As if to welcome our tour group, a thousand wolf-like canines, chained and fierce, howled hauntingly. Pairs of multi-colored eyes (one blue, one brown) calculated our every move. It was a Stephen King novel, Arctic style. There I was in Illusiat, an isolated coastal city in the Western part of Greenland, preparing for my first dog sledding experience.
It was a little intimidating but for first time dog-sledders, Illusiat was the place to be. It’s the largest dog area in the country and is home to 3000 dogs and 4500 people. I quickly learned that these dogs aren’t your typical pampered pooch. They’re Greenlandic sled dogs, a breed unique to the area, that’s smaller and stronger than Huskies. During Greenland’s winter, trained teams pull sleds with up to 400-500lbs. Following the commands of their master, they travel long distances across the ice. About a dozen dogs make up a team.
I looked around the Greenlandic landscape. Brightly painted A-frame houses dot the snowy white landscape. Front yards are zip-lined with frozen laundry, skinned animal pelts and chained sled dogs, howling almost as loud as the wind. The world’s largest island, Greenland is three times the size of Texas, with a population of some 56,000 people, most living in the capital of Nuuk. Greenland is raw unapologetic nature, with endangered whales and sky-scraper-sized glaciers. Over 80% of the country is ice, an environment that finds itself at the forefront of climate change.
Depending on the season, local operators offer tourists a ton of activities: angling, trekking, iceberg cruises to the largest active glacier in the Northern Hemisphere and of course dog sledding.
As we prepare to try it for ourselves, our group is warned: don’t cross the dogs’ territory, don’t pet them or get too close for that perfect photo. The Greenlandic sled dog is a tough animal; it lives outside year-round (through –50 degree temperatures) and isn’t afraid to bite. So remember, while some may look cute, they’re still very wild.
Despite technological advances, the dog-sledding tradition is still very common. Dog teams are used primarily for transportation, for fishing or hunting, and, most recently, for tourism. For tourists interested in dog-sledding, there are a number of local operators who can arrange a variety of expeditions, ranging in length and price.
Steering clear of the team, I prepared for my first ever dog-sledding expedition. I straddled the sled, plunked down on the reindeer pelt and held on tight as the dogs pulled effortlessly. The sled bumped, bounced and glided along the snow. The wind was unforgiving. Snow swirled chaotically, as if the fishing village was tipped upside down and shaken like a snow globe. It was freezing and was pleased to have spared no expense on quality winter gear. True, I looked like a bank robber (with a black balaclava pulled over my face with just my eyes peeking through), but when travelling in Greenland, its function over fashion. Gloves, hats, warm long-johns, and layers are essential.
From behind my ugly wool mask, I watched the dogs run side-by-side, the strongest leading the rest of the team. The sled driver, a local man dressed in a pink parka and rosy cheeks to match, shouted a command. Tails up, bums waggling, the dogs reacted to the sound of their master’s voice and, like Santa’s reindeer might, veered obediently.
Though many locals have traded their dog teams for snowmobiles, our guide claims that “modern machinery will never completely eliminate the need for dogs.” In some parts of the ocean, the ice is so thin that only dogs teams can pass. The Inuit tradition continues…