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Oral histories and first hand stories of traditional life with Inuit Dogs, accompanied by both archival photos and Inuit drawings, appeared in issue number 12, Spring 2000 of Tumivut (which means "traces of our footsteps". It refers to the story of Atungaq who went around the world and left his footprints in the bedrock all around Nunavik.) the cultural magazine of the Nunavik Inuit, published by the Avataq Cultural Institute. The Fan Hitch is indebted to Avataq for granting permission to reprint "Dog Sledding".
Inuit working with logs. Dog team around them; Inukjuak, 1947-48
Richard Harrington; Library and Archives Canada; PA-146925
by Johnny Inukpuk
Interviewed c. 1979
When I was a boy, we came to live in Inukjuak. At the time, people around Kuujjuarapik weren’t familiar with primus stoves. I remember my father getting his first one. He got it from the Hudson Bay Company in exchange for a dog.
This stove must have been interesting to someone who had never seen one. It must have seemed important since he traded a dog for it.
It was the first kind of primus stove, with four legs, and a little metal ring which got red hot when it lit. Those things made a lot of noise. It was an early model and the fuel squirted right on the loop, unlike later models. The fuel passed through curved tubes before reaching the loop. The one my father bought used kerosene. We took it with us to Kuuttaaq.
The dogs that the HBC acquired were looked after by the company’s Inuit employees. HBC needed dogs to take the mail south by dogteam. Requisitions made up north went all the way to Moosonee by dogteam. The French company did the same thing. Airplanes didn’t come up north then, and they didn’t have any radios either.
I remember when the Qallunaat got their first radio. That was in Tasiujaq [Richmond Gulf]. Nowadays there are plenty of radios, and planes come up, so dogs are no longer needed. As radios became more plentiful, mail dogs were put out of use.[…]
I will talk about dogs. Raising dogs then was hard work. It took a whole year before they were able to pull sleds. We preferred a team that had grown up together; they made a better team. It was harder to drive a team when the dogs were of different ages. Everyone preferred dogs that had been trained together.
You had to take good care of the dogs in summer as you depended on them in winter. It was quite a challenge to keep them alive. They didn’t eat as much in the summertime, but you had to keep them in good condition. We fed them mostly cod and other fish in summer.
In summer there are not as many seals along the coast, but by fall they are usually more numerous. It was really enjoyable to get on your qamutik in the fall and go out hunting. If your dogs were in good health and willing to move, it was one of the greatest pleasures. But if they were not willing to move, you had problems. They tended to get lazy when the days got longer and warmer. They wouldn’t want to move on a long trip, maybe visiting traps. Their tongues would be hanging out and they would refuse to eat. Their jaws got weak. I think they also got snowblind since their eyes would get red. That happened in spring when the days were longer.
In spring, we had to tie boots on their paws to protect them from ice cuts. That took a lot of time. Too often, the ropes would break when they got wet. When the rope broke like that people would say they had been gnawed by black flies. If you didn’t want the work to pile up, you mended the rope right away. Some people didn’t keep up with repairs, until the ropes were so bad they had to be thrown away[…]
In spring, it was hard to drive a sled on ice that had been melting. The ice improved if it had rained. If it had been a hot spring, the bottom of the runners would be so scratched, you’d think the ice was covered with blades. Runners were ruined by jagged ice, and so were the dogs’ paws.
We used old qajaq coverings, qairningnak, for a lot of things. It tore easily, but we used it to make boots for the dogs. When they got torn, we patched them. Some dogs ate their boots when they were too hungry so we had to watch them. We also had to make sure they didn’t loose their boots in the deep snow. If they dropped a boot we ran to pick it up and put it back on. If we didn’t do it fast, it would be lost.
Otherwise, the dogs’ soles would be cut and bleeding. It delayed your trip. When it got so that a dog couldn’t walk, you would have to put the dog on your sled. You didn’t leave your dogs behind. You knew they were not all that easy to replace. We didn’t like giving a dog a ride, but we couldn’t leave it behind.
If the dogs were fed on lean meat, like caribou or ptarmigan, they got really weak. If they were fed only ptarmigan, they would be in bad condition.
If the dogs weren’t too hungry, we tied them in the spring with their harnesses still on. If fed well they didn’t chew their traces. When the dogs weren’t fed well, when it was raining or bad weather, they would get into food.
Some dogs were never willing to pull. Those ones were killed. They weren’t of any help and ate all the food.
It made us mad when the dogs were fooling around while we were trying to build an igloo, or if they wouldn’t pull well.
When dogs met another team, there was one here one there – it got very confusing. If there were too many dogs in one place, they had to be separated. When they were busy stealing food, they didn’t fight with each other.
Once, we were caribou hunting while one particular dog was in heat. When evening came we turned our primus stove on. Primus stoves were quite noisy in those days, and if many hunters had theirs burning, you could hardly hear a thing. The next morning we found a dead dog outside our igloo. It was a lead dog, a huge one. It had been killed in fight over the female while we had our primus stove on, and we didn’t hear the fight. That dog was a prized lead dog, nice and big.
One time we were traveling night and day. The second day, the dogs could hardly move when they got to deep snow. We left some old dogs behind, and they reached our camp hours later. I learned that older dogs get tired more easily. A dog would get very tired after two days and a night. It takes them that long to tire when they are in condition.
When the mud runners of the sled were facing the sun, the mud would melt. To prevent that, we would cover the runners with old blankets. We also applied a lot of slush to the runners in the evening [to freeze overnight] so the mud would last longer and stay slippery. We smoothed it with a damp cloth in the morning. If the slush was cracked with a rock, you had a problem. The sled would not move well. Sometime there might be two people driving the sled when they saw a rock in front of them. In their haste to avoid it, the two men would pull in opposite directions, and the sled would hit the rock. That happened when both drivers panicked.
In those days, we enjoyed driving a dog team when the dogs were in good condition. Dogs could go fast when they were rested. When you threatened to hit them, they could go really fast.
We knew no other way of transportation. We now use snowmobiles, and when we think back on dogteam days, they don’t seem as fun.
Sometimes we prepared oatmeal for our dogs. I once gave a whole bag of uncooked oats to each of my dogs. Each bag was five pounds. I did that only once.
It was a lot of work feeding dogs because you had to be sure they didn’t steal each other’s food. You had to have a man in the entrance of the igloo and a man with a whip and another to feed the dogs. If the dogs were trained to take turns they would go into the igloo by twos. If you had enough to go around then you could just throw some food to each, outdoors, and they wouldn’t fight over the food. If there were several dogteams out together, you fed each team separately.
After feeding your dogs, you could relax. But sometimes you had to thaw the meat before you could feed them, and that made the evening long, especially when you were tired.
Dogs could usually keep you from getting lost when they were used to the territory. If you thought you knew better than your dog about the right way to go, you usually got lost.
note: Encouraged by friend to all Inuit,
the artist-author James Houston
(also known as Saumik, the Left-handed
One), who helped Inuit to develop
various art forms and then brought them
to the world stage, Johnny Inukpuk
became a renown soapstone carver. His
work was part of an exhibit at
a gallery in London, England in 1953. In
1973, Inukpuk was elected member of the
Royal Canadian Academy of Arts. Johnny
Inukpuk was also a leader in his
community of Inukjuak.
Although not in print for ten years, Avataq
hopes to relaunch Tumivut
if financial support is received. However, Tumivut #12,
Spring 2000, is available to purchase for $7.00
CAD plus shipping. To get your own copy, please
Marketing manager / Publications Dept.
Institut culturel Avataq
4150, rue Sainte Catherine Ouest, bureau 360
Westmount, Québec H3Z 2Y5
514 989-9031 #250