Dog sledding in Greenland

The first time you ride on a dog sled, you have this fundamental idea, that the dogs are in front and the sled follows behind. But this is not always the case.

Let me say right away, dog-sledding is one of my absolute favourite things to do. As a tourist you sit together with the musher and enjoy nature while the only sounds you hear are the pitter-patter of the dogs and the creaking of the snow under the runners.

My very first ride was on a beautiful spring day with the sun high in the sky and 25 degrees below freezing, so sunglasses were necessary to see anything all in the reflections from the ice and snow. 

The sea ice was one big motorway

The hunter that drove me had brought coffee for us to enjoy on the trip. It warmed us nicely, but sometimes he got off and ran beside the sled, so I did the same, although all the skins on the sled were enough to keep us warm. 

We took a little ride out to the small village of Oqaatsut, about 20km north of Ilulissat. In those days, there was no open water in the winter like there is today and it was easier to drive on the sea ice which functioned as one big, flat motorway.  

On thin ice in Greenland

Suddenly the dogs stopped and the hunter remained seated on the sled with me. He uttered some quick commands and the dogs all turned to the right, directly in towards land. I looked quizzically at him and he pointed out towards the place where we had turned off.

A little farther on I could see a large black area on the ice. It was thin ice. Ice that was hollowed out from the current below, so there was only a glass-thin layer left where you could see the dark water underneath. Nice to know that the dogs instinctively know when to stop. 

Oqaatsut, a small village in Greenland

Close to land we took a swing northwards again and we arrived safely in Oqaatsut. In the 1800s it was inhabited by Dutch whalers who back then called the island Rodebaj – the red bay.

Here, we were invited in for coffee and Greenlandic cake, which is best described as a cross between sponge cake and white bread sprinkled with sugar. It is one of the best things you can dunk into a cup of warm coffee while you get warm again. 

The ride home

Because of the episode with the thin ice on the way out, the hunter chose to drive home across the fells.

It was a little bumpy here and there, where the wind had blown the snow off the rock, but it was an interesting change from the straight road on the sea ice. 

The Greenlandic sled dog

Contrary to us humans, most sled dogs like to work hard and they, therefore, try to get into the middle, where they can pull most. Or at least as much as the lead dog and the pack hierarchy will permit.

It is fascinating to sit and watch, but a lot of work for the musher, who must sometimes unravel the lines before they become completely tangled because the dogs are constantly changing places. 

A steep downward slope

We came to a place with a steep downward slope and the musher stopped the dogs. He told me to hold tight and I grabbed the lashings that were strapped tightly across the sled to keep the skins in place.

He then hung a thick piece of rope over each of the sled’s runners as brakes and said something to the dogs after which they disappeared behind the sled with him. 

Alone in the front of both musher and dogs

I thought otherwise I had a clear idea of how dog sledding worked before we started the trip: The dogs fanned out in front, the sled behind them and me and a musher on top. 

So I was very surprised when I suddenly found myself alone on the front of the sled, in front of both musher and dogs, going downhill at a super speed.

The dogs literally dug their paws in, slowing the sled all the way down while the musher steered the sled with his weight, by standing on the back and leaning from side to side. 

It was very impressive and not quite the picture I had in my mind of dog-sledding. But I learned something new and when the trip was over, I had found a great respect for the instincts, the skills and the unique teamwork dog-sledding requires of both musher and dogs.

Photo: Dmitriy Martynov, global arctic award