The Reitan family’s Arctic adventures

Heading North— Vebjørn Reitan travels with his team at Cape Thompson, between Kivalina and Point Hope.

When Ketil Reitan pulled into Nome in 14th place in this year’s Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race, Nome was not the terminus of his season’s journey by dog sled. While most Iditarod mushers call it a season – except for the few who run the Kobuk 440 — Reitan’s adventures are just beginning.

The 57-year-old Norwegian made it a tradition to mush his dogs home from Nome to Kaktovik, a whaling community far north on the coastline hugging the Arctic Ocean, about 1,400 miles north of Nome. He makes it a point to make this trip with one of his sons. This year, it was 22-year-old Vebjørn Aishana Reitan’s turn. Last year, 21-year-old Martin Apayauq Reitan got to go.

Ketil Reitan began mushing in Norway and had been competitively at it since 1986 when he ran his first long distance race, the Finnmarksløpet. As a fishery science student at the University of Tromsø in Norway back then, he combined his interest in dog mushing with his studies when he visited Alaska in the fall of 1986. “At the time I worked on my master thesis about whaling in Alaska,” said Reitan. A friend, Torbjørn Prytz, lived at the upper Ambler River and asked Reitan if he wanted to join him on a trip from Ambler, Alaska, to the North coast of Alaska. In the winter of 1986/87, Reitan and Prytz traveled from Ambler across the Brooks Range to the Arctic Ocean coastline, visiting Nuiqsut and Kaktovik and ended their journey in Aklavik, at the McKenzie River delta in Canada. They used one 10-dog team, and helped the dogs by using snowshoes and skis. They made their equipment, including sled, tent, skin clothing and harnesses for the dogs themselves. When they came through Kaktovik, Reitan met his future wife, Evelyn Anguyak. They moved to Norway for a year before coming back to Alaska, where they stayed for six years. From 1991 to 1994 Reitan ran his first four Iditarods. Living in Kaktovik, he also re-trained his dog team to not only be racing dogs but also dogs he can subsistence hunt with. “My father-in-law, he had his dogs trained to hunt caribou. They would catch a caribou for him,” Reitan said. But when he moved to Kaktovik, there were no more dog teams as the speed and convenience of the snowmachine has replaced hunting by dog sled. However, Reitan said he always maintained a small dog team of about 14 dogs. “I had to keep a small team because when I went out on hunting trips, I could not leave any dog behind,” he said. “When we go to the mountains, there was nobody who could take care of the dogs if we had to leave some behind.”

When the boys came along, the Reitan family kept the tradition of hunting, mushing and enjoying the outdoors.  In 1994 the family moved to Norway and kept a dog team there as well, coming back to Kaktovik in the summers. In 2015, they moved back to Kaktovik, where they now operate a tour guide business of taking visitors by boat to see polar bears that congregate near Kaktovik. Both sons are US Coast Guard licensed boat captains and help run the family business.

After the season, when the tour business quiets down, the Reitans take their dogs to go dall sheep hunting to the northern slopes of the Brooks Range, a 95-mile trip one way. “For Thanksgiving we always want to bring home a dall sheep,” said Reitan.

Last winter season was Vebjørn’s turn to run dogs with his father. The 22-year-old trained for and finished his first 1,000-mile race, the Yukon Quest in February 2018. Cold temperatures in the minus 50°F range made the 2018 race a tough one to get through, but young Reitan finished his rookie run in fourth place, with 11 dogs on the line.

Ketil then ran the Iditarod and finished in 14th position.

After the Iditarod banquet, Ketil quietly got ready, hooked up his nine dogs that he finished the race with and mushed out of Nome on Monday, March 19. The weather was unpleasant, with a stiff wind blowing. Ketil went from Nome via White Mountain and Buckland to Kotzebue, where he met up with his son Vebjørn, who would take over the sled and run the dogs from Kotzebue to Kaktovik. Dad Ketil drove the snowmachine.

“We don’t take turns,” Ketil said. “One of us runs the dog team, and one takes the snowmachine. It’s very fun. After the racing season, we’re relaxed and we don’t travel that far in a day. And we don’t travel when the weather is bad or a blizzard is coming.”

Reitan said this was his third trip with one of his sons from Nome to Kaktovik, each year following a different route. The first year, he took his oldest son, Vebjørn, from Nome to Ambler via Anaktuvuk Pass to Kaktovik. The second year, son Martin went with him from Nome to Kotzebue, where Martin ran the Kobuk 440, and then via Noatak, Point Lay and Utkiavik (formerly Barrow) to Kaktovik. “After Noatak, there was no more trail all the way to Kaktovik,” remarked Reitan.

This year, it was Vebjørn’s turn again and they chose to hug the coastline from Kotzebue via Kivalina, Point Hope, Point Lay, Wainright, Utkiavik and home to Kaktovik. They arrived there on May 7.

The logistics of the trip are kept simple. Reitan said he sent dry kibble out to the villages and they feed mostly kibble, some chicken or turkey skins and as they came to whaling communities, they had access to whale blubber for the dogs.

Reitan said that on average they traveled 50 miles per day. They spend time in most villages as their visit was a way to bond with relatives. “My wife is from the North Slope Borough and we have relatives in all villages,” Reitan said. Ketil and Vebjørn spent nine days in Point Hope and helped on their relatives’ whaling crew. “My boys grew up whaling in Kaktovik,” Reitan explained. “We became crew members in Point Hope and went out on the ice to help with the whaling.” The crew harvested a 56-foot bowhead whale while they were there. They got to help to butcher it and put it away. They received whale blubber for the dogs and also some meat for themselves.

In Point Lay they helped pull the boats out and camped with the whaling crews on the ice.

After Kotzebue, Reitan said, there were no more trails between the villages. They use GPS and maps to navigate their way across the white Arctic. Reitan and his boys are used to travel in the open country and have learned by experience to use logical routes and read maps correctly. But the Reitans also use modern technology with a device called inReach that enables them to keep track of the weather and of each other. “Each carries an inReach, so that if we get separated in bad weather, we can text each other,” said Reitan.

Since they don’t take straw for the dogs to camp, Reitan said he makes sure the dogs are fed adequately and are not skinny going into a race or into the trip home. “We feed them twice a day,” he said. In the mornings the men get out of their Arctic Oven tunnel tent and melt snow for water and feed the dogs a thick soup of kibble and fat. After a day’s trip they give the dogs a good feeding again of water, kibble and a fat source. “We feed them real good so they don’t get skinny, and that is very important when you are stuck in a blizzard for three days, the dogs need to have good weight on them,” said Reitan. He said he only breeds with dogs who have won the Iditarod to get qualities favored in long distance teams: good eaters, dogs that keep their weight, and good coat. “I have blood lines from Jeff King, John Baker, Mitch Seavey, this year we have bred to dogs from Nic Petit,” Reitan said. He also observed that the dogs tend to grow a thicker coat living in Kaktovik than those dogs of the same breeding living in southern parts of Alaska. However, preventing frostbite even in dogs with thick fur is tricky. The Reitans, living in windy country, have learned to respect the wind and know the damage it can havoc. They use flank protectors made of wolf pelts and also commercially made dog jackets with flaps to prevent frostbite in their dogs.

Growing up with Ketil Reitan as a dad instilled the love of the outdoors in his sons. Vebjørn said that he considers those father-son adventures as being fun. “I enjoy doing these trips,” he said. “I hope we are able to keep doing this.” He said this spring’s trip was all about meeting relatives. And also rolling into a village by dog team is a special way to show up. “You do feel super cool when you come into a village by dog team,” Vebjørn said. Ketil remarked that people were real happy to see a dog team come into the village. “Especially on the North Slope, nobody travels by dog team any more, so it’s unusual to see a sled dog team,” he said. “Most people have lost the connection. They have no idea how to go about starting dog mushing again.”

Vebjørn said it was real special for him to be part of a whaling crew in Point Hope. It was his first time spring whaling, as his home community of Kaktovik only conducts fall hunts. He also said he enjoyed spending time with his dogs. “It was nice being out there in the country traveling, nice to have some fun with the dogs,” he said. “I don’t find the stress of training dogs very fun, but racing and traveling with dogs is way more fun. When you’re traveling like that every day is unique. In training, you do the same trail more than once. You get to appreciate the country a lot more when you travel like this,” Vebjørn said.

He talked about the sights of eagles, foxes and a brown bear on a distant mountain, the lack of trail and the special connection you have with your dogs when traveling and camping with them.

Next winter season is Martin’s turn to race the Yukon Quest and the 2019 Iditarod. His father plans on running a 300-mile race. They have not decided on the route of the next father-son-bonding trip. Martin said he’s enjoying the time spent with the dogs and the simplicity of things. “It’s a beautiful way to travel,” he said. “There is no noise, it’s ropes, harnesses, booties and dogs. It’s nice to have a simple thing. I know how to take care of a dog better than taking care of a snowmachine.” He said he was his brother’s handler in the last Yukon Quest and he got to see what the trail looks like. “I’m really looking forward to the race,” he said.

“It’s a fantastic experience to travel with the boys,” said Reitan. “I am very happy. I’m 57-years-old and it’s not easy to find a person to do dog mushing like I do. I am happy that they are interested in mushing and my outdoor lifestyle. They are confident and handle bad weather or bad situations well. We don’t need to talk very much or discuss very much what to do. They are used to the same way of thinking and doing things as I am.”

“Some people think it is extreme what we do, but for us it is not unusual,” said Reitan. Since they live a lifestyle of subsistence hunting in bush Alaska, their Arctic adventures are just an extension of their everyday lives.