Working with 30 Dogs in Canada
It took me three days and three planes to get to Inuvik, a small town in Canada 120 miles north of the Arctic Circle. When I arrived I was struck by the horrible feeling that it might not have been worth it.
I arrived in July, a time when the sun never sleeps and the people rarely do either. I had come to work at a husky kennel and after only a week of sleepless nights, endless kennel cleaning, scores of mosquito bites, and a distinct lack of mushing, I began to feel very silly for going to the Arctic in summer.
However, once the storms stopped and the sun had dried out the ground a little, I finally got to take the dogs out. As the taiga was aglow with reindeer lichen instead of snow we didn’t mush them in front of sleds, but quad bikes. We harnessed a team of six to eight dogs in front of one bike and took them running over specially maintained paths, to sustain their fitness during the snowless summer months. Specially maintained paths are vital in the Arctic for mushing and walking as the taiga and tundra are not only very fragile, but very untamed and so traversing through the scrub and close-knit pines can be difficult.
Who let the dogs out?
Preparing the dogs to be harnessed into running teams was a nightmare as every dog had a very specific relationship with every other dog in the kennel. In some cases they could just about endure each other, which usually meant they would be team mates, but in most cases they absolutely despised each other, and had to be kept at a reasonable distance at all times. Unfortunately, every one of the thirty dogs in the kennel was white with blue eyes and so my inability to distinguish one dog from the other resulted in a lot of near-missed fights, a lot of miss-harnessed dogs, and a fair few tuts from the kennel mistress.
We drove the bikes rather than had the dogs pull them, though we were often reminded that they had the strength to when the breaks weren’t on. When I say we drove them, what I mean is that the kennel mistress and the owner drove them and I sat on the back gripping with terror to the roll bars as I endured the bumps of the uneven tundra.
On one of my early runs with the dogs I was sitting behind a more experienced volunteer who was driving the second quad bike. Suddenly both teams pulled to a halt amidst a cacophony of barks and bared teeth, but this wasn’t the usual dog-fight, an arctic fox had been disturbed from his hiding place in a bush, and the scent of him drove the dogs to distraction. Trying to break the dogs up when they were in this mood was terrifying, as there was a very real possibility of losing a few fingers.
Finally we placated one of the lead dogs who urged his team back into a run and the crisis was averted. The volunteer who was driving my bike turned around and shouted over the noise, "that was close, we thought they'd seen a grizzly!"
I feigned nonchalance and gripped a little harder to the roll bars. “Actually that reminds me, as you’re at the back it’s your job to be on bear patrol, keep your eyes peeled and if you see anything be sure to let everyone know so we can shoo him off,” she announced. I pretended the tears were just because the wind was in my face.
By the end of my stay I finally got to know all the dogs, not so much by their looks as their unique personalities. I realised that they knew what was going on a lot better than I did, so when it came to harnessing them I just followed their lead. Somehow they always knew which of them was supposed to be running and if I read their subtle hints they would tell me. They also knew exactly what position on the team they should take and would guide me to it. Their intelligence was frightening, and endearing.
I also learnt to relax and enjoy the quad-biking; the sight of eight, white tails bolt upright in unsuppressed joy, breaking the silent morning with a chorus of excited barks, spotting eagles (and luckily no grizzlies). I had even learnt to find a sort of bleak beauty in the Arctic summer, the colours of the changing tundra, the otherworldliness of the taiga, picking fresh berries or watching beavers build their dams, enjoying the first true sunset and the calming, Autumnal mists in August. These memories made the hard stuff worthwhile.
The pleasure was not the fantasy I created before I left home, but in the surprising joy I experienced amidst all the hard work. And the hard work and initial disillusionment was the payment I had to make for that joy, for being lucky enough to go to the Arctic, having campfires by lakes and picking berries from the tundra, and for making so many new friends, especially the furry ones.