Explorer Achieved Historic Feats Because Of Love For His Dogs
Popular games for boys in Ilulissat revolved around hunting. In Knud Rasmussen's time, as it had been for centuries, survival in Greenland depended upon the hunting of wild animals: musk oxen in the north and east; caribou on the patches of plains; seals and other marine animals on the coast; and fish and millions of birds on their seasonal migrations. As the boys grew bigger, their harpoons, bows and spears likewise grew larger. This was also true of their sleds and the dogs needed to pull them. As a boy, Rasmussen enlisted his playmates to be his "sled dogs," and later in life he recalled his experiences with his imaginary dogs.
"The first dog I had," he wrote, "was two-legged, because before my father entrusted me to run with real dogs, I had a whole team, which consisted of my Greenland playmates ... In the morning, when I came out, they flocked around me, and their zeal was great because my good mother always gave me delicious dog food. It was rye bread and ship's biscuits or figs and prunes, a diet that these Eskimo boys never had at home! After feeding, they were excited for real belts and harnesses. I had a really long dog whip. But when my first dog was my own playmate, I of course never used a whip, and that is perhaps why I never ever later in my life was really comfortable using a long dog whip. Dogs should not pull out of fear, but out of desire."
On one occasion, Rasmussen tied his "dogs" up and went inside his home to get bread. Upon seeing him, his mother was reminded of his neglected chores and sent him off to complete the tasks. His companions remained outside, tied up for several hours, until he finally remembered to return with bread for his "dog team."
His future companions commented on his facility with his sled dogs, undoubtedly a combination of innate talent and a lifetime of practice. Many Inuit had similar abilities with dogs and dogsledding, but as was the case with a fluency in the Greenlandic language, few who did not cultivate these skills in their youth could ever perfect them. Rasmussen "could always get his dogs to persevere," wrote Freuchen, "to do what they had to do no matter how exhausted they were. When, finally, a dog in Knud's team laid himself down, it was death that had defeated him." Rasmussen could apparently "hypnotize" his dogs by staring in their eyes so that they gave all their strength. According to another one of his future traveling companions, Therkel Mathiassen, he had "a marvellously [sic] keen eye for the ability, faults and needs of each one of his dogs ... He loved his dogs so they loved him, not with the slavish lickspittle affection of civilized dogs, but with the half-wild beast's feeling of 'belonging' in thick and thin."
From "White Eskimo: Knud Rasmussen's Fearless Journey into the Heart of the Arctic" by Stephen R. Bown, forthcoming from Da Capo Press in November 2015.