Dog-sledding in North-East-GreenlandDog sled across Liverpool land

Greenland experienced from a dog sled – an impressive journey through time and space 

When the dog sled whizzes along and the wide open spaces just get wider and wider, it’s as if time stands still. And when the weather suddenly forces you to take shelter and there is nothing you can do about it, you discover just how small you really are. Greenland is tough and unpredictable and this is precisely what makes it so wonderful.

It is April 28th, 2007 and I’m standing in front of the hotel in Reykjavik. I have an extraordinary feeling in my body and I can feel that today will be very special. Not because I am going to Greenland, because I’ve done that lots of times, but because I am going on a dog sled trip, starting out from Ittoqqortoormiit. The town is one of the youngest settlements in Greenland and the northernmost town on Greenland’s east coast, with about 500 km to Iceland and the world’s largest nature reservation for a neighbour. It is a tough, isolated region and it takes some guts to drive a dog sled through here. But this is just what fascinates me and I can hardly wait to sit on the sled.  

Dog-sledding in North-East-GreenlandIt is almost given, that anything to do with Greenland cannot be forced into a fixed framework or schedule

To Greenland as the crow flies

The first step goes to Reykjavik’s airport, where the small Dash-8 aircraft is to fly me to Jameson Land. Departure is scheduled at 07.00 hrs on my ticket, but it comes as no surprise to me, that there is one-hour delay. It is almost given, that anything to do with Greenland cannot be forced into a fixed framework or schedule. That’s just how it is and you have to accept it. 

When the wheels finally clear the runway, we rise easily and unhindered skywards. Both visibility and the view are good and the West Fjords with Ísafjördur directly below us and the small white glacier tops on are an impressive sight. We fly over Denmark Strait towards Ittoqqortoormiit in East Greenland. 

Expectations to the unknown are huge and the feeling that this is going to be a special day wells up again when the sea ice along the east coast of Greenland comes into sight. At the same time it gets cloudier and before we land on the small gravel runway on Nerlerit Inaat, it’s all closed in. We have landed in Jameson Land scarcely 35 km from Ittoqqortoormiit.

We receive an overwhelm-ing welcome. It’s if all the VIP’s in town have come to meet us, but I quickly discover that it is not me, they are interest in. It is the two guys who founded Google, who have come to visit and who are going out to play in the snow. They have rented a nine-person helicopter so they can go out and kite-ski. This means a small wait before we can move on, but we are airborne at last and ready to take the last 35 km as the crow flies to Ittoqqortoormiit – or Scoresby Sound as it is called in English. We land gently at the heliport above the town and enjoy the view of Kangertitivaq, the longest fjord in the world. Then we are off on foot, through the town, down to the yellow guesthouse. 

Completely unspoiled and so beautiful Greenland

I write this with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I should keep this paradise to myself. On the other hand, the place is so special, so unique and so unspoiled that I must convert my feelings into words. I sit up here, above the town enjoying the view. I have the frozen fjord on one side and an outstretched polar bear skin on the other. The silence is deafening, the sound track is broken only by the caw of a couple of ravens. The film track however, cannot be disturbed – it is the experience of a lifetime and a sight I will always be able to recall. In the middle of the estuary is the edge of the ice with its abundance of wildlife with narwhals, polar bears, walruses and seals. It was this enormous hole in the ice, this huge, well-stocked pantry that inspired the settlement of Scoresbysund.

Dog-sledding in North-East-GreenlandWe are trapped in a cabin and we can’t do anything about it, because here, the weather determines the pace!

We’re off at last... In North - East Greenland

After a couple of days in the town itself, we are finally leaving. Tuesday morning and we are signing up at the tourist office and that means that the skin clothing and boots are to be tried on before we go with Jan down to the two local hunters who are to be our drivers and guides on the sled trip. Jan is the local liaison between the tourists and the local hunters. We are going on a four-day dog sled trip on Liverpool Land north of Ittoqqortoormiit in eastern Greenland. I write we, because Stine and Bjarke, a young Danish couple are also coming along.

Ondi, who is my driver, is standing next to a small red house. He lashes the baggage to the sled and readies the eight dogs. When he is finished, I take my place. I am well wrapped up and sit hard but well on the heavy wooden sled. My body trembles, I am excited and absolutely ready for the Greenlandic adventure that awaits me. And finally we’re off. The sled speeds off across the sea ice and the dogs run for all they are worth, obeying Ondi’s commands. We are travelling very fast because the dogs have been looking forward to coming out and getting some exercise – this is evident from their exhaust fumes. The dogs fart and pass gas with gusto and the gasses get up our noses. But this is a minor thing and part of the experience. 

Dog-sledding in North-East-GreenlandCoffee break in East Greenland

In brilliant sunshine we drive past Cape Hope, the second abandoned settlement in the area. Fresh bear tracks in the white snow tell me we are not alone! After we round the Dombrava cabin in Hurry Fjord it’s time for a coffee break. Ondi unpacks the indispensable Primus and starts to melt the white powder-snow in the pot. The sun is shining, it’s warm and the temperature is creeping up to around five degrees below – enough to make sitting on the sled comfortable even without a cap and gloves. It is actually so warm, that I am sweating in my black seal skin anorak. I take a deep breath and exhale. And then the coffee is ready. 

In the midst of the silence we are surprised by the other dog team as it catches up with us. Abia, the driver, steers the eager dogs directly towards us and in just a short second everything turns into a chaos of dogs and lines tangled every which way. Two dogs start fighting, for although they are happy, they still have to establish who gives the orders. But none of the dogs is in doubt as to who the alpha dog is, when Ondi’s deep voice insists they calm down.

Dog-sledding in North-East-GreenlandIce, ice and more ice in East Greenland

With a couple of commands to the dogs, the ride continues. The ice in Hurry Fjord, which we are driving on, is probably several metres thick and it provides a fine, even surface for the sled. Pulling the sled is a walkover for the dogs and it’s clear they are enjoying expending some energy. In the rush we just manage to see Constable Pynt on the left side and out in the distance we are able to make out the end station for the day, the hunting cabin at Fame Islands at the head of the fjord. 

When we arrive, it is feeding time and the dogs have certainly earned a good chunk of seal blubber. It is the most natural thing in world to feed Basen, the undisputed leader, first in order to keep the team quiet. Afterwards, there are treats for the rest of the dogs – seal blubber tastes particularly good after such a delightful working day. In the sledding season, a sled dog needs 2-3 kilos of fish or seal every day, preferably oily fish so their fur can withstand wind and weather. 

A soup in a cabin in East Greenland

While the dogs chomp away we put up the tents and get a feel of life as a hunter in the primitive hunt-ing cabin. Inside the cabin two Primuses hiss and Ondi cuts a lump of walrus into pieces for walrus suaasat, a tasty walrus soup with round-grain rice! The warm soup goes well with the fantastic view. The sun is setting on the frozen fjord and on the horizon we just make out four small dots, which we surmise are locals on their way back to town after a trip to Storefjord. The silence is impressive and weariness takes over, after the first exciting day on the ice.

Dog-sledding in North-East-GreenlandTough hunting life in East Greenland

A day spent in Greenland’s fresh air, perhaps in the slipstream of the dogs, provokes a natural tiredness. I fall quickly asleep in the small tent with a smile on my lips and pleasant thoughts of a day rich with experiences. At three in the morning I wake up with the tent canvas fluttering in my face. I can hear the rushing of a strong wind outside and the following hours’ sleep are constantly broken by the tent’s canvas slapping in the wind. In the distance I can hear Stine and Bjarke talking about some-thing or other that is not quite as it should be. It is one of the tent poles that has buckled under for the constant wind pressure, but we are in safe hands, for Ondi and Abia have been up several times during the night to check the tents – and us. 

Day two begins with a cup of good morning coffee made with boiled snow. All that’s left is to get packed and get started. We start on sea ice and before long we swing to the right up through Kalkdalen. The weather is showing its teeth today, but wind and drifting snow turn the ride up through the valley into a fantastic experience. 

Dog sledding in full speed

Abia elects to drive across the huge, long lake, but there are complications. The dogs have stopped abruptly – and stand in water up to their bellies. Fortunately, Stine and Bjarke stay on the sled and, chivalrous as always, Abia fills a mug with the cold, clear water and asks if they are thirsty. The dogs don’t want to continue, so for once Abia uses the whip to drive them on. It isn’t so easy and there is a lot of backing and forwarding before the heavy sled finally gets moving. But neither Stine nor Bjarke get wet!

At full speed we say goodbye to Kalkdalen and Istorvet, which we know are some-where out there to the north. We continue our journey on Horsens Fjord, which is a chaos of big and small snow flakes. But it is stunningly beautiful and I wonder what it’s like in brilliant sunshine with a clear, blue sky. But today, Greenland is showing its teeth and I am so pleased that my anorak fits snugly around my face, keeping the stinging snowflakes out. We find shelter and eat a quick lunch in the beautiful landscape before we drive further along the fjord.

Warm spring in North- East Greenland

Suddenly Ondi takes a sharp left turn towards mountainside – he clearly wants to show us something. Quite right, further on there is a small lake in the middle of the frozen sea. Ondi has spotted a warm spring. We approach the strange phenomenon slowly, it looks very weird out in the middle of all the ice. We were supposed to have made camp on Horsens Fjord, but it is very obvious that Abia and Ondi want to get further today, so we continue. 

Out here, at the farthest edge of Liverpool Land’s coast, visibility is poor, but the dogs navigate using the icebound ice floes and small islands that lie like small nunataks in the ice. We drive southwards, past Vejle Fjord in a terrific snowstorm that continues to worsen. But we make it, because are fortunate to have the wind at our backs.

Dog-sledding in North-East-GreenlandTime suddenly becomes something you must relate to in a new way – there is so much of it and we are not used to this, in our busy lives

The weather determines the pace

Next stop is the cabin at Cape Høegh. We arrive in a violent snowstorm, so it’s fine, that this is one of the better cabins, with indoor toilet bucket and a large living room with bunk beds. This is unadulterated luxury in these parts and we all appreciate it. We light up quickly and whilst the oil stove hums, the delicious aroma of coffee fills the air. 
We can hear the wind out-side howling and shaking the cabin. In situations like this, coffee tastes particularly good and we enjoy playing cards until, around midnight, it’s time to creep into our sleeping bags.  

We wake up to yet another day of snowstorms and this means a change of plan. But this is how it is when you go exploring in a climate as wild as Greenland’s. Ondi goes out to evaluate the situation and contacts the town by satellite phone to get a weather forecast. It is supposed to get better tomorrow so we are stranded here so far. We plan a short trip to the edge of the ice later in the day, but the wind and snow-drifting increases, so we are forced to cancel. 

Greenland that puts your patience to the test

Although we are stranded, it is an intense experience, feeling the enormous forces that reign here. Enormous snowdrifts build up around the cabin and only the dark snouts of the dogs show where they are lying hidden in the snow drifts. I am reminded of Riel, teller of tall tales, who once said that East Greenland was not wilderness but wildness. On a day like today, this is bang on. We are trapped in a cabin and we can’t do anything about it, because here, the weather determines the pace! 

We pass the time by read-ing, playing cards, relaxing, drinking coffee and eating the nuts from the emergency ration. This is one of the adventures in Greenland that puts your patience to the test. Time suddenly becomes something you must relate to in a new way – there is so much of it and we are not used to this, in our busy lives. 

Dog-sledding in North-East-GreenlandGetting on with it – and going home 

After a stormy night with drifting snow we wonder what the day’s weather will bring. It doesn’t look good, but Ondi and Abia know that the weather is better in town, so we have to go. We pack our gear and leave. The large snow drifts prevent us from attaining an impressive speed and when we get to Elvdalen we must all get off the sleds and push. Ondi in particular, who now has Stine and Bjarke as passengers, is having trouble with the dogs so he has to shout constantly at them as they valiantly struggle to pull the sled. Finally we get up some speed and now it’s a piece of cake. Abia’s wife and son are ready to meet us and they jump up on the sled and ride with us the on last stretch. What a fantastic trip! 

As I stand in the shower in the guesthouse, I am all smiles. I am impressed with the quality of the trip, which shows Greenland as rugged and wild as it is. And this is just what the concept behind NANU Travel, who arranges these trips, is all about. Tour-ism must be rooted locally and benefit the local community. It must be tourism that can be vouched for and that is based on quality. For me, this trip is nothing less than a lifelong memory. And I can guarantee that I have definitely not finished exploring Greenland’s wildness.

CV

  • Svend Erik Nielsen (born 1956), is associate professor and Msc. in biology, geography and natural geography. He is employed by Frederiksborg High School and Advanced Prep.
  • For 20 years, Svend Erik Nielsen has travelled in Greenland, both summer and winter. He has written theses on tourism in Greenland, on the pollination biology in violets and the spider saxifrage in Greenland and Northern Sweden and a geography thesis on tourism in Disko Bay with a focus on how it affects the settlement population.
  • Author of the book Greenland Kalaallit Nunaat, produced for the Branding Greenland group.
  • Joint author of the books: Kontrasternes Land (Land of Contrasts), a teaching book for Gyldendal and a travel book for Politikens Forlag. He has also written texts about Greenland on the internet page www.turengaartil.dk
  • Lecturer at introduction courses about Greenland and supplier of text and illustrations for books, travel magazines and catalogues about Greenland and for Greenland Tourism Council’s photo database.
  • Guide for Greenland Travel since 1986 on several botanical tours to e.g. Thule, Upernavik, Nanortalik and Tasiilaq. At the moment he is preparing a travel course to Svalbard and North East Greenland to study how plants and animals (walrus and polar bears) adapt to the extreme living conditions in Arctic regions.