Or Dog Sledding in Greenland

Laura Valenti, Ilulissat, January 2006

    Our decision to go to Western Greenland in January was taken in August. We were so hot and uncomfortable that we began to long for cold weather, real cold weather. So we started planning this winter holiday to Ilulissat.

The plane brought us from home to Copenhagen, then to Kangerlussuaq, Western Greenland. The weather there was rather mild and we felt reassured. After all, this time, we were on 70 degrees North, instead of the usual 80 degrees North, therefore it must be warmer. So we took another plane to Ilulissat which is about 45 minutes flight North of Kangerlussuaq. Not far away. At our arrival there it was already dark being 4 o´clock p.m., and shortly after the end of the polar night. We landed smoothly. Looking out of the window we noticed a lot of snow whirling around. The effect of the plane´s propellers, Klaus-Dieter explained to me. We got out of the plane, went down the stairs and nearly fell. The “wind caused by the propellers” was very strong indeed. But the propellers were standing still… We looked around and everything looked like in a cloud of powder sugar. The propellers - right. I started to feel very thankful for the safe landing in this crazy wind. Some one came to fetch us at the airport. This lady made us get into her jeep and explained that the weather was really bad, which of course we hadn´t noticed yet. And that the road was very steep, braking would be difficult and it would be good to try to stay on the street. Right. Obviously the visibility was awful, she had to stop every 10 meters because she couldn´t tell where the street was. And on both sides of the road there was a precipice leading into the fjord. We tried very hard to stay on the street. Our relief was big when we finally entered the village. She dropped us off at our apartment. A charming little flat in the centre of Ilulissat.

We unpacked, got dressed decently and went out to run some errands. We needed to have dinner after all. It was icily cold and the wind chill didn´t help. 70 degrees North, right, but no gulf stream…We got what we needed, walked back to our new home and started cooking. We had a good dinner and were happy to be inside. Outside the wind was whistling. When we tried to do the dishes we realized that we had no running water. So we called the number of the lady who had met us at the airport. She sent some one who arrived after 5 minutes only and very shortly after we had running water again. Fabulous. We chatted a bit and all of the sudden Klaus-Dieter said that he was really chilly. And it was really cold in the apartment. We checked on the heating: it wasn´t working. To be in the Arctic winter with no heating at all isn´t very attractive. We called again. Some one came to fix the heating very quickly. So we were warm again. We decided to go to bed. I wanted to take a shower-no water! Well, better to be without water than without heating. It´s always possible to melt snow after all. We called again. The chap came by again and fixed the water. Before going to bed we prepared some candles and matches- just in case the electric power stopped working…Welcome to Greenland!

We slept really well (and warmly), had breakfast and realized that we had no running water again. So we made another phone call, but unfortunately only the chap´s wife was home and she spoke no word of English. We then left to have a walk in the surroundings. The weather was great and we were longing to see the icebergs. Ilulissat is a magic place, surrounded by huge icebergs, up to 100 meters high (and 800 meters deep under the sea level). The houses are very neat and colourful. And the people are very friendly. We were thrilled to be here and soon forgot the water and heating problems. We had lunch in a hotel located in a fantastic spot with view on the Isfjord. In town we found a man who helped us get in touch with the owner of our apartment. The water problem got permanently fixed and the heating continued to work. Perfect!

Winter in the Arctic is very stressful for the body. We were both exhausted after only a two-hour stroll through town. Keeping warm at those temperatures isn´t evident. We had a sound dinner and went to bed really early. The following day we went on a boat trip. The Isfjord wasn´t frozen this year and it was possible to go there by boat. We dressed really warmly and went down to the harbour. To get on the boat was an acrobatic event. I had so many clothes on that I could hardly move, let alone see my feet. I managed after all to get on the boat (don´t ask me how- there was no ladder). We were told that it was wiser not to fall into the sea- you tell- death occurs after about two minutes. The trip was very impressive. Huge icebergs, all in water colours, the sun rising and shining on these huge pieces of ice- cathedrals as we call them- it makes you become humble. The trip lasted 2 ½ hours, with freezing temperatures. With great awe we admired the Isfjord. After about 1 ½ hours we decided to go inside the cabin of the boat. We were cold. Niels, our Inuit driver, greeted us warmly. But that was the only warm thing inside. The window was widely open, the air was as cold inside as it had been outside, there was ice everywhere inside the cabin. As I had undressed enthusiastically when entering the cabin I soon started to be colder than outside. One wouldn´t want to sweat in Greenland, would one? Well, Niels was apparently feeling at ease. He couldn´t understand that we hurried outside again.

We finally arrived and were day-dreaming of a warm soup- which we cooked as soon as we got home. We were thrilled at the fact that the water and heating were working properly. After one liter of soup and a hot chocolate we manged to start to undress and look more like our usual selves. Life in Greenland is somewhat different from life in Switzerland. The surroundings are obviously different, but also the pace of life is much more slowed down. Working hours start at 9 or 10 o´clock. People have time, they chat with each other and laugh a lot. No one seems to be in a hurry. I find it impressive that every day life doesn´t seem to take into consideration that temperatures are freezingly cold. There is construction going on, roofs are being laid as if it was the most evident thing to do. Laundry is washed and hung up outside!? Perhaps the clothes keep longer after having been deeply frozen?

The water stems from a water tank. There are no water pipes. A lorry goes to the one water house (where the water pipeline ends), fills its tank with fresh water and then distributes it to the houses. A green light attached at the house´s walls means that the tank must be filled, a red light that it has just been filled.Life up here is hard. But the most fabulous thing to do here is to go dog-sledding. Sledges are vehicles of transportation here, contrary to Svalbard, where transportation occurs by snow scooters and dog sledges are used for tourist purposes only. Greenlandic huskies are huge and very wolf-like. Even from the outside they look much more like wolves than dogs. We were told not to pet or cuddle them as they aren´t used to that. We were also told that they wouldn´t let us drive the sledges even if we had already done so in Svalbard. We soon understood why. I was put on a sledge owned by Niels (another Niels!). His 12 dogs were pulling it. The Greenlandic way of attaching dogs to the sledge differs from the Svalbardian way: they are attached standing in a row, i.e. one dog standing beside the other. In Svalbard the dogs are running behind each other. So we had 12 “engines”. Those dogs are so powerful, they look more like a power engine or a bulldozer than anything else. They are very well trained. No fussing, no barking or biting. ”Iu-iu” (pronounced “you”) is left, ”ili,ili” is right. So Niels communicated with them by shouting these orders. There was a word for “stop” (no brakes on the sledge!) and one for “faster”. Compared to the dog sledding we had done so far in Svalbard this trip was much more adventurous. We quickly understood why we weren´t allowed to drive the sledges .It is as if you compared a walk on a motorway to mountain-climbing: one thing is easy, the other takes some skills and practice. It all started very smoothly. I was sitting on a sledge with my legs sticking out on both sides of the sledge, Niels, the Inuit driver, was sitting between my legs. We were both dressed very wearmly: he was wearing trousers made of polar bear skin and a very warm anorak on top. I was wearing long, warm underwear, one insulating sweater ,three polar fleece pullovers, two polar fleece jackets, a coat with down feathers, two fleece leggings, down trousers, gore-tex trousers and seal-skin trousers which I had borrowed here, plus four pairs of socks and very thick boots. Then of course my balaklava (bank robbery mask) and the “Russian cap” (rabbit skin). I have to admit that dressed like that I just managed not to freeze…

Well, we took off and the beginning was very easy going .I wondered what all that fuss was about. But soon the trip started to be exciting indeed. First we climbed quite a tall hill ( the dogs are like engines…), then the huskies raced down the hill in a crazy speed. Communication with Niels consisted of three words in English only: Freezing? Photograph? Okay? And of course body language. He made signs not to try to take pictures ,but to grip to the rope attached to the sledge. What a wise idea. We raced over frozen lakes (don´t ask me how the dogs managed to skate over it…), even rocks seemed to be no obstacles. And all at an unbelievable speed. It was a lot of fun. The dogs were stirred very skilfully. Only once we had a rather unplanned descent. We had just climbed one of those steep hills again. I don´t know what went wrong after that but all of the sudden we ended between two huge rocks. The dogs decided to pass on one of those rocks. The other rock was very close by to the rock we were passing. As I was sitting with both legs sticking out on the two sides of the sledge my right foot was about to hit the rock. I couldn´t move that leg because Niels was sitting between my legs. I was already imagining my bones crack when Niels all of the sudden took my right foot and swung it over his right shoulder. That made me twist around, so I ended lying on my belly and hugging the sledge- a rather unusual position for dog- seldding. In the meantime we had reached the top of the rock and started to fly ( it was like a ski-jump) - the sledge literally took off- after several meters we landed on the snow again, Niels pulled at my right foot and turned me back into a sitting position. He turned around, smiled and asked “okay?”- and off we went.

It was a lot of fun, but rather acrobatic at times. After about 1 ½ hours we arrived at the Isfjord and watched the sun which was just illuminating the huge icebergs. I can´t describe the beauty of it. It was as if we were on another planet, perhaps the moon, with ice, ice and ice, the red sun, the dogs who were calmly eating some snow, and the smiling Inuit. Fabulous. We had some tea and biscuits. We took some pictures and managed after a while to slow down our heart rates. We also observed two Inuits who had previously passed us with a 20-dog-sledge fishing for seals on the pack ice. Niels explained that it was a very dangerous fishing, as the ice isn´t very thick (otherwise they can´t dig holes for fishing into the ice) and the risk to break through the ice with lethal consequences for men and dogs is high. What an amazing people. I do admire how they manage to survive in that nature. If our dog-sledding trip was a “tourist-trip” I prefer not to imagine how they usually drive their sledges when they are without tourists…

The way back was about as adventurous as before. When we were about to go down another steep hill, Niels stopped the sledge and attached the dogs on the back of the sledge, so they would brake instead of accelerating the sledge. He told us that they usually tie up to six seals on one sledge, with many more dogs pulling it than for a two-person-trip. We arrived thrilled, excited and exhausted at the same time. What an exceptional experience! We kindly declined the offer for a two-day trip with a sleep-over in a hut “with even a stove”. We were so exhausted after three hours, 2 days: no way…After our usual soup and hot chocolate we started to recover again. Just in time to find out that we were without running water again. By now experienced Greenlandic inhabitants we made the usual phone call assuming (correctly) that some one would come and fix the problem. At least for the time being. And the heating still worked,so who cares?Every where else I would have been angry thinking that these flats aren´t exactly cheap after all and I´d expect the water to work. But here I really can´t blame them. Everybody is being helpful but circumstances are so extreme that one simply can´t expect perfection. It is so much more important to have a competent dog-sledge driver than running water. Or to be warm than to be clean. It´s the Arctic after all. And looking out of the window, looking at these magic and magnificent icebergs I wonder what our every day problems are all about. We have everything, our lives are so insignificant compared to this powerful nature. It´s really humbling.

These icebergs are so old. Water, a tiny molecule with such effects, the water we lack at this very moment is present in the snow, the clouds, the frozen lakes and rivers and the icebergs. It keeps regenerating itself as the circle of nature keeps showing us over and over again. The iceberg will eventually melt and evaporate, become a cloud, snow down to earth, be pressed together in a glacier, break off at the edge and end up being an iceberg. In a way that´s what life is all about: birth, adult life, death, decomposition and hence creating the essence for new life again. The population here lives this circle much more naturally than we do- and under what circumstances! I wish we would learn from them. They seem to be more mature and wiser than most “civilized” people I know back home.

Kalaallit Nunaat, qujanaq- thank you, Greenland, for that experience!

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