The alarm woke us at 7am. Our escalating training programme with our dog teams had now reached our first journey with both sleds in convoy – a big test! After an interrupted night, listening to OJ practice his singing outside our window, we were fed, watered, with bags and boxes strapped to sleds and dogs in their traces (hauling ropes) by 10.30am. With only three of us and two sleds to manoeuvre we played it safe and took it in turns to cross the tide crack. Once onto the flatter ice beyond, Alex and Anders took to their sledge and I pondered a first solo driving experience.
Dog sleds can be driven from a number of positions; from the front of the sled you can reach the dogs with the whip and give commands. If the dogs aren't responding to instructions and they're not running too quickly you can jump off and give them a visual and physical cue to turn left/right or stop. We have planks at the back to stand on and operate the yet-to-be-attached brake; it's best in the snow and there isn't a lot of that about at the moment (this extreme northern region is famous for its dry, cold lack of snow). The most control is attained by walking in front of the dogs and whipping from side-to-side. The dogs will follow you but won't risk pushing forward and coming into range of the whip. We use this technique to keep the speed down as we pass through the rough ice of the tide crack.
Anders walked his team carefully around a corner of pressure to the sled 'highway' beyond, which is created by daily sled traffic by local hunters. I waited until they'd pulled away a hundred metres or so then pointed my dogs after them and jumped aboard. Comedy Dad, my lead dog, managed ten metres in the right direction before u-turning and sprinting back along our tracks for a white-knuckle ride over the tide crack and into our usual parking spot. Not the best start. The dogs are always at their most boisterous first thing on a trip and with a more judicious approach to getting underway, and a helping hand from Alex, both sleds were soon making progress away from Qaanaaq.
We learn something new every time we take the dogs out and there was certainly a learning curve in those first couple of hours. Key lesson No. 1: maintaining a significant distance between the sledges is the most efficient way to travel. This way the second sledge can follow in tracks and the teams do not distract each other. When the teams do meet up they are always keen to socialise. As this inevitably leads to tangled traces and Thor being unnecessarily angry, it is generally something to avoid.
Once we'd rounded the Qaanaaq headland and settled on a system for keeping both sled going in the right direction, the miles started to tick by steadily. Alex and Anders soon found that Enrique stuck with more determination to tracks than previous lead dog Jack and so put him out on the longer trace. Even when going at a good speed, 7/8 km per hour, the coastlines to each side, beautiful company though they are bathed in polar winter twilight, can seem to pass by unnaturally slowly. We spent the full journey swapping leads across untracked ground away from the usual local route close to the coast, choosing to go south and far offshore instead. Comedy Dad has a tendency to pull right without direction or target so the driving actually eased as the twilight failed and the lights of the odd fisherman out on the ice and eventually Qeqertaq came into view. We pulled in to the now familiar shoreline just after midnight (we hauling our our sleds there last month in the dark). After a bit of faff with a new staking system and a good feed for the dogs we piled into our Inughuit friend Peter's (very cold) little cabin, for which we had been kindly lent a key, for a much needed dinner and rest.
Morning and a rest day, the dogs had hauled 320kg per sled over sixty kilometres, brought the usual and welcome company of curious locals. A gaggle of small children accompanied 16-year old Ada, who did a determined and much appreciated job getting the oil burner going in our little shelter. We were also shown the three seals which we had bartered from Peter in return for special rope and were intending to collect. Unfortunately, the same high tide which a week ago coated the beach in Qaanaaq with a frozen glass sheen had also submerged our intended dog food. Concerted hacking away at the -20C solid ice with a borrowed axe suggested half a dozen hours might be required at best. We decided to call it a day and make the best of the rest of the kibble we had brought along plus a section of a seal we'd manage to saw off.
Day 3 and the return journey of the same sixty-three kilometres proved to be a much more streamlined performance from us and the dogs. With tracks to follow for the full distance our pace was much improved and we managed to slash three hours off our time for the outward journey.
A late touch of excitement was felt as we passed through the collection of fishing outposts a couple of miles out from Qaanaaq. We had just lost the last of the twilight so the first notice we had was a sudden lurch off track as the dogs discovered a pile of discarded fish heads. No verbal command is much use when they can smell food! After order was restored, both sledges were cautiously walked through a few hundred metres of relative minefield with, thankfully, no further incident. None of us wanted to have to apologise to a hunter after our dogs had made short work of his day's catch.
All in all, a very successful journey! Lots learnt and a well earned two day rest (for the dogs anyway!) to follow. We've also moved the dogs down from their hill beneath our house to an ice screw and chain system on the flat ice just beyond the tide crack. This will save us a bumpy start to every trip, speeds up the prep required to get going and has the added bonus of our being able to see all our dogs out of the window of our little home.
P.S. The only other incident of note was Alex making a typically decisive resolution that he was now going to be a tea drinker. Some early demonstrations of rookie preparation ability have been overcome and tea time is now a part of the daily routine.