The Fan Hitch Volume 10, Number 4, September 2008

Journal of the Inuit Sled Dog

In This Issue....

From the Editor

In the News

Ladies' Ellesmere Vacation

Sled Dog Physiology: Non-Invasive Techniques

BAS Vignette: How Do You Say Good-bye?

Sledge Dog Memorial Fund Update

Report: The Chinook Project in Kimmirut

Bannock revisited

Book Review: Land of the Long Day

Behavior Notebook: On Being a Social Facilitator

Tip: Dealing with Those "Dirty" Boots

Index: Volume 10, The Fan Hitch

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Editor: Sue Hamilton
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Inset map of N. America (lower right) shows the
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Ladies' Ellesmere Vacation

Lynn Peplinski
Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada

We were a group of middle-aged lady friends determined not to be on an expedition but on a holiday.

Eric came up with the idea of our ladies' Canadian high arctic jaunt on Ellesmere Island. Eric McNair Landry and his sister Sarah were completing a 60-day expedition from Resolute Bay  on Cornwallis Island to Eureka, a small weather station located on Ellesmere at 79° 59' N. Eric's idea was that Matty, Eric and Sarah's mom, along with some friends, could fly into Eureka on the charter that was to take the real expedition members south. The ladies would then drive the two dog teams as far south as they could before getting picked up.

Part of the rationale for our low-cost holiday was that driving the dog teams and qamutiqs (sleds) south would ultimately lower the costs for the removal of the dogs back to Resolute Bay, as the charter flights wouldn't have to travel as far north to pick everyone up.

The four of us are friends, all dog team owners, living in Iqaluit, on Baffin Island. The charter from Resolute saw us flying north over Eureka Sound where we spotted a few musk ox ambling along in the hills and, most disconcertingly, plenty of leads, some of which looked very wide. At Eureka, we received quick instructions from “the kids” about which dogs worked well and which needed to be on short lines, and updates on the equipment. The exchange done, they flew out, and we loaded up the qamutiqs and were on our way.

Leaving Eureka heading south  photo: Ellesmere Ladies

The qamutiq loads were high, with each sled carrying more than 400 lb (180 kg) of dog food in addition to people food and camping equipment.  Each of us skied alongside, holding onto wooden handles attached to the front of the sled as the dogs pulled the load. 

Our departure on this first day was around 4:00 pm and we travelled for five hours. The snow was wet and relatively deep for our heavy sleds, conditions which surprised us. The temperature hovered around zero degrees Celsius (32ºF) and the wind was light. 

We were all very excited to be presented with such a great opportunity to travel this far north with friends and dogs. We had two full weeks ahead of us to get a sense of this northern land that few ever get to experience.  Having seen the open leads from the air though, I was nervous about the challenge of staying out of them. How were we going to get across the especially wide cracks in the ice we had seen from the plane?

We settled into our routine.  I hesitate to write "daily" routine because "day" stretched out to weeks. At this latitude we were not confined to the day-night structure that we all live with and never even question. With the sun always high in the sky, there ceased to be anything but time. There was no morning, afternoon, or nighttime. Rather, we'd travel for a set number of hours, let the dogs run around while we laid out their tie-out lines, set up our tents, have supper and then sleep for six hours. Early in the trip, since we weren't on expedition, we'd even take naps after eating breakfast, allowing our bodies to adjust to the new day-night rhythm. Then we'd snack and break camp and head out for another bout of southward travel. We could just begin to appreciate what it would have been like for Inuit and their predecessors to live in this environment of days (and nights) that stretched for months.

I was delighted to note that our GPS units registered just blank spaces for times of sunset and sunrise.  The twenty-four-hour clock on the GPS units came in handy when we called home to Iqaluit using our satellite phones. Was it three o'clock in the afternoon or three in the morning? Our families appreciated our knowing the difference.

We'd been warned that the dogs were a bit tired and footsore from their sixty days of travel to Eureka but they'd also had time to rest so we were optimistic. The weight on the sleds was problematic, though. The first time we accidentally dropped the whole qamutiq into a lead, we let one 85 lb (40 kg) box of food (in a biodegradable cardboard box) drop to the bottom of the ocean. We'd calculated how much food we needed and, planning for contingencies, figured we could dump more than this to lessen the weight on the sleds. 

Those leads I'd dreaded from the air became somewhat less daunting the more we crossed them. We learned to pack our sleeping bags at the top of our loads, trusting that the qamutiqs would float. When our bags did get a bit of a soaking, they would almost dry out in the sun and the wind as we prepared and ate our supper at the end of our travel "day".

A huge, scary lead!            photo: Ellesmere Ladies

Matty, who's probably logged more miles across polar snow and ice than any woman alive, found herself plunging into a sinister looking lead for the first time in her arctic career. She had been testing some ice across the lead with her ski pole when the ice gave way. Luckily Shannon was close by and she was able to reach over and pluck Matty out of the cold water almost immediately, but not before Matty was thoroughly soaked –  a sobering event.
The wide leads were scary but they were obstacles we knew we could overcome. The great uncertainty came with our inability to completely control the dogs near the open water. They could drag the qamutiqs across leads at wrong angles, or individual dogs might refuse to cross only to be dragged in for a swim. I was always on the following team with Siu Ling. We would know when the lead team arrived at a lead because we would see them traveling at right angles to our normal direction of travel, seeking a narrowing in the gap. The lead team, once on the other side of a lead would stop and wait for us to cross before continuing.

Oops!              photo: Ellesmere Ladies

Arctic spring was bearing down on us, turning small puddles to ponds. At the end of the trip we would clearly see the progression of melting in our hundreds of digital photos. Though we could dry out our footwear while we slept, we would inevitably be sloshing and skiing through ankle deep water within minutes after leaving camp, beginning on Day Six. All of our campsites except for our last one were on patches of flat sea ice large enough to accommodate our twenty dogs and two tents. Though we always looked to camp where there was enough snow for drinking water and to keep the dogs and tents dry, after eight hours of tramping, the thin layer of snow turned to water. Luckily we had bivvy sacks to contain our sleeping bags and pads inside our tents to keep us dry.

The worst part of the trip    photo: Ellesmere Ladies

However, the water on the ice became a serious problem for the dogs as their feet became increasingly tender and their exhaustion became more evident. After three hours of traveling on Day Nine, we spotted a potential airstrip at Trapper's Cove (78°35' N) and we knew we could not travel any further. The dogs were completely and utterly exhausted, a fact we would understand better in retrospect once they'd had a few days to rest and us, time to reflect. 

Wet, wet, wet    photo: Ellesmere Ladies

Though the sleds were getting lighter by the day, the dogs didn't appear to find the loads easier to pull. Whereas our traveling experience near home in south Baffin told us that the dogs appreciate the cold water puddles to cool off in warmer weather, we were finding these dogs swinging wide, avoiding the pools. One of the interesting things about feeding seal blubber to dogs at home, in spring on the sea ice, is that the fat from their feces inevitably adheres to their paws, protecting their paws from the abrasive melting ice. The food we were feeding them on Ellesmere, though it contained a decent amount of fat, didn't provide the same benefits. In fact, we had to work hard to convince the dogs to eat it day after day.  Despite their lack of interest in the food, the dogs were generally in excellent condition, as evidenced in their weight and their fine coats. The travel on the ice was taking its toll, however. Some of the strongest, most willing dogs had completely lost their desire to pull or even to please. Dogs, like Kunik, that were otherwise happy and friendly preferred to be left alone. We'd also been concerned about the dogs' long claws that hadn't been naturally ground down over the last few months since they'd travelled exclusively on ice and snow. When I tried to clip Augustus' nails, he wouldn't let me near his feet. We understood later that all the dogs' feet were exceptionally tender because they'd been so wet day after day.

Drying out dog booties    photo: Ellesmere Ladies

Finally on dry land for the first time since we began, we let our twenty dogs run free. Though some did venture about, most just gratefully stayed on the gravely shore, a few not even moving from where they were unharnessed. When they did start to roam, some forty hours later, it was gingerly, on tender paws. While the dogs were tired, there were few peeing or fighting incidents or even "break and enters" in the tents. However, after five days of enforced rest waiting for our pick up, they started causing trouble and we tied everyone on their tie-out lines along the shore with access to freshwater pools.  For our part, except for about thirty people-hours to fill in small trenches in our gravel runway, we had little activity to give shape to our days. We floated in and out of bouts of reading, eating, sleeping and dealing with dogs. 

Augustus achieves favored dog status   photo: Ellesmere Ladies

Trapper's Cove is only about 100 mi (160 km) south of Eureka. In the end, we managed only an average of 12 mi (20 km) per day. Though we would have liked to have covered vastly more miles on our vacation, we finally came to understand that there were many factors beyond our control, primarily the advancing spring and rotting ice, and the impact of this on the dogs. The dogs were absolutely fine with a bit of a rest. Five days following the expedition's conclusion, after sitting and doing very little, they were pretty much back to normal. Even their feet had recovered. They were all in great condition – good weight and great fur. Impressive, since they'd be on the trail, pulling ridiculously heavy sleds for more than two months.

And for this group of friends, the trip was a lot of fun punctuated by challenging conditions, great food, and lots of laughs…a great vacation.
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