Arctic Maps

I look out of my window and can see the dogs on the ice, chained to a central iron post. It looks decidedly barbaric. I subsequently learn that this is the usual practice. Huskies are tethered every night to a post, with metal chains to prevent them chewing through the leather or sisal ropes and for whatever reason they always continue to howl all night long. The barking and howling intensifies in extreme cold conditions and can carry up to 20 km. Possibly this is why the Inuit villages are always more than that distance away from each other. Presumably the villagers become immune to the hideous noise but we are only here for a few days and the racket is definitely not sleep-inducing. The dogs are fed by being tossed chunks of raw seal meat and this together with the natural dog waste creates a stench around the area which also drifts in all directions. The actuality is certainly not the romantic image that most of us will remember from the early films of the Arctic and the Antarctic, when we would see teams of huskies racing across the snowy wastes with the sledge leaders calling out, ‘Mush, mush,’ to encourage them to run faster.

Arctic Maps Photo Gallery

The greatest and toughest husky race in the world takes place every year out of Anchorage in Alaska. It’s called the Iditerod and was started in 1975 to commemorate the sled mercy dash of 1925. Apparently a doctor was desperate for serum to counter an outbreak of diphtheria that threatened to wipe out the town of Nome on the Bering Straits. Teams of huskies brought the serum there in 100 km relays. There is a statue of one of the lead dogs, Balto, in New York’s Central Park.

The race is a solitary endurance test over a distance of more than 1,700 km. Each husky team of sixteen dogs will pull a load of around 180 kg and a contestant must finish with at least five dogs remaining. Those huskies that become too tired are left at stations along the way and contestants are forbidden to maltreat any. Two important commands are ‘gee’ meaning right and ‘haw’ meaning left. Hopefully a contestant, as well as the husky, will know his right from his left, otherwise they might end up going around in arctic circles!

Also out on the ice are a number of children playing. Inuit children are allowed to do primarily whatever they want and many therefore stay out very late to play and explore. The Inuit believe that people’s spirits live on after death and transfer into their children. At birth, a child often is given the names of those that have passed on, a respected grandfather, a loved grandmother. They are then considered to have the souls of their grandparents and ancestors, so must be treated with absolute reverence. They are not punished for anything they might do, even if they disobey an instruction or request. As can be imagined this obviously leads to all kinds of social difficulties. The children are often very noisy. I spend a very fretful night, what with the bright, intense light, the smells and the sounds of the dogs and the children as well as the anticipation of what tomorrow will bring. But that matters little, after all I am in the Arctic, living with the furthest northern human community that exists!

We all breakfast early and there we meet Looty Pijamini. He is of course an Inuk (the singular of Inuit) and has been working with Andy Goldsworthy over the last month, helping him build his initial Arctic sculptures. They are set around the point, about 8 km from here and we are very anxious to see them. Looty can only take us now as he will need to take off the next day, as it is his last chance to hunt for polar bear. He is to set off with a tourist hunter who has purchased Looty’s permit to hunt one polar bear each season. All the Inuit have this right. It seems that Looty has not shot a bear for eight years as he sells off his right each year to bring in additional income to his family. Looty’s huskies died last year from flu so he is trying to build up a new team and has five puppies to train.

On one side wall there is a large poster of a polar bear rearing on its two hind paws, probably in the attack position. A beautiful and magnificent animal and rightfully the symbol of the Arctic all over the world. There are some interesting, bare facts listed on the poster, but I need to learn much more about this incredible creature.

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