are commercially available portions of freeze-dried food. One just has to pour hot water into the aluminum foiled bags, stir and after ten minutes, the ingredients are soaked and edible. There are many different tastes available. It looks terrible but tastes good. The hunters have cooked and salted walrus ribs and frozen sandwiches. The tent gets heated up to about +30°C  (+86°F) and I fear I can’t sleep at all, because the gasoline stoves smell so strongly and it feels like soon we will run out of oxygen. But while Rasmus gets into talking mode and starts telling some long story in a very gentle melodious voice, I quickly fall asleep.

We start the next day with a coffee and some hot soup. The hunters have meat leftover from the evening meal. Quickly our belongings are stowed on the sledges and we head for the end of the fjord. After a while, we pause at the mountain edge. Naimanitsoq hands me the whip and starts climbing the hill with no further explanation. As soon as he leaves the dogs start growling at each other trying to reach for the female. When I try to use the 5 m (16 ft) long whip made of sealskin to stop the dogs fighting and lay down, I almost get myself entangled. Using the long whip is not easy and I am glad that the other team is still far away so nobody sees me trying. After a while Naimanitsoq comes back, obviously following tracks. He shows me fresh footprints of a polar bear. The footprints are huge and close by we see two small tracks – a female with two cubs. At the same time I am both glad and sad not to see them. 

In the afternoon we reach the fishing hut of Toku, the only woman who has a hunting license in Qaanaaq. Proudly she shows us a pile of halibut. She loves fishing outside the village, accompanied only by her brother and her dogs. After chatting for a while, we continue towards Qaanaaq. It’s a long trip back and we cover about 65 km (40 mi) that second day, reaching a wooden hunting hut at sunset. Again, Naimanitsoq and Rasmus first feed the dogs. We are very hungry and cold. Quickly we chop off pieces of the frozen halibut that Toku gave us as a present. This fish tastes delicious when baked in an oven, but even better raw and frozen after a long day on a sledge. The hut is very comfortable, about 2.5x3 m (8 x 10 ft) large and soon we settle at the sleeping platform that covers most of the inside of the hut. Being outside in the cold all day gets me very tired and settling down in a cozy warm hut with warm candlelight is wonderful… and very soon I fall asleep.

Nadine prepares to melt chunks of an iceberg
 for tea water.                                   Photo: Gerth

The next morning once again brings bright sunlight although it is very cold. After a warm breakfast, we start the last leg to reach Qaanaaq. One of the dogs in our team has slowed down and obviously he has some pain and cannot pull. At the first break Naimanitsoq examines the dog's legs, then starts to knead the animal’s shoulder muscles. Before we continue he decides to take the dog off the team and pack him onto the sled. The dog gets fastened tightly onto the sled and then we continue back home. Being separated from the team, the injured dog is scared and soon he manages to get out of the rope and back to his mates where he continues to hobble behind the others.

While sitting on the sledge for hours in the cold, my feet and hands get really cold. Naimanitsoq obviously gets cold too and he jumps off the sled every once in a while. Running behind the sledge is the best way to get warm again and he jokes around trying to push me off the sledge to get me running. I try and the activity really helps. I happily run behind the sledge for a while but almost don’t manage to run faster than the dogs to get back onto the sled. Naimanitsoq laughs heartily when I finally jump back onto the sledge behind him, panting and completely exhausted.

Coming back home, Naimanitsoq’s daughter greets us and helps bringing the dogs to their resting places. I say "Cujanak." ("Thank-you") and Naimanitsoq's smile seems much heartier than three days ago.

It was a wonderful trip. We successfully collected data from many working dogs and we enjoyed our fieldwork tremendously. During nights, the temperature fell to -35°C (-31°F) and rose to -25°C (-13°F) during the days. We covered more than 150 km (93 mi), traveling from morning until sunset at a pace the dogs choose by themselves. I will never forget watching the beautiful arctic landscape slowly passing by and the peaceful silence on the sledge except for the scraping noise of the runners, the sound of forty-eight paws on the snowy sea ice and the panting of the dogs.

Naimanitsoq’s torso provides a welcome barrier
 against a cold, biting wind.                 Photo: Gerth
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