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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"

Cape York’s several-hundred-foot-high bluff is famous in the annals of exploration as one of Peary’s bases for Arctic exploration. It was near Cape York that he found three pieces of an immense meteorite. (For centuries, the Inuits used these meteorites as a source of iron for tools.) He took all three pieces and sold them to the AmericanMuseum of Natural History in New York City.

Qaerngaq and Ussarqak Henson can wield a whip, or iperaataq, with a precision a fly fisherman might envy. Aflick of the wrist lands a precise blow to the flank or rump of a dog or a crack above the ear, encouraging it to pick up speed or change directions. Arctic explorer Jean Malaurie observed that “a good driver can strike within one-sixteenth of a square inch of what he aims at.” But more often, our hunters guide the teams with voice commands. Schurke describes once watching a hunter command a team of dogs to stay put while he worked his sled down the face of a precipitous, mile-long glacier. Only when he shouted a command from the glacier’s base did the dogs begin their own descent. The hunter was even able to guide them around crevasses with voice commands.

Recently, Harvard University anthropologist Brian Hare and his colleagues have demonstrated that dogs interpret human voice and body language far better than chimpanzees or wolves. He speculates that this ability has been developed through selective breeding of dogs by humans over the millennia.

Even so, I notice that Qaerngaq is never without his whip. Once I saw him wade into a canine dispute swinging the wooden whip handle. The dogs separated immediately. Bred to attack polar bears, the dogs can be dangerous. Children are warned not to go near them. I met a 12-year-old girl in Savissivik whose face had been terribly disfigured by a dog attack. When Inuit dogs reach the age of about 8 months, they are placed in a harness in which they’ll spend the rest of their lives. Many Inuit knock out some of their dogs’ molars or file down their canine teeth so they won’t be able to chew their harness and escape. If a dog does break its tether in Qaanaaq, the owner has only two hours to retrieve the animal before it may legally be shot. Concern in Greenland over the Inuit dog’s temperament has led to a ban of the animal below the Arctic Circle, about where the sea ice ends. Norwegian Arctic explorer Otto Sverdrup summed up the contradiction of the Inuit dog when he wrote in 1904 that it is “the warmest breath of civilization” but also the “wildest breath of Nature.”

in 1776, the Danish government established Greenland as a protectorate and closed its borders to trade in the belief, says Rasmus Ole Rasmussen, a professor of North Atlantic regional studies at Denmark’s RoskildeUniversity, that Greenland should be “kept more or less isolated from the outside world in order to preserve the traditional culture.” (The ban was not lifted until 1950.) Asimilar logic was applied to snowmobiles, which the Danish government banned for use in hunting in northern Greenland in the 1970s.

Because of the snowmobile ban, the Inuit dog population in Greenland remains robust—about 30,000 animals. In contrast, by the 1970s in Canada, says Ken MacRury, a longtime sled driver who wrote his Cambridge University master’s thesis about the Inuit dog, the snowmobile’s popularity had reduced the number of Inuit dog teams to a handful; there were none in Alaska or in Canada west of Victoria Island. Today, there are only about 100 purebred animals in Canada and fewer than 150 in the United States.

In 1979, Denmark granted home rule to Greenland, and in 1988 and 1998 the Inuits allowed licensed bird and musk ox hunters to use snowmobiles. As a result, says Rasmussen, there has been a “reduction in the total number of sled dogs during the last few years by at least a third.” He thinks the ban will soon be lifted in its entirety. If so, it will be to the dismay of some Inuits. “Hunting is a part of our real life, and using dogs is the most sustainable way to do it,” says Aqaluq Lynge, president of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference-Greenland, an Inuit advocacy organization. Most of the Inuit hunters on our trip—at least the older ones—want nothing to do with snowmobiles.

Even if the ban against them is lifted, eco-tourism may keep dog sledding alive. And, says Rasmussen, there will always be traditionalists who choose to work the dogs, much as some farmers prefer old-fashioned, chemical-free methods of growing crops.

On the last ten-mile stretch of our trip, with a few dozen houses of Savissivik barely visible in the distance, the wind whips across the ice, and the sky shines a blinding blue. Without a word from the hunters, our dogs and those of another sled begin pulling furiously in their harnesses. We race across the sea ice, hunters, visitors and dogs all straining to beat the other sled. Our team pulls ahead, then the other sled overtakes us. Though we lose the race, we feel exhilarated, not only from the speed and the competition, but by the thrill of dog and human working together, as we have for many thousands of years.

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