Going to the Dogs

by David Clammer


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'Don't go looking for Antarctica without this book.' - Susan Solomon




Ammassalik in east Greenland is said to have a population of 1,500 people and 1,000 dogs. There are certainly a lot of them about. The puppies are very appealing and roly-poly; they roam about at will, and with the slightest encouragement will follow you about. But this domesticity is an illusion. Sledge dogs are pack animals, and by Greenland law must be chained when they are six months old and become large and potentially dangerous.

All over the settlement the teams are chained up, each dog picketed well out of reach of the next, and sometimes they set up a terrific howling. One dog will begin baying, the team joins in, and other teams pick it up and pass the sound around the village until it dies away as it began. It is a wild and stirring sound, and makes one think of wolves, especially at night.

In summer the dogs seem to be fed about every three days: with the lack of exercise they would otherwise get fat and out of condition, and we watched one large team being fed by the owner who arrived with a wheelbarrow containing a whole skinned seal carcass. At the end of their chains the dogs tugged frantically as the man slashed the carcass open and proceeded to carve it into chunks with a knife that he sharpened on a steel every few cuts. Each dog got several lumps - though to my untutored eye some seemed to get more than others - while a group of small children watched the proceedings to see how these things are managed.

Quiet at last, the dogs wolfed the meat down in the patches of muddy grass they inhabit in summertime, and where they look rather forlorn and eager to be released. All over the village sledges are waiting too, parked on rocks or bits of open ground like boats stranded by the tide, idle until the return of the snow and cold of winter and they and the dogs are summoned back into use. What could this place be like in winter? We decided that we would have to return to find out.

Greenland huskies are harnessed fan-wise to the sledge, each animal on a separate trace rather than being attached to a single gang-line; there are no trees in Greenland to drive them between, so they can spread out. In this formation they tend to get their traces tangled, but the pulling-power of a dog team is awesome, as is their eagerness to run. One of the ways the Inuit drivers restrain this enthusiasm is to hobble their dogs by tucking one of each animal's forelegs up into the harness, though even then they can make good speed, as if in some bizarre three-legged race.

Teams vary a lot in size. The biggest we saw had fourteen animals, the smallest half a dozen plus a few pups. Most seemed to have either nine or eleven, the drivers preferring to keep their teams to one of the two main colours, sandy or black and white. Young dogs, almost fully grown pups, are trained by being taken out to run with the sledge, but not harnessed to it. But they have to learn to work quickly - the drivers tend to be accurate with their whips, and this is no environment for an animal that does not earn its keep.

For some reason, I had always imagined that dog sledges ran on the level - on sea-ice, I suppose. It had never occurred to me that they are in reality a form of all-terrain transport. A team will pull its load up seriously steep hills and over mountain passes, as we were about to find out on a journey to Ikateq, a tiny settlement west of Ammassalik on the great Sermilik fijord. We had visited Ikateq the previous summer, making the journey in a fishing boat through the pack-ice round the coast, and were keen to make the overland journey in winter. So there we were one morning, meeting our guide and sledge drivers on the sea-ice by the harbour wall, eager to go.

At first sight sledges all look pretty much alike, though in reality they vary a lot in subtle ways, in the curve of the runners or the shape of the hand-grips and bracing pieces. The makers have been quick to adapt new materials to the traditional designs, for example by giving the runners a substantial nylon strip that can be quickly smoothed with a small block-plane during a halt. The lashings that give the sledge its flexibility as well as strength looked to be heavy-duty nylon fishing line. The dog leads too are polypropylene, though the drivers' whips remain the traditional braided leather.

The route initially led across the sea-ice that filled the long tongue of King Oscar's Bay on which Ammassalik stands, a metre and a half thick and covered with an even crust of snow. There was nobody in sight except one or two distant figures standing motionless at fishing-holes in the ice as the dogs teams, strung out in a loose line, surged eagerly towards the mountains on the far side. As we reached the shore-line the ground began to rise and we gained height quickly, and the settlement was lost from sight. We began to climb into hills, the huskies digging in their paws and leaning into their harness, whips cracking, drivers shouting and pushing. At one point the ascent was so steep that I got off the sledge and tried to run beside it. This was a mistake: you can't keep up with a dog-team on foot, especially uphill and in deep snow.

Then, of course, you have to come down the other side, which varies between the exciting and the terrifying. Sledges do have simple brakes, consisting of a metal plate with teeth on its bottom edge, rather like a giant comb, which is held to the frame with bungees and is applied by simply standing on it. But this is not adequate when the descent is going to be especially steep. Then the drivers stop and wrap ropes, or in some cases chains, around the runners. These have the effect of lifting the runners slightly off the surface, and by spoiling their efficiency decrease their speed. But brakes, ropes and chains notwithstanding, you go down a steep hill like a rocket, the dogs running flat out to keep ahead of the sledge which threatens - and sometimes does - overtake them, occasionally trapping an unfortunate animal, while you hold on literally as hard as you can, trying to compensate for the turns and the camber. If you did come off, you'd be on your own.

We travelled also on the smooth surface of a frozen river, winding between the mountains, with silent valleys opening invitingly on either side, full of snow on which nobody had ever walked, making rapid progress. Here you can watch the team in front, or the one behind, all spread out in a fan, running smoothly. Sometimes other sledges come abreast, and there are huskies on either side, not fighting each other now but loping along. The only sounds are the padding of many paws and the dogs' steady breathing as they run with their immensely long pink tongues hanging out.

Then we stopped at the edge of what we at first thought was a cliff, 80 feet high perhaps, trying to imagine how we could get around such an obstacle. But snow and ice can disguise a landscape totally, and we were actually at the top of an enormous frozen waterfall, its base filled in with winter snow-drifts. Getting down it was simple: you just sat down on the lip and shot over on your backside. We wondered how the sledges were going to manage, but that was obvious too, though amazing to watch. Dog teams, sledges and drivers just ran over the edge and appeared to fall in perfectly good order to the bottom, ready to proceed.

Ikateq had seemed an impossibly lonely place when we had approached it by boat the previous year, just half a dozen or so houses clustered on a rocky promontory surrounded even in summer by almost impassable pack-ice. If possible it seemed remoter still coming overland. That summer there had been five inhabitants left, though we saw only one, with a few dogs and sledges and a boat. Now we saw nobody.

One building, larger than the others, housed the church at one end and the school-room at the other. The little church, all blue and white, was beginning to show signs of decay; there is no congregation and no priest to serve it any longer. The tiny school was more poignant still. There were three or four tables for the pupils and one for the teacher, still with the pencil-sharpener in place. On the walls a blackboard, a map of Greenland, a chart showing the whales of the world and another of birds. Some very old prints depicted biblical scenes, and we wondered what Inuit children would have made of people in Arab dress, with donkeys and palm trees. Exercise books were scattered about and it felt as if the children were away on holiday and would be back any minute. But there are no children in Ikateq any more, so we closed the door and came away.

While the dogs rested, we climbed to the highest point in the settlement to look out over the Sermilik fjord. It was a scene of such vast and wild grandeur that it gave me at least the feeling of having landed on another planet. The sea, apparently frozen solid, stretched far away towards distant mountains, icebergs of all shapes and sizes trapped within it. There was no wind, no birds, no movement of any kind; a moment of trance-like silence, broken only by a chunk of ice suddenly bobbing up along the tide-crack. Time to go, and a frozen waterfall to climb before supper.


© David Clammer 2003. David taught history for over thirty years and is now a researcher and writer. He also lectures to cruise ship passengers on British and Antarctic history. David's polar experience includes two visits to South Georgia, one to Svalbard and two to Greenland.



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