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The ice dogs: having survived the Amazon rainforest and Namibian desert, TV explorer and author Benedict Allen set off for the Siberian wilderness. But before he could begin his icy journey, he had to befriend his doggy companions. (Benedict Allen In Siberia).

THE CHUKOTKA SLEDGE DOG IS A SLOW, scruffy, scrawny animal of farthest Siberia, a breed that is, for want of a better word, tough. I mean, really tough -- even by the exacting standards of that most proficient and determined of all Arctic operators, the husky. Food to the Chukotka sledge dog means a chunk of frozen walrus. Water doesn't come from a bowl, as it would for a working dog elsewhere in the world, it comes from having a chew on the ice. Not even in a blizzard does this dog get a kennel. Getting warm is a question of curling into the snow, and letting his body heat slowly melt the ice below, in order to sink deeper into it.

The outdoor type

In Chukotka, the autonomous district of Russia tucked right up in the northeast corner of Siberia, no self-respecting sledge dog has ever even been indoors. And whereas a typical husky -- for example, his cousins in Alaska which are today bred purely for racing -- might expect to get a dose of antibiotics when feeling poorly, these dogs must sort themselves out or die. In short, the Chukotka dog, with genes ruthlessly honed by extreme conditions, would have been a better choice for Scott's last expedition to the Antarctic. Instead, the explorer equipped himself with Siberian dogs from kinder climes farther south.

I came to Chukotka with the purpose of undertaking an expedition with dogs up the coast to the Bering Strait -- not something the locals would have thought either sensible or worthwhile. Yet the process I had to go through in training a dog team was one understood by anyone likely to make a winter foray today -- perhaps hunting in the tundra or trekking out onto the sea ice while stalking seals for meat. Even as we move into the 21st century, the dog sledge is -- for many small communities in Chukotka -- the only sure means of transport across snow and ice.

Nine time zones away from Moscow, Chukotka suffered more than most regions as the Soviet Union collapsed. Siberia is the back of beyond, but this region is the back of beyond of Siberia. The size of France and Germany combined, its exports amount to only 12,000 [pounds sterling] (US$17,000), and when the locals talk about "exports" they mean trading with the rest of Russia -- what's commonly referred to as "the mainland".

The two indigenous groups, the Chukchis (traditionally reindeer herders) and Yupik `Eskimo' coastal people, were encouraged by Stalin to abandon their self-sufficient relationship with the Arctic -- herding deer, harvesting seals, walrus and fish. Now, in turn, they find themselves abandoned by the outsiders they were taught to rely on. They have no access to outside medicine and food for three quarters of the year -- that is, from the moment winter cuts them off. Of the 15 helicopters that served this vast expanse of the Arctic before 1990, there were only three left on my visit in 2000; one of these crashed soon after.

"Dogs are a man's best friend," we say, glibly, but for the beleaguered communities of northern Chukotka they have become man's only friend. Even in the provincial capital, Anadyr', snowmobiles and tractors now lie useless through lack of petrol and spare parts. The industrialised world has let the Chukchis down. However, the dogs -- so resilient to cold that they can work at -50 [degrees] C and overheat at -15 [degrees] C -- have stuck by them. In the hard decade since the fall of communism, the Chukotka sledge dog has regained a place in indigenous life not enjoyed for almost a century.

Chukotka claims to be colder on average than the North Pole, and considerably more windy. It took me three weeks just to get my plane through blizzards to meet up with the dogs I was hiring. When I did arrive, I learned that the owner had been caught in a snowdrift, and couldn't make the rendezvous to teach me the dogs' names, or -- more worryingly -- the commands they'd respond to. Needless to say, the sledges out here had no brakes. And even had I known the commands they'd been taught for "left" and "right," I was assured by local hunter Yasha that, anyway, they'd be very unlikely to listen to a stranger.

"You must win their hearts by feeding them," was his advice. With his boot, he prodded the curled ball of snow which was one of the lead dogs. "But never give them food by hand -- they'll take your hand as well."

Yasha, a man who harpooned whales for a living, and treated all obstacles with the effortless good humour of someone accustomed to the ups and downs of a life lived according to the whimsical elements of the far north, looked over my ten dogs. They were almost invisible. Lined up in pairs in front of the sledge they were nested deep in the snow, and totally oblivious to us. As yet, we were irrelevant to their lives. Not even one snout was raised to inspect us as we stood there; it would be a waste of heat and energy. It was -35 [degrees] C, and they weren't doing anything for anyone until their owner turned up.

When taking over a dog team, the key task for anyone is to shift this fierce loyalty of the dog pack away from any established leader, human or otherwise. And you do this by making it clear that you, and no-one else, are now the provider. "Now they'll be observing you," Yasha said, after I'd done my first feeding session. "They'll begin sizing you up. They've realised you may be useful to them."

I spent the next Couple of weeks learning from Yasha, who'd had dogs of his own since the age of five. His village, Lorino, had 70 teams -- about one team per Chukchi family. Gradually I did get my own dogs used to my voice and smell. It was a question not just of reminding them that I was useful to them, but also of establishing who was boss. "Never step aside for them," had always been my rule of thumb when dealing with camels, the only other domesticated species I really knew much about, and it was the same principle here. I made each beast step aside for me, as I trudged up and down the line of dogs in my Arctic gear. These animals, I noted, were even more difficult to budge out of the way than camels.

However, as with all animals bred for work, the strongest bonds are always formed when you're actually on the job. Whether ready or not, we had to get the dogs out on the sea ice, the frozen bay in front of Anadyr', for a proper run. I sat on the sledge, forlornly trying to anchor it with an ice spike, while both Yasha and his mate Toila struggled to line up my team. The dogs, now driving themselves into a state of hysteria at the prospect of a Siberian version of a good `walkies', were capable of travelling 100 kilometres a day, lugging a 300-kilogram load of seal or reindeer meat. With just me on the sledge, it was almost impossible to hold them back. I recalled how, as a boy, I'd once taken a German shepherd dog for a walk, and what had happened when it saw a cat. Each of these dogs in front of me now was like an Olympic version of that German shepherd which had years ago tugged me along the street on the end of its lead -- and there were ten of them. There was another difference, too: a team of Chukotka sledge dogs wouldn't bother to chase a cat -- it's the German shepherd that they'd want to hunt down.

As if to prove the point, the dogs now gave a full demonstration of their combined power, and my inability to master it. After a couple of only slightly unruly hours, during which my dogs was shepherded by Yasha and Toila, who travelled alongside with their own teams, my lot spotted a loose dog out on the ice. They gave chase, suddenly coordinating their efforts in a way they had utterly failed to do until now. Though it was scary to hurtle helplessly towards the white horizon and oblivion, the maddened dash was also strangely beautiful; ten animals moving as one across the ice with the coordination and unified purpose of a flock of birds in the sky. Of course, the dog which was being targeted saw no beauty in the manic pack, and fled. With a chase on, there was nothing to stop my team. As I hung on, it became a white-knuckle ride -- literally -- and with insufficient blood getting through my hands I knew I was in danger of getting frostbite.

The dogs came to a halt only when they began fighting among themselves; another symptom of my lack of leadership. By then, I had frostbite on five fingertips, but it could have been much worse. Yasha's team had once chased an Arctic hare out across thin ice. His 12 dogs fell through, drowning in seconds in the freezing water. Only by cutting their line to his sledge did he manage to save himself.

After two more weeks the dogs started to listen to my commands. But even now, while they were clearly trying their best for me, they were only guessing whether I meant them to go left or right. Not able to decipher my orders, some dogs would go one way, some the other. The remainder hoped that they too would be doing the right thing by going straight ahead.

With time, I began to see the quality of each dog. The rear dogs, Dennis and Mutley, were strongest, taking the strain of the sledge; Jeremy in the middle, was the intellectual, and best at sorting a route through the ice pressure ridges as I finally headed out into the Bering Strait. However, Jeremy would do nothing without his old friend Bumbling Bernard -- who didn't actually pull at all, but just enjoyed trotting along. His role seemed to be as a comfort for the other dogs; a lucky mascot. In the front row as Top dog, who was shy, but must have had a mysterious doggy charisma because he had the respect of all other dogs. He only relaxed when beside Flashy White, a huge beast that acted like his minder -- beautiful, but rather dim.

In their own way, each dog added to the team. The rear dogs lived 12 or 13 years, the lead dogs less. This, Yasha explained, was because of the constant worry lead dogs faced. They never knew what they might encounter -- wolves, bears or that most deadly substance in the Arctic -- water.

Partners on ice

Wherever I've travelled, partnerships between humans and other species have been in decline -- whether between highland nomads and their yaks, desert traders and their camels, or Andean herders and their llamas. The combustion engine has won out in desert, plain and mountain.

Not in Chukotka. And now conditions are favouring the working dog still further. During my visit last year, Siberia was hit by the worst winter in living memory. An already dire situation for locals became desperate. Those families still living in yarangas, the traditional skin tents, and who moved with their reindeer herds through the tundra, at times seemed better off than those people in the extreme north who had grown dependant on outsiders in the settlements. Now, those who had been reluctant to build a dog team, thinking it backward to adopt the practices of their grandparents, saw there was no other choice. They had to learn to be self-reliant once again. As I trained my dogs, I was joined out on the ice by Siberians with little more experience of handling dogs than me.

And the Russians -- bureaucrats, engineers and teachers once encouraged to come here for their skills but now trapped and only erratically paid -- also began turning to the dog. The creatures offered them a chance of getting out into the tundra to hunt for furs to sell or barter. As the winter went on, settlements disappeared under snow and locals lost whole limbs to frostbite. Stray dogs were rounded up, ancient dogs brought out of retirement, and pets harnessed up to sledges. You can't teach an old dog new tricks, but the peoples of remotest Chukotka were giving it a go. Sledge dogs, everyone agreed, were back.

Animals in history

Alexander the Great On his travels in Asia, Marco Polo came across four stories about Alexander the Great, one of which tells of how the Roman rode a unicorn named Bucephalus. The descendents of Alexander -- or Zulkarnein, his Moslem name -- and his steed lived in the kingdom of Badakshan, near to Afghanistan.

Genghis Khan For years before Genghis Khan unified the chieftains of Mongolia in 1206, the tribesmen of the region had a reputation as skilled horsemen and terrible warriors. Khan subsequently formed an awesome mounted army which massacred all who stood in their way as far as Budapest. As well as providing transport, the Mongols' horses were used for food, drink, fuel, and clothing.

Australian exploration In 1844 Sir Roderick Murchison of the RGS suggested that "a thorough exploration of Australia will never be affected until we import camels from our Eastern possessions, and thus at once get rid of the vast difficulties attending the want of water." John Horrocks was the first explorer to use a camel in Australia in 1846. Unfortunately, he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound when the camel sat down unexpectedly. In 1873 Colonel PE Warbuton led an expedition with 17 camels, and established a link between Adelaide and Perth.

South Pole Roald Amundsen took 97 Greenland dogs on his expedition to the South Pole in 1911, a crucial factor in his beating Captain Scott. The Englishman chose to use motorised sledges for the final stage up the Beardmore Glacier, after he had experienced problems with animals on his expedition on Discovery (1901-1904).

Don't miss Icedogs on BBC 2

You can follow Benedict's escapades in Siberia in a six-part series, Icedogs, starting on BBC 2 on Tuesday 19 March at 7.30pm. Also, Faber has just republished three of Benedict's books: Mad White Giant (GLR 130); Into the Crocodile's Nest (GLR 131); and Hunting the Gugu (GLR 128). Geographical readers can buy these at the reduced price of 5.99 [pounds sterling] each including p&p (usual rrp 7.99 [pounds sterling]). Simply call 01256 302 699 quoting the codes in brackets above.
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Author:Allen, Benedict
Publication:Geographical
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Apr 1, 2002
Words:2440
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