Curled up in my arms, a husky puppy licks a snowflake off my cheek. My fellow travelers and I have just been whisked away on a thrilling excursion through the boreal forest by dog sled, and are now greeting the pack’s newest members. We are in the far North, a wintery realm where polar bears roam the tundra, snowy owls soar in the moonlight and Arctic foxes dart across the sparkling snow.
Travelers will be spellbound by their Arctic exploration of Churchill, a frontier town along Canada’s Hudson Bay, and one of the best places in the world to see the northern lights. Your enchanting journey to this land of ice and snow would not be complete without an authentic dog sled ride, led by a local Metis musher and his team of loyal companions.
For the Inuit, Dene and Metis peoples of northern Manitoba and Nunavut, dog sledding is a vital part of their heritage, which you’ll learn firsthand on an adventure to the Canadian North in search of the aurora borealis. Indigenous cultures in the Arctic have lived alongside northern sled dogs for thousands of years, and since 800 A.D., sled dogs have been used as a mode of travel. Dogs pulled qamutiik, traditional Inuit sleds, distances of 15 to 75 miles a day, depending on the number of dogs on a team, the load and weather conditions. In addition to transporting people and goods, sled dogs used their keen sense of smell to track down prey for hunting parties and retraced routes lost under heavy snows.
The build and lifestyle of northern sled dogs is distinct from other domestic dogs, as they are adapted to survive in harsh Arctic conditions. Their physical adaptations include metabolism regulation and fur between their toes to keep ice from clumping on their paws as they dash through the snow. Similar to many Arctic animals such as polar bears, seals and Arctic fox, they have two coats of fur, an outer coat of course guard hairs and a thick insulative undercoat. Behavior-wise, they are intensively pack-oriented and have a very strong sense of hierarchy, similar to their wolf cousins.
Canadian Inuit dogs (Canis familiaris borealis) were once thought by many, including Charles Darwin, to be tamed wolves or close relatives. This was due to their similar appearance and vocalizations, though genetic testing has since revealed they have no recent wolf ancestry. Through the centuries, Canadian Inuit dogs, called qimmiq in Inuktitut, were used by indigenous people, European traders and explorers on Arctic expeditions as a primary means of transportation.
However, this beautiful breed nearly faced extinction in the 1970s, after the Canadian government rounded up as many sled dogs as possible and euthanized them in an attempt to remove the semi-nomadic lifestyle of northern communities. Assimilation of Indigenous peoples was enforced via the banning of cultural practices, relocation of families to year-round settlements and displacement of children to residential schools. The loss of their sled dogs directly impacted the traditional way of life of Indigenous peoples, cutting them off from the Nuna, Inuktitut for “the land.” Many Inuit, confined to a sedentary lifestyle, were forced to abandon their winter homes, hunting grounds and ice fishing spots.
Only a few hundred sled dogs were left in the Arctic until a recovery program began to bring their numbers back up, and the federal government issued a formal apology for the killings in 2019. The Inuit governing body of Canada’s newest territory, Nunavut, adopted the qimmiq as their official animal symbol in 2000. Today, the sled dogs found in northern Native communities include the Canadian Inuit dog, Chinook, Samoyed, Alaskan Malamute and husky. They remain a vital part of Inuit, Dene and Metis culture.