Husky adventuresMay 12, 2009
There are around 12 dogs that live here in NyAlesund. There is a long history of people bringing dogs to the poles with them, from the early polar explorers, to more recently Ranulf Fiennes who’s Jack Russell overwintered in Antarctica! Here in Ny Alesund though you are only allowed to keep Arctic breeds, like huskies. The main reason is that the dogs all live over at the dog yard, sleep in little kennels and have snow in their yards. So that is fine if you have nice thick fur to keep you warm, but the more delicate breeds would end up with very cold paws! They are not allowed to live indoors because everyone changes accommodation at times and huskies are a little stinky!
I always associate the arctic with huskies, partly because I have dogs of my own so notice them, and partly because they form a large part of the character and feel of the place. Early in the evening you can hear them howling- more like a pack of wolves than dogs! I have since found out they howl like this when some of the dogs go out with their owners- the ones left behind get jealous and howl! The dogs here at Ny Alesund are all pets of the permanent staff, and in the long light evenings you often see people out with the dogs being pulled along on skis or maybe even a small sledge!
So with this in mind I was quite excited when I found out that Elin, the manager of the marine laboratory, now has a dog at the yard, called Tinka. I asked if I could perhaps walk her and it turned out that Elin was away for the weekend and so I arranged to take Tinka out. I was warned that she was a little stubborn and sometimes didn’t like to go out beyond the village but I figured I could be fairly convincing!
The first thing that is different when walking a husky in the Arctic, is that you first have to make sure you have all of your polarbear protection equipment with you. . . so I went off and arrived at the dog yard adorned with a rifle, flaregun, radio and first aid kit, not exactly travelling light! Next I had to add a waist harness to which the lead and then dog are attached to me. Because the dogs are quite strong they could easily yank a lead out of your hand, and if you ski with them you need both your hands free for the poles.
I met Tinka, she was very nice, a little shy to start with, but when she saw her harness she gave a little bark of impatience as I stood there trying to work out which way round it went on! Helen and Bonnie joined me and we set off. We started with a trip round the village where I had a go being pulled along on a small sledge chair- this began successfully but kind of fell apart with a difference of opinion between Tinka and myself on the direction we should go- I thought the road track would be best but Tinker decided a sharp turn and into thicker snow would be better. I fell off. Okay, ski-chair abandoned we reached the corner of the village where we could go left to head out into the countryside towards the glacier, or right back to the dogyard and a bowl full of seal meat for dinner. After a brief exchange of words and battle of the wills Tinka decided maybe I was right and a walk would be nice so we headed off.
Once we were out past the edge of the village it became beautifully quiet and the landscape seemed to grow- the mountains looked bigger, the snow whiter,a nd the crunch of the ice beneath our feet sounded louder. On the way out we followed some snowmobile tracks. There was a mini panic at one point when our resident tracker (Helen) spotted some suspiciously large paw prints in the snow, but we concluded that it was from a dog a bit bigger than Tinka, phew! After about 4km we turned down towards the edge of the fjord. Typically they say to avoid the waters edge (polarbear risk) but as it is completely frozen it doesn’t really make any difference, but all the same we didn’t go right down to the edge! Once we moved away from the snowmobile tracks it was a lot harder to walk through the snow. Some parts were fine then you’d suddenly sink down to your knees in thick soft snow! I was able to use Tinka as my snow tester (unfortunatley I weigh a little more than her and she spreads her weight on 4 points not 2 so occasionally this plan failed) but Helen and Bonnie had no such help! Eventually we came across a reindeer track and followed this back to a scooter trail to make walking a little easier.
When we got back to the dog yard I think everyone (Tinka included) felt a lot better for a few hours escape from the village, staving off the cabin fever for a bit longer! My next challenge is to go skiiing with her! This should be interesting- I don’t yet know the Norwegian for left or right, but even if I do I have a feeling she may ignore me! I can’t ski either, but hey, how hard can it be?! Tinka also has now decided we are not so bad or scary and when I went to take her out around the village the next day she was alot more vocal when hurrying me up to sort the harness out.
In a place like Ny Alesund while our surroundings are fantastic, we spend a lot of time in the laboratory. It is great that the nights are light as we can then do things like this in our evenings. Not only is it a good chance to see more of the area, but you start to get a feel for what it actually feels like to live here. If I could bring my dogs with me I reckon I could live here for a few months ( average contracts for the permanent staff are 3 years!) but even with the huskies, I don’t think my dogs would forgive me for leaving them for that long!