Wednesday, 18 June 2008

The Husky — Hero of the Arctic

The Husky Hero of the Arctic

Laurie York Erskine

Author of "Renfrew of the Mounted"

Condensed from National Home Monthly (January, '50). copyright 1949 by Home Pub. Co., Ltd., 25 Richmond St., W., Toronto 1, Canada Digital format by Doug Frizzle, June 2008.

His boundless vitality and unstinted devotion make habitation possible in the Far North

The Eskimo sled-dog, commonly called the Husky, is one of the hardiest animals on earth, yet no other breed of dog has perished in such great numbers in the service of mankind.

Until recent years the Husky provided the only means of overland transportation throughout the two million square miles of North America that stretch from the 60th parallel to within 500 miles of the North Pole; and in the largest part of that area he is still man's sole means of locomotion. Without the Husky, explorers, pioneer traders, prospectors and engineers could never have developed the rich fur and mineral resources of the North. Today doctors, missionaries and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police still depend almost entirely on dog-team transportation.

Among the first necessities flown in to the chain of weather stations now being jointly maintained by the United States and Canada in the Arctic were teams of sled-dogs, so that the weather crews can hunt fresh meat and reach help if they need it. This dog is called a Husky not because of unusual strength but because early traders coined the name as a short form of the word Eskimo. Today it is loosely applied to any kind of dog that draws a sled, but it rightly belongs to only three breeds: the Malemute of western Alaska; the Siberian Husky, which was brought to this continent by the Russians when they occupied Alaska; and the pure strain of the original breed which lives in northern Canada.

A typical Husky of this original breed stands about 25 inches high and is about 44 inches long from the tip of his nose to the base of his bushy tail, which curls proudly over his back. His weight ranges from 60 to 100 pounds. The female is slightly smaller and lighter, but both are built for hard pulling, with deep wide chests, thick muscular necks and iron-hard legs. Their toughly padded feet can take punishment on jagged rock and broken ice that would split the hoofs of a horse.

The Husky's coat is a dense growth of coarse hair four to six inches long. Under it is another coat of oily wool two or three inches thick. This double covering enables the Husky to endure great cold, even 50 degrees below zero, without the need of shelter.

The true Husky never barks, but gives an eerie, long-drawn howl which, combined with his shaggy coat, sharp face and slanting black eyes, makes people think he is a domesticated wolf or a half-breed "wolf-dog." Actually, although the wolf and the Husky spring from the same family tree, they branched off in different directions thousands of years ago. Today the wolf is the Husky's bitter enemy. So great is this aversion that, even when starving, the dog won't eat wolf flesh.

However, Huskies will mate with wolves. Sometimes a wolf bitch will lure a male dog to break away and follow her; but she always leads him back to the wolf pack, which promptly kills him. The female Husky is more fortunate. If male wolves court her, they invariably let her return to camp unharmed.

A Husky may come into the world at any time of the year as one of a litter of from six to eight pups. In winter the mother pulls her weight in the traces up to the day her puppies are born, and from her warm body they emerge into a temperature that hovers between 20 and 60 degrees below zero. As a rule the Eskimo will build the mother a snow kennel in which she can nurse her brood. If she must nest in the snow only a few of her litter survive.

Most Huskies pull a great deal more than their own weight. Loaded for the start of a trip, the average Eskimo sled weighs about 1100 pounds, and is usually drawn by a team of from 12 to 15 dogs. As long as he can move from one good hunting ground to another the nomadic Eskimo lives well. If he cannot move, he perishes, so his life depends on the faithfulness and efficiency of his dogs. He will seldom part with them at any price, and will frequently risk his life for them. Many an Eskimo has died trying to free his dogs when thin ice has broken under a heavy sled.

The Eskimo trains the pups by putting them, one or two at a time, into a team of veterans. The rookie pup will be about eight months old, and he finds that the seasoned old-timers are tough teachers. For years they have toiled together as a team, but all will fight like a flash for a lion's share of the food, and they carry on an unending competition for the favors of the females.

This hard-bitten crew is harnessed to the sled in what is known as the "fan hitch." From the front of the sled runs a stout walrus- or seal-hide pull-rope about six feet long. Each dog is hitched to this separately by a rawhide tug line about 12 feet long. Thus, when the team starts pulling, the dogs at the ends of their tug lines are abreast of each other in a fanwise formation. Compared with the single tandem hitch, which we generally see in pictures, this seems clumsy, but it has sound practical advantages. For one thing, it is the only method by which more than eight animals can be handily controlled.

The young Husky will probably first find himself hitched beside a cantankerous veteran. This is the "boss dog." He can lick any other member of the team and is always ready to prove it. His job is to see that every Husky pulls its full weight and obeys the driver's commands, and he runs tirelessly back and forth behind the formation, bounding over the tug lines and unmercifully nipping shirkers.

The lead dog, chosen for character and intelligence, works with a quiet determination that holds the rest of the team together. Some of the best lead dogs are bitches, for the female often shows a keener intelligence than the male and gets better support from the boss dog. A good leader reacts to its master's voice with almost human understanding and will frequently make wise decisions of its own. It will often feel out thin ice before its master does and veer the team away from danger. Sometimes it can lead the team back to base when the driver has completely lost his bearings.

Food is the dogs' greatest incentive because it is always scarce. The dog needs rich fats, muscle-building meat and loads of vitamins, all of which are concentrated in the flesh of the Arctic seal — the Eskimo's staff of life. A tired team will often dash forward without any visible reason, only to bring up at a seal hole several miles away. A veteran Hudson Bay trader declares that once when, all out of food, he was following the coast line in search of fresh meat his dogs veered inland against all he could do to control them and led him to a herd of caribou 12 miles away. This ability to discover food is probably due to a keen sense of smell, aided by the Arctic atmosphere, which will sometimes carry a scent for miles.

In the two months of Arctic summer, when the Eskimos turn their dogs loose to shift for themselves, the Huskies range along the shore line eating shrimp, mussels, birds' eggs and dead things cast up by the tide, or they scatter inland and run down hares and lemmings. This scanty diet reduces them to such a state of starvation that they gladly come back to camp when the weather turns cold, knowing they can count on a feast of rich walrus meat.

Much of the Husky's reputation for ferocity is due to his generally famished condition. Well fed and well treated, he is affectionate and friendly. Goaded by hunger, however, Huskies put up a fearsome show of snarling and snapping at feeding time, and have a dangerous habit of hurling themselves upon any human being who stands between them and their food. This can be fatal, for a fur-clad human being flopping about on the snow can be easily mistaken for a seal by a famished and excited dog. If this draws blood the whole pack may set upon the victim. The wife of one of the Canadian Mounties was killed in this way.

The Husky more than makes up for his occasional lapses by extraordinary devotion and self-sacrifice. Under ordinary conditions he will cover 25 miles a day at the rate of six or seven miles an hour, and hardly feel it. When the sledding is really tough, he will outstrip almost anything that can be imagined in the way of endurance.

Sub-zero gales that lash the dogs with drifting sand and snow will sometimes freeze their faces so severely that the dogs have to be destroyed. When the thermometer falls under 50 below zero the lungs of a panting dog become frostbitten if he is driven too hard, causing hemorrhages that choke him. If the snow is slushy it packs between the dog's toes and forms hard balls of ice that cripple him. Thoughtful drivers make him boots of rawhide or canvas, but while these protect his feet, they hamper his footing, making the pulling much harder. In spite of such hardships, a team of 15 Huskies traveled 1300 miles in 85 days, bringing home a rescue party of the Mounted Police and hauling the last ten days of the journey without any food at all.

Realizing how greatly the development of the North depends upon this indomitable dog, the Canadian Government now sends animal pathologists into the Arctic to study the Huskies' needs and combat epidemics of rabies and distemper that used to kill them by hundreds. Closely cooperating with the Canadian Government's Northwest Territories Administration, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Hudson's Bay Company are teaching the Eskimos to feed their dogs a full ration all year round, to breed them for strength and intelligence, to have them inoculated against disease, and to isolate them when they fall sick.

In many settlements throughout the Arctic hundreds of white men and women are pioneering in a country which, 25 years ago, most people considered uninhabitable by any but Eskimos. Steadily they are turning it into a new stronghold of civilization. But the first credit for anything they achieve must go to the faithful Husky. By his boundless vitality and his unstinted devotion, it was he who first made it possible for white men to enter that land of long winters and hard sledding.

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As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.