Not everybody associates Greenland with glaciers and icebergs. There is one more distinctive feature that encouraged me personally to visit this country – it was an opportunity to experience a dogsled ride with Greenland Huskies. You won’t find such dogs anywhere else, except for this country!
Ilulissat is located 350 km north of the Polar Circle and is famous for its fantastic correlation between the number of citizens and sled dogs. In fact, there are 4000 sled dogs per almost 5000 inhabitants in this city! Historically, these dogs have been making the life of local people easier and more comfortable in these difficult conditions.
The representatives of this breed are considered to be the oldest sled dogs on the planet. Judging by the excavation results, these animals were tamed 4000 years ago and have lived with the man ever since. Their appearance differs from their Alaskan and Siberian counterparts. Greenland Huskies are a surprisingly sturdy breed, as they feel great in the harsh conditions of polar regions. You can even say that the lower the temperatures are, the more comfortable these animals feel. The breed is not adjusted to life without snow and frost, so it lives almost nowhere except for Greenland. These dogs cannot be also found everywhere on the territory of Greenland, for instance, there are no such dogs to the south of the Arctic Circle. In Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, nobody keeps them, too, because it is not necessary – weather conditions are much milder than beyond the Arctic Circle. These Huskies can cover huge distances, walking in deep snow. Famous Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen used such dogs to get to the North Pole by dog sled. By the way, the Arctic wolf is the ancestor of Greenland Huskies – they look very similar!
All the dogs in Ilulissat are chained, and only puppies up to 6 months can walk freely without the leash. When the dogs become six months old, their masters chain them and teach them to work in a sled dog team. It is the meaning and purpose of their life, as that’s what these dogs live for. Those are not attack dogs, that’s why they don’t react to people at all, as there’s nothing to guard here. In fact, Greenland is the safest country in the world. Some Huskies have a booth where they can hide from bad weather, while others simply sleep in the snow and don’t experience any discomfort. It is absolutely normal for them.
And yet, despite the fact that these animals aren’t watchdogs, avoid approaching them right away without asking the permission of their owner fist. During our trip to Sermermiut, an Inuit settlement, we suddenly met one unleashed Husky…
During a short summer period, these animals sit on a leash and wait for the long-awaited snow to come back, so that they can work in a sled dog team again. Keeping Huskies isn’t expensive, otherwise breeding them wouldn’t be so popular in Greenland. The dog’s diet mostly consists of fish caught by its master. Basically, it’s cod, as local people aren’t likely to eat it. This fish is dried in a special way in the open air and then given to the dogs. These animals don’t need special care – everything just happens naturally, and the dog’s life in Greenland is really close to that of their ancestors 4000 years ago.
There’s something else which also distinguishes Greenland Husky from all other representatives of this breed – this dog is purely authentic! In all other northern countries (except for Alaska), dogs are kept mainly to entertain tourists, but in Greenland their presence is vital. For instance, in Finland, dog farms are just a kind of entertainment for the tourists. It is difficult to imagine Finns commuting to work on a sled in real life. In Svalbard, the situation is the same – dogs were replaced by snowmobiles long ago, because the size of the island is small, and you can easily drive from one end to the other using a snowmobile. But in Greenland, people still travel long distances on sleds every day, simply because the island is huge. Here only dogs are a reliable kind of transport which is able to “work” for a long time without any breakdowns and does not require gasoline recharging.
To go on a dogsled ride, you have to come to the island in winter, when there is snow and frost. Long before our trip to Greenland, I emailed World of Greenland company to clarify possible dates of the trip. They told me that dogsled trips were available only until the middle of March. Later, in spite of the fact that there would still be some snow on the ground, it would be difficult to ride the dogs because the snow would be melting under the arctic sun. It’s impossible for the dogs to carry 3 people in a sled when the snow is loose. Therefore, we had zero chance to go on a dogsled ride when we came to Ilulissat in the beginning of May. Nevertheless, we were lucky to experience it, because the weather during that period was much colder than expected. Except for going on a dogsled trip, you can just visit a dog farm, and the owner will tell you interesting facts about the breed features for 40 minutes and even allow you to touch the animals.
As there was severe frost and dense snow in early May, and spring wasn’t even approaching yet, we immediately booked a sledding trip. There were several options to choose from, such as a short two-hour trip, a five-hour ride, and a two-day trip with an additional overnight stay. However, we decided that 5 hours are enough to experience the spirit of dog sledding to the full extent.
We were immediately warned that it would be very cold during the trip, so we decided to rent special suits made of seal skin, in which locals go on rides. The cost of the rent was relatively small, but perfectly contributed to the authentic image of the ride, so we were able to feel like real Inuit people.
After changing clothes, we signed special documents, which said about the fact that in case of accident, we won’t make any claims to the company and the dog owner. It made us a little nervous, but the company representative assured us that during the previous three years nothing happened and it was a mere formality.
We came to a special doghouse where a team of 13 dogs was already waiting for us. We received a couple of short introductory instructions on how to behave on the road. After that we met our escort, got on the sled, and our adventure finally began.
Our point of destination was an incredibly beautiful place near a frozen lake, from which there was a breathtaking view of Kangia Glacier.
During the trip we had to make “rest stops” for the dogs to cool down. In fact, the higher air temperature is, the more difficult it is for the dogs to run. Since this Husky breed feels comfortable only in severe arctic conditions, the lower the temperature is, the better they actually feel. On that day, air temperature was 10°C below zero (22°F), but it was really hot for the dogs. They cooled themselves by eating snow and dug their noses into it. It took them 10–15 minutes to restore, after which we could keep on riding.
We even managed to pat several dogs during one of such stops with the permission of their owner. However, it didn’t make all the dogs happy, especially the leader who wasn’t pleased at all. No one strokes dogs in Greenland, so they are not used to such kind of interaction and may not respond adequately to it.
Managing the dogs in a sled isn’t an easy process, and it gets even more difficult if there’s a plethora of them. In the pack there is one leader, and other animals just follow him. He sets the pace for the whole pack. He has the longest reins, so he is always ahead of other dogs. The leader in our pack was already 6 years old, but he didn’t have a name. Apparently, the Inuit people don’t bother to give names to all their dogs, as they are not considered pets living in apartments. To control the animals, the Inuit use funny voice commands and a thin long leather whip, with which they pinch the dogs that are shirking and aren’t pulling the sled. However, it is not always possible to manage them. For instance, our dogs were stubborn and didn’t want to climb up the mountain, trying to change the given route altogether.
When we finally arrived at our point of destination, we had a small picnic in the open air. The company where we bought this trip provided us with thermoses, so we had hot tea and coffee. In addition, we took some cookies with us for a snack, which was a good decision, as we were hungry.
During the trip we met dog sleds with local hunters twice – they were “going to work” (fishing in the frozen lake). Once again, this proves how important dogs are for the Inuit people in their daily life.
When we came back home, we couldn’t calm down for a long time, because we had so many emotions after this awesome experience. If you have an opportunity to visit Greenland and go on a dogsled ride, don’t even hesitate to do so – you’ll have priceless memories that will make you happy for the rest of your life!