The Fan Hitch Volume 7, Number 4, September 2005

Journal of the Inuit Sled Dog

In This Issue...

Editorial: Building Bridges
F.I.D.O.: Marit Holm
Nunavik Dog Slaughters, Part III
Greenland Dog / Inuit Dog, The Same Dog
Differences in Mushing: Greenland and Arctic Canada, Part I
Fan Mail
Behavior Notebook: The Human Role
Book Review: Frozen Horizons
Product Review: Wheel Dog Harness
Tip for the Trail: Pack a Pruning Saw
 IMHO: The System
Annual Index for Volume 7

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Editor: Sue Hamilton
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Featured Inuit Dog Owner...

                                              Photo: Holm

Living with 21,000 Inuit Dogs in Greenland!

Dr. Marit Holm

Ilulissat, Greenland

"Go behind. Go behind! Castro! Go behind!" Slowly my sled is pointing downwards, down the steepest hills from the big mountain Akinnaq, on my way back to town. To avoid collision with another dog team I order my dogs to go behind the sled, and behind me. I am also walking behind the sled, trying to steer it, safe and secure, down the curly trail. Suddenly I hear the sound of a sweep in the air and I turn around. Another Greenlandic musher is coming downhill faster and faster until he cracks his whip in the middle of the team, just above the head of the dogs. Instantly half of the team swings straight out to left and the other half to the right, and they all slow down. The sled glides over the ropes and in no time all the fifteen dogs are running behind his sled and are slowing it down. The musher is still sitting on the sled, with his feet on each side of the sled, his heels digging into the snow, also acting like brakes. I stop my dogs and let him pass by, safe. Swish! Then I continue slowly downhill again. When I finally reach the bottom, I order the dogs to stop. Then I lift up my sled and carefully pull the ropes from under the runners until they are in the right position, with the dogs ahead of the sled. " Knud" doesn't need to be told that we will soon be back home. He starts at once, almost before I call out to say, "Damma", which means "Go!" They all know we will be back home soon and then its time for some food!

In February 2004, I moved from Lakselv in north of Norway to Ilulissat in North Greenland. I was hired to work for the Greenlandic Homerule's Veterinary Department in Ilulissat and am responsible for all the sled dogs in Greenland, both west and east side of the coast, north of the polar circle. I felt I had got the greatest job ever! Now I work with Inuit Dogs every day, year round. I left the best part of Norway behind me and also my good old sled dogs. That was the worst part of it.

My job as a veterinarian here in Greenland is also about watching the rabies status in the fox population, and to be sure that all the dogs in the country are vaccinated against rabies. Also, I oversee some control with the foodstuffs in the restaurants and grocery stores. I travel a lot around in the country, to all the towns and all the small villages. That is a very interesting part of the job. But it is also the saddest part because I come to see a lot of dogs suffering. It is a major problem in Greenland that people don't take good care about their dogs. I think it is because they aren't dependent of the dogs any more for the survival of the family. Often the dogs are standing without water and often they are as skinny as skillets. But luckily Greenland got their own Animal Protection Law last summer and I hope it will help the dogs to get a better treatment.  But it is a problem that the puppies get too little to eat and so they then won't grow up to be big and strong. It is a major challenge for me as a veterinarian to explain to some dog owners how to feed the dogs in a correct manner. 

Ready for the steep descent                   Photo: Holm

After some weeks in Ilulissat I got my own dog team, ten big, strong and healthy Greenlandic dogs. Only one of them was a female. Her name is Tuttu, which means reindeer in Greenlandic. The dogs weigh from 28 to 43 kg. I was lucky to be able to buy a whole dog team so I didn't have to struggle to put together dogs from different families. That is often a major job. I started to mush with them and there were no problems at all. But it was the first time I mushed with the fan hitch! And that was totally different from what I knew from back in Norway. It was strange to sit on the sled and not to have a brake to count on. On my very first trip alone with the dogs I had four of them in lead. It was glorious! Now I prefer to mush with six to eight dogs, but on weekend trips I bring nine or ten along. My kennel has grown to fourteen dogs. Now the biggest is 45 kg. Baloo hadn't been in front of a sled before, and he had to learn to be part of a dog team. That was a tricky case as he was the biggest and strongest dog of all but only wanted to mush when he got to have his mother with him. 

A lot of my spare time I spend with the dogs to get to know them. In that way I can have a greater control when I go mushing. I can jump off the sled and run ahead out on the trail and make them follow me everywhere. That is great fun. In Greenland mushers fall off their sleds pretty often, and then the dog team pretty often or almost always takes off back home and does not stop to pick up the unlucky musher. Because I practice having my dogs follow me, I won't have to walk home if I fall off the sled.  I also do some skijoring, which is also great fun. For the most two dogs come to pull me around on my skiis.

Downhill! The dogs are the brakes           Photo: Holm

It is not allowed to bring other dogs to the sled districts of North Greenland. So all the dogs are pure breed Greenlandic dogs. And because of very little control of breeding, there are many kinds of dogs around. All kinds of colours and a lot of different sizes and shapes. It is an amusing sight. Four thousand dogs live in Ilulissat and that means some three hundred to three hundred and fifty mushers. Only thirty to forty of them are living partly off the fish or animals they hunt and bring home on the sled during the wintertime. All the others are mushers for fun and for the love of the Inuit Dogs. On a good Saturday in mid-April, there can be some hundred sleds on the trails around Ilulissat. All of them start out of town on the very same track. It is an amazing experience and a wonderful sight. Even with all of these teams out on the trail, seldom are there accidents with teams running in to each other. They all know to stay on the left side when meeting other teams

This is not my first time with sled dogs. Back in Norway, I had my own sled dogs for fourteen years. It started with Greenlandic dogs and also with huskies. I almost always had both at the same time. Each has different qualities, both which I care about. I have done some expeditions in the wilderness, bringing sled dogs to pull or to carry baggage. On one of these long expeditions I walked across Alaska on foot. It took ten months and we brought one dog, a mix between Greenlandic dog and husky. It was the raw power from the Inuit Dog blood, which make her awfully powerful. On another expedition we spent thirty days going 500 km from top of Spitsbergen-Svalbard, at 80 degrees north, to the southernmost point. Two big Greenlandic dogs, Tundra and Sapman, each pulled 60 to 80 kg pulks. They were amazing. No matter what the weather was like, they handled it perfectly. Last April and May I went with a friend for three weeks into the wilderness, north of Ilulissat. Ten of my dogs came along. It was a wonderful experience. And my dogs learned how to pull a Bjørkis - a sled in Nome-hitch. It was a beautiful sight. All those proud tails in the air. They were more relaxed, going like that. But I got them in the fan hitch when I knew we were going steep downhill, just to feel more safe, so they could go behind the sled and brake if necessary.

During the wintertime I try to take my dogs out on the trail five times a week or at least as often as possible, no matter if it is windy, snowing or dark.   Now when it is such a beautiful arctic summer and beginning fall, I take my dogs with me in the mountain and let them run and play. They come off the leash approximately two times a week each, sometimes more and other times less. It means that I am going in the mountain two times a day and up to four dogs come along at the same time. Since there are not any game animals, like reindeer, in this area that the dogs would chase and kill, I can safely let them loose. Then they run like crazy. It is a big pleasure to watch them and their joy of life. Unfortunately, most of the other dogs in town are tied up in their dog yards all summer.

Baloo tries being a musher               Photo: Holm

My goal is to have healthy and happy dogs that can run the trails. I feed them every day (that is not necessarily what is the tradition in Greenland). They mainly get dog food, the dry stuff, together with dried fish. Unfortunately, it is difficult to get seal.  I make sure that their space in the dog yard is clean. Care that is common in other countries has still not reached Greenland. Dogs around town are standing in their own stools all year round. I like my dogs to be shiny and nice, so I can hug them because these Inuit Dogs love to be cared for, love to be patted and to be touched. In that manner I have dogs that will follow me around in the wild mountains. They love me and I love them. That is how it should be.

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