Iceland & Greenland 3/7/2020 - 3/21/2020
Saturday 3/14/2020 - Dogsledding from Ice Camp to Tinit, Seal Hunting, Dinner with a Local FamilyToday breakfast was at 6 a.m. with a scheduled 8 a.m. departure on the dogsleds. The idea was to get to our destination, the settlement of Tiniteqilaaq (or "Tinit", as it is locally known), in time to get to the grocery store to buy dog food.
We woke up at 5:30 a.m. When I went outside to use the outhouse, I could see that there was a beautiful pink glow above the pack ice as the sun rose. I went down to last night's northern lights viewing area and took a few photos. It's amazing how different this place looks depending on the light and time of day.
The dogs were all still asleep. At 6 a.m., we went to the dining cabin for a breakfast of reindeer sausage, smoked reindeer, cheese, bread, and coffee. Although it is very rich and heavy food to eat so early in the morning, it is essential in this climate to fuel your body with protein and fat, to keep you warm and energetic.
We retired to our cabins to pack up to move on to the next camp. Our 8 a.m. departure was delayed an hour. Gideon was feeling a bit under the weather, and in order to take responsible precautions given the developing COVID-19 situation around the world, the guides delayed departure so that they could talk to a doctor on the phone. We were all eager to hear the outcome of the call. More than being worried about our own potential exposure to the virus, we were worried sick about the potential for exposing our guides and other locals to danger.
The doctor interviewed Gideon and determined that his symptoms were not consistent with corona; instead he seemed to be having difficulty adjusting to the all-encompassing cold and was fatigued. We were all relieved to hear this.
We got suited up in our snow gear and went out to where the dogs were chained. Lessons learned: Craig was wearing wool mittens today instead of ski gloves, and we were both wearing balaclavas.
We noticed that one of the puppies was sheltering in a deep hole in the snow. Only his head was visible, and it was absolutely adorable. The guys had obviously dug this hole to give the puppy a bit of protection from the elements.
Harald attached his dogs to their respective nylon lines, and we got settled onto the sled. By around 9:30 a.m., we were off for day 2 of dogsledding. The weather was absolutely gorgeous today, with bright sun and blue skies. The normal route from Ice Camp to Tinit passes over an area of sea ice that is too unstable right now, so we would need to take a longer more inland route through the mountains.
The air was so clean and fresh...well, not always. The dogs sometimes added some...fragrance. We were reminded (and not for the last time) of the Seinfeld episode where Kramer feeds the Central Park carriage horses Beefaroni!
Our dogs were feeling a bit lazy today, and seemed to want to do anything except pull the sled. Except for white male Agisdor, who was all business and often tried to pull the sled all by himself! Harald always got the dogs going again and kept them motivated to get us where we needed to go.
This stretch had so much uphill that we couldn't help but feel a but guilty that these dogs have to heft our bulky American bodies through the mountains, even though they are working dogs and this is what they do.
But, like the headstrong, difficult to train breed that they are, when they didn't want to pull, they didn't pull, regardless of Harald's entreaties or even his whip. With the sled stopped, they would run from side to side just to avoid the whip, getting hopelessly tangled in the process. At one point we took a break on a flat stretch while Harald untangled and re-motivated the dogs.
To get to the north side of Ammassalik Island, we had to cross a massive ridge. We could see it looming ahead of us, and it seemed impossibly steep for our dogs. We wondered if there was some alternative route which we just couldn't see, being unfamilar with the area. But then our eyes focussed on the slope far ahead of us, and we could just make out another of the sleds. We were indeed going to climb this steep terrain to cross the ridge.
There was one long steep uphill slope where Harald apologetically asked me to get out of the sled to lighten the load. Craig asked if he should get out too, and Harald was adamant that he shouldn't. (Later we learned that this was all intentional; that it was part of an overall strategy to try to prevent Craig from having to over-exert himself due to his MS. The crew was all quite aware of Craig's illness, and they handled it quite subtly, without drawing attention to any accommodations that they made).
I found it very difficult to walk in the new snow that had fallen. I was post-holing with every step, wishing that I had yesterday's snowshoes. The exertion and cold air meant that I had a hard time catching my breath. Harald handed me a rope so that I could get some help from the sled's momentum (I joked about being short-roped up the mountain), but I couldn't hold on and keep up with the sled. I staggered up the hill behind them, and Harald was always there to offer me his hand, and he let me sit down on the sled again at the first opportunity.
We finally reached the crest of the ridge after about four hours. From here on, it was strictly downhill. We picked up speed as we crossed a glacier and descended to the sea ice which separated Ammassalik Island from Tiniteqilaaq ("Tinit"). Our time in Tinit would be the only time where were were actually on the Greenlandic mainland.
At about this time, I ran out of battery power for my Olympus Tough camera. I had mistakenly only brought 2 batteries for this model, and the cold temperatures reduced the length/effectiveness of the charge.
I needed to take a video as we sped across the snow in this gorgeous weather to try to capture some of the exhiliration we felt. I opened the zipper pocket of my parka to get my iPhone. Of course I couldn't really operate the touchscreen with my glove liner on (despite the fact that they had been advertised as touchscreen friendly). So I took off my right glove liner and placed it on my lap.
At that point I needed to hold on because the dogs were taking us through some rough downhill terrain. I also had to protect my phone, which was not physically attached to my body in any way. When I was done filming, I couldn't find my glove liner. I held out hope that maybe I was somehow sitting on it, but in fact I found out later that it was indeed lost along the trail somewhere. If that is the only casualty we suffer during this trip, we're doing alright! We had each brought backup glove liners because we expected gloves to get wet in the snow. But the air is so dry here that clothing doesn't absorb moisture, and snow brushes right off of you.
Dogsledding from Ice Camp to Tinit
We were the last sled to arrive today. This did not surprise us, as it had been slow going on all of the uphill sections with our dogs. When we reached the shores of Tinit from the pack ice, Harald immediately started to care for his dogs, detaching them from the sled, chaining them to a line, and feeding them. Tinit is a small settlement of only 106 residents, and is situated 18 miles into Sermilik Fjord.
It wasn't obvious which way we should go on the hilly, snow-covered roads of town. After a couple minutes, Mikael appeared on a snow machine. He shuttled first Craig and then me up the hills and then down to the cheerful yellow guest house where we would be spending the night.
We stepped inside the house and it was packed...with people, with luggage, with coats and snow pants. On the ground floor there was a kitchen (without running water) and dining area, plus a living room area. There was also a little store room which doubled as the bathroom, with a toilet seat over a plastic-bag lined bucket. The bathroom was indoors and heated, so this was a step up from the outhouse situation! The house also had electricity, so I immediately set about charging the dead batteries for my Olympus.
The guys would be spending the night at Line's blue house a short distance away. Mikael said that he would be back at 4 p.m. to collect anyone who wanted to go seal hunting with him. It would be a 2 hour excursion on his boat before dinner "at the red house" at 6 p.m. He and Mathias went to prepare the boat.
Egon and Daniel took the snow machine to Tasiilaq to buy groceries (our late arrival in Tinit apparently meant that we arrived after the local store had closed). Though it had taken us around 8 hours of dogsledding to get here from Tasiilaq (with a stop at Ice Camp), a snow machine could make it from Tinit straight to Tasiilaq in 45 minutes.
Every couch and comfy chair in the guest house was filled by a person, a suitcase, or a parka. Craig and I decided to stake out the upstairs sleeping loft. I claimed a corner near a window and positioned two of the sleeping pads there. We deposited our duffel bags, sleeping bags, and gear next to our sleeping pads.
We then went downstairs, moved some coats off of two kitchen chairs, and sat down. We made ourselves a cup of tea while we waited to go on the seal hunt. Bill is a hunter and fisherman, and we thought he would be thrilled at the prospect. But he had said that he was too cold to go out on a boat after the dogsled ride. After warming up in the cozy guest house, he changed his mind. Nicole respects hunting, but doesn't want to witness a bloody seal harvest. Watching an adorable animal die is not pleasant. We knew that if Mikael caught a seal, it would be bittersweet and somewhat uncomfortable. But as self-described "anecdotal anthropologists," we felt that it was a cultural opportunity not to be missed. The Inuit use every part of the seal: pelts, meat, etc. This is not a prestige hunt; this is survival in the arctic, and we wanted to witness it.
As 4 p.m. approached, we and the others going on the hunt (Bill, Hak-Ye, Roger, Gideon, and Anna) got suited up. I wore by backup glove liners underneath my ski gloves. I took my newly charged Olympus battery, and brought my Sony camera as a backup (to be safely stowed in my waterproof pocket since it is more delicate). My iPhone needed charging after a day of use. I didn't want to risk the iPhone's safety out in the bay, so I left it charging in the house.
We went outside to wait. Bill wondered if they would pull the boat up near our house, and we walked to the water's edge to look. There were some interesting round ice formations on the bank. The water was too shallow for the boat here, so Mathias came to get us and led us down to the to the protected harbor.
The ice at the harbor was smeared with the rusting blood of successful hunts. We climbed into Mikael's open fiberglass boat. The deck was like walking on a slip and slide. Our boots provided no traction on icy fiberglass. Craig and I sat facing backwards on the bow. Hak-Ye, Roger, and Gideon sat facing forward at the stern. Bill squatted down on the deck, and Anna sat on some gear.
A harpoon was secured to the interior of the port side of the boat. A rifle in a rifle bag lay on the deck at Mathias' feet, while Mikael started the boat and drove us out into Sermilik Fjord. Craig found it difficult to hold on, since we could get absolutely no leverage on the slippery deck. He hung on to the cleat on the bow to prevent him from slipping right off his seat. The stern of the boat had its own problems; the folks sitting there got drenched when our own wake broke over the back of the boat.
There were swaths of glassy open water in the harbor, providing sharp reflections of the colorful houses of town. The sun was getting low and everything was glowing.
As we approached Sermilik Fjord, ice became more plentiful. It formed "pancake ice", in which ice forms in localized ovals. Some of these resembled jellyfish on the surface of the blue open water. As the ice freezes further, these pancakes grow in size until they adjoin like soap bubbles to the ones around them, eventually forming a contiguous ice sheet. The boat could push apart the individual pancakes as we passed through.
The ice became a bit more thick, and the boat carved out a path. We were on the lookout for seals popping their heads up for air in pools of open water. A seal was spotted, and Mikael stopped the boat and readied his rifle. H steadied the rifle on the side of the boat and took a shot. I had not seen the seal prior to this, but I saw movement as a result of his shot. But apparently the seal had not been struck before retreating back under the ice. We stayed there for a while watching (Hak-Ye glassed with her binoculars), hoping to see the seal return to the surface to breathe. But it didn't reappear.
The sun started to slip behind the mountains to our west, casting a golden reflection on the surface of the ice, and casting a pinkish light on the surrounding peaks. It was quite surreal.
My backup glove liners were thicker than my original ones, and proved impossible to manipulate camera buttons. For most of the boat ride, my right hand was exposed to the elements, though I clutched a hand warmer when not actively taking photos.
On Mikael's boat
We cruised around in some open water, taking in the scenery and checking out some icebergs. You could see the vast blue ice extending below the surface of the water. Helheim Glacier, which flows into Sermilik Fjord north of here at a rate of around 7.5 miles per year, is responsible for singlehandedly producing 5% of all of Greenland's icebergs.
We had beautiful views of the surrounding mountain peaks. Powdery snow was swirling in the wind, looking like smoke emanating from the mountain tops. As we glided through a very thin transparent coating of ice, ice chips would dislodge and skid along the surface.
The ice got thicker...soon we were breaking our way through inch-thick ice. We would grind our way through, then the boat would breach the ice for a moment before breaking through from the top.
Then, the inch-thick ice became three-inch-thick ice. Then six-inch-thick ice. We had traveled in a loop, and there was not anything even close to open water between us and the harbor, just thick snow-covered ice. We would have had to retrace our route in the opposite direction to return to the harbor in the boat. And darkness was falling.
Mikael left the boat stuck where it was and climbed out onto the ice. He took the harpoon, which he used to test the thickness and stability of the ice. When he was satisfied with the safety aspect, he instructed us to get out of the boat and walk on the sea ice toward town. At first, nobody believed him. The guys are such tricksters, and have been continually trying to get a rise out of us. But this wasn't a joke. It underscored how unpredictable the environment is. There is no taming nature here; you are subject to her whims. Wow, this was an exciting end to the hunting trip!
We got out of the boat and started walking. They even called Egon and instructed him to come with a snow mobile to fetch us. We are sure that they did this so that Craig would not have to walk that far, but as usual, they handled it subtly.
We reached a rendezvous point and Egon appeared on a snow machine, towing a dogsled. We piled onto the dogsled and he took off toward town. I was on the front and had to hold on. Boy, was it a wild ride!
Egon tows us back to town behind the snow machine
We arrived back where the dog teams were resting, with salty spray on our coats and feeling like we had just experienced a grand adventure. We had been out for around two hours, and it was now 6 p.m. They had told us that we were having dinner at "the red house," but we didn't know what to expect. Was this a community house where the guys would be preparing dinner with the groceries from Tasiilaq? And...which red house? There were several within view.
The guys indicated the house right in front of us. It was a residential house. We stepped inside and were greeted by mother Flavia and her 26-year old daughter Elisa. We took off our wet clothes and boots in their arctic entry, and they hung our gloves and hats on a drying rack above their heating stove.
They ushered us into their cozy living room. Elisa speaks English very well (self-taught from television and the internet), and she welcomed us to her family's home. Nicole, Hildegard, and Dieter had not arrived yet from the guest house. Elisa asked how many people we would be, altogether. We said that there were ten of us. She looked a bit embarrassed and explained that we would have to eat in shifts since they only have 5 chairs.
Bill was waiting for Nicole, and nobody else was making a move toward the kitchen. Flavia was eager for the first batch of guests to start eating, so we went to the kitchen with Hak-Ye and Roger. Elisa and Flavia presented a large pot of home-made rich lamb stew containing pasta, dumplings, meatballs, lamb, potato, carrots, and other vegetables. It was delicious, and just the thing to warm our bones after the seal hunt! This was acoompanied by delicious ice cold water.
I was having trouble taking photos. The cold had sapped the strength from my freshly charged Olympus Tough battery during the seal hunt, and the lens of my Sony was literally obscured by frost and ice. But I did the best I could.
We chatted a bit with Elisa. We were amazed at how youthful she appears; we had expected her to say that she was a teenager as opposed to a 26-year-old. She has three siblings
Nicole, Hildegard, and Dieter arrived from the house, and Hildegard joined us at the table. When we were done eating, we cleared our plates and swapped places with those in the living room. The room was quite cozy, with a steep ladder-like staircase leading upstairs. A young girl was sitting on the stairs, engrossed in her cell phone but once in a while casting a glance at the tourists. She is Flavia's granddaughter and Elisa's niece, Kyla.
Though we don't share a common language with Flavia, she was eager to communicate. I asked about a skull on the shelf in front of their TV, and she confirmed through nodding and sign language that it was indeed an ice bear (polar bear) skull. We admired the beautiful beadwork which decorated so much of this main room. Flavia had done it all herself, from the Inuit figures in traditional clothes, Greenlandic dogs, and Greenland maps on the wall to the placemat on the coffee table, to vases and baskets. She showed us some beautiful necklaces that she had beaded.
She browsed through the photos on her phone to show us pictures of Elisa or Kyla wearing this type of beadwork as part of their traditional dress. She showed us family baptisms in the settlement's church, and pictures of Kyla gathering eggs when she was a small child. I asked what type of eggs they were, and Flavia fluttered her hands as little wings and said "Aah-oo! Aah-oo!" Elisa used Google to find the English word: duck.
Flavia insisted that we have some cookies and tea as we chatted. I wished that I had my phone so that I could show her some of our photos. But I had left it charging at the guest house.
Despite Kyla's attempts at indifference, she was observing our interactions and eventually brought her phone to Flavia with some suggestions on photos to show us. Though she wouldn't interact with us directly, her sweet interactions with her grandmother were heartwarming.
In a time where the world is so worried about COVID-19, the fact that this family invited ten foreigners into their home and shared a homemade meal with us was amazingly kind. We are so thankful for their hospitality and friendliness - it was a definite highlight of the trip!
The group decided that we should all leave together, since only three people knew how to get back to the house from here. Those of us who had gone on the seal hunt were not sure of the route. We thanked Flavia repeatedly and she smiled and put her hand over her heart.
Craig and I were among the last to get suited up to leave (10 people getting dressed in an arctic entryway without getting snow all over everything is something we'd rather sit out until the end).
When we got outside, everyone had disappeared other than Roger. So much for safety in numbers. All three people who knew the route were already out of sight. Although the village is small and relatively well lit by strategically placed streetlights, it is hilly. As in Tasiilaq, the roads are not plowed down to pavement; people have studded tires or chains. Trying to walk uphill in a few inches of snow is not easy for me, let alone Craig with no cane. So taking wrong turns and going in the wrong direction would cause a lot of needless energy expenditure. Roger took charge and figured out how to get us back, for which we were grateful.
We were a little annoyed that we had been left behind...if we had known we'd be walking back alone, we might not have left exactly when everyone else did. When we got back to the house, we weren't in the mood to socialize, so we went straight upstairs to the sleeping loft. I wrote up today's notes in my notebook. We cracked the windows at either end which kept the temperature from getting too hot. We prepared our sleeping bags, pulled our buffs down over our eyes, and went to sleep.
Nicole, Bill, Gideon, and Anna ended up sleeping in the loft too. The rest of the group slept downstairs on the couches.
This turned out to be the coldest night, weather-wise, with outside temperatures falling to negative ten degrees Fahrenheit.
Sunrise at Ice Camp
Puppy sheltering in the snow at Ice Camp
Dogsledding from Ice Camp to Tinit
Steep hill where I had to get out of the sled
Dogsledding into to Tinit
Mikael on the seal hunt in Tinit
View of Tinit from Mikael's boat
View of Tinit from Mikael's boat
Mikael prepares his rifle for the seal hunt
Mikael and Mathias take us seal huting on Mikael's boat
Sunset on the seal hunt
Abandoning Mikael's boat in the ice
Flavia and Elisa