Dog sledding has become a popular activity among tourists. As a result, you can go dog sledding just about anywhere that gets decent snow in the winter. In Canada, Banff in Alberta and Muskoka in Ontario are common choices. But would you have considered dog sledding in Iqaluit, Nunavut?
Dog sledding and its deep roots in the far north
The first evidence of dog sledding is from 2,000 years ago in Ust’-polui, located in the Siberia Arctic. Back then, a dog sled team typically only had two or three dogs. The dogs pulled gear and the people walked. Some 1,000 years ago, the Thule people made their way to North America from Siberia, bringing dogs with them. Thule are the predecessors to Inuit, and the dogs they brought are what we know today to be the Canadian Eskimo Dog and the Greenland Dog.
As people moved throughout the arctic, they adopted different styles of dog sledding. As a result, dog sledding in Alaska is much different than dog sledding in Nunavut or Greenland. Regardless of the exact location, sled dogs were critical to life in the far north. These dogs were used for transportation, hunting and protection.
So if you want to experience dog sledding, why not try it somewhere that has its roots in dog sledding?
Dog sledding in Iqaluit, Nunavut
During the four months I lived in Nunavut I never went dog sledding. Upon my return to the territory four years later, dog sledding was an activity high on my to do list. I booked a tour with the same outfitter that had taken me snowmobiling. The beginnings of both tours were the same: I was introduced to my guide, outfitted in warm clothing and given a waiver to sign. Instead of hopping on a snowmobile however, I was driven out to where the dogs live.
A quick note about sled dogs in the arctic
Before I continue, I want to quickly clear up a misconception that people in the south tend to have about sled dogs and, consequently, the disapproval they might have of dogs in the arctic or dog sledding in general. In the south, we tend to think of animals as either pets or wild beings. This isn’t the case in the north. Sled dogs were neither pets nor wild animals. They worked, just like people.
Sled dogs in Nunavut live outside year round. Some people are appalled to hear that these dogs are kept outside in -40 C and blowing snow, but remember that this is what northern dogs are accustomed to.. Their bodies are so insulated that the warmth of a house would literally kill them. They need to be kept outside.
Also, these dogs need to work. Northern dogs have so much energy that they need to be running just about everyday. And as surprising as it may be, these dogs need a purpose or a task to do (i.e. pulling a sled). Herd dogs are similar; something about them causes an instinctual need to work.
Finally, the northern sled dogs are well trained and well taken care of. There have been stories about dog sledding companies in Alberta and Ontario being abusive or negligent toward their dogs. This just isn’t the case in the north. There’s too much institutional knowledge and the communities are too small for this sort of behaviour to sustain itself. Or at least, that’s what I’ve been told.
Setting up the team
After we drove out to meet the dogs, the guides began preparing two qamutiq, traditional Inuit sleds pulled behind dog teams. On the ground they laid out the harnesses, each connected to the qamutiq with a different length of rope. Then I watched as they escorted the dogs, one at a time, to their respective harness. To my surprise, each dog seemed at ease in its harness. Many of them were jumping up and down, eager to get going.
While my guide set up the team, I hung around the puppies. Under eight months old, these dogs were too young to be on the harness yet. Most of their time was spent in a pen, playing or snuggling with each other. The whole situation was incredibly cute.
Heading out onto the frozen tundra
Once the team was ready, I got comfortable on the qamutiq, seated on top a soft caribou hide. I learned that it’s important to lay out the caribou hide such that the fur goes in the same direction if I was riding a caribou. This is out of respect for the animal and if we did it the wrong way, people out on the land would stop us and tell us to turn the fur around.
They guide called out “Allez” and the dogs began running together. They took off with such a sprint I almost fell over. After a few minutes, the dogs calmed down to a sustainable run. As they slowed, we made our way through the surrounding hills to arrive at Sylvia Grinnell Territorial Park.
I’m not sure what my expectations had been going into the dog sledding, but regardless I was surprised at how the situation before me unfolded.
The spectrum of canine personalities
First, the dogs ran fanned out rather than in pairs like I’d seen in the media. My guide informed me that this is because in the south and in the Nordic countries, the dogs must be able to manoeuvre through trees, something that is easier to do in narrow pairs. In the eastern Canadian arctic, where there are no trees at all, the dogs need not be confined to a specific orientation.
Second, with the freedom to move around among themselves, it was amazing to witness the different personalities unfold. The two youngest dogs were still learning to run with the pack. They got distracted by every single rock and each exposed blade of grass. And they would try, unsuccessfully, to get the other dogs to play with them mid run.
In fact, three of the dogs made a point of biting at the younger ones if they tried to play around. One of them, the largest dog with a beautiful ginger coat, had a bark so distinctively pissed off that I could almost here him snapping “f**k off” when a young pup came towards him.
My guide told me that dogs keep a very strict hierarchy among them. In a team of males, they fight one another to establish this hierarchy. The stronger the dog, the higher up he is in the hierarchy. The strongest male is the alpha.
Add a female into the mix, and she becomes the alpha. In the sled dog world, the alpha female trumps the alpha male.
Upon hearing this, I wasn’t surprised that the two leaders in my team were a mother-daughter duo. Together, they kept the team on track, navigating through the tundra and following the guide’s commands. Neither of them had any tension on their ropes, meaning they didn’t actually contribute to pulling the sled. The other dogs either didn’t notice or didn’t care.
Running with the sled dogs
We were out on the tundra for a little under three hours (there’s an option for a six hour tour, but believe me when I say three hours is sufficient). Around the halfway mark, the two teams met up and I drank coffee and ate snacks with the two guests on the other sled.
At this point the wind had really picked up and my feet were beginning to lose feeling. I spent part of the return journey standing at back of the qamutiq. My guide told me that if the dogs slowed down, I should hop off and run a few steps, holding onto the sled. This would bring circulation back into my feet.
Well, my feet were so numb by now that when I hopped off the sled my feet didn’t feel the ground. This caused my feet to stumble and thank goodness I had such a firm grip on the qamutiq handles because for two or three seconds I was dragged at a 45 degree angle behind the sled. After this quick moment of standard Mikaela clumsiness, my feet finally got the message and began running a little with the sled. For twenty minutes I alternated, hopping off the qamutiq to run with the sled and hopping back on the rest.
Though by no means ideal, the bursts of running made my feet infinitely warmer.
Standing at the back of the qamutiq, I looked out at the tundra around me. The tundra and its vast treeless-ness plays tricks on your eyes, so it’s difficult to understand just how expansive it is. Despite the months I’d spent hiking around this very tundra four years earlier, it left me just as wonder-struck.
How to go dog sledding in Iqaluit, Nunavut yourself
Getting There: You can reach Iqaluit from Ottawa, Montreal or Yellowknife. At the end of my post 5 Reasons to Visit Canada’s Most Underrated Territory (and how to do it affordably) I have some tips for getting inexpensive flights. Once you’re in Iqaluit, take a taxi to building 3310 (you don’t need street names in Iqaluit and a taxi anywhere in the town is $7).
Where to Stay: There are a few hotels in Iqaluit (The Frobisher Inn and the Discovery), however I’d recommend looking at Airbnb, which tends to be quite a bit cheaper. Either way, you’re looking at >$150 per night.
Dog Sledding: The company I went with (and am in no way related to or sponsored by) is Inukpak Outfitting. They are basically the only outfitter in Iqaluit, so if you want to go dog sledding, you’re going with them (which is great because they are wonderful). When I took the tour it was $440 for two people or $330 for one person. Don’t worry about having super warm clothing – they provide you with everything you could need to stay warm outside. (However, if you stop moving for too long, you too might get numb feet.)