An iceman's best friend

The sledge dogs bred by the Chukchi people of the Russian far east have helped them colonise one of the world's harshes regions, as Benedict Allen discovers.
About five years ago, I took a dog team up through Chukotka, in the Russian far east, with the idea of attempting a dash across the frozen Bering Strait to Alaska. It had seemed a great idea at the time, but I’d chosen the worst winter in living memory, and even before leaving England, the crossing was looking like a non-starter.

In the event, I made it quite a way across the Strait – but the real interest of such a journey for me was always going to be the dogs themselves. Out there in northernmost Chukotka, to a degree perhaps unique in the world, whole villages still relied on them. The dog sledge wasn’t a rapid means of transport, but it was reliable in a land where petrol and engine parts had become expensive or scarce. Besides, the collapse of the Soviet Union notwithstanding, over long distances, the Chukotka breed remains both more reliable and capable than anything people have yet to devise for travelling across snow and ice.

Sledge dogs

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Europeans have known about the dogs that we often refer to as ‘huskies’ for some time. Martin Frobisher, investigating a possible North West Passage in 1577, reported that the Eskimos kept “certain dogs not much unlike wolves, which they yoke together as we do oxen and horses”.

It was with the help of their famous dogs, of course, that these coastal people spread across the Bering Strait and on around the Arctic Circle from western Alaska, through Canada, to Greenland, eventually becoming the world’s most widely dispersed indigenous people. Less well known is the fact that they were followed by the Chukchis, a reindeer-herding people, and it was they, not the Inuit, who mastered the barren tundra.

In time, these Chukchis ousted the Inuit from all but a tiny fringe of the Bering Sea coast, and went on to resist incursions by Europeans for 300 years. To a lesser or greater degree, it was the Chukchi sledge dogs that achieved all
of this for their masters.

The best of all sledge dogs

The story begins with the arrival in the Russian Far East of the ancestors of the modern-day Chukchis, probably during the first or second century AD. It seems probable that these people kept only the odd dog or two for guarding their deer – Chukchis being herders, hungry dogs spelt trouble. None the less, by following their domesticated herds, the Chukchis were able to occupy swathes of tundra denied the local Inuit, or Yupik, who relied on harvesting the rich Bering Seas.

And just as the Inuits’ success was based on two key advances in sea-faring technology – the skin-covered kayak
and the toggle harpoon – the Chukchis’ colonisation of the interior hinged on their ability to negotiate the vast swathes of hostile tundra, an ability conferred upon them by the best of all sledge dogs.

Rather than selecting for size and strength as the Inuit always had, the Chukchi dogs were chosen for obedience and endurance. They would run at only moderate speed, but for long distances. They would be small – and hence easy for families to provide for – and each dog would have an amiable disposition that would make them ideal for working as part of a larger team.

Over generations, the Chukchis worked on their dogs as Grand Prix mechanics might change the oil mix and tweak the chassis of their cars; they came up with a breed uniquely efficient in the tundra. Unlike Inuit dogs, which had been engineered to perform an array of duties, from short-distance freight-hauling to shoreline hunting, the Chukchi dog was a highly specialised long-haul transportation tool. The dog became central to every aspect of Chukchi life. The shamans even spoke of them guarding the spirit world.

But we mustn’t romanticise the relationship; in hard times, the dogs were eaten. But, one way or other, the Chukchis depended on their dogs, and when the Russians advanced during the 17th century, their eyes on the fur trade, the sledge dogs found themselves key operatives in a guerrilla war. The light dogs could scamper up a precipice and whip across deep snows. And equipped as they were with night vision, they could charge through the blackest night. They were a match even for the brilliant and bloody Cossack, and of all the Arctic peoples, the Chukchis alone remained undefeated as a nation. 

The Russian government annexed the peninsula in 1789 but, by then, it had abandoned the idea of direct rule. In 1837, the government more or less gave up, signing a treaty that gave the Chukchis independence within the Russian Empire.
With the arrival of the gun from Europe and Alaska, food became plentiful and dog teams were expanded to a dozen members or more. Foreigners also brought innovations. Instead of running on individual strings from the sledge, the so-called fan-hitch arrangement, dogs were now arranged in a more orderly and disciplined tandem fashion. 

Decline and amalgamation

Only with the arrival of the Communist era did the Chukchi dogs’ fortunes decline. The Party embarked on a breeding programme to produce an official Soviet dog. The ‘Leningrad factory breed’ was an amalgamation of Chukchi strains with larger, rangier dogs. Although some dogs had already been exported to Alaska (these were to give rise to the Siberian husky), long before the end of the Cold War, the Chukchi sledge dog was presumed extinct as a working animal.

It was seven years ago that a Russian vet told me that the dogs had survived – he’d seen them for himself up in the remotest villages of the northern Bering Strait. “Thank God for that bloody dog,” he’d said, while discussing the demise of the Soviet Union and, with it, the support that was once handed out to this peripheral region. “The villages are running short of everything.”
The Russians might have abandoned the Chukchis, but they hadn’t abandoned their dogs. Once, this animal had made their people great; now they were looking to their old ally once again.

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