Steensby Land, Northern Greenland, March 2007

We left Inglefield Fjord and crossed the Hvalsund near the entry to Olrik Fjord, once again looking for breathing holes and (unsuccessfully) for seals.

Clouds come up over the mountains. This is not a good sign. A storm is approaching.

Bad weather coming soon Distant iceberg Frozen fjord

We continue driving along breaks in the ice and the clear blue sky turns into a bluish grey cloud cover with only a small strip of clear sky near the horizon.

A break in the ice Following break in the ice A break in the ice A break in the ice

Then we headed for a small hut on the shore.

A break in the ice

Basically, the hut was the same type of hunter's hut I had seen before, a wooden hood with a sleeping platform inside.

Another hunters hut

I carried my gear up to the hut while Otto was dealing with the dogs and securing the sledge. When I opened the hut, there were two noticeable things:

  1. While there was nobody in the hut, the hut was heated and two sleeping beds were on the sleeping platform.
  2. There was a dead seal lying next to the heater.

Dead seal in hut

I never really found out what the seal was doing there. The two hunters, who had spent the previous night in the hut and were still out on the ice somewhere, joined us about an hour later and the small hut got a bit crowded. So they took out the dead seal, skinned it and the three Inuit fed the meat to their dogs.

Feeding the dogs Feeding the dogs Feeding the dogs

Usually the seals are skinned, disembowelled and cut up immediately after they are pulled out of the water. The only reason for dragging an unskinned seal into the hut and leaving it next to the heater for hours would be that the seal was left out too long and did freeze. Then there would be the need to thaw it again to be able to skin it properly. But I have no idea why they didn't skin it when they caught it. And since none of them spoke English, I couldn't ask.

The next morning it was very windy outside and everyone stayed in the hut for most of the day. (According to the weather data I looked up later, that day was with -30°C the coldest day of my vacation.) Only late in the afternoon, everybody got ready to leave the hut. The windy weather had one advantage: by that time, almost the entire cloud layer had been blown away and most of the sky was cloudless again.

While we were sitting in the hut, the wind howling outside (which, by the way, always sounds scarier if you are inside - inside I had the expression that the hut might be blown away any minute and that it was an incredibly violent storm, going outside, which from time to time was unavoidable, it was merely a bit windy), the hunters asked me whether I had a mirror with me.

Although 'asked' makes it sound simpler than it was. It took a fairly long charade until I figured out what they wanted from me. Miming a mirror is reasonably easy, but miming 'do you have a mirror that you can give to us' is a lot more difficult, especially if you don't know whether the other person did understand you correctly. But since we weren't going anywhere, we had lots of time. So after an embarrassing long time, I figured out what they wanted. But I usually don't have a mirror with me on travels. But then I realized that I actually had one with me this time. Since my luggage had been delayed, Air Greenland in Ilulissat had given me an 'overnight pack' with stuff like soap, shampoo, a hairbrush, a t-shirt and stuff like this. And I had taken the hairbrush with me. And it had a small mirror in the handle!

So I was able to offer a mirror, but I didn't quite understand what they needed it for, since they just put it aside.

Later, when the wind had subsided, all three hunters readied their sledges and we drove to a glacier, about ten kilometers away.

Iceberg Incoming sledge Incoming sledge Glacier

Only when we arrived there, it became clear what the whole 'mirror' business was all about.

There was a hole from seal hunting in the ice (now frozen over). Using a pick, the ice was broken up again and the comb with the mirror was tied to a wooden pole. Then one of the hunters lay down on the ice and stuck the pole into the water, using the mirror to look under the ice for a seal.

They had shot a seal the previous day, but didn't manage to hook it properly, so it had drifted away under the ice and they didn't know where it went. With the mirror, they could see a dark shape under the ice (only a couple of meters away) and made another hole in the ice at that point.

And the dead seal was right there.

Mirror on a stick Finding the seal Retrieving the seal Retrieving the seal

So the seal was harpooned (so that it couldn't drift away again) and pulled to the surface. Since it was fairly large, no attempt was made to pull it out with a hook. Instead, the head was cut open on both sides and a rope was threaded through the head.

Rope through the seal head Rope through the seal head

Since the seal was much larger than the ones I had seen previously, it wasn't easy to get it out of the water (the fact that the surface here was ice with no layer of snow on top of it didn't help matters) and in the end it took the combined pulling efforts of three people and five sledge dogs to get it out on the ice.

Seal on the ice

I'm not sure what kind of seal it was. I had assumed that it was a bearded seal (the little beard was a bit of a give-away), but according to one source, they live only in the south of Greenland. So it might have been a harp seal or a hooded seal. But since the seal didn't have any fur, just a leathery hide, it is still likely that it was a bearded seal. (It also seemed to be to large and heavy to be a harp seal)

Whatever kind of seal it was, the hide was cut into three stripes and pulled of. (This is the source material for the shoes the hunters were wearing. Luckily, this was something that was easy to explain by pointing.)

After the hide was removed and every hunter got a strip, the tail end got cut off to be 'peeled' later. (It's a bit like peeling an orange or an apple - a small strip is cut in spiral so that the result is a long, thin stripe of leather, which will later become a dog whip.) Then the seal was cut open and the entrails removed.

Removing the seal hide Removing the seal hide

Then the seal was cut open and the entrails removed. Then the body was cut in three parts and the hunters cut their parts in smaller pieces and stored them on the sledges. It was fairly late in the evening when everything was distributed and securely fastened to the sledges and it was time to drive back to the hut.

Removing the seal hide

In the Arctic tradition of "Predictable weather pattern? What's that supposed to be?", the cloudy and stormy day was followed by a clear day without any wind.

Since looking for the seal on the previous day took until late in the evening, everyone, including the dogs, took it easy that morning and I had time to take a couple more images.

Steensby Land shore Seal ready to be packed on sledge Seal hides ready for transport Dog sledges on Steensby Land shore
Dog sledgeson Steensby Land shore Disgruntled sledge dog Disgruntled sledge dog Disgruntled sledge dog

Then it was time to leave the hut behind.

Hunters hut

It was already the last day of the second dog sledge tour and in the evening I would be back in Qaanaaq. One more chance to enjoy gliding over the snow and ice and relax in the sunshine.

We started out over some icy ground, which was a good base for a fast ride. (In most of the places we travelled by dog sledge, there was some layer of snow over the ice. Around here, the raw ice shone through in most places. I don't know whether this was an effect of katabatic winds coming over the mountains or because this was close to the open sea and it got washed over by the tides. Or whether the nearby glaciers were quite active and falling chunks of ice caused waves that washed over the ice.

Ice near coast Ice near coast Ice near coast Ice near coast
Dogs on ice Hunter on ice Dogs with icy beards

Then it was time to slowly turn back towards Qaanaaq. Still looking for breathing holes and hoping for seals (and again without success). The general mood was very relaxed and even the dogs seemed more playful than usual.

I still didn't dare to touch any of them. (Due to the language barrier, I couldn't ask "Is it safe to pet them?" and by default, the generally aren't.) But I could walk along with the pack, which made me oddly proud. (Without any reason - it just felt right.)

Usually the hunter stays at a breathing hole and sends the dogs ahead. Ideally the go to the next breathing hole to 'block' that (which they usually didn't do). Usually they just pull about a hundred meters ahead and stop there. But after a couple of days (maybe because someone was sitting on the sledge, but maybe for other reasons) they just pulled about thirty meters and then stopped.

If that happened, Otto would gesture me to go ahead. I would leave the sledge and go ahead for about fifty meters and Otto would give the dogs some command to follow me (probably the Inuit equivalent of "Go fetch!"). Then I would continue to walk, looking nervously over my shoulder while the pack was coming closer (always thinking to my self: "Walk. Walk slowly. Never, ever, run in front of the pack.") and when they were getting near, I'd stop and drag the dog whip back and forth in front of the dogs, drawing a line in the snow.

I am aware how wimpy this sounds, but if you're not much of an expert with dogs, having a pack of fifteen massive dogs running towards you is an interesting experience.

To come back to the original point; on this last day I didn't get ahead of the dogs and waited for them to rush at me, but just went off the sledge, went beside the dogs and walked with them to the next seal breathing hole (after two weeks I finally knew what they looked like...) and just stopped there. And the dogs would just stop, lie down and relax. Good dogs!

(In retrospect that sounds quite silly, but that day, on the ice, it felt like an achievement.)

Dogs at rest Hunter hunting Dogs at rest Dogs at rest

I still don't know how much of my being very careful around the dogs was justified. It's a bit tricky if the tour books have remarks in them that the dogs will not warn before attacking, but go directly for the throat. With 'information' like that, it's sort of difficult to just go near the dogs and see whether they are friendly, if the non-friendly response is 'go for the kill'. (With city dogs, the dog usually will make quite clear whether it wants to be approached or not.)

So while it was probably more propaganda induced paranoia than a realistic concern, I kept my distance when possible. On the other hand, when I walked right next to them, they just did the usual dog-thing: Go walkies.

(Though the 'undeclared attack' bit is possibly not completely unfounded, at least not among the dogs themselves. I have a short video clip during feeding, where one of the dogs just pushes through a group of other dogs to bite another dog in the neck, without much provocation or warning. So they are not nice dogs. Also, seeing them in the morning with blood dripping from behind their ears, such as the dog on the right in the third image above, is a good indication that their fights for position in the pack are serious. Though essentially, they try to be 'good dogs'. But I wouldn't bet my neck on it.)

Agressive sledge dog

And that was it. The last day on the sledge. In the late afternoon we returned to Qaanaaq, I said good-bye and returned to the hotel. And that part of the journey was over.

Although I still had a couple of days in Qaanaaq.

Onwards to the next part about Greenland.

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