Saturday, March 17, 2007

Ivakkak Race on the Move

After being hunkered down in Kangiqsujuaq for the better part of a week due to blizzard conditions, the remaining 15 dog teams in the Ivakkak race set out for Salluit yesterday. Rather than take the planned route on the highlands through the Raglan mine property where the winds were still howling, they let discretion be the wiser part of valour and followed the shoreline of the Hudson Strait on the sea ice. I give them another two days to reach here if the weather holds.

I have not done much dog sledding myself, but I had the occasion about twenty years ago to take a couple of trips with one of this year's contestants from Quaqtaq. Therefore I am no expert on the subject, but lack of first hand knowldege has never prevented me from spouting off before, so why should it now?

First off, let me distinguish dog sleds in the Eastern Arctic from those used in wooded areas further south and in the west. Inuit were a nomadic people, and used dog teams to move lock, stock and qullik from one place to another during the winter. It is important, therefore, to think of Eastern Arctic dog teams as a semi tractor-trailor rather than a sports car. The 8 to 15 dogs in an average team had to pull a weight of 100 kgs or more of cargo and sled, add to which a couple (at least) people sitting astraddle on the the family's possessions. For this reason the qamotiks (sleds) themselves are long (2.5 - 4 metres) and are ridden sitting down rather than standing up in the rear as conventionally scene in movies.

Secondly, there are no trees, which removes the necessity of arranging the dogs in a tamdem to prevent dogs getting snarled around the shrubbery. Instead, the dogs each have their own individual trace attached to a central rope fan-style near the sled itself. This provides for greater pulling efficiency in most situations, although it presents its own difficulties on sea ice with the pressure ridges or in areas with lots of boulders above the snow.

At the front of many sleds is a wood box lashed to the frame, with "handle bars" atop the box, which provides leverage when making adjustments to the course of the sled with one's feet. Other than that, the path taken by the sled is determined by the dogs. So how can you get the dogs to go where you want?

Trained sled dogs are often responsive to their owner's voice. A shout of "auk" (turn right) or "quraa" (turn left) may produce the anticipated result. Sometimes a whip was used, not to hit the animal but to flick it beside the recalcitrant dog to encourage it to change its path. Failing that, someone would dismount from the sled, up along side the dogs waving hands and yelling at the team to alter their course. A well-timed kamik aimed at a particularly balky husky's rear end also serves to "focus" the dog's attention during this.

Perhaps the only thing you have to know about huskies, Eskimo dogs, call them what you will, is that they love to pull things. What would be cruel and arduous in the extreme for any other breed of canine is entertainment and pleasure for these dogs. My own theory is that it has something to do with a "pack" mentality - all the dogs want to be part of the gang and none wants to be left behind.

Very similar to teenagers, I'd say. Except for the pulling part.

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Blogger The Phosgene Kid said...

Very interesting! I am used to seeing the inline racing kind of dogs in Alaska and even up North here in AZ, if you can believe it. I really enjoyed this article!

1:49 AM  
Blogger L said...

interesting photo of the dog covered in snow! wow.

4:56 PM  
Blogger The Phosgene Kid said...

The only race we have here is to the kitchen to see which husky gets to help me cook. It is more of a free range husky thing with no leads or rigs involved, though I do detect a rough fan shape...

11:46 PM  
Blogger Misty said...

I tried to set up a dog sled team with my two dogs and a toboggan many years ago.

It didn't work very well, as one of them just stood there wagging her tail at me, and the other ran off to fight another dog.

I was only nine at the time.

Love the piccy of the husky btw :) Gorgeous dogs!

11:52 AM  
Blogger DutchBitch said...

Wow! Sounds spectacular! I wish I could witness that sometime. I would suck as a sled driver though... I think...

9:12 AM  
Blogger The Phosgene Kid said...

Hmmm, nothing new, nanuk must be glued to the tv watching the race, or is it time for the Stanley Cup already???

8:28 PM  
Blogger nanuk said...

Phos: I am throwing down the gauntlet and challenging you to organize the New Mexico Dog Team Classic. Since you probably have the only huskies in the state, it shouldn't be too hard to fix the outcome.

l: even when it isn't snowing their faces are wreathed in rime frost from their exhalations.

Misty: believe it or not a lot of huskies do the same thing before heading out. Either that or decide to crap.

10:16 PM  

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