Sled Dogs: Stalwarts at the Poles

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Few would disagree with the time-honored concept that form follows function, although we don’t often test its validity by entrusting our lives to dogs. Tests of this kind were business as usual for centuries of Arctic dwellers. Over thousands of years the human/canine partnership was honed to perfection. Europeans had an equally long and close relationship with dogs, but nothing prepared them for the North American Arctic or the idea that dogs would be essential to survival.

For more than 400 years Europeans searched for a direct route through North America to Asia, the Northwest Passage. They eventually realized that an extreme northern route was the only possibility, and that route included seas that were frozen many months of the year. In some parts of North America, it would be fair to say that the Ice Age never ended. British explorer Thomas James noted that the cold “would be sometimes so extreme that it was not endurable; no clothes were proof against it; no motion could resist it. It would, moreover, so freeze the hair on our eyelids that we could not see; and I verily believe that it would have stifled a man in a very few hours.”

Despite this explorers regularly encountered people living in the Arctic. Their daily routines, based on centuries of learned survival skills, were eminently practical. However, deeply ingrained cultural prejudices prevented explorers from utilizing methods that these natives used and that could make the difference between life and death. Many were dismissed as primitive methods of backward cultures, including the use of sled dogs.

The first information about dog sled travel came as early as the 16th century from Martin Frobisher’s quest for the Northwest Passage. “He left England on the 11th of July, 1576. On they went, ill-supplied, ill-fitted to encounter the dangers of Arctic navigation if compared with exploring vessels nowadays, and utterly ignorant of the way.” (Harper’s, “Arctic Explorations”) Frobisher’s journals described dogs “that resembled wolves, yoked like oxen to a sled, more to be wondered at for their strangeness, than for any other commodities needful for our use.” But his patronizing attitude didn’t dampen his curiosity. His crew acquired dogs, a sled, and finally an Inuit hostage to teach them dog sled driving. To their amazement the Inuit selected one of the newly acquired dogs, harnessed it to the sled and had it responding to his commands in no time. “Taking in his hand one of those country bridles, he caught one of our dogges, and hampered him as we doe our horses, and with a whip in his hand, he taught the dogge to drawe a sled as we doe horses a coach, setting himself thereupon like a guide.” (Voyage Touching on the Discoverie of America)

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