Thursday, March 6, 2008

30 K Across the Bay

Stepping off of the airplane in Iqaluit reminded me of running head long into a brick wall. The cold wind was penetrating, and impenetrable. In the short walk from the plane to the building, the wind had pushed the cold through every layer I had on, and I felt like I was standing naked on some fictional icy planet. Iqaluit is not actually above the arctic circle, but sits just south of it on the map. The map lies. If you follow the tree line, the northern limit of where even large plant life can live, you will find that there is a sudden dip just around Iqaluit. Arctic storms that can be heard coming, howl across the ice, bringing temperatures that make your bones brittle. It’s a white dessert, with no open water, no trees, and scarce life to be found.

After meeting up with the team, I went back to the house where I’ll be staying for the next month, and was given my clothing that will be my only protection from the elements for the upcoming expedition to the even colder Ellesmere Island. The words of a good friend came to mind as I pulled on my bibs, and bent down to my knees to zip up my jacket. “Function over fashion,” Craig had said. I have no problem with that, as long as it keeps me warm!

Soon after, I was introduced to the dogs. They need no artificial warmth, or layers to keep them warm. Even the puppies can spend nights out, curled up on the ice. These dogs however are closer in relation to arctic wolves than they are to the handbag stuffing chihuahuas and the overbred lapdogs we find comfort in. It shows too. The elongated stride, the tooth scarred muzzles, and the cold, calculating, but intelligent stare of the dogs remind me of the feeling of looking into the eyes of a lion on the Serengetti.

The dogs you see in movies are malamutes, and siberian huskies, kitty-cats compared to the canadian eskimo dogs that are pulling us. Three of the dogs on our 9 dog team have drug their previous owners and 800 pounds of gear to the north pole twice. They are easy to make friends with though, and just like people, each dog has it’s own personality. The new dogs on the team are skittish, and afraid of people, just like a captured wolf would be. The veterans have the system so figured out that they could practically put their own harness on and will snap at other dogs for stepping out of line.
After a hard day of pulling you around, the dogs are tied up individually and fed, then after all the other work is done for the night, they look forward to a good petting that is the highlight of their day. Sarah, my teammate impressed the value of “saying goodnight” to your dogs early. A dog that is your friend is going to listen a lot better, and is going to enjoy pulling you around a lot more than one that resents you.

On my second day in Iqaluit, we load the sleds and harness the dogs for a 30 kilometer run out to a cabin that Sarah and Eric own across the bay. Sarah and Eric are the children of the famous arctic explorer Matty Mcnair-Landry. Matty is like one of the sled dogs, she pulls people up to the arctic. People with dreams of the North Pole invariably will come to Matty to lead them there. Sarah and I team up on a sled, and are yanked by the yelping dogs through a kilometer of broken up sea-ice before reaching the smooth ice beyond. I can’t say it was the easiest place to learn to ski. Dodging chunks of ice, wind hardened drifts of snow, and the sliding sled the whole time. Some of the new dogs didn’t always know how to pick their way through the ice while tied into the sled, and would try to go around the ice on the wrong side. As the sled went forward, the momentum and the 8 other dogs would suddenly yank the misguided dog backwards and the dog would get drug around the ice chunks and catapulted back toward the sled. Sarah has been doing this since she was two. She can remember being tied down to the sled and bundled up as her mom mushed the dogs across the ice. A life in the arctic running dogs makes for a strong person. I got to see Sarah lift an 80 pound dog (one of the small ones) as it got caught between two ice flows, and throw the dog over the ice, and over the sled, clearing some of the other dogs, probably saving it from being smashed to death between the flows by the frenzied other dogs.

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