thrity six paws
We rode for five days over an expanse of sea ice that stretched in all directions until it ran abruptly into rock and dirt. The horizon was scattered with the memory of winter, and pieces of purple and amber mountains peeked through the white snow. Two reindeer hides were placed atop our packed sled and nine determined barking dogs assembled into a team each morning as we ventured further. Thomas Martika Qujaukitsoq was born in Qaanaaq, and never having lived outside of his home town, spent his youth learning to hunt and fish throughout the surrounding terrain. His reindeer coat was hand stitched by his grandmother and his polar bear pants were made from fur that he had hunted. His kamiks, the traditional footwear worn by both men and women, were made from seal skin and lined with arctic fox fur. The top part of the boots had cuffs of polar bear fur much like the collar around his seal skin mittens. The three of us sat together on one sled and speaking different languages, we began to know Martika without the heaviness of conversational formalities. Seeing the world through two different histories created space for him and the Inuit hunting and dog sledding culture to shine without expectation or question. His raw hide whip made from seal skin guided us up fjords, along glacier heads and steadily across the flat vast sea ice.
Thirty six paws trotted to a rhythm set by Martika, and the days began and ended with a symphony of sounds as the sled cut gently through the icy snow. The crisp air and level ground elevated the mind to a colorful silence, but when the whip cracked and Martika shouted commands to steer the dogs from left to right, the resonance from the pops and cracks of the lonely looming icebergs stirred the senses. Dog sledding is the main source of mobility in many traditional villages in Greenland and the act of obtaining, training and having dogs is an art form and highly revered. Along with training the dogs to sled, the dogs are also a crucial element in hunting. Hunting for seal, reindeer, muskox, walrus and narwhal takes the hunters to places far from home for days at a time. The dogs use their innate canine abilities to smell and lead the hunter to food while also pulling the hunter, gear and eventually the kill to and from town. Traditional ways of life have kept this culture alive for hundreds of years, and though the modern influences are taking a strong hold upon the youth, we can only hope that the Inuit customs live on.