Dog sleds – the ultimate Greenland experience
A guide to the ultimate Greenland experience. Dogsledding in Greenland is a very special experience. Feel the wind in your hair and listen to the dogs pulling the sled while running on the snow-covered landscape.
“Give me winter and dogs – then you can keep the rest.”
Knud Rasmussen in his diary from ”The literary expedition”
Dog sleds in Greenland
When you say Greenland, you’ve got to say dog sled. That’s how most visitors feel. And that is why it comes as a big surprise for many, that keeping sled dogs in fact is not allowed in the most densely populated areas in Greenland.
Sled dogs are unbelievably beautiful animals, but they’re not pets. Be careful, when you approach a sled dog. Do never get close to one, if the dog’s owner is not there. With that in mind, some amazing experiences await you on a dog sled.
Dog sledding is one of the most popular winter experiences in Greenland. There is not enough snow in the summer to be able to go dog sledding. The only exception is the Lyngmark-Glacier on Disco Island in the Disco Bay.
In this inspirational guide, you can learn more about:
- Dog sledding then and now
- Knud Rasmussen
- The best season
- Where to go dog sledding
- Popular trips
- Sled dog races
- How to continue your trip
FROM A FEW HOURS TO SEVERAL DAYS
Dog sledding can take anything from a few hours to several days – it only depends on your adventurous spirit. Are you here to get a taste of it or do you want to measure with nature? If you choose the latter, we recommend you to book a package that ensures that everything from food to warm clothes and overnight stays in huts and tents is taken care of.
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Dog sledding then and now
(1879 – 1933)
“Give me winter and dogs – then you can keep the rest.”
Knud Rasmussen in his diary from ”The literary expedition”
Knud Rasmussen is one of Scandinavia’s greatest polar heroes. No-one has ever been able to gather knowledge about the life of the Inuit as much as he did. The dog sled was his favorite mean of transportation. We almost can’t pronounce the term “dog sled” without mentioning Knud Rasmussen’s name. Still today, 90 years after his death, Knud Rasmussen is considered one of the Danish Kingdom’s greatest heroes. It is because of him, that the dog sledding culture became famous all over the world.
Kunuunnguaq – Little Knud
Knud Rasmussen was born in Ilulissat as a son to priest Chr. V. Rasmussen and Sofie Rasmussen, née Fleischer. His parents made an effort to integrate him into the Greenlandic as well as the Danish society in Ilulissat. Little-Knud spoke and understood both cultures ever since he was a small boy. His mother had Greenlandic ancestors and his father was Danish.
”Kunuunnguaq” means Little Knud in the Greenlandic language. The people of Greenland gave him this affectionate name. An earlier coastal ship as well as the first of Air Greenland’s cross-Atlantic aircrafts carried this name. Yet today, in Greenland, we love, admire and honor him.
Ever since his childhood, Knud was an eager sled coachman. He had his own team of dogs when he was 7 years old. When Knud was 9 years of age, Fridtjof Nansen crossed the Greenland Ice Sheet on ski. On that occasion he was staying at the priest house in Ilulissat, Knud and his family lived in. He made an unforgettable impression on Kunuunnguaq.
Knud was sent to school in Denmark and worked in different industries, before he finally got the opportunity to get back to his beloved Greenland in 1902 until 1904. He joined “The literary expeditions” with Mylius Erichsen as a leader. The purpose of the expedition was to describe the country and its population form an artistic and folkloristic perspective.
The Thule Expeditions
The experiences he made with the people in the North made a big impression on Knud. Together with his friend Peter Freuchen, he opened a trading point in Thule, that was supposed to ensure supplies and ammunition for the catchers in the North and avoid them being played on by random travelling salesmen or other expeditions. The profit from the trade point was used to fund Knud Rasmussens future journeys on the dog sled. Knud Rasmussen prepared and led the 2nd and 4th Thule expeditions, before he in 1921 finally got to carry out the famous 5th Thule Expedition.
On this sled tour he went from Greenland to Canada, Alaska and even across the Bering Strait and met the Inuit in the Soviet Union. His journey along the Northwestern passage showed, that the languages in the entire Arctic region were dialects of the same language. Many sagas and myths repeated themselves all the way around the North Pole. Due to Knud’s Greenlandic blood and because Knud spoke the language, it turned out to be a huge break-through in research. It was exceptional for people in the North to get visitors from the outside, that didn’t want to trade with them or convert them to their own religion.
Greenland on the world map
The 5th Thule Expedition had a great part in making Greenland and Danmark known as places on the world map. Together with his fellow travelers, the Greenlanders Miteq and Arnarulunnguaq, Knud got invited to the White House in Washington. In New York, they got welcomed as heroes. In Europe, Little Knud became Doctor of Honors at the Universities of Edinburgh and Copenhagen.
After that, he continued with the 6th and 7th exhibitions, where Knud Rasmussen among others recorded the film “The Wedding of Palo” in the Ammassalik area in Eastern Greenland. Soon after, he incurred food poisoning and had to be sent to Denmark. He fought a brave fight, but deceased after 13 tough months. Greenlands great hero, Kunuunnguaq, died December 21st 1933, only 54 years old.
THE BEST SEASON FOR DOG SLEDDING
Basically, you can go by dog sled as soon as the first frost and snow have fallen in Greenland. When the winter gets closer, dog sled enthusiasts get impatient. When they see just the tiniest bit of frost and a thin layer of snow, they harness the dogs and race around. Some good advice for you: As soon as the first snow has fallen, watch out when you cross a sled-trail. It can be a bumpy experience, though. Most of us would prefer some more snow and a quieter ride on a dog sled.
Most travelers go dog sledding between January and April. Rarely, it is possible to take a ride on a dog sled already in October or November, if there is enough snow. Fall dog sledding cannot be pre-booked. It can be arranged on request at the destination, when you have arrived there.
The later you travel in the spring, the lighter and warmer the days.
Before you jump on a dog sled, we would recommend you to put on some sealskin clothes. You can borrow those from most dog sledding providers. These are clothes that have been tested for cold over hundreds of years – and they work. We’d advise you to borrow polar boots for your feet as well – they are called Sorel boots and they keep you warm down to minus 40 degrees. Don’t hesitate to wear your thick woolen socks inside the boots. You are going to sit still most of the time. So don’t worry about getting too hot.
Closest to your body, you should wear wool, tool. Outside, as an intermediate layer, a warm fleece shirt, some more wool or whatever else warm clothing you might own, would be good ideas. On all our trips that include dog sledding, we supply a detailed packing list with information about what you should pack in your suitcase for a winter trip to Greenland.
WHERE TO GO DOG SLEDDING
As mentioned above, keeping sled dogs is not permitted everywhere in Greenland. In fact, you need to go north of the polar circle in Western Greenland or to Eastern Greenland in order to find sled dogs.
We would like to highlight three places, which we recommend to our guests:
- Kangerlussuaq, for most people the first stop in Greenland.
- Sisimiut at the coast, which is a short flight away from Kangerlussuaq.
- Ilulissat in the Disco Bay, where you will find huge icebergs.
Kangerlussuaq is an outstanding starting point for dog sledding. Kangerlussuaq is located north of the Polar Circle and therefore keeping sled dogs is permitted. Where there are sled dogs, there are also dog sleds. So if you come here during winter, you should definitely try to get on a dog sled ride. Dog sledding is very special and the experienced coachmen make sure, that you get around and back home in a safe manner.
2 or 4 hours dog sledding
Not everyone is ready for such a huge adventure, as the Danish Crown Prince Frederik was. He participated in an expedition on dog sleds in Greenland. Therefore it is possible to choose some wonderful, shorter rides on a dog sled. Here you can taste the feeling and glide over ice and snow. The coachman and his dogs take you with them over the thick ice on the fjord, where you can feel the real Greenland.
For most people, 2 or 4 hours dog sledding are just right. You can get far about in the landscape and get a taste of what it’s like to go dog sledding in several days.
We make sure that you won’t be freezing. On these short rides we’ll get you wrapped in warm seal clothes and boots. If you feel a little more like adventure, we recommend a 4 hours dog sledding ride.
Longer sled rides
Together with the coachman, you will experience the rough and fascinating Greenlandic nature, where human, animal and nature melt together into one unit. On these trips, you are part of a team. You contribute to preparing meals, pick the ice or collect snow for everyone’s coffee, pack the sledge or feed the dogs. These tours can sometimes be challenging and that is why you should be in good physical shape as a participant. You are outside in the arctic cold many hours a day and it can be a necessity to run shorter distances next to the sled where slopes are too steep for the dogs to come up with a fully loaded sled. But you don’t need to run a marathon and everyone in an average physical condition can master the challenge. We would not recommend such a trip to people with back problems, though.
2 days dog sledding with overnight stay
The dog sled is a significant part of the Greenlandic culture and has through hundreds of years been the only means of transportation, when the landscape was covered with ice and snow. On a 2 day-long tour, with Kangerlussuaq as a starting point, you ride among others through the fjord with snow-covered mountains on both sides. Later you travel through the landscape in the mountains. Out here, you are all alone in stunning nature. Usually you will stay in a catchers’ cabin over night, but sometimes it can be necessary to sleep in a tent. In the evening you get social in the hut and enjoy the amazing polar night and – maybe – watch the Northern Lights dancing on the sky.
Dog sledding from Kangerlussuaq to Sisimiut
On the trip between Kangerlussuaq and Sisimiut the scene is set for an experience that will remind you of an expedition. You can test your own limits within controlled circumstances. You will get a feeling of the country’s enormous size. The trip takes 3 days. You will mostly stay in catcher’s cabins over night and sometimes in tents. This is not as cold as it sounds. On the way you will meet other sleds as well as snow scooters that hurry between the towns and settlements. The dog sledding ride can either start in Kangerlussuaq or in Sisimiut. The route is very famous as a hiking route during summer. That takes about 6 to 10 days.
Long dog sledding tours are not a part of our holiday trips, but we arrange them each year together with our partners for individual travelers.
Dog sledding in the Disco Bay
The largest city in the Disco Bay, Ilulissat, is also a good spot for dog sledding. There are many dogs around here and a number of people still work with the dog sled as part of their living. They fish halibut in the Ice Fjord and go on trips with tourists.
Unfortunately, there has been a tough competition with the fish factories on the favor of the coachmen in the recent years. That is why we currently only offer 2 hours dog sledding in Ilulissat. However, you are welcome to contact us about longer trips and we will investigate the possibilities for that.
In summer, you will find that the Lyngmark-Glacier on Disco Island is the only place in Greenland where dog sledding is possible. Hiking up on top of the glacier at 2.600 feet requires a good physical condition, but you will get rewarded with an amazing view and dog sledding.
ABOUT SLED DOG RACES
It can seem a little surprising to think of all dogs’ ancestors, the wolves, when a 4 inch tall dog barks at you. The family bond is easier to see when you come across a sled dog with edge teeth that would frighten the dog of Baskerville.
Sled dogs can be of some size and they are as strong as hardly any other. There are four genuine races of sled dogs: The Alaskan Malamute (strangely originating from Canada), the Samojede dog from Siberia, the Siberian Husky from Siberia and Alaska and finally the Greenlandic sled dog. There is another race, the Alaskan Husky, which for the sake of speed is mixed with the greyhound. It is mostly used for dog races. This guide is about Greenland and therefore we will jump right to the Greenlandic race.
The greenlandic sled dog
There are about 15.000 sled dogs in Greenland and they are either on the East coast or north of the polar circle on the West coast. Keeping sled dogs south of the polar circle is not permitted. It is not allowed to import other dog races into the sled dog districts, either, so that the Greenlandic sled dog doesn’t mix with other races.
The Greenlandic sled dog is the most furious among the different races and that is why they from a certain age have to be linked to a chain. In the past, sled dogs have attacked people who came to close. That is why you always should keep a good distance and only get closer, when you are together with the owner of the dog. This doesn’t change the fact that they are cute to look at.
Did you know that the Greenlandic sled dog doesn’t bark, but howls? Its appearance is more peaceful than a barking lap dog that tells the postman off.
Sled dogs feel well in the cold. They can stand cold temperature because they generate more inner wool, when they stay in the cold. It is misunderstood to feel sorry for sled dogs, because they stay outside all year long. On the contrary, it was a pity if they didn’t, because sled dogs are mad to stand down to minus 70 degrees.
We have found the following facts about the Greenlandic sled dog:
The Greenland dog is a big dog race of the type sled dog. It is supposed to originate from dogs that followed immigrants from North Canada. The race is assumed to originally stem from the areas around Ladoga in north-western Russia or central Siberia during stone age.
Typical sled dogs are hardy and enduring. They can stand hunger for a long time, are intelligent and have learned to obey their coachman’s whip and orders. Their ears are standing right up, they have bushy cheeks and they howl like a wolf. The wolf’s howl stimulates social unity in the team and vindication of their territory.
The sled dog is still so close to the wolf, that only the fear of the whip can make it obey. If a sled dogs meets wild animals, all education will be overruled by the original hunters’ instinct. There is no sled dog that would defend their owner in an attack. It only stays close to his house because there is food here, usually once a day or every other.
Be careful when you meet sled dogs
Almost all people love dogs. It can be tempting to walk over and pat the beautiful sled dogs. Don’t. Sled dogs are the one race that is most similar to the wolf. Especially Greenlandic sled dogs can be very furious. Only get close to the dogs, when their owner is with you and confirms, that it’s safe. Don’t be afraid of the dogs, when you are out dog sledding, though. The coachmen have full control over the dogs.