Ron Pottle Jr. barely has time to lay down on the wooden sled before his dog team bolts across the frozen ground, yelping and howling and sprinting after some invisible prey.
He holds the reins tightly and directs his animals with short commands in Inuktitut, trying to keep them on track, as he quickly disappears out of sight. With just two weeks to go before an annual dog sled race in honour of Pottle’s late father, the young dogs still have a lot to learn.
Pottle, 21, is learning, too – he’s trying to master the ancient Inuit practice of dog mushing, as a way to honour his father’s memory and help keep an iconic part of his people’s culture alive.
But Labrador’s dog mushers are facing new challenges even Pottle’s father rarely saw.
The coastline that surrounds Pottle’s home in northern Labrador is going through unprecedented changes. In the winter of 2018, one of the mildest on record, the sea ice in the bay he races on didn’t freeze up until February, months later than usual.
“Is this going to be able to happen; is this safe?” —RCMP Cpl. Mike McKee tweet
Most people in Canada’s northern regions long ago abandoned dog sleds in favour of snowmobiles. But for people like Pottle, keeping up the dog mushing tradition is getting harder and harder as cold winters become increasingly unreliable.
“It’s been a strange winter,” Pottle acknowledges.
Climate scientists back him up. All along the remote and rugged Labrador coast, they’re seeing more snow, milder temperatures and higher winds. In early March, in what traditionally should be the dead of winter, there was talk of cancelling another local dog race out of safety — the ice was thawing too quickly.
“Before the race, it was so warm people were concerned: ‘Is this going to be able to happen; is this safe?’” said Cpl. Mike McKee, one of two RCMP officers posted in Pottle’s hometown of Rigolet. “This is stuff that, typically, they never used to worry about.”
That same month, organizers of Cain’s Quest — a 3,100-kilometre skidoo race that circles Labrador — were scrambling to plan for unexpected thaws where the race route crosses lakes and bays that are normally frozen. They considered bringing in pontoons in case racers ran into open water.
The loss of sea ice has been dramatic, according to Happy Valley-Goose Bay-based climatologist Robert Way. Labrador’s northern region has lost about a third of its ice cover in the past decade, according to the Canadian Ice Service historical database.
“It impacts every ounce of life here”
Labrador’s coastline is a volatile place when it comes to climate, with extreme swings in the weather that can both amplify and mask the changes that are happening. In tiny Rigolet, the southernmost Inuit community in Canada, the changes are being felt profoundly. Compared to historical norms, Way says winter is already about six weeks shorter than it used to be.
“It impacts every ounce of life here,” Way said. “If you look at the rate of warming from the late 1980s to 2015, this is one of the fastest warming places in the world. It’s quite concerning.”
What worries the climatologist is what the new normal will be within a few decades in Labrador, and what that will mean for a culture long built around cold, reliable winters.
“It’s sad, really. If I look at my lifetime, it’s already included some of the most rapid changes we’ve ever seen,” Way said. “But I’m more cognizant of the changes expected to come. Right now, we’re still able to do a lot of things we still care about. But whether that becomes as plausible 30 years down the road, I don’t know.”
Climate change is also affecting Labrador’s Inuit dog sled racers in another, more direct way — making it more difficult for them to reach the seals that are the main supply of meat for their dogs. Pottle’s people have long hunted seals as a source of food and clothing, but his ancestors never had to contend with retreating sea ice and unpredictable swings in the weather quite like this.
“Getting seals is the hardest part, especially when it comes to the ice,” Pottle said.
“If I look at my lifetime, it’s already included some of the most rapid changes we’ve ever seen.” —Robert Way tweet
One seal might provide only a day and half’s worth of food for his animals, so Pottle has to head out on the ice regularly to catch more. But as the sea ice vanishes, they’re travelling further to reach the seals, over increasingly unsafe routes to get there. They say the seals seem less plentiful.
“It means you’ve got to work harder,” said his cousin, Todd Pottle. “It takes longer for us to get the seals we need.”
Hunters say the ice is increasingly unreliable and prone to breaking up under the weight of a snowmobile. Some seal hunters will try to use boats, riding over open water, to reach the seals at the edge of the receding ice. But that’s not without risks, especially in choppy seas in the middle of winter.
“Every time you go out, you don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Guido Rich, 28, one of the other dog racers in the village. “It can lead to trouble when the ice is no good. There was a couple who went out last year who almost drowned.”
That’s a major problem in a place where there are no roads connecting the village to other communities, and snowmobile trails over the ice are a lifeline out for many people.
Traditions melting away
The Inuit of northern Labrador are a people of the sea ice, and have long built their traditions to survive using it. But they’re being forced to adapt on the fly.
“Life is going to be hard, and it’s changing really fast,” said Oz Allen, 66, who’s lived in Rigolet most of his life. “The last few years, it’s getting warmer and the ice gives out sooner. The ground never even froze this year, because we had so much snow.”
Elders say they used to go ice fishing well into May. Now winter fades so quickly here some worry the local tradition of travelling over ice roads to their families’ remote cabins for the Easter holidays could come to an end.
“If this continues the way it’s going, we won’t even be able to do that anymore,” said Paula McLean-Sheppard, who works with the Nunatsiavut government.
Pottle’s father began taking him out on dog sleds when he was around eight years old. The boy was only ten when his father died of a heart attack on the ice. It was another ten years before Pottle decided he would get a dog team of his own and keep the family tradition going.
“It’s good fun, I’d say, when you’re out there. But it’s a lot of work. I only do it because my father done it. That’s what pushes me to keep dogs,” he said. “My father pretty much grew up with dog teams.”
Pottle’s mother, Cora Pottle, is proud that her son is taking after her late husband, who was known locally as a skilled dog musher. On the weekend of the memorial race, the start time was postponed twice by unusually high winds, another symptom some here blame on a warming planet.
When the race was finally held the following day, she was among the crowd who gathered on Double-Mer Bay, cheering in between sips of moose and partridge soup. Ron Pottle’s young team raced hard around the bay for an hour and a half, finishing sixth. Next year, he plans to teach his 13-year-old cousin how to race, too.
“He really wants to keep this going,” his mother said. “It’s not getting any easier, with the way things are changing. But they don’t want to give up hope on this.”