Northern Greenland, March 2007

Time to go on the first dog sledge tour (blue line).

Sledge tours and walks near Qaanaaq

My gear was tied to the sledge, I sat down at the rear of the sledge, the dogs were attached to the front and off we went. Since the dogs aren't attached in pairs to a long line (as in Scandinavia or Canada), but are all attached with individual lines to a short pulling line, getting ready to go only takes a couple of moments. The hunter just collects his dogs (which are usually separated in two or three groups when tied to the ground), threads the pulling line through all the individual lines, ties a loop and the sledge is ready to go.

The trickiest part of the day is usually getting onto the sea ice. In most cases the sledge and the dogs rest on solid ground during the night. The tides raise and lower the sea ice and this causes breakage along the shore. So there's usually an area along the coast line that has uneven ice and a bit of a drop.

The dogs run down to the sea ice and the sledge rushes down behind them. If a dog's line gets caught on some precipice on the ice (or the dog just stops and turns around), the sledge can run right into it.

Here are two typical examples of the uneven ice along the shore:

Tidal break bear the coast Tidal break bear the coast

When sledges travel to specific destinations (as opposed to being on a hunt), they tend to follow existing tracks, so that 'arctic highways' start to emerge, like the one from Qaanaaq to Siorapaluk that is visible in the image above.

The first day was mainly just travel. We started in Qaanaaq and the aim was Siorapaluk, where Otto (the Inuit hunter on whose sledge I was travelling) lives.

The ride on the dog sledge was surprisingly smooth. I had expected it to be more like a cart ride on a cobblestone street, but the ride only became rough when going over seriously uneven ice like this:

Broken ice field

Most of the time it felt like a sailing trip. You travel across the sea, sit on deck and watch the scenery go by slowly. Most of the time the sea is calm and flat, but sometimes there are stretches where it is a bit rougher and the thing you are sitting on rocks a bit. But on a sledge you can just jump off and run along beside, which is difficult on ships, unless you're a major religious figure...

There doesn't seem to be a typical number of dogs to a sledge. As far as I could tell, every hunter just puts all his dogs in front of the sledge and that's it.

In front of the sledge that I was on were fifteen dogs.

It's hard to say whether they were friendly or not. Most tourist guides warn you against approaching the dogs. There's also a common warning that they will not really threaten you before any attack, but just go ahead and aim for the throat, so trying to go near them to find how they react might not be a good idea.

Most of this is probably scare lore, but I wasn't really willing to put that to a test. And due to language barriers, I couldn't ask my guide whether the dogs were dangerous. (At least among themselves, they attack without warning. When fighting for position in the pack, they usually just walked up to another dog from behind and bit it behind the ears. Growling and threatening behaviour only started when one of the dog was already down and the other was standing above it.)

Anyway, whether the individual dogs were friendly didn't matter anyway, since fifteen dogs aren't really fifteen dogs, but a pack and group behaviour becomes much more relevant than individual behaviour.

At least in the older dogs. There were only two dogs that showed a significant individualistic behaviour and these were probably the youngest dogs (although that is hard to tell from looking at the dogs, since they are all pretty large dogs and the typical signs of young dogs are hidden somewhere deep under a lot of fur).

Some sledge dogs

I am not sure whether the sledge dogs had individual names, but to myself, I named the most curious one of the dogs 'Batman' (after a similar looking sledge dogs I had seen in Iceland).

Sledge dog 'Batman' Batman and Shithead Sledge dog 'Batman' Sledge dog 'Batman'

While most of the other dogs were mainly concerned with what Otto was doing, 'Batman' usually showed interest in what the odd person sitting on the sledge was doing. And the one trying out how close he could get to the sledge without something bad happening to it, which had me worried for a couple of days.

On the other hand, he seemed pretty inexperienced. Sitting in the middle of a tangle of lines when all the other dogs start running, for example, is a bad idea. In the second picture above, he is under the lines, but on two occasions he managed to be right on top of the lines and get all four legs entangled in them. So while the other dogs were running, he was hanging there from a tangle of lines, all legs in the air, looking like a roped calf in a rodeo, being dragged along in front of the sledge. The dogs are quite tough, so nothing much happened, but no other dog managed to act that inexperienced. (And since the dog otherwise made a fairly inquisitive impression and showed some ability to learn, I assume that it was lack of experience and not stupidity.)

It was also clever enough to figure out that, if you run just a bit behind the other dogs, running gets much easier. Very often you could just identify where the dog was running by looking for the slack line that was not stretched taunt. But then, he hadn't yet learned that if you run with a slack line over uneven terrain, the line can get caught on a bit of ice that is sticking out and you get pulled backwards and under the sledge...

Regarding the attachment of the dogs to the sledge: It is usually called 'fan formation', since the dogs can spread out like a fan, but as far as the lines are concerned; it is usually more a 'tangle formation'. If I ever see a picture showing the lines going out straight to the dogs, I'll know that the picture has been taken within a minute after the trip started. The dogs don't have a specific order in which they run, so they move back and forth, squeeze between some other dogs, get pushed aside... So the lines start to look more like a spider web than a fan.

Tangled sledge lines Tangled sledge lines Tangled sledge lines Tangled sledge lines

When the lines became too tangled, it was time for a stop to get everything sorted out again. When going over flat areas, the lines were untangled about every two hours or so. It sort of helped when they were tangled, since the dogs just had to run closer to each other, so they would all pull in the same direction and not waste energy with some pulling more towards the left and some more toward the right. But when the ice became more broken, there was always a stop to untangle the lines, so the dogs had more freedom to pick their own way across the ice rubble.

Untangling the lines

When the dogs run over flat ice with just a thin layer of snow over it, they manage to more than 15 km/h, but most of the time, the speed was around 10 km/h. So it takes about seven hours 'running time' to get from Qaanaaq to Siorapaluk.

I wasn't quite sure in advance how much the cold would bother me. I had been to cold places before, but I usually was just outside for an hour or two and there was some warmed tent or another heated place nearby. But on this tour I was out all day and if I got cold, there wasn't much of a chance to get to someplace warm, soon.

But it turned out to be not much of an issue. I got fairly cold fingers when I took them out of the mittens to take a photograph (but only in the first week - I had my liner gloves in my checked in baggage) and two or three times my nose felt very cold, but as far as the core body temperature was concerned; I never felt during the sledge tour at all.

Basically the guide to being warm in arctic environments is:

As far as the first point is concerned, what you wear is mainly a matter of lifestyle and preference. The first day, walking alone on the ice, I was wearing down trousers and a leather jacket. When on the sledge, I was wearing polar bear pants and a sheep wool lined anorak. When walking alone among the icebergs after the trip, I was wearing down trousers and a light down jacket. Essentially, it didn't make much of a difference.

If you are dressed in warm clothing that is reasonably wind proof, it doesn't really matter what it is. (At least at -25°C. In areas where it gets really cold, things might be different. But for just being outside and not doing much, clothing in which you feel warm after being outside for five minutes will probably be fine for the whole day.)

Unless you get wet. To quote from a book by Matty McNair: "In the Arctic, if you get wet you die!" So don't.

(This is also probably the point where different kinds of clothing, such as 'traditional', 'outdoor' and 'expedition' clothing, 'dressing in layers' and all the other advice about the 'right' gear and the 'right' way to dress matters. If you get wet somehow, it is likely to be quite important what you wear, how quickly it affects you and how long it takes to get dry again. But I didn't get wet, so it didn't really matter what I was wearing.)

Anyway, this is me in my rented gear:

Warm clothing, Inuit style Warm clothing, Inuit style

The shoes are kamiks, made from seal skin with lamb fur on the inside. The trousers are polar bear fur and the anorak has lamb fur on the inside. There were also sealskin mittens with woollen mittens inside, but they are not on the pictures, since I had to take them off to set up the camera. (I also had a reindeer fur anorak, but that one shedded fur like crazy and I carried it only 'in case of emergency' on the first trip and didn't take it on the second trip at all.)

On the trip to Siorapaluk, we stopped at a couple of seal holes, but mostly we kept moving. Otto lives in Siorapaluk, so he was heading home. In the meantime, I tried to get comfortable on the sledge. Which was surprisingly easy. Within limits, it is a lot like a moving sofa.

So I could sit there, look at the scenery and take a picture from time to time. Since I didn't have my non-digital camera with me, I was very careful with the battery packs of my digital one(s). I kept the batteries in my inner trouser pocket, where they were warm. When I wanted to take a picture, I took my fingers out of the mittens, my battery out of the pocket, my camera out of the bag and inserted the camera. Then I quickly took two or three pictures (without reviewing them on the screen), removed the battery pack and stored everything away. Then I put my fingers back into the mittens and kept moving them for the next ten minutes to get some warmth back into them...

Qaanaaq to Siorapaluk Qaanaaq to Siorapaluk Qaanaaq to Siorapaluk Qaanaaq to Siorapaluk Qaanaaq to Siorapaluk

At one point on the third or fourth day, there was a very nice sunset, and I was wondering what the best 'moment' for taking a picture would be, since I knew that once I took out the camera and took a picture, I wouldn't be able to do it again for at least five minutes and by then the sunset would be over...


Siorapaluk is a fairly small place (according to the Wikipedia it had 87 inhabitants in 2005). Its main claim to fame is that it is "now the northernmost natural settlement". (The 'settlement' part is in there because there are research outposts like Alert in Canada that are farther to the North. The 'natural' stuff is in there because places in Svalbard/Spitsbergen are also farther to the North, but they were build by mining companies. And the 'now' part is because Etah (a bit farther north in Greenland) used to be a natural settlement, but now it's no longer permanently inhabited. But anyway, it's about as far as you can get in Greenland and still have electricity, toilets and a shop. So it's the last outpost of civilisation...)

And I got my first reminder that, on this trip, it was expected that the tourist (well, me) can take care of himself.

We arrived in the early evening. My bags were untied from the sledge. Otto pointed at my gear and a nearby house. I carried my stuff to the house, which was already warmed up. And nothing happened. My guide went to another house and I didn't quite know what to do.

So I went to the kitchen, found some container which seemed to contain drinking water and started to thaw one of the food cans, prepared dinner, found some dishes and ate. Later, when I was writing some notes, two kids just came in (I'd guess a ten year old boy with his five year old sister), stood next to the table an just stared at me.

I didn't quite know what to do. I'm not the best communicator with young kids at the best of times and even worse after a long day doing strange things in a strange environment.

But fortunately it turned out that the boy spoke some basic English, so I could find out that this was Otto's house, that the container really had been drinking water, and that Otto stayed somewhere else for the night.

And it also turned out that I was in a (for me) alien environment. At some point he pointed at some bird feathers at the wall and mentioned "It's a bird" and I asked "Seagull?" and he nodded. So I pointed at a seal skin hanging at the wall and asked "Seal?" and he answered quite proudly "Yes. My first. I shot!"

So while other places might have a child's first tooth or hair or pair of shoes displayed prominently, here the first hunting trophy had a place of honour.

If it wasn't obvious that Siorapaluk was pretty much a hunting society, it was now.

After while the kids left and I could unroll my sleeping bag on the floor and catch some sleep.

I got up early next day to take a look around. There seemed to have been a small amount of snow over the night. And there was a very rosy sunrise.

Dog sledge at Siorapaluk Siorapaluk at sunrise Sleepy dog at Siorapaluk Siorapaluk at sunrise
Siorapaluk at sunrise Early morning in Siorapaluk Siorapaluk at sunrise Early morning in Siorapaluk
Early morning in Siorapaluk Dogs in Siorapaluk Coastal ice

Then I went back to the house and made some breakfast. At some time during the morning, Otto came over and indicated that we'd leave in an hour, so it was time to head into the great white open for good...

Out in the great white open...

The first stop was near a boat at the coast, to fetch some binoculars. It's quite obvious from the picture which dog would soon be hanging upside down in the pulling lines.

Dogsledge near boat at the coast

For the next two days, the basic seal hunting routine became clear. We would move across the ice until the hunter spotted a breathing hole. Then he'd fetch his gun and a stick with a metal hook at the end, stand near the hole and send the dogs (and with me and the sledge) away. The dogs would run for about a hundred meters (ideally to the next breathing hole, but usually they just stopped at some random place) and rest.

Dogs at rest

The hunter (seen at the far left on the picture above) would then stand for about 15 minutes at the hole and wait for a seal to come up. Then he would get back to the sledge and continue to the next breathing hole.

While (as far as I could tell) there wasn't much consideration of the fact that there was a tourist on the sledge, it turned out to be a very 'vacation style' way of travelling. A bit of a dog sledge ride, then stopping at some random place, having time for a cookie or chocolate bar, taking some pictures of dogs or nearby icebergs and then moving on to some other place on the ice.

Distant icebergs Dogs at rest Frozen in iceberg
Iceberg frozen in ice Dogs at rest Iceberg frozen in ice
Inuit hunter and dogs Iceberg frozen in ice Iceberg frozen in ice

From time to time an iceberg served as a convenient viewing platform.

Inuit hunter on iceberg Dogs at rest

For seal hunting, we generally stayed away from the ice edge and the open water and kept more to the fjords. But it was obvious how close the open water was, since the fog over it was quite visible.

Open water in the distance Open water in the distance Open water in the distance

In the evening, we arrived at a hut. I'm not quite sure what I expected from "Accommodation: hunters' hut", but I assumed it would be something like an alpine hiking hut. It turned out that the huts in northern Greenland are more basic. Essentially, they are a wooden box with a sleeping platform.

Hunter hut interior

I didn't really mind, but it took me a bit by surprise. Usually, I'm pretty much for having a certain amount of comfort (preferable lots of it...) I don't really believe in 'living rough' for the sake of a more 'authentic' experience. Given the choice of a camping site and a hotel, I'll choose the hotel ten times out of ten. But if there's not any choice, I don't mind basic accommodation at all. And I was here to see the frozen ocean and the icebergs and not for whirlpools and wellness.

Next day, we headed into the fjord that had Diebitsch Glacier at its end. The day was spent with the usual seal hunting routine, looking at the fjord from some vantage point (this time at the shore, not on an iceberg), following breaks in the ice to look for breathing holes, the hunter waiting at the holes for seals, (me and the dogs being about a hundred meter away) and then moving on.

Fjord near Diebitsch Glacier Hunter on vantage point Waiting for seals Waiting for seals
Fjord near Diebitsch Glacier Fjord near Diebitsch Glacier Fjord near Diebitsch Glacier Fjord near Diebitsch Glacier
Frost on ice Fjord near Diebitsch Glacier Fjord near Diebitsch Glacier Hunter looking from iceberg

The sky was overcast for most of the day and the icebergs mainly appeared as white silhouettes in the distance. Looked nice.

Iceberg silhouettes Iceberg silhouettes

While seals mostly just stay below the ice and use their breathing holes, the sometimes come up on the ice to sleep. Which is a bit of a disadvantage when hunters are around, since they are visible on the flat, shadowless ice for miles. On the other hand, the seals can also spot the dog sledges from some distance, so the hunter has to try shooting the seal from a long way off, which, given the slightly old and rusty guns that are used, usually result in an unhurt seal heading back quickly below the ice after hearing shot. So while they are visually hard to miss, ballistically they are easy to miss.

Slightly rusty gun

On that day, there was a seal resting on the ice in the fjord, but it got away easily. (It was the only living seal I did see on this trip.)

Just in case this is starting to sound like a significant decimation of the number of seals in the area: Seal hunting is quite inefficient. In the whole first week on the dog sledge, the number of seals that the hunter I was with actually hunted was two. The first days were nothing but standing at holes and waiting.

In the evening we arrived at a slightly bigger hut than on the previous day. It actually looked like a house.

Old hut near Qaanaaq

But only from the distance.

Closer up, it turned out that the middle part had no roof anymore and was unusable and only the left side room was inhabitable. But there were already a three sledges in front of the house (two solitary hunters and a husband/wife team) and more arriving, so the hut was too small.

After some snow shovelling and a bit of repair work (converting a broken and a double glazed window in two intact single glazed windows), the room at the right side was made useable. With a couple of heaters and burners it quickly became warm and turned into home for the night for five people.

Hunters at hut Hunters hut

Onwards to the next part about Greenland.

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