Runners of mud and ice: The Historic Qamutiik

Courtesy of Bert-Jan Elfrink

Published in Mushing Magazine (www.mushing.com)

March 1, 2010

By Miriam Korner

At first sight a modern qamutiik looks simple in design: Two wooden runners, cut out of a 2×8, maybe 12 feet long, pack board as runner plastic underneath and a bunch of 1×4 crosspieces tied on top and ready is the Arctic dog sled. 

This, you might think, is definitely the freighter under the dog sleds. But to my surprise it pulled easily, in fact, once gliding I could barely feel the weight. With a little tug left or right the sled responded quickly to the change of direction. I realized at once that I was looking at a well crafted and balanced design. The runners had a slight rocker and the plastic was tapered, explaining the easy tracking and steerability. I absolutely fell in love with the qamutiik. When I had the chance to try one out. Not only did it ride so smoothly, with the long runner spanning across rough ice and hummocks, but I was also a lot warmer sitting down snugly on my sleeping bag instead of standing up against the ever tearing wind. The advantages are definitely numerous, here are some:

# 1: You can not only pour yourself a cup of tea while traveling, you can also cook some fresh tea – all on the move.

# 2: You might actually stay on your sled when you fall asleep.

# 3: You have a good excuse to leave your ski poles behind.

The qamutiik belongs to the Arctic land, as the kayak to the open water. Yet, traveling through the barren lands, I could not stop thinking, how on earth did the Inuit used to make their sleds in the past? There’s not a tree in sight for miles on end. Never mind iron or plastic for runners. “We used to coat them runners with mud, you know,” an Inuk elder tells me. “Mud and ice. Sometimes we used fish for runners. I remember staring at him in disbelief, waiting for a smile, that would release he is pulling my leg. He looked back in all earnest and of course, it was true. The more I learn, the more respect I have for the resourcefulness of the Arctic peoples, their ability to make do with what the land provided.

What the land provided had an unmistakable influence on the qamutiik design. Wood has always been the material of first choice. Inland tribes would travel hundreds of miles into the tree line to obtain wood for runners, coastal tribes would often use drift wood. If no wood was avaible, the coastal Arctic peoples made sleds out of pieces of whale or walrus bone, driftwood and sometimes antler. Pieces were jointed and lashed together, giving a patchwork appearance. I have not been able to find a photograph of an early qamutiik. Most likely because with the European traders wood and iron quickly replaced the traditional materials before modern photography made its way into the Arctic. However, in 1819 Arctic explorer John Ross brought a qamutiik back from his polar expedition and presented this sled to the Admiralty. Today, it can be found in the British Museum and is definitely worth looking at. On this sled of the Polar Inuit, walrus ivory is attached to the bottom of the bone runners for easier gliding. Different snow conditions often required alternate shoeing.

In cold, dry conditions the snow sticks to the runners. The sled feels draggy, the runners scrunch and screech over the snow as if running over sand and the dogs have to work hard even when the load is light. A coating of ice would be the way to go for easy gliding and that’s exactly what the Arctic peoples of long ago did. Except, it’s easier said than done. Ice would not stick to the runner, and that’s where the mud comes in: The runners were first coated with a mix of peat and water and then a thin layer of ice applied on top of that. The process is lengthy as peat has to be found first – usually it is collected in summertime and stored in bags—then thawed and crumbled, mixed with water and kneaded to a thick paste. Peat creates its own heat and even in severe cold it takes a day to freeze on throughly. Only then water is spread over the mud runner. The water should be lukewarm as the sudden freezing makes a more durable form of ice. As the ice coating had to be renewed over the course of long travels, water was carried on the body to spare the time of melting snow or ice. Cold water was pre-warmed in the mouth and spit on the runner. With a good ice-coating even a heavy loaded sled would travel easily, when the terrain was reasonable smooth. In rough terrain, there was always the risk of hitting rocks or sharp jumble ice which would crack the ice shoeing, prolonging the journey through the necessity of re-icing. On hunting trips or when moving camp with the whole family, a young son would often jump off the sled mid-run and help maneuver the sled by pushing the front around obstacles. In spring time, the heat of the sun would melt the mud and ice shoeing and skins were often hung from the sled to offer shade for the disintegrating shoeing. At rest times a hole would be dug into the shady side of a hill, where the snow was still frozen. The qamutiik was covered with skins and buried to keep the runners from thawing.

Hunting sleds in the past would have been substantial shorter as dog teams were small. A family would have three to five dogs in the coastal regions, where food was easier obtainable and less dogs in the inland regions, where the main food source relied on the caribou migration. To move camp, families would often combine their dog teams and use larger sleds. The adults, often women, walked ahead of the dogs, pulling in harness themselves while the men walked next to the sleds urging the dogs on.

In spring time, the heavy sleds would be abandoned and retrieved later in fall. A toboggan like sled (uniuit) made out of polar bear or caribou skins as used by the inland tribes or walrus for the coastal tribes would be used as a temporary sled to haul the families belongings back to their last season’s qamutiit. Sometimes even the qamutiik runners were made of skins. And that’s where the fish comes in: First the skins were soaked in water and wrapped around fish to provide stability. Once shaped as a runner and frozen into place this type of runner could be extremely slippery causing the qamutiit to slide sideways.

With iron avaible from European traders, iron runners became the material of choice. Yet, mudding and ice shoeing over the iron was still the way to go in the early to mid 20th century. In 1921 explorer Knud Rasmussen set out on his 5th Thule expedition, a three year dog sledding excursion across Arctic America, with iron runners under his qamutiik. He soon noticed the colder it got the sticker became his runners. Not being able to find mud in the midst of winter, Rasmussen acquired flour at a trading post, using the paste as an adhesive over the iron, so that the ice shoeing would stick.

Today plastic has replaced the laborious care for traditional shoeing. However, even today great care is taken to make the sled glide as easy as possible: Screw holes in the runner plastic (pack board) are filled with melted plastic from a five gallon pale handle just before a mid distance race start. And at every stop a quick planing is applied to the runners for easier glide. If you encounter bad luck in a race and your sled needs to be repaired, you know now that all you need is out there, where ever you are. With that we come to advantage number four:

# 4: If your sled breaks, it’s easily fixed with what you can find on the land an in the sea: caribou antler, whale bone, or fish…;o)

[Footnote] Designs of qamatiiks differed in material and design, especially between inland and coastal groups. This article focuses on the design of the Inuit of the eastern Canadian Arctic with some references to the Polar Inuit (Greenland). Although the permanent settlements in Nunavut are along the coast today, many of them are compromised of different traditional inland and coastal Inuit tribes (the -miut groups). Many of the inland groups had never been to the coast and did not know how to support themselves in this unknown terrain, when the Canadian government relocated the Iniut groups between 1939 and 1963. Unfamiliarity with the land (or sea) and taboos that regulate the usage of sea and land animals restricted certain groups in the materials avaible for sled building. Listening to elders who live in the same community today, it is quite likely to find memories of all sorts of variations in sled building, which can be a reference to their past territory. However, the mudding and icing of the runners seemed to be a practice that was used among all Arctic Peoples – from Greenland, over North America to eastern Siberia.

Bibliography:

Books:

• Bennet, John & Rowley Susan (Editors). Uqalurait. An Oral History of Nunavut. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2004

• Brandson, Lorraine E. Carved from the Land. The Eskimo Museum Collection. Diocese of Churchill Hudson Bay, 1994

• Malaurie, Jean. Ultima Thule. Explorers and Natives in the Polar North. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2003

• Rasmussen, Knud. Across Arctic America. New York: Greenwood Press, 1969 (Originally published in 1927 by G.P. Putnam’s Sons)

DVD:

• Zacharias Kunuk. Quimuksik (Dog Team). Isuma Productions, 1995

 Web page:

• www.britishmuseum.org (Sled of Bone, Ivory and Wood)

by bert

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