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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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These animals are not to be mistaken for more familiar sled dogs, like those that compete in Alaska’s Iditarod race, most of which are Siberian huskies or mixes of other northern breeds. (“Husky” is actually a generic term for several breeds of sled dogs, including the Samoyed, the Alaskan malamute, the Siberian husky and Inuit dog breeds.) Siberian huskies are faster than Inuit dogs, but not as powerful. Inuit dogs are “sturdy, magnificent animals,” wrote Peary. “There is no dog in the world that can work so long in the lowest temperatures on practically nothing to eat.”

Lynn Peplinski, at the Inuit Heritage Trust, in Canada’s Nunavut Territory, tells of one Inuit who returned home after a month-long hunt, his 20-foot-sled loaded with 14 frozen caribou carcasses; 30 dried seal skins; two wooden boxes filled with tools and kitchenware; sleeping skins and tarpaulins; two steamer trunks; two whole seals; a washtub; five 3-week-old puppies; and his wife, their infant child and their two small children under 10. The 14 dogs pulling this load completed the final, 80-mile leg in 17 hours.

The Inuit dog, known as qimmiq in the Inuit language Inuktitut, has soft, dense insulating under fur and an outer coat of longer, coarser hairs, which shed water and snow. Petting the animal’s muscular chest is akin to touching a brick. I’m surprised the dogs aren’t bigger: males reach only 77 pounds, females about 60. The short, compact dogs’ small, slanted eyes suggest a close kinship to the wolf. But the notion of the northern dog as a tamed wolf placed in a trace and forced to pull a sled, as Jack London portrayed them in White Fang, is “an absurd, romantic myth,” says Jennifer Leonard, an evolutionary biologist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. The Inuit dog is no closer to a wolf than is a Labrador retriever. Archaeological evidence shows that dogs were domesticated from wolves in Europe and Asia at least 15,000 years ago, then spread across the Bering land bridge into what is now Alaska with the New World’s first immigrants. Leonard has found no genetic evidence that dogs in the New World ever bred with wolves.

In Greenland, dog remains have been found along with the earliest signs of human habitation. The first colonizers crossed the Bering Strait from Asia and moved across the islands of the Canadian Arctic to Greenland about 4,400 years ago. The Thule, ancestors of the present-day Polar Inuit, came here later from Alaska, in several waves between A.D. 900 and 1500. Archaeological evidence suggests that early Thule people may have used dogs to chase game and to transport meat and supplies over long distances, a significant capability when climactic fluctuations changed the migration routes of their prey.

“A hunter without dogs can be considered a half hunter,” goes a Greenland folk saying. Because the early Inuit had to get by on what they were able to kill, dogs often meant the difference between survival and starvation. During particularly lean times, the dogs themselves were eaten. “It’s entirely possible that dogs enabled those Pleistocene hunters to colonize the New World,” says Leonard.

Viking explorers came to Greenland just before the Thule people. Under Erik the Red, they colonized southern Greenland during a time of relatively mild climactic conditions. But when the weather grew colder in the late 14th and early 15th centuries, says UCLA biologist Jared Diamond, the Norsemen “starved to death amid an abundance of ringed seals, fish and whales that only the Inuit hunted.” The Inuits survived. They had better boats in the form of kayaks and umiaks, better weapons, with toggle harpoons and bladder floats, and, thanks to their dogs and sleds, far better range.

One afternoon four days into our trip, we are zipping across the ice near a series of high cliffs when one of the dogs pulling our sled suddenly throws its nose in the air and turns his head to the right. Another dog does the same. Then another. We scan the horizon in that direction but see only whiteness. Then, after a couple of minutes, Qaerngaq points out two distant dark spots. We turn toward the inert brown shapes and, ten minutes later, stop about 200 yards shy of a pair of seals resting near a breathing hole. Another Inuit hunter, Frank Angmalortoq, draws up on his sled and pulls out a 3- by 3-foot piece of white cloth stretched over a frame of wood mounted on a pair of small skis. The dogs from both teams lie down and wait quietly as Angmalortoq walks carefully toward his quarry behind the snow-colored blind. Within 50 yards of the seals, he lies down, his .222 Remington poking through the blind, and crawls closer. At the sound of the first shot, the dogs take off toward the seals in a furious surge of energy. I barely jump back onto the sled in time.

Angmalortoq has killed two 300- to 400-pound bearded seals. Through holes he cuts into flesh on their heads, Qaerngaq attaches the traces of our dogs, who drag the seals away from the breathing hole toward thicker ice. The other sleds join us, and the hunters butcher both animals in about 45 minutes, load the large squares of meat onto the sleds and leave the blubber behind.

The work has turned the ice scarlet and filled the air with the aroma of fresh meat, which I would think would drive the dogs wild. But they sit silently. Only later will the Inuit hunters feed them, cutting off hunks of the now frozen meat and throwing one piece to one dog at a time, a technique that prevents the larger ones from poaching food from the smaller. We dine on the seals’ raw intestine and strips of meat cut from along the backbone, which tastes surprisingly good, though fishier than any game I’ve tried before.

On day eight, just north of Cape York, Qaerngaq tells us not to wander off alone—polar bears. We’ve seen their dinner-plate-size paw prints in the snow. At night, the dogs are tied into position to form a living fence around our tents and sleds, a formidable warning system. While our sleep is interrupted on several occasions by the whines and growls of male dogs trying to get at females, no bears approach.

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