The Fan Hitch Volume 8, Number 2, March 2006

Journal of the Inuit Sled Dog

In This Issue...

Editorial: Tradition: Passing the Torch
Fan Mail
F.I.D.O.: Kevin Slater
Dog Yard Noise
Road Food Inuit Dog Style
Differences in Mushing: Greenland and Arctic Canada, Part III
How Much is That Doggie in the Window?
Product Review: MAXIGUARD® Zn7™ Derm
 IMHO: People, People, People

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Former Inuit Dog Owner.....

Kevin Slater and some of his Yukon Husky pups   Photo: Slater

Kevin Slater
Mahoosuc Guide Service
Newry, Maine, U.S.A.

TFH: Tell us about your background with dogs.
KS: I always had dogs and to my parents' dismay, sometimes too many of them.  I always had at least one and often two to three dogs. I always liked having dogs and working with them. The first time I ever got on the back of a dog sled was the winter of '82. I was helping some guy up in the interior of Alaska starting a guiding business. So my introduction and my interest have primarily been with freighting expedition travel. I've never raced. I really don't have any interest in racing or working with breeds of dogs that I perceive to be hyper. I knew that first winter that I was "hooked" and some day I was going to have my own dog team. 

That eventually came about in 1989. There was a fellow from Alaska down here in Maine and he had a motley collection of dogs and he was looking for a home for them. I had "sucker" written all over my forehead.

TFH: Were these the kind of dogs that you were interested in?
KS: No, they weren't at all. But when you live in Maine, how do you get freighting dogs, especially when the trend was towards lighter boned, no-coated, floppy-eared dogs for racing, not really northern dogs. I've always been interested in the more traditional dogs of the North. No matter what I do, whether it's building wood-canvas canoes or timber frame houses I tend to take a more traditional approach. So I like the traditional indigenous dogs that were bred for their working qualities. 

The dogs I adopted were a real mixed bag, but they were definitely bigger and stronger in terms of freighting. Most of them came from the interior of Alaska, bloodlines from the smaller Athabaskan villages, trap line dogs. The guy I got them from aspired to be a racer of some type but he definitely had dogs too big and too slow to be competitive. So they were probably going to be put down if someone didn't adopt them. There were some good dogs. There were seventeen in that group. I didn't want all of them so I convinced some friends of mine into adopting. I think we each ended up with roughly three five-dog teams. That was the beginning of my own dog team even though I don't think I now have any of the bloodlines of those original dogs because they really weren't what I was looking for. But they needed a home and I wanted to start a dog team. So we learned alot together. I gave them a good home and they got to do what they wanted to do, and I feel good about that. The first leader I ever had, Sitlik, was already a fairly well trained leader. She was probably eight or nine-years-old and beyond her prime. She was probably about seventy-five pounds (34 kg). She was leggy, a nice dog for what I was looking for. She was intelligent and as devoted as she could be given she'd been bounced around most of her life. That team was the nucleus for my first year. 

Around 1990, Polly and I met. I also just happened to be given a dog at the same time from a woman I knew up on Indian Island. This was a dog from up north, I think either from one of the interior villages in Alaska or perhaps the Yukon Territory.  Nikki was a big dog, probably eighty-five pounds (38 kg), which was very big for a female, leggy, good feet, black pads, a good coat, just exactly what I was looking for. Polly came to Maine with her dogs from the Yukon Territory. Some of their lineage went back to the very last RCMP team. The bloodline of quite a few of her dogs can be traced back to Old Crow, the northern-most Gwichi'in village. These were much more the kind of dogs I was interested in. That was sort of the real beginning for me. We bred Nikki a few times to some of Polly's males and the result was nice big dogs. The males were seventy-five to ninety-five pounds (34 to 43 kg) and rangy, just what I was looking for for pulling heavy loads in soft, deeper snow conditions. The leggier dogs have a real advantage in these conditions. 

After we started building our own dog teams and doing some breedings, we weren't getting the time with our dogs, because we were working the traditional sorts of jobs, even though working for Outward Bound wouldn't be considered "traditional". I was a program director and there was office time. We wanted more time with our dogs and to be out with them so we said, "What the heck. Let's try to make a living at it. If twelve outfitters can survive in Ely, Minnesota which is in the middle of nowhere in terms of being close a population center, we should be able to do it here in Maine." And that's when we decided to chuck the jobs and start Mahoosuc Guide Service.

TFH: Are your dogs the breed you refer to as the Gwichi'in Dogs?
KS: Yes. But we call them Yukon Huskies now because it's easier for people to say and remember. As you know northern dogs have specific traits within certain geographic areas. Even within Inuit Dogs I'm sure you could find specific traits so that someone who really knew the dogs could probably look and say that a dog is from a certain area.

TFH: I know the issue of the British Antarctic Survey dogs is a sensitive one for you, but could you talk about that a little? What was the reason for sending them to Nunavik?
KS: I am sensitive about it, but you could pretty much sum up the British Antarctic Survey dog relocation effort as very good intentions with a very good initial plan. Depending on whose version of the story you listen to, there obviously was - for whatever reason seems to be still disputed - a massive extermination of the traditional Inuit Sled Dog up the eastern coast of Hudson Bay. So the breed did not exist as a pure breed any more and hasn't probably since the early nineteen-sixties. Me, being the idealistic person that I am, I thought, "Well, what a better thing to do with the last Canadian Inuit Dogs down in the Antarctic than to return them to the people they originally came from".  I have no doubts or regrets about what we did. I only wish that I would have had the foresight to have built in more follow up provisions for the care, treatment, et cetera of the dogs once they did get back to Inukjuak We naively thought that once we got them back to Inukjuak they would probably be bred. You know, hindsight is always twenty-twenty. [Editor's note: Most of the fourteen BAS dogs that were relocated from Antarctica to Nunavik in March/April 1994, as a result of the treaty banning non-indigenous species, died within a year after their arrival.  Three or four lived another seven or eight years. According to Kevin, there were no successful breedings.]

Ivalu (Geronimo x Misty), one of Kevin’s last pure ISDs   Photo: Slater

TFH: When did you get your Inuit Dogs and how did you come to get them and why did you decide to get them, since you already had Yukon Huskies?
KS: I had been around and worked with natives that had Inuit Dogs and was familiar with the breed and I greatly admired their working qualities. There's probably not a tougher canine on the planet, especially if you measure it in terms of their ability to do amazing amounts of hard work in extremely cold conditions with little food. There's no match for them. I had a tremendous respect and appreciation for the breed. After an article or two in Mushing Magazine about the whole British Antarctic Survey relocation, some mushers from the interior of Alaska, Peter Zimmerman and Enrica Nadalini, who had some Canadian Inuit Dogs contacted me and said, "We happened to be having a litter and read with great interest the story in Mushing Magazine…"

Michael Wald in Fairbanks did either a skiing or snowshoe expedition in the Brooks Range with Geronimo and Misty, the parents of the pups that I got. He borrowed Geronimo and Misty from Peter and Enrica to do this expedition because he and his friend wanted additional freighting power. The dogs were pulling toboggans. Michael was impressed and couldn't praise the dogs enough, especially Geronimo. I trusted Michael's opinion and that's how I knew about their working qualities.

Geronimo, a GISD, and Misty, a CISD, and a pup from their litter    Photo: Zimmerman

In 1994 Peter and Enrica sent three littermate pups, two males and a female, to me which, became my mostly Inuit Sled Dog team. When I got the pups I just put them in a pen loose with Hammish who had a fair bit of malamute in him and was similar in build to an Inuit Sled Dog. The pups basically grew up with Hammish. He was "Dad", their boss and their leader and I never had a lick of trouble. Those three Inuit Sled Dogs never got in a fight, never fought among themselves; well, I mean scraps, yes, but a serious fight they never had. The pups worked it out. They all knew their pecking order. It worked out well. It was a very strong and powerful four-dog team. I think I had that team for five years.

The primary reason I decided to not stay with the Inuit Dogs is that I don't think they are as "user friendly" for beginners. I did love those Inuit Dogs dearly. They were great dogs. We try to get out with our dogs for our own personal trips, but primarily our dogs are used for guiding. I think for guiding you need to have the temperament of dogs that if they get tied up in a knot in the gang line their first reaction won't be to bite the dog nearest to them, like Inuit Dogs would. When we're guiding, clients don't want to break up dogfights.  I don't want my dogs fighting. Our dogs have to be very forgiving because our clients who are beginners at driving a dog team are going to make mistakes. That's why for guiding we need a breed of sled dog that's very beginner user friendly. Specifically the quality I look for in such dogs is that no matter what happens, they're not going to get ugly with each other. Like most of our dog teams, you couldn't get a fight even if you tried. I just felt that our own bloodlines were just more suitable. Polly's been working with the bloodlines of these dogs from the Yukon since 1979. So over the years we steadily reduced the amount of aggressiveness in the dogs.

TFH: You don't have any more ISDs in your dog yard, but you obviously still have an appreciation for the breed. Why is that?
KS: I think I mentioned already that you're not going to find a tougher dog, especially a dog that can work hard on a small amount of food under extremely adverse conditions. They're survivors. They're amazingly tough, spirited animals. If it was just me and my dog team doing my own expeditions I probably would end up getting back into Inuit Sled Dogs. There's no question I have a tremendous respect and appreciation for the breed.

TFH: You've guided tours above and below the treeline. Are different demands put on the dogs by the two environments?
KS: Definitely. Our dogs from the Yukon Territory, where it can get sixty below Fahrenheit (-51ºC), don't have as thick and heavy a coat as Inuit Dogs. Sure, our dogs might get by above treeline for extended periods but they would not be happy. The weather would take its toll on them. Conversely, when I had Inuit Dogs, I did a few informal experiments where, after a big snowfall - sixteen inches (40 cm) of new snow on a packed base - I mixed the team up. I put a couple of Inuit Dogs next to a couple of my bigger males like Guinness and Seámus. Seámus was probably thirty inches (76 cm) at the withers and a very leggy dog. And in those kinds of conditions it was just amazing. The leggy Yukon Huskies could keep a tight line, even in those conditions. It's like the difference between a deer and a moose trying to get through deep snow. The longer legs are definitely an advantage. But in terms of just raw torque the Yukon Husky probably doesn't have the torque that the shorter, more compact Inuit Dog has. But we're not running on sea ice with hard, wind packed snow conditions. We are primarily in the boreal forest in deep, soft snow. I think for that kind of pulling the leggier freight dogs have an advantage. 

Pauloosie Koonaloosie settling his team   Photo: Slater

TFH: How is the arctic experience different for your clients when done by dog team as opposed to snowmachine?
KS: It's so much more of the history and the culture. It's a shame to see that there are fewer and fewer Inuit or non-Inuit for that matter who have dog teams for tourism-related purposes but do not use the dogs also for serious hunting and traveling.  Right now it looks like a big percentage of Inuit Dog teams are going to be used only when guiding tourists. But they won't really be used for hunting and traveling. [Ed: For twelve years Mahoosuc Guide Service took clients to Qikiqtarjuaq on Baffin Island where they traveled with Pauloosie Koonaloosie.] In talking with Pauloosie he would reminisce, "You know, when I had just one dog team and I was hunting and traveling with them that was the best trained dog team I ever had." When he started guiding and he had three twelve- to fourteen-dog teams, it wasn't the same. Tourism in the north may be a viable way to help keep the population of Inuit Sled Dogs up and keep sled dogs being used, but the disconnect is - and this is only my opinion - if you have dogs you shouldn't use them just whenever you're doing a tour, even if you have them for that reason. The dogs should be worked and used pretty much year-round when the conditions need and permit, because there's a world of difference between keeping dogs to give rides to tourists as opposed to living, hunting and traveling with your dogs. There are some very good practical reasons to go by dog team as opposed to snowmachine. Although not all dogs have it, some can sense bad or thin ice conditions. Dogs often, can find the trails, especially if you're trying to get back to your camp or igloo in whiteout conditions. Dogs often have a better sense of direction than people. Dog teams don't break down like snowmachines do. And if you're in polar bear country, your snowmachine isn't going to alert you to that but the dogs will. There are very good practical reasons for not traveling in the north by snowmachine.

TFH: It is well known that you have a very special connection with Inuit beyond your relationship as an outfitter working with guides when you take clients above the tree line. Why is it important to you that your clients experience this, too?
KS: I have a strong personal interest in the North. And I guess that strong personal interest or connection with the North and the native people is sort of what led me to work with various Cree and Inuit families over the years to offer some guided trips. So for me I would never even consider offering trips or guiding in the North where native people live without working with them. It's their land, their country so I wouldn't even consider it any other way. And then the secondary benefit for guided trips is that I prefer to work not just with hiring a guide, but we like it when the whole family is into it, likes to be out on the land in the bush, when the guide's wife comes with him. We're not doing this primarily as a dog sled trip in the arctic. Sure that's part of it. But an equally big part of it is the whole cultural experience. And I know that it's a totally different experience when you include a guide plus his wife and the grandkids or one of their sons or daughters. That is completely different as opposed to when you have only one or two male guides out there dragging the tourists around just to show them the polar bears and the seals. It's a world apart. It's a much richer cultural experience.

And the other reason I'm sort of personally committed to working with natives in the north in developing cultural tourism is this. What other wage job option do natives have that actually reinforce traditional cultural values? They can drive a dog team, they can show tourists about hunting and teach traditional life and get a paycheck at the end of the day. The reality is they all live in homes, they all buy gas, they have bills to pay, too. Guiding and doing cultural tourism trips bridges the gap between the western wage economy and tradition Inuit culture. Most wage jobs in the North have nothing to do with traditional culture, if anything they help erode it.

Pauloosie Koonaloosie’s team   Photo: Slater

TFH: When you take clients above the treeline, what do you hope your they learn from their mushing experience about the use of dogs in general and the Inuit Sled Dog in particular?
KS:  A lot of people aren't even aware that there was and is an indigenous breed of dog left alive. The Inuit Sled Dog is the indigenous dog of arctic North America and Greenland. A lot people don't realize that. They think blue-eyed Siberian Huskies are the sled dogs of the North today. So that's a big part of it. It was great when were able to work with Pauloosie because he could really capture the essence of the closeness and importance of the subsistence hunter and his dog team. It's harder to convey now that people grow up in villages, and not on the land as subsistence hunters. Those days when people were born in igloos and grew up in a subsistence hunting unit are gone. With some of these older hunters and guides that are still running dogs, it is possible to very clearly see that connection between man and dog, to see the importance of the dogs in helping find aglu (seal breathing holes in the ice), protecting the rest of the family from nanuq when they're out hunting. Inuit could not have done their circumpolar migration from Chukotka halfway around the globe without the Inuit Dog. 

TFH: Is there anything else that you want The Fan Hitch readers to know?
KS: Yes, there is. We were told by Allen Gordon of Kujjuuaq that the initial interest in the Inuit Sled Dog really sort of spread at the time of the return of the British Antarctic Survey dogs. He said it was part of the motivation to start talking about and having Ivakkak, the Nunavik dog sled race. So even though we weren't successful breeding or getting any litters of pups from them those Antarctica dogs, it seems like they were the real stimulus because it brought back a lot of memories. When we arrived in Inukjuak elders came down to meet us and they were crying. It was really moving! I know that it happened. So in closing I still hold on to the hope that there's going to be some greater good that came from the British Antarctic Survey dog relocation, that it seems to have rekindled a renewed interest in the pure Inuit Dog. There's Allen Gordon and another Inuk musher in Kangiqsualujjuaq who is also interested in having purebred dogs. I am optimistic that the rekindled enthusiasm will continue to spread. It would just be great if in my lifetime I can see a very healthy, viable population of Inuit Sled Dogs in Nunavik villages. 

TFH: And Nunavut too!
KS: Yes, but I say Nunavik because I had more experience trying to reintroduce them there. Nunavik doesn't have any or darn few! For me that would personally be very satisfying if in my lifetime Inuit Sled Dogs were once again in all those villages on the coast of Hudson and Ungava Bay.

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