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Top Dogs

The Polar Inuit's ancient bond with the sled dog remains intact, thanks in part to a ban on snowmobiles. But the lure of technology threatens these "sturdy, magnificent animals"

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My dog sled races along the frozen polar sea of Greenland’s northwestern coast, weaving through a maze of hummocks. I sit wedged against the fur-covered form of a quiet, middle-aged Inuit hunter named Ilanguaq Qaerngaq, who directs the dozen dogs fanned out before us with deft snaps of a 15-foot-long whip. From out of nowhere, a dog from another team—its trace cut or broken—veers in front of us and falls beneath our left runner. Our 11-foot wooden sled, loaded with several hundred pounds of seal and walrus meat, rides over the creature and continues on. Behind us, the dazed dog struggles to its feet, limping badly. I catch Qaerngaq’s eye, but he shakes his head. In a minute, the dog has become a dark speck on the ice behind us. As we set up tents on the sea ice a couple of hours later, I keep a lookout for the injured dog, but it doesn’t appear. I fear it has become a meal for a polar bear or an arctic fox.

That evening, one of our dogs refuses to eat. Julia Bent, a 55-year-old veterinarian from Seattle, examines the animal and wryly prescribes “warm cage rest, IV fluids, a full blood analysis and urinalysis, probably abdominal and chest X-rays, and appropriate therapy based on our laboratory findings.” She gives the dog some Pepto-Bismol, but the next morning as we leave camp, one of the Inuit hunters shoots the animal in the head with his rifle and leaves the body on the ice.

It’s day two of a nine-day dog-sledding trip from Qaanaaq, a town of a hundred or so brightly painted frame houses perched on a gently sloping hillside overlooking Murchison Sound, south about 200 miles to the smaller Inuit village of Savissivik, and I’ve just been given another lesson about the relationship between the Polar Inuit and their dogs in the high Arctic. It’s all business; on the ice, the Inuit have neither the inclination nor the means to care for badly injured or sick canines. And yet the Inuit’s connection to their dogs is one of the world’s oldest and most complex human-animal partnerships, a relationship “as close as a marriage,” as the French Arctic explorer Jean Malaurie noted in the 1950s.

Unlike the Inuit people in Canada and Alaska, who have largely traded dog sleds for snowmobiles, Polar Inuit have maintained their age-old skills of hunting with sled dogs for subsistence, the only circumpolar culture to do so. And because by law no other breeds may be brought to northern Greenland, this remote area and the small enclave that inhabits it have become a sanctuary for the Inuit dog (Canis familiaris borealis), thought to be North America’s only remaining pure aboriginal canine.

I have joined this expedition at the invitation of photographer Layne Kennedy and Paul Schurke, 48, an Arctic explorer and co-owner, with his wife, Susan, of the Wintergreen Dogsledding Lodge in Ely, Minnesota. In addition to Schurke, his 12-year-old son, Peter, Bent and me, our group consists of six other Americans and ten Inuits—including Ussarqak Henson, 66, grandson of Matthew Henson, the African-American who accompanied Cmdr. Robert Peary on his 1909 expedition to the North Pole. We are joining a group of Polar Inuit on a spring hunt for seal, which they prize both for its meat and hide, from which they make clothes. Schurke’s involvement with the Inuit dog dates to 1986 when he and Arctic explorer Will Steger completed the first unresupplied dog sled expedition to the North Pole. On that 56-day trip, says Schurke, their 49 Inuit dogs, which hauled heavy loads over 1,200 miles of fractured pack ice, were like “little Sherman tanks.” The following year Schurke and his wife bought nine Inuit dogs and opened Wintergreen. They now own 60, the largest collection in the United States; each winter he and his guides take about 500 people dog sledding in Minnesota’s northern woods.

Most maps of North America fail to show the extent of Greenland’s northerly reach because of the distortion created by two-dimensional representations of the globe. From a polar projection—as if looking down at the North Pole from above—the northern tip of Greenland resembles a thumb poised to poke out the pole’s eye, coming far closer to it—about 450 miles—than any other landmass. An ice cap nearly two miles thick covers 84 percent of Greenland’s surface and contains so much water that, were it to melt, the global sea level would rise by 20 feet.

Some 900 Polar Inuit inhabit Qaanaaq and five other villages on a narrow, several-hundred-mile strip along the coast. These Inuit live farther north than any other indigenous people on earth. By April, when our De Havilland Twin Otter aircraft lands on the ice runway of Qaanaaq, winter has finally relinquished its hold. Almost 19 hours of sunlight and temperatures that average a few degrees above zero have replaced days of round-the-clock darkness and minus 40 degree temperatures. Murchison Sound, however, still resembles an immense ice rink. Small boats rest on the frozen beach, and dozens of groups of dogs are tied to stakes near them. Near one dog pack lies a partially devoured walrus.

The next morning, we set off with nine hunters—outfitted in polar bear fur trousers—nine sleds and 101 dogs. Qaerngaq ties the traces of his 12 dogs to a pituq, a looped rope about 12 feet long attached to the sled between the runners. The design of the sled itself—two 12-foot-long wooden runners, a platform of planks, and upright handrails at the back—has changed little over the centuries. Wooden boards, however, have replaced driftwood planks and caribou antler handrails, and nylon rope has replaced sealskin thongs. But the sled’s joints are still loosely bound to allow it to move flexibly over irregularities in the snow and ice. And the sled is still strong enough to withstand a crash—after, say, careering down a steep gully—yet light enough to shoot across the sea ice at speeds approaching ten miles per hour.

The dogs run flank to flank in an arrangement known as a fan hitch, in which the traces are equal in length, except for the lead dog’s, which is slightly longer. The fan hitch gives the dogs enough slack to negotiate obstacles in their path.

As we glide across the ice, the dogs’ bushy tails wave like cattails in a freshening breeze. Over the course of our trip, the dogs will provide endless entertainment—a running soap opera of flirtation, tiffs and, in some cases, raw animal aggression. Qaerngaq is the director: he chastises a lazy young male, ties a bootee onto a dog with a cut paw, takes a flagging one out of its traces for a rest. The wind drives their flatulence into our faces. Early on, a pregnant bitch in the sled in front of us delivers prematurely, dropping her newborn pups onto the ice, and our dogs gobble up the tiny, bloody bodies without breaking stride.

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