Iceland & Greenland 3/7/2020 - 3/21/2020
Thursday 3/12/2020 - Dogsledding from Tasiilaq to Ice Camp on Sermilik FjordWe woke up at 5 a.m. and it was already light outside. The family with the toddlers had been right across the hall from us, and we hadn't heard a peep from them all night.
I had internet access on my phone, and checked my correspondence with Greenland Adventures. They confirmed that all 10 trip participants were at the Hotel Kulusuk. Helicopter flights would resume this afternoon, and they confirmed that Craig and I were scheduled on the first of these flights. We would start the dogsledding as planned today, just much later in the day than the usual departure.
I had posted a status update to Facebook last night, and woke up to several comments asking things like "Is Greenland considered Europe?" and "Will you be able to get home?" This immediately led us to wonder what was going on, so I checked the rest of my newsfeed. Our friend Marie posted to us that Trump had announced last night that flights into the U.S.A. from Europe would be suspended for 30 days starting on Saturday, March 14. As in two days from now.
Our minds began to race...we probably couldn't get back to the U.S. by Saturday if we tried. As of now, we were stranded in Kulusuk. And if we couldn't get home, we would be stuck here in this remote place or in Iceland, the most expensive country on earth, for a month. Here in Greenland we had so little with us...just a couple of changes of clothing. We had a bit more in Reykjavik, including my lightweight travel laptop. But I hadn't brought my work laptop with me. What if I needed to work remotely for a month? And then there are the two cats at home who require care...our thoughts were spiraling out of control.
Craig reminded me that we have RipCord evacuation insurance. Since Craig has multiple sclerosis, he could potentially have an attack at any time that renders him unable to walk, etc. We retain this insurance in case he ever has an attack while on a trip, so that we can ensure that we can get him home to his neurologist for treatment. But that is not all that Ripcord does. They specialize in extracting people due to any situation that unexpectedly erupts during the course of travel, including illness and political instability.
As I continued to look through my Facebook feed, my Aunt Bunny posted a clarification: though Trump had not mentioned it in the press conference, his advisers later clarified that this ban will not apply to U.S. citizens. That was a relief, but Trump's insistence on calling COVID-19 a "foreign virus" made us doubt his motives and reminded us that this, too, could change at any moment as the U.S. continues its descent into xenophobic islolationist nationalism.
We decided to call RipCord just to let them know of our current situation, and ask if they had any information/advice to offer. I spoke with a lovely woman who confirmed that U.S. citizens are exempt from the ban. She took our information and told me that she would contact me if anything changed on this front. She also said not to hesitate to call them back if we needed anything.
It was all rather disconcerting. We were happy to have internet access; without it we would have felt even more isolated in this no-man's land of the hotel.
We decided that we needed to be positive. This was the trip of a lifetime, and it was still happening as scheduled. There was no imminent reason to go home now...in fact, flights only go back and forth from here to Reykjavik once a week. So we couldn't go if we wanted to, unless we did something drastic like invoke RipCord. We decided to just go with the flow and trust that everything would work out.
We took showers (assuming that this would probably be our last shower for a while), and went downstairs to breakfast at seven o'clock. Jacob, the guy in charge of the hotel, was running around like a crazy person restocking the buffet and making sure that everything was right for his unexpected full house of guests.
We had scrambled eggs, sausage, orange juice, coffee, hash browns, bacon, bread, and cheese. We sat with Nicole and Bill and speculated about the developing COVID-19 situation in the U.S.A.
After breakfast, we went back to the room and I charged my phone until it was check-out time. We brought our duffels down to the lobby and added them to the pile of luggage waiting to go to the airport. We paid for the happy hour drinks by credit card, and then headed up to have a seat in the bar area.
I went outside to take some photos of the hotel. Then I went back to the bar table and wrote in my journal about our experiences so far. Who knew what would happen with COVID-19, and I wanted to capture the zeitgeist as the situation unfolded, because it would obviously impact our mindset while on the trip.
The family with the two toddlers were sitting at a table in the dining room, and soon the littlest guy was napping.
In the meanwhile, Nicole and Bill had gone with some of the other passengers to walk into the settlement. They said it had been about 30 minutes' walk from the hotel. We were content to stay put and await further instruction.
Shortly before noon, Jacob and his handful of staff restocked the buffet for lunch. In consisted of garden burgers, chicken wings, mustard-based pasta salad, potato salad, breaded fish fillets, bread, rice, and fries. It was good comfort food to conclude our stay at the hotel. Nicole and Bill returned from their walk and joined us at the lunch table.
At one o'clock, Jacob began shuttling passengers back to the airport in order of departure time. We, along with Andrea, Doug, and Swiss couple Hak-Ye and Roger (who would turn out to be in our dogsledding group) were on the first flight, so we were on the first shuttle. Today it was like we were old pro's at this. We staked out seats, we checked in, and checked our bags. Our helicopter was scheduled to depart at 1:55 p.m.
The weather was nowhere near as nice as yesterday; it was cloudy and the light was very flat. We hoped that there wouldn't be any weather-related delays today. We were just 14 miles from the beginning of our trip; we just wanted to make it there!
They started to board our flight, and we walked out the front door of the airport, approaching the red Air Greenland helicopter. Our hand luggage was put in a compartment in the tail, while duffels and suitcases were strapped down behind the pilot. The helicopter sat 9 passengers. We were in the forward passenger seat, but did not have a window seat. I held my iPhone out and tried to get whatever photos I could. As we took off at 2:10 p.m., we got our one and only glimpse of Kulusuk settlement.
After about 10 minutes of crossing sea ice and going over a mountain pass, we could see Tasiilaq village! We landed at their small heliport. As we exited the helicopter, a ground crew worker smiled and welcomed us to Tasiilaq. We left the anxiety of travel delays behind with this warm welcome, and embraced the uncertainty of our upcoming adventure.
Helicopter flight from Kulusuk to Tasiilaq
We entered the small heliport building where we met Line (pronounced "Lena"), the operations manager for Arctic Dream's winter tours. We could tell immediately that we would get along well with her. She was obviously outgoing and capable, with a good sense of humor. She helped to retrieve our luggage. As we were walking out to Line's truck, Andrea got her attention and told her to take good care of us.
Hak-Ye and Roger got into the truck with us, and Lena drove us to one of Arctic Dream's guest houses to get us suited up for the dogsledding trip. Line offered to carry our bags, and was delighted when she saw how lightly we had packed.
Our original itinerary had us staying here in Tasiilaq for the first night, getting some orientation with the sled dogs, and then setting out on the trail the next morning. But because of the helicopter delay, our orientation was quite abbreviated. Line did an inventory of our gear to make sure that we had everything that we needed. Hak-Ye and Roger had a cup of tea, but we were so busy making sure that our gear was prepared that we didn't have time.
We had arranged ahead of time to rent boots and sleeping bags. Neither of us have cold weather snowboots heavy duty enough to wear while dogsledding. And although we do have sleeping bags which would be appropriate, we didn't want to take up precious space with them in our bags.
We tried on the boots. They were perfect for the cold weather...waterproof and with a liner. Mine fit well, but Craig's pair was too small. Line went to fetch another pair, but it was still slightly small for him. Even though our feet are basically the same size, I tried them on and they weren't as tight on me. I would have preferred one size up, but these would do if there was no alternative.
If we had arrived yesterday as planned, Line would have had a chance to sort these things out. But the timer was ticking today, and the next helicopter would be landing soon. Line apologized and said that she would track down a larger pair and deliver them to me at camp so that I could swap them out. I was appreciative.
In the guest house, we put on four layers of pants (long johns, yoga pants, fleece pants, and lined snow pants), and two layers of shirts (I had long johns and a thin but warm Barbour wool sweater) under our Land's End Squall Parkas. We put on glove liners, ski gloves, hats, and ski goggles.
The packing list for the trip had suggested hand warmers. We have never used such things, but were familiar with them because we used to give them to Craig's uncle each Christmas to help with his cold extremities. We had ordered two large boxes of Hot Hands from Amazon. They were by far the bulkiest and heaviest items in our duffel bags, and we repeatedly wondered if it was worth the hassle to bring them. But since cold toes and fingers are a recipe for discomfort, we erred on the side of bringing them all.
We put a hand warmer between our wool socks and boots, and between our two layers of gloves. We didn't think to put our balaclavas on, but we had them in our luggage. I let Craig borrow one of my buffs to wear on his head. It was his first time wearing one, and he would fall in love with it.
We filled our water bottles at the sink and separated things that we would need on the trail from things that could be transported by snow machine. We gave our duffel bags to Line and kept our backpacks with us. Line showed us on a map what our route would be over the next few days: cross the southern part of Ammassalik Island to get to Ice Camp. After two nights, travel north to Tinit on mainland Greenland. The next day, continue to Pitserpaajik Peninsula on the east coast of Ammassalik Island, before heading back south to Tasiilaq for two nights.
Line gave us some basic instruction: Lean against the grade to keep the sled from tipping, mkeep your arms and legs inside the sled to prevent getting injured by rocks on the side of the trail, be prepared for the dogs to take off suddenly from a dead stop, and hold on tight when going downhill. And don't approach the dogs without permission from the musher. These are not pets; they are working dogs. And if they get annoyed, when they are chained up and can't get away, their only recourse is to bite.
Line then drove us to the outskirts of town on the edge of the sea ice to meet our guides/mushers. We could hear the next helicopter arrive, so Line left us in the capable hands of the mushers while she headed back to the heliport to pick up the next batch of guests. The mushers sized us up and determined who would take whom. Harald claimed us, and then the guides left us while they prepared their sleds and dogs. We were left with Hak-Ye and Roger, standing around on the sea ice, taking in our surreal surroundings.
East Greenland has only 3,500 inhabitants (Greenland as a whole has a population of just 56,000). Greenlandic natives are descended from the "proto-Inuit" Thule people, who migrated across Alaska and North America, reaching Greenland around 1300 A.D. These people settled in both East and West Greenland, separated from one another by the ice cap. West Greenland was discovered by Europeans long before East Greenland, so the modern day Inuit culture there has had much more outside influence.
The so-called Tunumiit Inuit of East Greenland have had much less outside influence, and, as such, and the modern world's closest genetic link to the Inuit prior to European contact. Their language is even distinct from that of West Greenland.
Tasiilaq is the largest settlement in East Greenland , with around 3,000 inhabitants. The town is so picturesque, with brightly colored clapboard houses. Despite the fact that there is often snow here, the climate is very dry (you couldn't make a snowball if you tried). This preserves the wood and the paint jobs. The houses look like primary colored Lego bricks (and Lego is Danish after all).
Greenland dogs (Canis Lupus Familiaris Borealis) initially came from Siberia and migrated with the Thule people to Greenland. They are viewed as draught animals rather than pets, and they have not been much further domesticated than they were a thousand years ago. They are valued for their strength and endurance. Adaptations to the harsh climate allow them to survive comfortably in the elements, without doghouses or even straw bedding. They are strong-willed and are not always compliant. The overall population of these dogs in Greenland is around 15,000. Other dog breeds are prohibited in East Greenland and above the Arctic Circle in West Greenland to prevent dilution of the breed.
In the settlements of East Greenland, dogs must be kept on the outskirts of town, and must be microchipped and registered. If an unregistered dog is found wandering the streets, it is shot.
The Greenlandic Inuit have traditionally used sled dogs for transportation and to mount hunting expeditions. But raising a dog team is not easy these days. Dogs can only be run during the short season when everything is frozen and covered with snow. But they must be cared for and fed year-round. It is an expensive proposition for people who largely make a subsistence living. Tourism allows the dogs an opportunity to earn their keep, so to speak. It makes it easier for the locals to continue their traditions without assuming a financial burden.
The next five days would be a taste of traditional culture. Instead of just going for a short joyride on a dogsled, we would be using the dogsled as transportation. We would be traveling multiple hours per day by sled in an area where there are no roads between settlements. The only way to travel between settlements is by foot, by dogsled or snow machine trail, or by boat when the fjords aren't frozen.
From the sea ice here, we had a nice view up at town above us, and we could hear the excited yips and howls of dogs who are excited to get onto the trail. We felt that excitement of anticipation as well. We could characterize the past couple of days as "hurry up and wait." We spent a lot of time waiting in airports and hotels. But then all of a sudden, things happened in rapid succession. Within the course of an hour, we flew in a helicopter, drove to a guest house, got suited up for cold weather, were driven down to the coast, and met our mushers. And now we were waiting again, just the four of us standing on a vast expanse of sea ice.
The sled dogs are eager to go
Craig and I have never worn ski goggles before. We had high expectations for them, as Craig's eyes are very sensitive to light. In today's weather, everything is white: the sky, the mountains, the ground. We put the goggles over our eyes and were quite satisfied with the result. They really cut down on the glare. Roger took a photo of himself reflected in Hak-Ye's goggles. "Selfie!" they giggled. We borrowed their idea and I took a similar photo of myself reflected in Craig's goggles.
A young boy with a small dog team and a younger brother on the sled took off from town and waved to us.
Roger told us that they had watched the Northern Lights last night from outside the hotel, and it had been spectacular. Craig and I hadn't even considered going outside after dark, mainly because you need your keycard to gain access to the building late at night. And we had no keycard. But that was ok; we had been quite tired anyway, and we appreciated the full night's sleep that we had gotten.
The sky was growing more gray as the afternoon progressed. It was apparent that darkness would fall while we were on the trail. That just added to our excitement and anticipation. What an adventure this would be!
Harald arrived at around 3:30 p.m. on a sled pulled by a team of 12 dogs. The sled is a "toboggan style" sled, which can carry heavier loads than a "basket style" sled. The sled is low and heavy. Harald secured a plastic barrel full of supplies to the back of the sled. He fastened our backpacks to the uprights.
Craig sat at the back of the sled with legs out in front of him and his back against the barrel. I sat in front of him, initially with my legs outstretched. There was no introduction to the dogs, no instruction. The dogs just took off. It was as if an Uber had arrived and we had hopped in. And just like that, the waiting was over.
The dogs took off across the sea ice, but they don't limit themselves to a forward trajectory. They weave back and forth, from one side of the team to the other, which eventually tangles all of their lines.
In the media, we are used to seeing mushers on the back of basket-style sleds. The dogs are harnessed and attached to a gangline in pairs at various intervals according to their roles within the team.
The toboggan sled worked differently. The musher could stand at the back or sit on the sled. The dogs are each harnessed to separate nylon ropes, which are gathered through a slipknot. Harald could adjust the length of each dog's rope, thereby assigning them to a certain position within the team.
Harald alternated between sitting on the front of the sled during the flat stretches, standing on the back and using the brake during the downhill sections, and helping to push from behind on the uphill sections. While sitting on the front of the sled, he could take the time to untangle the dogs' lines, shortening them by pulling them through the slipknot, untangling them, and releasing them. Simultaneously, he would use his foot as a rudder, a brake, or extra propulsion.
I put my phone and my extra camera batteries in the waterproof chest pockets of my parka so that they would be easily accessible should I need them. I hung my Olympus Tough camera around my right wrist so that I could take photo and video footage on the fly. I just had to be careful of the camera when I needed to hold on to the sled with my right hand when going downhill.
I developed a routine by which I would carefully remove my right ski glove so as not to dump out the Hot Hands packet, operate the camera with my glove liner, then replace my right ski glove. Craig was impressed by my agility with this routine; how I was able to time it so that I could get the footage I wanted while still maintaining control of myself and my equipment while on the trail.
Tasiilaq is on Ammissalik Island, and we were crossing the southern part of the island to get to our first camp, Ice Camp Greenland. It was cold. But with all of our gear, we managed to stay quite comfy. Our noses and cheeks got a bit chilly, so we made a mental note to wear our balaclavas next time. Things had been so rushed we hadn't put them on.
The ride was so peaceful. Very often there was no sound but the squeak of the dry, powdery snow as the sled skidded over it, or the gliding of the runners over sea or lake ice. It was quite surreal; two hours ago we had been on a helicopter, and now here we were crossing sea ice and mountains on a dogsled.
We could start to detect the personalities of the dogs almost immediately based on their behavior: there was the brown alpha male who peed all over every single thing he came across, and there was the playful white male who liked drift off the path into deeper snow to dig snow caves.
The dogs' headstrong nature surfaced when the young boy and his dogsled passed us on their return to town. Despite Harald's commands, the dogs couldn't resist veering to the right to accost the other dog team.
Our team picked up momentum on the downhill stretches, but sometimes lacked motivation going uphill. On the uphill slopes, they would often stop and look back at us, some of them actually looking like they were smiling and taunting us. We couldn't help but feel a bit guilty; we are heavy, and the two of us plus Harald and gear was quite an intimidating load for these dogs to pull. But we could tell that Harald was a bit frustrated with them; he knew they were capable. The dogsled season had only recently started, so maybe they needed a bit more time to get back in shape and into the routine.
Line and support worker Sivert passed us on a snow machine, towing the luggage sled behind them. They would make it to Ice Camp first, and prepare for our arrival.
When we passed three colorful A-frame huts seemingly in the middle of nowhere, we recognized this area as the "coffee shop" mentioned in the itinerary. It is a rest area of sorts at a confluence of trails, where dogsledders and snow machiners tend to stop to have a cup of coffee or tea from their thermoses and socialize. However, because we were running late, we drove straight through without stopping.
One of the nice things about an immersive experience like this is that you don't have the mental bandwidth to worry about things like COVID-19, or whether or not we will be able to fly home to the U.S.A. once the trip is complete. You are in the moment, focusing on which way to lean so that the sled doesn't tip, re-adjusting your handwarmers to keep your fingers warm, trying in vain to capture the majestic beauty of the environment in photos, and paying attention to every detail.
Over the course of the 3.5 hour journey, darkness fell. It was surreal. Harald continued to mush in the dark, without any sort of lights. Our eyes soon adjusted and we could see the white snow around us as we wound through the mountains. I did, however, see some mirages. So much white made it difficult to distinguish near mountains from far ones in the twilight. There were times when I saw black blobs which seemed to be floating in the air, when in actuality they were bare spots on snow covered mountains surrounding us as we glided through a pass. We have never been through such all encompassing mountainous terrain before. It was humbling.
Dogsledding from Tasiilaq to Ice Camp
At 7 p.m. we arrived at Ice Camp on the Sermilik Fjord, on the west coast of Ammissalik Island. We had flashlights in our backpacks, but we hadn't thought to keep them on our person. We couldn't differentiate between snow drifts and the path up to camp. Also, our legs were pretty much asleep from sitting on the dogsled for three and a half hours. It was rather comical because as we stepped off the sled, I stumbled in the deep snow. As Craig tried to walk he fell down and tumbled down the hill. Harald immediately came over to help us up. Craig and I both started laughing, slightly embarrassed, and wondering if Harald thought that we were totally inept!
We could see a light up near the cabins. It was Line's headlamp, and she directed us along the trail. Walk toward the light! Ice Camp consists of 5 brightly colored cabins, an outhouse, and a kitchen/dining building.
Although we had been the first sled to depart, we were the second to arrive. As we entered the kitchen/dining building, German couple Anna and Gideon were already there warming up by the heater. The building was one large room, with a kitchen on one end, a dining table with benches in the middle, and a banquette seating area around a heating stove at the far end.
Line and Sivert had set up lanterns and had lit the heating stoves. There is a generator here, and they would run it tomorrow. But for tonight, we did not have access to electricity. Line usually stays in Tasiilaq, leaving the dogsled portion of the trip to the guys. But because our trip had a rather unorthodox start, she would spend time at camp today and tomorrow to make sure that everyone was comfortable.
Line served us hot chocolate and cookies, and soon the other three sleds arrived. We were reunited with Nicole, Bill, Hak-Ye, and Roger, and also met single German travelers Hildegard and Dieter. We were directed to leave our snowboots just inside the door, to prevent the floor from getting wet. Most people followed this rule, but sometimes people forgot. And even when people did leave their boots at the door, this meant that there were about 16 pairs of boots to manouever around. Our socks got a little wet tonight, and we wished we had thought to bring slippers with a waterproof sole. (Luckily, everything dried quite quickly here, including our socks).
Line and the guides tried to break the ice socially with everyone, but it seemed that most people were just getting their bearings after an unpredictable and tiring couple of days. People were more interested in getting settled and warming up after the inaugural dogsled ride.
Craig and I, on the other hand, were pumped. We had been quite comfortable on the sleds. Craig's fingers had been slightly cold, and he decided that he would be better off wearing mittens than ski gloves while dogsledding. We had brought wool mittens, so that was easily arranged. Also, we were still learning how to best utilize the hand warmers. I, for one, realized that I hadn't fully activated mine. Mere exposure to air isn't enough; you need to really crush the crystals together to get the maximum amount of heat. And if they start to cool down, squeezing them can re-activate the crystals.
We met the other Inuit guides: Mikael, Egon, Daniel, and Mathias. Mikael is the most senior of the guides. He is an accomplished professional hunter. He is strong and competitive, with a great sense of humor. Egon and Daniel are a bit younger. They have taught themselves English over the past 2 years while working with tourists. They are tricksters and have a deadpan sense of humor. Our own Harald is a bit more shy. He's quiet but is attentive and helpful. And Mathias is the greenhorn, taking a bit of good-natured hazing from the others.
We were very lucky that they even ran this trip. We were the last flight in before Greenland was closed off due to Corona virus. One of their mushers decided at the last minute not to go due to the risk of interacting with outsiders who could be infected. Egon enlisted the help of his nephew Mathias. Mathias is a musher but had never done a 5 day trip before. He stepped in and did a great job. We don't know what we would have done if he hadn't, so we are quite grateful!
Line had brought the rental sleeping bags into the kitchen/dining building. I grabbed two sleeping bags, and I was shown to our cheerful red cabin. I went to pick up our luggage from the sled behind the snow machine, and placed it in the cabin. I dug out my small flashlight and tied it to the pull-string of my hood on my shirt, where it would remain for the rest of the trip so that I was never without light again.
Given that there was no running water, the crew provided plenty of hand sanitizer in each of our camps. This worked well for both post-outhouse hand washing as well as general COVID-19 precautions.
Line made a delicious spaghetti and meat sauce for dinner. The guides chiseled a hole in the ice of a nearby stream to collect water. After dinner, Line and Sivert returned to Tasiilaq on the snowmobile. We chatted with the guides and other guests. The guides told us that this is a great spot for seeing the Northern Lights. Tonight's weather was too cloudy, but they were holding out hope for tomorrow night.
People eventually retired to their cabins, leaving the two of us alone with the guides. They would be sleeping in here, so we didn't want to hang around too long so that they could get settled. We headed back to our little red cabin at around 9:15 p.m. It was 8 feet by 12 feet with an arctic entry to keep out the wind. There was a bunk against each wall, and a powerful heater on a plywood shelf.
The guys had turned on the heater earlier in the evening, so the room was nice and cozy. The window was open to release fumes, and we were advised to keep it open. We took a final trip to the chilly outhouse before going to sleep at 10:15 p.m.
The temperature outside would dip to negative 5 degrees Fahrenheit overnight. Although we had rented sleeping bags, tonight it was warm enough in the cabin that we mostly just slept in the sleeping bag liners that we brought from home. Even so, we woke up sweltering in the middle of the night. Craig figured out how to turn the flame down on the heater, and opened the window a bit wider.
We had wondered how noisy the dogs might be overnight. Craig still had his earplugs in his pocket from the helicopter ride, and he put them in before going to sleep. But it turned out to be very quiet overnight. Many of the dogs all started howling at one point, but then they all quieted down. Who knows, they could have been scaring off a polar bear. This would be the only night when Craig would wear his earplugs, as he deemed it unnecessary.
Breakfast at Hotel Kulusuk
Boarding the helicopter in Kulusuk
Kulusuk Settlement from the air
View from the helicopter flight from Kulusuk to Tasiilaq
View from the helicopter flight from Kulusuk to Tasiilaq
View from the helicopter flight from Kulusuk to Tasiilaq
Arrival at the Tasiilaq Heliport
Tasiilaq dog yards from the pack ice
Selfie reflected in Craig's goggles
Dogsledding with Harald
Dogsledding with Harald
Dogsledding up a steep hill
Dogsledding with Harald at twilight
Arrival at Ice Camp