The Yukon is full of dog lovers, from all walks of life. Our dogs not only provide companionship, many are working members of the family whose owners rely on them for “paw power” and protection.
I’ve always been a little in awe of those who work with their K-9 best friends; it seems to me they have a deep bond with their animals, and their dogs enjoy a sense of purpose beyond measure. Local trapper and ﬁre lookout observer Robert Stitt, I think, would agree. “My family got a beagle when I was ﬁfteen, and I don’t think there’s been much of a stretch since, if at all, that I didn’t have one or more dogs.”
Since 1994, Robert has been a fan and an owner of one of the rarest dogs in the world, the Canadian Eskimo (Inuit) dog (quimmiq or qimmit in the Inuit languages) . According to Wikipedia, the Eskimo dog is “an Arctic breed of working dog, which is often considered to be one of North America’s oldest and rarest remaining purebred Indigenous domestic canines.”
They are known to be affectionate, loyal, alert, intelligent, tough and brave. A ﬁtting dog for someone who spends ﬁve months of the year in the bush.
“Are they working dogs or pets?” I asked Robert, referring to his most recent Eskimo dogs. “I don’t believe they can’t be both. That’s my ﬁrm opinion,” he responds, continuing, “I was a professional hunting guide for years for people with high-quality hunting dogs… I’ve dealt with many breeders. I’ve often asked them, ‘By having a ﬁeld trial champion dog as part of the family, does it impact their ability to be a ﬁeld trial winning hunting dog?’ They all said the same thing: ‘No, assuming it has the genetics, what is important is that they get to work in the ﬁeld with the different species of birds.”
Originally from James Bay, in northern Ontario, Robert moved to the Yukon in 2008-with his dogs, of course. His current dog, Meeka, goes to work (or “summer camp” as he calls it) at the Tagish ﬁre tower and into his remote trapline in the fall.
“Typically in early September (this year I am going in August), I would go to my very remote trapline east of Watson Lake. I’m there for ﬁve months. It’s very expensive to ﬂy in, so you go in once and you come out once. I’ve had three dogs in there with me.”
We’ve met to discuss Meeka, but the conversation turns affectionately to his previous K-9 companions, Max and Shadow, now deceased. Robert recounts, in detail, how Shadow died in his arms (she was in good shape but had an obvious developing cancer). Max mourned her sitting on his house and howling like a wolf-the most mournful long howl-for weeks. The death took place days before Robert’s annual trip to Ontario, and he thought about cancelling his plans. Instead, he left Max in the care of trusted neighbours/friends and contacted Brian Ladoon, a known Eskimo dog breeder out of Churchill, Manitoba. Perhaps he could return with a new playmate for Max…
From southern Ontario, Robert found a seat sale and “quickly organized and mobilized and found a hostel to stay at and went [on three ﬂights!] to Churchill, to meet Brian.” After three days there, he left with puppy Meeka. She was so cute “she practically caused a riot in the Winnipeg airport,” laughed Robert. Upon arrival, back home in the Yukon, “she very quickly became infatuated with ‘Uncle Max.’”
“I do have some very serious regrets about my trip to Churchill,” he said, seriously, “and that is that I didn’t take her brother.” Max died a year after Meeka came home, and now Robert has two more pups on back order from Brian.
All of his Eskimo dogs have helped haul gear by sleds and have “sounded the alarm” on more than one occasion. Most notable was a malnourished black grizzly and a brazen bull moose… both of which walked right into his camp. His tale of the moose gives me the shivers…
October 2010, beautiful sunny day, and I’m in the yard on my trapline doing something, safe as if I’m in the womb, when all of a sudden Shadow starts barking violently, she’s at the edge of the clearing… all her hackles are up… I saw something in the bush and it materialized to be a cow moose. It slowly turned and started walking towards me… “Stitt’s law of survival,” grab your gun, which I did… the moose was way too close for my comfort and I said to Shadow, “Out of here,” and the moose put its ears down and gave this grunt, and it launched at me like a freight train. I turned to rim. I felt this thing bearing down on me and I rotated my body and pulled the trigger. Clear miss. I lost my balance, fell down, smashed my knee. This all happened on a well-used area near my workshop, and the ground was icy. This cow moose was slipping and sliding, totally incapable of getting a good purchase, otherwise I wouldn’t be here today. And then it just backed up, like a Michael Jackson-style backup, turned, went about 30 yards and started browsing like a cow.
I’m quite shaken. I got up, knee is killing me…I limp inside to my cabin. I’m calming down. I thought, Man, that was a close call. I had a tea in my nice rocking chair. After a while, I opened my door and no moose…But then, all of sudden, she comes screaming around the corner; her eyes are bugged out and her mane is all up, her ears are ﬂat; there’s nothing more frightening!
I just happened to have my camera with a telephoto lens there by the door: I took two pictures, I shut the door and I said, “Well, there’s a lot of projects I can do indoors this evening”….
Next morning she was gone.
“I’m now at the point where I wouldn’t want to be out there without a dog to alert me to imminent danger, be it moose, a bear…whatever. I also like to work with this very rare breed. For me, on my trapline, what’s perfect is that they are strong working dogs. Meeka, as a lead dog, and two big strong boys are all I need. And I can only ﬁt three dogs in the plane without another charter. [The Eskimo dogs] are rare, they are a victim of technology, and this allows me to maintain some link to their working past.”
Robert chuckles happily, his affection for this unique breed and his own dogs, both as pets and workmates, couldn’t be more obvious.