Over a magical two days, we were taken from Ilulissat to Nunatarsuaq, dog sledding in the North West of Greenland by a total of 96 paws and two gentlemen. Over the course of the two days, we were exposed to the harshest of Arctic environments 220 miles North of the Polar Circle. This part of the country was experiencing the coldest February on record with temperatures fluctuating between minus 40-45 degrees centigrade. The whole expedition changed our lives. We tasted adventure, felt fear like never before and experienced true isolation from the world. We were completely disconnected from everybody we knew and went straight into the horizon of the largest island on earth. We didn’t anticipate how much physical and emotional stamina was required.
In a place where there are as many dogs as there are people, the pure-bred Greenlandic sled dogs have been chosen as the most suitable mode of transport for fishermen and hunters over the last 5000 years. Ilulissat is a town full of dog farms, they are heard for miles, even from our hotel room all through the night! If you are a dog lover, Ilulissat is a dream place to visit.
Today, the dogs are primarily used for ice fishing and tourism. They are fed a diet of halibut, seal, commercial dog pills and water. 10-12 dogs can drag a sled filled with a weight of 300kg from Ilulissat to Nunatarsuaq, a distance of 24km, in 4 hours which is where we would be heading on our expedition. As we wandered the streets of Ilulissat, we saw so many puppies roaming around freely, the whimpering noises of hundreds of puppies was something we’ll never forget.
Ilulissat has many dog farms where the sleds are stored and the dogs sleep outside. Evolution has gifted them with great thermal coats and abilities to withstand temperatures way below zero.
The dog statute and enforced breeding regulations state:
- From 5 months on, the dogs must be chained
- The official dog shooter can kill loose dogs
- All dogs North of the Polar Circle must be Greenlandic sled dogs
- If a dog passes South of the circle, it can never return
- The municipality provides chaining sites, water and vaccinations.
We were picked up from our hotel by a Tourist Nature minibus and taken to the dog farm where our traditional mode of transport would be waiting for us. We assumed we would be riding together but we were taken out separately on two different sleds.
Sled 1 consisted of 15 dogs and Steen, a local resident who has been dog sledding for over 25 years.
Sled 2 had 9 dogs (4 were puppies), and Julien from France who travelled the world 10 years ago and decided to settle in the Arctic where he met his wife. He now has residency and 3 beautiful children. The most impressive thing about Julien is that he speaks fluent Kalaallisut, an Eskimo–Aleut language spoken by about 57,000 Greenlandic Inuit. He also spoke perfect English which helped us learn more about the area.
They put the heavier one of us on the sled with the least and youngest dogs just to make it a little more exciting!
We were advised to bring a light bag with essential items such as headlamps, snacks, waterproofs and many layers of clothing, preferably wool. We took a small day pack with most of the bulk and weight being our cameras and lenses. Our ‘mushers’ attached our bags as a back rest on the sled. We would sit on reindeer skin which acts as one of the best thermal materials available. Our supplies for the night were distributed across both sleds.
We hired thermal boots from the store and our biggest regret was not hiring the thermal overalls. We thought we were invincible with our £400 Gore-Tex windbreaker jackets and merino wool layers, though we couldn’t have been any more wrong. Don’t learn the hard way, it hurts, listen to the people of the Arctic!
Expecting our mushers to shout ‘MUSH’, the dogs were given commands in Kalaallisut. They responded very well and it soon became evident that each dog had it’s own personality. Each pack had a leader who kept the others in line. Being lighter with more dogs, Nicola and Steen went well ahead of Julien and Katie, giving us both an experience of total isolation.
We were heading to Nunatarsuaq which was 24km away. Nunatarsuaq is a nunatak (glacial island) in the Qaasuitsup municipality and it doesn’t even show up on Google Maps! We would be staying in a hunter’s cabin, Atartup Illuara, overnight.
Only when we lost sight of Ilulissat did we experience some of the most beautiful scenery on the planet. The untouched Arctic covered in a fresh dusting of soft snow over solidified glacial ice.
The only noises to be heard were gliding blades, hard-working paws and panting.
Julian would sit and talk about the area and how he ended up living there earning a living in what we would describe as a ‘dream job’. Though it may seem like the most ideal job on earth, Julien pointed out it is actually very strenuous work. Julien and Steen would often jump off the sled and run alongside so the dogs could move faster which is very tough in Arctic conditions. He also reminded us that the sled is being pulled by living creatures who need to be under constant control.
The experience is also not as ‘glamorous’ as it seems in tour brochures, remember you have 9-15 dogs in front of you who have a diet of fish and seal blubber, and they all have to go to the toilet, quite frequently too and they do it as they run! We’re not only protecting our faces from the biting cold here, there was also the smelly poo!
Gliding through the Arctic gives you a whole new perspective on the world. Other dog sleds would occasionally pass in the opposite direction, some with tourists and most without.
As if -40C wasn’t cold enough, the wind chill knocked a couple of degrees off the thermometer out in the open on polar territory. If you imagine 50 sharp knives stabbing each one of your hands while they are already numb, that is as close to an accurate description as we are going to give. Julien took one look at the gloves we had on and said “you need wool, wool is the answer to everything here”.
He then peeled off one of the 6 pairs he was wearing and donated them to us. We had invested in expensive Gore-tex waterproof thermal gloves which let us down in the first 10 minutes of expedition. Wool was most definitely the answer and he picked them up for as little as 37 Danish Krona (£4) in the local gift shop.
Four hours into the expedition and the beautiful Arctic sun was starting to set. The journey started to become a little scary as the temperature dropped even more to -45C. We now also had a declining source of light. The dogs had worked so hard, they were getting tired as they struggled to pull the weight of the sled up hill on several occasions, forcing us to jump off and run behind the sled, though it kept us warm, there were limbs on both of us that had began to stop working.
The cold air ripped through our chests as we ran for around 10-15 minutes. The freezing air was forcing us to cough, giving us less energy as we tried to keep up with the pace of the dogs. We’ve hiked all over the world and this was one of the most strenuous challenges as brief as it was. Julien told us in sled dog races across the country, the dogs of Ilulissat would always win because the area they adapt to is so hilly thus resulting in stronger dogs!
As we descended down the hill that we ran up, we sat down to catch our breath. Julien’s pack leader, Apout, took a wrong turn and led the pack, and us, onto a slippery frozen lake, We were heading slowly but certainly into an iceberg.
As though in slow motion, the side of the sled clipped the iceberg and we glided across the ice for what felt like a minute. Thankfully approached the iceberg at a slow pace and nobody was hurt, just wet and a little colder! The only regret was not having the GoPro switched on at the time!
Julien and Katie arrived slightly later than the other sled and we were advised to take off most of our layers as soon as we entered the cabin. This would allow our bodies to warm up quicker and more naturally. We hung our clothing on pegs over the fuel heater which also acted as the ‘oven’. The one-room hunter’s cabin was our accommodation for the night and it was fantastic. Julien laughed when we asked if there was any electricity so we could charge our cameras!
A small wooden shack lit by lanterns and candles with no toilet, several fishermen with knives and no means of communication to the outside world. This is exactly what we signed up for! Our only toilet option was to bear all in the 45 below zero temperatures outside, which we did only once that night!
As we gradually warmed up and excitedly talked about our experiences, Julien and Steen began to prepare our food for the night. The paraffin from the fuel heater filled the cabin with warmth to a perfect toasty level. One of the most magical moments of our lives was when one of the fishermen staying with us brought in a massive slab of iceberg ready to melt down and turn into a broth! He hacked away with one of his ice tools and we watched in awe as it started to melt in the pan. Where else in the world could you experience this!
Once the ice had melted, the Arctic chefs started to add fresh lamb chops, potatoes and vegetables, a hot broth couldn’t have been more appreciated than at that moment.
Still thawing out, we ate snacks and talked to the fishermen who were staying with us. They even practiced their English on us and taught us some Kalaallisut words which we were really bad at!
After our delicious meal, we experienced another magical moment when 5-6 visitors knocked on the door of the cabin. Who would be knocking on our cabin way out here in the middle of nowhere? It turned out to be some local fishermen and women who were staying in another nearby hunting cabin. They had got wind that we were ‘in town’ and wanted to meet us! They shook our hands and welcomed us to the vicinity and chatted with us in broken English. This was one of the most warming moments we have ever experienced. We admired their traditional hunting clothing that consisted of beautifully colourful sweatshirts and polar bear skin trousers. They told us that animal fur is the best thermal material in the Arctic.
Our beds for the night were a couple of pieces of foam on top of a big wooden shelf. All seven of us slept in the cabin, some on the floor on top of the reindeer skin that they carried on their sleds.
We had lovely warm sleeping bags and rested comfortably, preparing for what would be another exciting day on the expedition.
We were politely woken a little before sunrise to the strong smell of burning paraffin as Julien and Frederick made our breakfast.
Chocolate spread on a Nordic style rye bread with sandwiches, cheese and fresh iceberg coffee.
The cabin looked a lot different in the day time! Our clothes were dry and we were ready to explore the area before leaving to head back to Ilulissat.
We couldn’t believe our eyes when we opened the door of the cabin. The view of the surroundings was incredible. The sun was rising and the dogs were curled up in balls behind a wind breaking slope as they protected themselves from the overnight chill.
Our feet crunched in the thick icy snow and we accidentally woke the dogs up one by one. They were very excited to see us!
Julien pointed out where the sea was, and it was completely frozen over. We headed out into the horizon on foot to explore.
Looking back at the cabin gave us real perspective of where we spent the night!
The cold outside was intense, our eye lashes, nostrils and hair started to freeze over. We tried to keep walking to stay warm.
Julien was feeding his pack a power breakfast as we arrived back to the cabin, this was one of the most picturesque spots we have ever seen in the world. Complete raw nature in pure isolation.
One more picture of the view out of the cabin window, where else in the world would you see this other than the Arctic Circle?
After a perfect night inside the cabin, good food and great company, we made lots of new friends who we vow to keep in touch with. We didn’t have any friends who live in the Arctic Circle, but now we do thanks to this incredible expedition. Off we go to Ilulissat.
The dogs were more energized on day two giving us terrific speed. Nicola was already way ahead within the first hour. We encountered some beautiful landscapes once again as well as a passerby cycling on the snow in -42°C!
We even passed by the iceberg that we hit the night before and it was a big one! At least we fled unscathed!
A couple of hours in, our sleds were stopped and we took a hike to a very special view-point.
This is one of the best views of Kangia, the Ilulissat Ice Fjord. The UNESCO World Heritage listed Glacier can be seen on the right.
Incredible. We stood and stared at the view until we were eventually asked to go back to the sled.
The dogs zoomed up the hills that they struggled with the night before, they were very energetic and probably keen to get home for a rest and feeding. One thing we remembered as we got closer to the start was the big hill we struggled with the day before, it would now be in reverse in the form of a big steep drop!
Julien and Steen would command the dogs to the side of the sleds as we peaked the steep hill, this ensured a controlled descent and no injuries. The final hill was the steepest and it was at the peak where we first spotted the colourful buildings of Ilulissat.
Nicola fled down first and waited at the bottom for Katie’s sled. Katie and Julien sped down and even flew in the air above ground over a nick in the ice. This was the most thrilling part of the expedition. Down hill is frightening but so much fun!
As we approached the dog farm, tears filled our eyes. The two days had given us a mixture of emotional experiences and we had finally ticked off a life long bucket list item. We told Julien and Steen that they had given us a life changing experience, pulling us right out of our comfort zone and showing us a 5000 year old tradition. We met people from Eskimo culture and lived in complete isolation in some of the harshest climates of the world.
No matter where we went from here, it was an experience that we would never be able to compare. We have spoken about this expedition almost every day as one of our fondest memories of our round the world trip. Although it was only two days long, a lifetime of memories were collected here and we will never forget all of the magical moments we experienced in the Arctic. A small part of us was left on the sled tracks of North Western Greenland.
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