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Dog sledding in Greenland

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With Peter from Greenland Travel

Two of our colleagues, Peter and Ulf, have been living in Ilulissat for many years. They were eager coachmen and held their own pack of sled dogs. Read Peter’s report here about dog sledding here.

When talking about dog sledding in the Iluilssat area, it is difficult not to mention one of our own, Peter Simonsen. Peter has been living in Ilulissat for 9 years with his own dogs. He knows the area inside out. He went on rides with many of our guests and, afterwards, often had long conversations with them about their experiences in the snow.

Peter talks about, what you can expect of a four-day trip on dog sleds in one of the most beautiful neighborhoods in Greenland. Even if you are not going on a ride right here, but in another town or settlement, you can still get the feeling of a genuine dog sledding trip!

Snow and hills of the winter

It is March. Three nights in the wilderness in the area around Ilulissat are lying ahead of you. The coachmen pack the sleds with boxes, sleeping bags, dog food and tents. Despite the heavy loaded sleds, we rush over the plain at a surprising speed.

The ride, however, stops abruptly by the foot of the mountain “Store Akinaq”. The next 200 to 300 metres is a steep ascent. Everybody leave the sleds for the dogs to be able to pull their load upwards. The coachmen are asking you several times to rest on the sled, so that you can make it up the mountain. On the top of the mountain, we continue trotting over small passes and long lakes without any bigger rises.


The good view

After 3 or 4 hours’ of dog sledding and a couple of coffee breaks with a breathtaking view over Ilulissat Icefjord, we get to Fjord Sikuiuitsoq and hence the sea ice. We enjoy a light frozen lunch in a simple catcher’s cabin, before the trip goes on out to the fishing spots on the ice. It is fascinating to ride on a sled between the majestic icebergs that lie frozen in the sea ice.

The fishermen on the Icefjord

Ilulissat Icefjord is famous for its great number of tasty halibut. Long line fishermen are out on the Icefjord about 7 to 8 months a year. It’s a tough job, where they face snow, the darkness of the winter and icy cold down to minus 40 degrees celsius.

They peck a hole in the ice and lay out up to 400 hooks in a sophisticated system on the bottom of the sea. A few hours later, they drag them up again with the power of their hands. The fishermen stay in simple sled tents. It takes 2 to 3 days to catch the 300 to 500 kilograms of halibut that the sled can carry. Afterwards, it’s the dogs’ turn to work hard. They really drag their load over the mountains, all the 35 kilometres back to town. Their reward is a delicious halibut for dinner each.

Read more about winter in Greenland.


Halibut for dinner and spending the night in minus 28 degrees celsius

You are also going to taste halibut. The fish is prepared with rice, potatoes and onions. It tastes heavenly after today’s hard work. You will spend the night in a tent. It is a modern, insulated tent with a petroleum oven and polar sleeping bags. The temperature can easily get down to minus 28 degrees tonight.

The catchers are lying on reindeer skin and sleep on the sleds with a gas oven as a heating – without sleeping bags, obviously. That kind of thing is not for real catchers. Their warm pants of ice bear fur really are justified when they spend the night the way catchers have done for many generations. The train-oil lamp has been replaced by a gas oven, but apart from that, time seems to have halted out here in the Greenlandic nature, far from district heating, internet, text messages and TV.

Photo by David Trood - Visit Greenland
Photo by Mads Pihl - Visit Greenland

The Ice Sheet

It is hard for us to get out of our warm sleeping bags the next morning. But coffee, muesli and slices of bread with jam make it a little easier. According to the plan, we are going on a short visit on the Ice Sheet. It’s exciting to follow the food steps of the polar explorers Fridtjof Nansen and Knud Rasmussen.

After a few hours ride along the island Nunatarsuaq, we reach the edge of the Ice Sheet early afternoon. Now the rise begins. It is quite uneventful. Ice and land almost transition in one and the dogs trot upwards with risen tails. Only 3 or 4 kilometres and we are on top of the Ice Sheet!

It is very special to know that there are many hundreds of metres of ice underneath our feet. Everything is white and lonely. It is not difficult to imagine how unfavorable the Ice Sheet must have been for the first pioneers that went across it over 100 years ago.

Read more about the Ice Sheet.


The Northern Lights

You are spending the night in a simple catchers’ cabin with a primitive bed, a small oven and a table. The dogs seem to think that today has been easy and they howl several times during the night. A hike through the mountains will show you the magic Northern Lights. Beautifully and impressively they wave across the sky – now here, then there.

The Inuit thought that when the Northern Lights were visible at the sky, it meant that the dead played with the cranium of a walrus. If the “ball” got lost during the play, they took a cranium from a grave of the Inuit. That is why the lower jaws do rarely lie together with the cranium in the Greenlandic stone graves. Today’s scientific explanation of the Northern Lights is significantly less dramatic and romantic.

Read more about the Northern Lights in Greenland.

In the snow

The temperature can rise by more than 10 degrees in the course of the night. A breeze is coming up from the south. It brings tight snow and low visibility. Now is the time for seal skin jackets with fur collars! During the 15 kilometres back over the Sikuiuitsoq Fjord we can see the glimpse of the catchers’ sleds, but mainly we only have a view of the 17 dogs that trot ahead, seemingly unimpressed by the weather.

After lunch, it is getting a little clearer. We get some view over the Icefjord, while the sleds are working their way up through the mountains heading north to the settlement Oqaatsut. This route is  used by the fishermen of the settlement on their way to the Icefjord. However, in the snowdrift there is no trace to see. It got a rough day for dogs, coachmen and guests. In the late afternoon we light up the petroleum oven in a comfortable hut.


Visiting the settlement

A long day on the sled is waiting for us. We’re heading towards the settlement, about 7 kilometres away from the hut. Oqaatsut has a population of about 40. It is located in about 15 kilometres air-line distance from Ilulissat. Despite the small number of residents, it has a church, a school, a medical supply center, a shop, waterworks, a power station and even a small and cozy restaurant, which is driven by a married couple. A cup of coffee in a private home is a miraculous treatment. The walls are decorated with children’s and grandchildren’s school certificates and several home-made crafts.

Ilulissat is located  about 300 kilometres north of the Polar Circle and the population is only just above 4.500 inhabitants. Anyway, it feels like coming back to a big city after 4 good days on the sled. It is easy to get addicted to dog sledding rides!