Journeying back to Qeqertat - stepping up a gear

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Siorapaluk

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It takes teamwork. I have to say, when the switch was made from human-powered travel on Dark Ice to instead learning the art of driving dogs from the best in the business, I was into unfamiliar territory. Having driven other people's dogs only a handful of times, the four of us would need to improve fast and be able to, after barely four months, emulate at least some of the simply staggering ability hunters have here to control and motivate their dogs. Sleds and dogs, five for a small 'racing car' sled and a dozen or more for a load-carrier, are the intercity trains here as well as the local runabout. The thing is, these particular engines have a mind of their own and make it well known!

When I say teamwork, I'm not talking about James, Anders and myself (Anastasia is temporarily back in London to comply with bureaucratic rules.....she's back here in a few weeks), not this time anyhow. Whilst the importance of the relationship between us, the drivers, and the dogs, the engineroom, is not surprising, it was proven to us over the last few days. These animals have the most extraordinary range of personalities – from the irrepressible unguided missile that is Jack, to the rumble of thunder Thor, to Phoenix who is a bit of a wimp and to O.J. who is a certifiable pain in the... The trick is to foster confidence in the dogs and earn their trust, whilst being strict when breaking up squabbles and making it clear who is boss. Some hunters are tough on their dogs and others employ a different tactic. One friend of ours, who has taken to calling me kammak (meaning friend, the comic subtlety of which I'll leave unwritten!) at every opportunity, Peter, is a descendent of the earliest Kap York ancestors of the latest migration of Inuit from the west hundreds of years ago. Another local said of Peter, 'his dogs love him. They would do anything for him'. The end result of this is blindingly obvious – two of our dogs are from Peter and they are probably the friendliest, keenest and healthiest we have. We had found a path to follow.

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Our training has been ramping up over the past weeks and single day sessions with the sleds and two teams have been the starting point. Extended journeys are of course critical and our first foray began on Tuesday. Using the second of the teams, which we felt were the most ready, our target was this time not Qeqertat (check out the previous post for our man-haul journey there) but Siorapaluk. Around 50km as the crow flies and nearly 60km as the land forces the route to be, Siorapaluk is another small hunting outpost and is home to around sixty. It is two headlands to the north-west of Qaanaaq and across large tracts of sea ice.

We set off as the glow in the sky, growing everyday as we approach the spring at the end of next month, had started to show itself. Clattering around over the tide crack and initial broken ice offshore, we had the three of us, supplies for the journey and a few 'extras' to get the weight up – this was training after all. At around half a metric ton including us, it was the benchmark we needed to measure our progress at.

The route west took us between Herbert Island (island is amusingly for me at least, is pronounced 'errgh') and the snowy slopes of the mainland. Glacier tongues ran down valleys and we could for the first time see the area we would have trudged with 300kg loads a month previously had the ice hundreds of miles north been better. The first headland was, as we were told, quite spectacularly steep and before the sea ice had consolidated, the 'ice foot' around the corner would have been eye-watering with a ten foot drop into the water.

Residents of Siorapaluk and Qaanaaq had been heading back and forth since just before New Year, after the bad ice had frozen up, so sled tracks made the route-finding a non-issue. The first trick with a new dog team is to get them to move in the same direction as one another. The next is to get them to go in a particular direction using cues, either a track in the snow or a skier out ahead. The final one, a job we're still working on, is to use voice commands and a whip to make a crack either side of the team, directing them.

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The light began to fade as we rounded the final headland (one of the famous Greenlandic never-ending headlands) and we had been making only 5 or 6 km per hour so far. We were still a couple of hours from our destination at 8pm and we finally saw the few twinkling lights of the settlement beckoning us in. Despite no-one there knowing we were coming, kind locals flashed lights (as they did in Qeqertat) to guide us in.

The dogs were becoming tired and we were usually working with one to walk ahead, one issuing commands from the sled and one walking/pushing from behind the sled. It is certainly not a case of climbing on, getting comfortable and typing in your desired destination – which is to be honest something to be thankful for. Keeping warm is however the main challenge as opposed to keeping dry, as is the case when man-hauling.

Siorapaluk's tiny population came out at past 10pm to give us a warm welcome, offer us prime staking points for our dogs, coffee in their home and a disused house to sleep in. To my surprise, as we neared the shoreline and before I could make out any faces in the dark, the word, 'kammak!!' rang out across the ice. Peter was here, unbeknownst to us, visiting family.

Bright and early the next morning we set back out for home. The dogs seemed a little reluctant after their initial enthusiasm and we knew their fitness, as well as our own experience, needed to improve. It was training after all and nearly sixty kilometres lay ahead in temperatures in the mid-minus twenties. Peter was also headed home with a tiny sled and seven dogs. We soon decided to travel together, us lightening our sled as we rode one at a time with him and the other two driving/pushing our sled. Every few miles Peter would stop and wait, ever cheerful and dressed head to toe in seal skin and polar bear fur clothing. Our modern Pertex and wool fared no worse but it had to be said he had the 'look' pretty sorted!

The miles ticked by and before 7pm (notice the improvement?) two sleds, three visitors and one diminutive dog magician rolled into Qaanaaq, ready for food, but not before feeding our twenty dogs. Each of us were in awe of the calm, quiet skill Peter had. Barely ever shouting, as we were having to do, he melodically spoke to his dogs, using the whip to get their attention only once in a while. The final hours saw Peter and I chuckling away at his jokes, him puffing away on a cigarette and me catching glimpses of the northern lights to the south.

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Fishing and the good people of Qaanaaq

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A blog post by Anders.

The people that live in this remote place of the earth are a very special kind of people. I don't think I have ever been in a community that is so relaxed and unstressed. If the one flight of the week is delayed or cancelled no-one seems to be too emotional about it, because that is life up here.

The local heroes, for both the other Thule Greenlanders and temporary residents like us, are the hunters. I would agree on that they are quite remarkable, never covering their faces even in strong winds at -30 degrees, and you don't want to play the 'strong man game' (from New Years) with them - they are strong and they will win!

Most of the locals in Qaanaaq are descendants of the Inughuit (the 'Polar Eskimos' or 'Arctic Highlanders') that went with the first polar pioneers, like Robert Peary and Knud Rasmussen, when they went around the Arctic exploring new land and culture. With only a few hundred Inughuit living today, they have their history and legacy in their blood and they are proud of it.

One of the problems up here now is that a lot of the teenagers are not interested in going hunting; they are more into what modern society have to offer. Those who do want to take up hunting don't know how to get started. Normally it would be the father that taught it to his son but some families don't hunt any more so the son doesn't have anyone to learn the skills from. We have been told that many young people up here are too shy to ask the older hunters for advice and teaching. It's a problem that we feel could be so easily solved but yet threatens the future of one of the last great subsistence hunting outposts in the world.

One of the things we have learned living up here is that the hunters really want to help. They come to find us either out on the ice or in our little home with advice on how to do all sorts of things. But they all seem to do various tasks, like dog harness stitching and sled design differently from each other and believe that their way is the only way. We have to listen to what they say and then do whatever we find best and most logical for us.

The last few days have seen long sessions on the ice with our two dog teams, alternating day to day in anticipation of an extended journey next week. We have also been out fishing with a hunter friend, Mikael, to see how we can source our own dog food more cheaply! Seal meat is pricey, let alone bags of dry kibble.

Cold, slow and sleepy!

The mass-training of twenty dogs day in, day out could run a little thin and so I thought I'd chat about some of the other aspects of life here in the land of the midday darkness. And then I'll probably talk about dogs again – they're fairly important.

We've had a load of great questions on Twitter, by email and on our blog and I've tried to answer them as we go along, but I thought I'd pick up on a few. Firstly, the temperatures here. Winter in this remote part of the High Arctic clearly involves a serious lack of light, with 17th Feb being the date we expect to see the sun again. For the currently shelved Dark Ice Project (see previous posts for more details), the added latitude meant we were to be chasing a sunrise later, around 19th March.

During the polar darkness (and polar twilight for the final few weeks of winter) the temperatures and weather are remarkably stable and 'mild'. For this northern region of land on Earth, winds are usually sub-10mph and temperatures fluctuate between -30deg and -15deg C. In the spring of late February and March, we expect for it to chill down below -30deg and even below -40deg. Forget stories about arm-joints seizing up or urine freezing mid-flow, but chocolate does end up like wood at these temperatures! We keep warm by keeping moving, protecting our faces and hands with the best clothing from Montane, Bridgedale and more – much of it designed to not be waterproof but super-breathable to let our moisture escape. Compare this to the Antarctic summer currently drawing to a close (with the warmth of 24hr sunlight) where expeditions have been reporting around 0 to -10deg at sea level and -25 to -30deg C on the high plateau.

I've been asked about sleep and our mental reactions to the endless darkness and lack of indication for the beginning or end of the day. We have all found things different but personally, I've found that my sense of the daily cycle is, unsurprisingly, a bit wonky. We have been going to bed mostly based on our working day and whether we're on the ice or settlement-based, but it can vary from 9pm to 2am. We are certainly following in the local custom of needing more sleep than normal. I usually need seven hours per night to fully recharge my batteries and recently this has been more like nine or even ten hours. I'm finding though that I'm very energetic long into the evenings and have to remind myself to sleep. The knock-on effect is that I'm finding the mornings a lot trickier!

We're having big discussions about potential speeds that we can travel at this season on the sea ice and later, on the icecap. We're not going to be telling you our plans for a while yet – a little mystery is good for the soul – but it's all about weight vs. speed, as ever. Some local hunters have managed 100km in a day with their teams, six days a week or 63km in about five hours (against our twenty hour 'on-foot' effort). Our upcoming training journeys will tell us more but we have to look to a sustainable slog instead of a lightning sprint (hint hint).

A little news on the dogs. They're in two teams; one team can go in a straight line on their own and the other can't – room for improvement. We're considering a move from seal meat to arctic halibut for them and Lyka has confounded all our harness/collar anti-chewing devices and so is on a chain...

The team-lists are:

1.

Dave

Thor

Odin

BS

Dog with no name

Enrique (potential lead dog)

Garfunkel

OJ

Little Black Dog (LBD)

Lyka

2.

Scar

Batman

Jason (Statham) and Leon (the Hitmen)

Pinky

The Brain

Phoenix

Comedy Dad (potential lead dog)

Jack (Comedy Son)

Houdini