I was immediately struck at how much Qaanaaq, Greenland, reminded me of my childhood home on Nunavut's Baffin Island in Canada. Beautifully colored houses speckled the stark, white landscape, and barren, snow-covered hills receded seamlessly into an endless sheet of Arctic sea ice. I had arrived on location to photograph local Inuit hunters for a National Geographic Magazine piece titled Last Ice. Stepping off the plane, I felt the muffled silence of one of the world's most remote communities envelop me like a familiar blanket.
The most noticeable difference between Qaanaaq and the community I grew up in was the conspicuous absence of snowmobiles. Combustion engines make a lot of noise that can displace or startle the wildlife Inuit hunters depend on to survive, so they opt for quieter, more traditional means of transportation instead: qamutiiks (Inuktitut for sleds) and qajaqs (Inuktitut for kayaks). Absolute silence is the result, which allows polar bears, arctic foxes, and other animals to roam comfortably just beyond the outskirts of town. Another consequence of this choice is an impressive proliferation of sled dogs within their society – even with a population of only 650 people, Qaanaaq is home to more than a thousand dogs.
It is an ancient relationship – the Inuit consider them partners, not pets. They must be strong, intelligent, focused, courageous, and capable of protecting a hunter as they venture out onto the sea ice together. Even when loaded down with food, supplies, and camping equipment, qamutiiks can reach extremely high speeds and cover great distances quickly. If a driver loses control of their team, they face the unlikely proposition of surviving a dark winter night on the sea ice in minus forty-degree weather, many miles from home. Well-trained dogs are the last line of defense when one slip-up is the difference between life and death.
I am partial to the simplicity of 'Dog Days of Winter.' For me, it reflects a culture born from scarcity, and the qajaq dividing the composition provides a geometric detail not often found in my work. The Inuit have relied on these lightweight vessels to hunt and travel for millennia – a technology most likely imported when they first arrived in northwest Greenland after hopping from island to island in the Canadian Arctic during a series of migrations that began as early as 4,500 years ago. Traditional qajaqs were handcrafted from driftwood, whalebone, and animal skins, but today's models use modern materials like canvas.
There are strict rules about playing with dogs in the Inuit culture, but I would always be on the lookout for the odd pack to interact with, sneaking them an occasional treat. This team is mostly descended from Canadian dogs, imported to replace the Greenland dogs lost in a 1998 outbreak of canine distemper that decimated northern populations by up to eighty percent.
Qaanaaq is one of the last communities in the Arctic to rely on sled dogs and qajaqs to search for narwhals, walrus, and other wildlife, making 'Dog Days of Winter' a moment frozen somewhere between what once was and what won't be for much longer. As climate change warms our planet and the ice slowly vanishes, so too does the historic and extraordinary culture of Greenland's Inuit – I am thankful for having had the opportunity to experience it for myself.