Across the frozen fjords of Greenland, dog sledding remains the chief mode of transport for local hunters and fishermen, whose part-time jobs are to take tourists into the wild.
‘A dog is a man’s best friend,’ goes the phrase. Nowhere is that more true than on trips into Greenland’s remote wilderness where, hundreds of kilometres from the nearest house, the only return ticket to civilisation is a wooden sleigh and a pack of dogs. Maybe it’s the silent peacefulness of the island’s solitary landscape that attracts adventurers into this arctic wonderland, or perhaps the feeling of braving strong winds and -30˚C temperatures alongside acclimatised hunting dogs. Whatever the pull, a more natural experience is hard to find.
While dog sledding – also known as ‘mushing’ – may appear an ancient form of transport, it is still widely used among Greenlandic hunters and fishermen. Here on the world’s largest island – which, had it not been governed by Denmark, would have been the world’s 12th largest country in areal size with 2,150,000 square kilometres – the landscape is 81 per cent covered in ice, making sleighs a perfect vehicle for long-distance transport. Roald Amundsen would certainly agree, the Norwegian explorer, who in 1911 used dogs to successfully race Englishman Robert Falcon Scott to become the first to reach the South Pole. Falcon Scott, for his part, used horses. Tragically, he never made it home.
Modernity is yet to outcompete mushing, which together with kayaking and seal hunting remains Greenland’s primary cultural export. Hunters consider snowmobiles unsafe for longer trips due to potential engine faults and fuel shortages. With less than 60,000 people spread across the island, few will be around to help out. Another danger is thin ice; a common occurrence for hunters exploring remote areas. “Dogs can generally sense if the ice is bad, so they can drag you along and then stop,” says Matt Spenceley, of Pirhuk, a Greenland expedition specialist. “A snowmobile would fall straight through.”
Most tour operators have taken advantage of the locals’ intuitive understanding of the icy landscapes. Visitors become passengers on wooden sleighs steered by Greenlandic hunters. Tours vary from day trips to expeditions lasting nearly a week, during which tourists play an active part in cooking food, feeding dogs and setting up tents. Often, seals, walruses and birds are on show. So too are the northern lights. Blended with the raw Arctic nature, they are remarkable sights for southern visitors.
The deal is also sweet for the hunters, who treat such expeditions as part-time jobs. Is it crucial to the island’s tourism industry as well. “It is one of the main products,” says Malik Milfeldt, senior consultant at the Greenland tourism board, “because our autumns and springs are very short due to the fact we are so high up in the Arctic. We usually say we have only two seasons here; summer and winter.”
The dog sledding experience is wilder in Greenland than elsewhere. Here, hunters venture out into new territory, while in Canada, Alaska and Scandinavia the common routes often follow the trails of snowmobiles. The main sledding areas are in east and north of Greenland. In fact, it is illegal to carry regular dogs north of the polar circle, while hunting dogs must stay clear of the south. In this way, the hunters avoid crossbreeding.
As such, Greenlandic hunting dogs are far from pets. They are specially trained and can carry sleights up to 100 kilometres a day if conditions are good. They are also able to ration their efforts, ensuring they won’t collapse in exhaustion. In return, all they require is a daily meal of dry biscuits and seal meat. But there is a flipside, says Spenceley. “The dogs are pretty wild and you have to make sure you’re dominant with them,” he says.” You need to spend years before you can handle them effectively.”
Tourists have the chance to control these animals. A two-day ‘driving licence’ course is available where you learn steering and dog calls. An expedition follows where theory is put into practice. Yet it can take years to master the dogs. “You must be able to motivate and pressure them when things go bad,” says Peter Simonsen, of Greenland Travel, who has lived on the island for 10 years. “If it’s good weather then no problem, but if the ice breaks on the fjords and the weather is bad, you need to control your dogs and make them work 100 per cent. That takes lots of experience and lots of trust between the dog and the owner.”
Indeed, even with years of practice, complete discipline is hard to achieve. During stops, the dogs must be tied firmly, often with distance to each other to avoid fighting and rivalling over food. A dog may be a man’s best friend, but would these still stick around if they weren’t tied down? For Spenceley, the answer is clear: “You wouldn’t see them again.”
Photos: Humbert Entress, Pétur Bjarni.