In spring 2013, I spent 6 weeks in Greenlandic Dog territory (which is above the Arctic Circle on the west coast and everywhere on the east coast) so I was extremely excited about the possibilities to try dogsledding for the first time! I finally got my chance in late April in Tasiilaq, on the east coast.
On the morning of the tour, I made my way to a designated spot right at the edge of land and frozen sea to meet the musher. It was actively snowing on this particular day, so the land, the ice, and the sky were completely white! All I could see were some small figures in the snowy wonderland, so I took a wild guess that this was my team!
Gudmund, the musher, was preparing the sledge for the trip by polishing the tracks. (Jumping ahead a bit, I quickly understood that this was a necessary step as the dogs’ leads often get caught under the sledge, and this makes it easier to get them unstuck. Not to mention it makes the sledge glide effortlessly over the snow.) Gudmund already had the dogs harnessed and connected to the sledge, and they were ready to get moving! They were howling and hopping over each other, and some were growling at one another to confirm the pack hierarchy. The only thing preventing them from pulling the sledge away without Gudmund and me on board was a snow hook in the ground!
Once the sledge was ready, Gudmund flipped it over and we were ready to go. I hung my bag on the back and took my seat on the platform. The platform was covered in a warm reindeer skin that made the ride quite cozy. Gudmund sat at the front and I sat at the back.
The day’s destination was Tsangeraddaddaajaa, a.k.a. “The Coffee Bar”. It is a point with 3 small huts approximately 25 km (15 mi) north of Tasiilaq, and it is halfway between the town of Tasiilaq and the village of Tiniteqilaaq. It should take 2.5-3 hours to get to that point, so we planned to go there, stop for a bit, then return to Tasiilaq.
So we took off! In the beginning we met some other sledge traffic…
But soon it was just the dogs, Gudmund, and I headed north into a white abyss! I was glad they knew the route because I certainly could not see the way!
Want to see dogsledding in motion? See my personal YouTube Video of Dogsledding in Greenland.
The pictures I took do not do justice to the beauty of Tasiilaq’s backcountry. Actually, in Greenland, even a white abyss can be so majestic you could cry! It is extremely special to know that this landscape is some of the most untouched land in the world, yet there you are – one single human being – standing in its midst. Sometimes I have to pinch myself and ask, “Is this real ?!”
My favorite part of the whole trip was getting to talk one-on-one with Gudmund the entire time! He spoke English fairly well, so we were able to communicate comfortably about his life in Tasiilaq, the landscape around us, the commands he used toward the dogs, and the characteristics of the pack – who is leader, who is oldest, what role each dog plays for the team. Plus, being me, I jumped at the chance to get a free lesson in the East Greenlandic language! So our communication was some crazy combination of English, Danish, West Greenlandic, East Greenlandic, and body language. It was heaven for me!
When we got to Tsangeraddaddaajaa it really was just three small huts!
Gudmund put the snow hook into the ground and started to “fix” the dogs for a break. He went to each dog and pulled one of its legs up into the harness so that it became a three-legged creature! He said it was to give the dominant leg a break; others have said they do it when they know many other sledges will be near – it debilitates the dogs a bit so they are less inclined to try to pull toward the incoming sledges.
During the break, Gudmund’s pack was very playful and loving toward each other, and they were curious about me, too. I asked Gudmund if I could touch them, and he gave me the green light!
Less than 10 minutes passed before a few other sledges came through the thick wall of snow into sight. As new sledges approached, Gudmund and the other mushers had to be on high alert because the dogs all began barking, pulling, and creating a lot of tension. The mushers all got out the whips and motioned them in a way that kept the teams separate. They have such incredible control over their packs purely with voice commands, whip movements (without having to touch the dogs), and body language!
Well, the Coffee Bar did not get its name for no reason. No, there is not a barista waiting there with Café Lattes, but everyone did seem to stop there, sit on their sledges, and warm up with a thermos of coffee and some chocolate. After this quick fuel, we turned around and took the same route back to Tasiilaq.
This is Gudmund driving us back toward town. You can see the buildings getting clearer and clearer as we approach.
The trip ended with a bit of “urban sledding” so that Gudmund could return the dogs to their chains and doghouses.
What to Wear/Bring
- Always be prepared for any weather – sun, rain/snow, fog, wind, etc. Dress in layers and always have some extra layers in your pack.
- I suggest wearing thermal base layers, warm clothes (wool is nice), and outer layers that are both windproof and waterproof. Also wear a warm hat, gloves, breathable socks, and boots.
- As with any other snow sport, wear sunscreen and sunglasses! The reflection of the sun on the snow can be fierce.
- Bring your camera and perhaps extra batteries, memory cards, etc., Keep them close to your body to keep them warm. Cold temperatures can often affect the proper function of electronics.
- You may like to bring a thermos of coffee or tea for the ride. Sometimes, this is included with the tour – check with your tour operator to confirm.
- Greenlandic Dog temperaments range from nearly wild to almost playful – but every single dog is different. Always ask the musher before approaching a dog! (This also goes for walking near dogs in the towns. No matter the age, do not touch them unless you have specifically been told you can do it.)
- The musher will most likely jump off the sledge to stand on the back of it. He/She does this to work the brake, especially when going downhill. Unless the musher says otherwise, you should stay seated on the sledge.
- This point is worth repeating over and over… Do NOT touch a dog, old or young, unless you have specifically been told you can do it. This goes for the dogs you meet during a tour and those you meet around town.
- Greenlandic Dogs are not pets – they are working animals. They have an extreme amount of energy and instinct to run/pull a sledge. The musher uses verbal and physical commands toward the pack. At times they may seem harsh, but understand that they are necessary to control the pack.
- Greenlandic Dogs are contained when they are not working. Mushers keep them on sturdy chains close to doghouses with ample food and water supply. The musher visits them daily. Sometimes, dogs are kept in a pen, but usually they are still on chains inside the pen. The chains are for the dogs’ protection. They keep the dogs from wandering loose in the town; dogs can legally be shot if they are deemed problematic toward people. The chains also keep the dogs a safe distance from each other as hierarchical fighting is common.
Winter versus Summer Life
- Dogsledding season is typically from October – April, depending on the town, snow cover, and sea ice conditions. During this time, dogsledding is used as a method of transportation for residents and as an entertaining excursion for tourists.
- Greenlandic Dogs look quite different in the two seasons. In winter, their fur is thick and full, but in summer they shed a lot and look much thinner.
- Greenlandic dogs are chained whether it is winter or summer. Depending on where the musher lives, the dogs may be on grass, rocks, or dirt. You will always see that they are close to doghouses and ample food and water supply.
- In summer, many tourists “judge a book by its cover”. They see the dogs on chains and looking thin, so they assume the dogs are poorly treated. For those thinking this way, I suggest they take a “Sledge Dog Life” tour. While it is not possible to do a dogsledding tour in summer, it is possible to meet mushers and get a firsthand insider-look into how they care for their dogs.
For statistics on sledge dogs by Statistics Greenland, see here.