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Rural Alaska

Kaktovik father and son travel to every North Slope village by dog team

  • Author: Shady Grove Oliver, The Arctic Sounder
  • Updated: May 29, 2018
  • Published May 28, 2018

Vebjørn Aishana Reitan guides his team through the mountains outside Point Hope as he and his father hop from village to village throughout the North Slope on their way back home to Kaktovik. (Photo courtesy the Arctic Sounder)

Pulling into Atqasuk near the end of their month-and-a-half-long journey marked a special moment for the father and son duo of Ketil and Vebjørn Aishana Reitan, of Kaktovik.

"In Wainwright, we decided it would be really fun to go to Atqasuk, because that way, we've been to all the villages on the North Slope by dog team," said Vebjørn. "Atqasuk was the one we were missing."

The pair, who arrived back in their home village the first week in May, had been out in the country since late March, making their way across the Arctic after the end of the Iditarod this spring.

Since 2016, Ketil has been undertaking these expeditions with his sons. Vebjørn, the eldest, accompanied him the first year and this time. His younger son, Martin Apayauq, traveled with him last year.

"To get the dogs from Nome back to Kaktovik, it's an easy way for us to do it and it's not that expensive or complicated," said Ketil. "We didn't really know how it would work out (the first year). Nobody had ever really traveled that far with racing dogs, so it was a little bit unknown for us too. It turned out pretty easy for us and it was comfortable and a great way to travel."

Ketil has been running teams in the Iditarod for decades. His sons have recently been getting into competitive mushing, as well. This year, Vebjørn placed fourth in the Yukon Quest and was named rookie of the year, using the same team that took him and his father back home after so many months on the go.

"We have tried to improve the team," Ketil explained. "We have kept the kennel small but we have replaced some of the dogs with better dogs. We have spent a bit of money to buy a few good dogs now and then to improve the team."

Having them cross-trained in racing and long-distance traveling has made them an easy team to handle, he said.

Good dog care and a focus on pacing are key tenets of his kennel, as well, especially knowing the same team will run multiple races each year and then have to be healthy and hearty enough to complete an extensive journey back to Kaktovik at the end of the season.

After the end of the Iditarod this year, Vebjørn had to fly back to Norway for a quick stint, so fellow Kaktovik polar bear guide, Robert Thompson, drove his snowmachine from Nome to Kotzebue while Ketil traveled with the team. His son met him there and the pair made their way north.

"After I joined my dad in Kotzebue, we went on our trip up to Kivalina and Point Hope," said Vebjørn. "We got to help out with spring whaling in Point Hope. I really enjoyed that. We had very nice traveling from Point Hope. After Point Hope, we went through the mountains up there and got to see some wildlife there. We got to see a grizzly bear and lots of eagles, lots of foxes and an owl. I think that was probably one of my favorite parts of the trail there, in the mountains northeast of Point Hope. I really enjoyed that part."

In Point Hope, they spent time with first-year whaling captains Herb and Emma Kinneeveauk, who happened to land a whale the same week.

"We lucked out," said Ketil. "We happened to be on the crew that got the first whale for the season. It's not many that go out in a boat, but we could see it in the far distance from the edge of the ice when they'd strike the whale. We helped pull up the whale, that was over 50 feet, up on the ice and that's a big event. We helped to cut it up and that's a great experience because Vebjørn had never seen the spring whaling before, so that was all new for him."

Each of the villages on the Slope has slightly different whaling practices and traditions and seeing those village-by-village differences was a highlight of the experience for Vebjørn.

"Like where we're at, we don't do spring whaling and we don't have belugas in the springtime. It's fun to see that in all these villages, they have different seasons and trading would have been very important, it seems to me," he said. "I hear stories from way back when like everybody used to travel lots and trade lots because they have different seasons and different resources and sharing is very important for everyone on the Slope. You can get what you need when you have friends in other places. It still goes on today. When somebody has a bad season spring whaling, you can get muktuk and meat. If you're lacking, people will help you out."

Vebjørn Aishana Reitan and his father, Ketil, enjoy a stop at Louis Nelson’s cabin on Kobuk Lake, outside Kotzebue. (Photo courtesy The Arctic Sounder)

From Point Hope, the pair went on to Point Lay, through Icy Cape, and on to Wainwright. They spent time with whaling crews in both Point Lay and Wainwright, but did not see any whales landed there.

Traveling by dog team to each of these communities has given Vebjørn a glimpse into older days on the Slope when what he and his father are doing now might not have seemed so different.

"It seems like (with) all these old trading routes, it all makes sense where all the villages are. We pass these places where you know there were camps and people used to live there," he said. "You see that dog mushing has been a way of traveling and you can really notice it on where people set up camps. Usually, there would be about 50 miles between where people used to live. That's a long trip for a dog team back then. For us, it's a little bit easier, but mostly you could go from camp to camp in the old days here."

The layout of the land and its dotting of villages make sense when seen through the lens of this older style of traveling.

Because not many people travel the same way anymore, the pair relied more on local knowledge of each of the areas to guide them to their next stopping point than well-worn trails in the snow.

"We'd go talk to somebody in each of the villages and they'd tell how to go to the next village, but usually there aren't any trails set up," said Vebjørn. "But the way the terrain is on the North Slope, you really don't have much use of a trail, at least not the way we're traveling where we have a light dog sled and snowmachine. We usually can get around wherever we want to. It's not too much trouble unless the river starts opening up in springtime. We were trying to get ahead of that before we got back home. We were kind of feeling the spring chasing us all the way up there."

He said they didn't encounter much open water except near some ice roads in the Prudhoe Bay area, which didn't pose much of a problem.

They made good time, too, at about 10 mph from Kivalina to Point Hope and a steady speed the rest of the way back to Kaktovik.

In every village, they stayed with local families, many of whom are related to Vebjørn on his mother's side. Getting to know these extended family members was another reason Ketil wanted to get his sons out to other villages.

"I would text my mom whenever we got to a village and say, 'Tell me who I'm related to there,'" said Vebjørn. "It was a big traveling family reunion."

In their final village on the list, Atqasuk, they stayed with cousins.

"That was also very special because that was one of the villages where Vebjørn's great-grandfather lived," said Ketil. "He had his sod house there right by the village. That was a special place."

From there, they made their way back up to the coast and home.

Now that this father-son combo has traveled to each of the North Slope villages and nearly all of the Inupiaq villages in the state, they have their eye on a new direction for future years. The sons have been trading off years, so in 2019, it will be Martin who travels with his father, possibly along a route through Canada, though Ketil said he's not sure of that yet.

Regardless of the route they take, it is sure to be an adventure in the merging of old and new with milestones of its own along the way.

This story was originally published in the Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission. 

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