Northern Greenland, March 2007

The next morning, the thick clouds had moved away and it turned out to be a nice and sunny day.

Sunrise Iceberg near hunters hut Iceberg near hunters hut Dogs awake
Sunrise over hunters hut Sunrise over hunters hut Sunrise over hunters hut Sunrise over hunters hut

Time to head out onto the ice.

Morning near hunters hut Snowfield in the morning Snowfield in the morning Glacier in the distance

But the routine was different from the previous days. We headed more or less directly towards an iceberg not far from the ice edge and stopped there. The Inuit guide climbed the iceberg and had a look around.

Iceberg outlook Iceberg outlook Iceberg outlook

Then we just waited a while.

After some time, more dog sledges arrived. It turned out that we were not here for seal hunting, but for walrus hunting, which is more a group activity. So all the sledges that were at the hut arrived at the iceberg after a while. One even had a boat in tow. (Unlike seals, walruses live near the open water, so sometimes you need to retrieve a dead walrus from the open water.)

Someone erected a tent over one of the sledges to provide a place to warm up (since they never did that anywhere else, I assume that's in case someone falls into the water and needs to get to somewhere warm quickly, but since nobody spoke English, I couldn't ask - maybe it was just for convenience).

Boat and tent on ice

At the foot of the iceberg, the dogs were secured to the ice and the hunters climbed up the iceberg to look for walruses.

Inuit on iceberg, watching for walrus Inuit on iceberg, dogs resting Dog resting near iceberg Dog resting near iceberg

And then all the hunters left, leaving just me, the hunter's wife and the dogs behind. (I have no idea why I had to stay behind. Whether it was deemed to risky for me to go, whether I didn't have the right clothing (the hunters changed from their usual polar bear gear to seal fur clothing), whether this is some kind of 'hunters only' thing, whether they were worried that I'd just get in the way, scare away the prey or some other reason. I also don't know whether they would have allowed me to go along, if I had shown any interest in doing so. As far as I was concerned, I had a couple of hours next to an iceberg and lots of opportunities to photograph the icebergs and the dogs, which I preferred to walrus hunting anyway.)

So I spent some time eating cookies, drinking coffee, watching the scenery and taking pictures. Nice way to spend the time!

Dog rests at iceberg Dog rests at iceberg Dog rests at iceberg Iceberg detail Iceberg detail
Dog rests at iceberg Dog rests at iceberg Dog rests at iceberg Iceberg detail Dog rests at iceberg
Iceberg detail Iceberg detail Iceberg detail

From time to time, a hunter would appear, drink some coffee and then head back towards the ice edge.

Inuit hunter looking for walrus

At some point a couple of shots could be heard in the distance, but in the end, the hunt was not successful.

I was more interested in an almost hysterical dog, anyway.

After an hour or so, one of the hunters had come back to put his dogs in front of the sledge and drive closer to the other hunters (probably to put the walrus on it, in case of a successful hunt). But he did not put all his dogs in front of it. One of the dogs was left behind.

Dog left behind

Everyone has probably seen one of those small dogs, which get quite worked up when their owner goes into a supermarket and has to leave the dog outside. And here on the ice, dogs are don't just have an owner, but they really live in packs. So when the owner and the pack leaves, these dogs probably feel very, very alone.

But still, this was not some little nervous city dog, but a fairly big 'outdoor', near-wolf, near-wild kind of animal. And the continuous howling was quite 'in character'.

Howling dog

Put he when the dog wasn't howling, it was yelping like a little puppy, which seemed pretty strange for a dog of this size.

The other dogs watched with a bit of a 'Who is this guy?' kind of look.

Dogs watching

And one thing can be said for sledge dogs: They have a lot of endurance. This dog kept howling and yelping for hours.

Dogs watching Dogs watching

Admittedly, he had a good reason for that. While a dog in the city probably gets taken care by someone in the long run, if a dog in this environment gets lost somewhere and the pack moves on, it is in real trouble. So trying to alert the rest of the pack that he's in trouble is a good strategy.

Whether jumping around in panic is a good strategy is another point. He was tied with his line to the ice close to some ice blocks and kept jumping up and over the ice blocks. Sometimes his line got entangled in the ice and at one point he jumped over an ice block with not enough line to make it to the ground on the other side, so he was just hanging there in his harness, legs dangling in the air. That looked a bit helpless, but after some twisting and turning, he managed to get back up again.

After two hours or so, he finally noticed something in the distance.

Dog looking

A sledge was coming.

Incoming sledge

Could that be his pack?

Incoming sledge

Yes, it was the right sledge and the other dogs soon were resting close to him.

Happy dog

For the next half hour or so, the dog kept switching from jumping up and down, trying as hard as possible to get back to the rest of the dogs, to 'ashamed puppy' behaviour, lying as low as possible on the ground, paws over its nose, in its best 'whatever I've done, I'll never do it again, if you only take me with you again' pose. I've no idea why that dog had been left behind. Maybe it had just misbehaved and the owner wanted to teach it a lesson. But usually, if a hunter wanted to teach on of the dogs a lesson, this tended to involve the dog whip (and, in severe cases, the handle of the dog whip) and not some psychological tricks.

In the afternoon, the walrus hunt was abandoned and all hunters went their separate ways again. Time for some more zigzagging over the ice, looking for seals. In the evening we returned to Siorapaluk.

This seemed a bit unplanned, since around sunset, we headed for the smaller hut we had been in two nights ago (on this map, it's marked as hut 1), but that hut was already used by three hunters, so there wasn't enough room for us. So the choice was either to head back to the slightly larger hut 2 or to go all the way back to Siorapaluk, about three hours away.

While heading towards Siorapaluk, we passed an interesting looking iceberg, which happened to have a large hole in the middle. The sun was already low in the sky, so when we passed by the iceberg, the sun was shining right through the hole.

Looking for seal holes Iceberg in frozen sea Iceberg with hole, backlit by setting sun Iceberg with hole, backlit by setting sun
Iceberg with hole, backlit by setting sun Iceberg with hole, backlit by setting sun Iceberg with hole, backlit by setting sun

After that, it turned dark quickly, with about two hours of dog sledding still to go.

Greenland coast at sunset Dog footprints in snow Dogs watching the sunset Sunset

Driving over the ice at night was actually quite idyllic, with an impressive number of stars above (the clouds were only near the horizon, the air was very clear and there were no light sources around at all - so it was a perfect night for stargazing). Leaning back on a sledge, gazing at the sky, is a nice, though rather unusual way to travel...

Dogs at sunset Dogs at sunset

The downside to this, however, was that we were unexpected and the house was rather cold. (And since it was much larger than the huts, it took a while to warm up.) Even worse, I woke up at 3 am to find that it was getting colder again. The oven had run out of petrol (or kerosene or whatever) and I had no idea where fuel was stored. So I put on the sweatshirt and snuggled a bit deeper into the sleeping bag.

So the only time during the trip where I actually felt a bit cold was not somewhere 'out there in the cold', but when I was safe inside a house in a settlement.

(Didn't matter, though. If it had been seriously cold, I probably could have found some petrol somewhere or wake someone in a nearby house. Since the house had warmed up a little while the oven was working, the temperature was probably still above freezing, which isn't much of a problem in a warm sleeping bag.)

Sunrise over ice field Sunrise over ice field Cloud formation

On the next day, I got to find out what happens if a seal comes up for breathing while the hunter stands next to its breathing hole.

The seal gets shot in the head and a metal hook at the end of a short pole is put through its head to keep it from drifting away. Since the breathing hole is fairly small, the seal can't be pulled out directly.

When a shot is heard, the dogs, which have been resting some distance away, run towards the hunter (pulling the sledge with them). The hunter can then (while still holding onto the pole with the metal hook and the seal at its end) retrieve the ice pick (a metal pole with a sharp point) from the sledge und hack the ice around the seal into small pieces. Then the ice pick is returned to the sledge and a shovel is picked up to remove the chunks of ice from the hole.

Only then can the seal be pulled out of the water.

It is immediately skinned, then cut open to remove the entrails, finally cut into pieces and stored on the sledge.

Dead seal on ice Dead seal on ice

Then the trip continued as usual.

Sunset over ice field Sunset over ice field Sunset over ice field Sunset over ice field

In the evening, we reached another wooden box to spend the night in.

Hunters hut (inside) Hunters hut (outside)

During the night clouds moved in and the sky was a bit overcast the next day. It probably had also snowed a bit, at least the dogs had a bit of snow on them.


The next day was another 'looking for seals' day (but without spotting any), so the pictures start to be 'more of the same'.

More resting dogs

Dogs at rest

More icy plains of frozen ocean with the occasional icebergs.

Snowfield Snowfield

And another wooden box at the end of the day.

Hunters hut (inside)

Although in this case, the modern container was much better than the alternative. Right next to the container was an old hut. A bit larger, but the roof had caved in, so the interior was not very inviting.

Old hut Old hut interior

So the modern container was a much cosier choice to spend the night.

Old and new hut

Later that evening, another hunter arrived, who just had a successful hunt. The hut got a bit more crowded, but after feeding the dogs, he also brought some seal in to make some stew.

Crowded hut

I don't think that "The Inuit hunter cookbook" would be a successful publishing venture.

The recipe boils down to: Fill a pot with water, throw in a handful of salt, throw in whatever you hunted, let it boil for two hours. Eat with ketchup. (Except for the ketchup bit, the recipe for fish is exactly the same...)

But it's rather unfair to make fun of it. Being out there on the ice, gourmet cooking is not much of an option (and seal prepared in a proper kitchen is done quite differently). And after a week, it makes a tasty alternative to cup noodles (even though the taste is admittedly, mainly 'salty ketchup' - but at least it doesn't 'taste like chicken'.)

The next day was already the final day of the first week on the dog sledge. We headed out fairly late that day, so there was some time to walk along the shore and take a couple of pictures. (The Inuit hunters were out on the ice to re-set some fishing lines.)

Sunrise near Qaanaaq Sunrise near Qaanaaq Sunrise near Qaanaaq Sunrise near Qaanaaq
Dogs awaking Dogs awaking Dogs awaking
Inuit hunter resetting fish lines Seal meat for the dogs Icebergs Old and new hunters hut

After the one overcast day, the weather had turned out to be nice and sunny again and we headed (one a slightly indirect route, due to hunting) back towards Qaanaaq. Time to lean back, to enjoy the day and the scenery.

Dogs pulling sledge Untangling the dog lines Dogs pulling sledge Dogs pulling sledge
Iceberg in frozen sea Iceberg in frozen sea Iceberg in frozen sea Iceberg in frozen sea
Iceberg in frozen sea Dogs pulling sledge

After heading out onto the ice, we started to turn towards Qaanaaq when we came upon yet another back frozen-over broken line in the ice with some breathing holes somewhere. The hunter stopped at one of the holes, the dogs, pulling the sledge and me, moved some distance away. Since the weather was fine and it was the last day, I wanted to take a few more pictures of the dogs, so I pulled off my mittens, got the camera, inserted the battery pack, got off the sledge to take a picture, when suddenly a shot rang out behind me and the dogs rushed away, pulling the sledge and my mittens with them. Fortunately it was a sunny day and it didn't feel particularly cold, even though it was still about -20°C.

Dogs waiting during hunt

This time, the seal was larger than the one caught two days earlier, so getting it out of the water took a bit more effort. The dogs were also more interested (especially one of them), so they were told with the whip to keep some more distance.

Dead seal on ice Dead seal on ice, dog whip

After catching the seal, we went continued directly towards Qaanaaq. (Although it's fairly hard to see, the flipper of the seal can be seen sticking out of the side of the sledge in the next picture.)

Heading towards Qaanaaq Another iceberg Nice 'castle' iceberg Nice 'castle' iceberg

We arrived in Qaanaaq in the early afternoon. My first week being out with an Inuit hunter on the ice was over.

Back in the hotel, my luggage was waiting for me. The first thing I did was to pull out the electric shaver and get rid of ten days worth of stubble. (Not that I didn't suspect in advance, but one thing the trip did tell me: Beards don't suit me.)

Except for this, I was slightly surprised that I didn't feel I had been missing anything. Getting under a shower was very nice after a week and getting out of the smelly underwear was also pleasant, but I wasn't really craving for something.

I had expected that there would be something that I would be seriously looking forward too ("Finally, a real bed again.", "Potatoes! What joy!", "Bread rolls for breakfast. How I missed that!", "A can of coke that does not freeze the second it is opened. Yeah!", "A real toilet to sit on. I almost forgot how they look like!"), but while the comfort certainly was appreciated (I'm not going to pretend that I went all ascetic and desired to live without luxury), not having it 'on the road' (well, even shunning the luxury of having a road :-) didn't really matter.

I also felt much less exhausted than I had anticipated. I originally had planned for a couple of days off between the dog sledge trips to relax and recover in case I had been worn out during the trip, but sitting on the sledge was much more comfortable than expected.

The day ended with another impressive sunset, witnessed from the comfort of the dining table at the hotel.

Qaanaaq sunset Qaanaaq sunset Qaanaaq sunset Qaanaaq sunset

Time to spend a couple of days in Qaanaaq before heading out on the ice again.

Onwards to the next part about Greenland.

Back to other travels