Our 65 pure-bred Canadian Eskimo dogs are the centerpiece (and key staff members!) of Wintergreen Dogsled Vacations.
This breed, the original sled dog of the high Arctic (and now commonly referred to as the more politically correct name: Canadian Inuit Dog), is considered to be the "Sherman Tank" of the mushing world. The breed evolved with the Arctic cultures which employed them as draft animals. These dogs absolutely live to pull. In fact, the pulling instinct is so strong that they need little training. We first harness our young dogs at about 8 months of age, team them up alongside a seasoned veteran for training, and within minutes they dig their feet in and their line goes taught as that intense pulling instinct clicks on like a light. They're pulling career extends 10-12 years and then they retire to a condominium cooperative near Naples, FL (just kidding! actually, they get the run of the place at Wintergreen).
The Rich History of the Wintergreen Dogs
Canadian Inuit dogs were the mainstay of arctic transport for thousands of years. But when the snowmobiling frenzy swept the arctic in the late '60s, the dogs fell into disuse and the breed all but disappeared. Now, however, the breed is making a comeback in Greenland and the eastern arctic as villagers have taken a renewed interest in this central element of their cultural heritage. Because of their strength and ability to thrive in extreme conditions, Canadian Inuit dogs were selected to power the first expeditions to reach the North Pole (Robert Peary 1909) and the South Pole (Roald Amundson 1911). In fact, they have been employed on virtually all non-mechanized polar expeditions since, including the 6 North Pole expeditions that Wintergreen has been involved with.
Wintergreen's breed stock were secured from four main sources. We purchased our first team of Inuit dogs from an Inuit hunter on the island of Igloolik (near the mouth of Hudson Bay). Then, in 1992, we were selected by the Australian government as their kennel of choice to provide a new home for the last team of working dogs still in use at an Antarctic research station. Those dogs, which originated from Inuit dogs brought to Antarctica over 50 years ago, have fit in fine with our kennel. The transition was the subject of an award-winning National Geographic film called "The Last Husky." In 1993, we received a team of Inuit dogs from a family in Baffin Island. More recently, we've brought many Inuit dogs back with us from our trips with the Polar Eskimos of northern Greenland.
The Working Sled Dogs of Winter
Canadian Inuit Dogs are one of four main working breeds of the far north, which also includes the Siberian Husky, the Malamute and the Samoyed. The Siberian Husky and their mixed breed cousins (commonly called Alaskan Huskies) are the fastest and thus are the breed of choice for racers, though they range only 40-60 pounds in size. The Samoyed breed was developed as a sled dog by the Samoyed people of the Russian arctic. But during the last century, European and American dog lovers were more attracted by the breed's beautiful white coat and today Samoyeds are commonly found in the pet show circuit than in harness.
Malamutes are the largest of the pulling dogs and typically weigh more than 100 pounds. They were developed by the Malamute people of western Alaska (a culture that no longer exists) and became famous for pulling the '49ers and their supplies over the Dawson Trail during the Alaskan Gold Rush. They remain popular today as family pets and pulling dogs. But because their sheer size makes them unwieldy for novice mushers to handle, they are rarely used for recreational dogsled programs.
Averaging 75 pounds, the Canadian Eskimo Dog falls between the Malamute and Husky in size. That means they've got the beef and build for back country travel but can still be comfortably handled by most beginners. Most of them are extremely personable. Like their cousins the arctic wolves, they have extremely strong pack instincts. The pack hierarchy is always changing. Therefore some of them will not run together without sparring over dominance. Reading these changes in the pack hierarchy and pairing the dogs up appropriately is part of the challenge and mystery of working with these amazing animals. For more breed information, you'll find on Amazon "The Inuit Dog of the North Pole," written by breed expert Genevieve Montcombroux with forward by Wintergreen director Paul Schurke. Wintergreen's dogs are prominently featured in the Discovery Channel documentary on the Inuit dog, "Dogs of the Midnight Sun."
Our Dogs: Olympic Athletes with lots of Personality
At Wintergreen our 65 Canadian Inuit Dogs comprise the largest kennel of this breed in the U.S. People often ask, "How do you tell of your dogs apart?" That's easy because each dog has such a distinct personality. Our guests are always surprised how distinct and unique each dog is. As we say here at Wintergreen, working with a team of 6 dogs is like working with a team of 6 people. Each has his/her own needs and abilities. They'll work together and get the job done but maximizing their performance regards good leadership. That's what mushing is all about. You basically become the coach of a team of Olympic-caliber athletes.
And they truly are athletes. An Inuit dog will pull at least twice its weight in payload at a pace of 4-6 mph for hours at a time. Their thick double coats and tough demeanor allow them to thrive in extreme conditions. In fact, the colder it is the harder they pull. They're accustomed to eating snow for moisture and, when night comes, they curl into a ball, wrap their tails over their noses, settle into the snow and sleep soundly. Come daybreak, they all pop up with the slightest hint around camp that sleds are being loaded and anxiously paw the air seeking to be the first to be harnessed. Wintergreen guests are continuously amazed at how hard these dogs work and how much they love it.
And dogs that love to pull are lucky to be at Wintergreen because they enjoy a very long pulling season. We begin cart training in October when the weather cools. By late November we've got sufficient ice and snow to switch to sleds. And then they're in use at least five days a weeks during our program season in the Ely area from December through March. Come April and May, many of the dogs are used for our expeditions to Hudson Bay and other far north destinations. That means many Wintergreen dogs may only have to endure 4 months (June-September) of downtime.
Care & Feeding of the Wintergreen Dogs
During the pulling season, our kennel menu includes a stew made from a mixture of fat, meat and a special high-protein dry dogfood specially formulated for working dogs.. The Inuit breed is so tough and durable that they almost never experience ailments of any kind. Even foot problems are very rare. And since one of Wintergreen's guides happens to be a veterinarian, any concerns that do come up are immediately looked after.
The Wintergreen kennel facility is unique in many ways. To assist with socialization during the off-season, many of our dogs are rotated into large open pens where they can romp freely with their colleagues. Inside the enclosures, each dog has its own house and feed/water bowls. As a courtesy to other residents on our lake, the exposed sides of our kennel have 8-10 foot wooden sound-abatement walls. Our industrial sprinkler system and shade pallets erected alongside each house protect them against sun and heat.
We are not in the business of selling dogs. We breed our own dogs but plan litters only for our own use. We never cull (put to sleep) dogs because they are not needed or because their performance is not adequate. Wintergreen subscribes to the dog care principles of the organization called PRIDE (Providing Responsible Information on Dogs' Environment). Wintergreen is the only lodge designed for and devoted exclusively to recreational dogsledding. Our fleet of sleds includes 3 sizes. On lodge-based trips, we use our "solo" sleds driven by one person with a 2 or 3-dog team, and our "duo" sleds with extra-wide platforms on the back that allow 2 persons to stand comfortably side-by-side and drive the sled together with a 4-6 dog team. On camping trips we use our "freighters," which are driven by 2 people with a 6 to 8 dog team.