Iceland & Greenland 3/7/2020 - 3/21/2020

Monday 3/16/2020 - Dogsledding from Pitserpaajik Peninsula to Tasiilaq

I awoke early, suddenly hit with a blast of arctic wind. The cabin had been so warm all night that my sleeping bag had fallen off of my bunk onto the floor, and I hadn't even noticed. The door to the cabin was wide open. Someone must have left it open on their way to the outhouse. I scrambled to retrieve my sleeping bag and snuggled into it. Craig also flopped his sleeping bag on top of him. We heard others stir as well. Finally, the door shut when the guilty party returned to the cabin. With the stove still warm and eight of us in the cabin, it soon warmed up substantially.

We all woke up by around 6:30 a.m. and started our morning routines. We used the outhouse, brushed our teeth, and refilled our water bottles from the huge barrel of water the guys had provided.

The guys came in at around 8:00. They told us that a big storm was coming and we had to leave now, without breakfast. We started to get up to hasten our departure when they assured us that they were just kidding. They had been trying to get a rise out of us, expecting us to protest leaving before we had a chance to eat. But we had known that snow had been in today's forecast. I think that we all felt that it would be a reasonable accommodation to be able to make it safely back to Tasillaq. Although they didn't get the enjoyment of having hoodwinked us, we could tell that they were quietly grateful for the trust we all have in them.

Egon mentioned that on a previous season's dogsled trip, snow had fallen overnight which had completely obscured the trail from view. A tourist in the group immediately started to panic, thinking that they would be lost and/or stranded. Egon comforted her by telling her that the few inches of snow they had experienced overnight was no match for the dogs; they could smell the trail through 2 meters of snow.

As a tourist here traveling at the speed of dogs, it seems like we are in some extremely remote places where you could be lost and swallowed up by the vast raw wilderness. But in reality, we never ventured further than 20 miles from Tasiilaq, a distance which can be covered in 45 minutes by snow machine. We traveled by trails which were well-used by dogsleds and snow machines. The trip gives you the illusion of isolation with the benefits of never being too far from civilization.

The guys made thrermoses full of hot coffee and sliced up loaves of bread, meat, and cheese. We piled slices of reindeer sausage, cheese, and smoked reindeer onto a slice of bread. Wherever the guys had stored the food overnight had clearly not been as warm as our cabin. The smoked reindeer was a little frosty. As we activated our Hot Hands hand/feet warmers, we set our plates on top of them to thaw our breakfast.

Hak-Ye inspected the hand warmers, and she seemed intrigued by them. Today was the last day of dogsledding, and we had a surplus of packets. We offered some to anyone who didn't have them. Hak-Ye, Roger, and Hildegard took us up on the offer, and their toes were toasty all the way to Tasiilaq!

The guys suggested that we pack lunch to take on the trail, so we made reindeer and cheese sandwiches. Egon made a joke about the sausage. We all looked at one another to confirm that he had really said what we had thought he said, and everyone burst into laughter. Some words are universal.

After packing everything up, the guys closed down the camp. We got suited up for our last day of dogsledding. It was bittersweet. Although there was a part of us which looked forward to private accommodation and indoor plumbing, we would miss the guys, the dogs, and the wilderness.

We walked out to Harald's sled. Harald was preparing the dogs at the front. Our buddy Agisdor was chained up toward the back of the pack and greeted us warmly. He sniffed our hands and remembered us from yesterday, allowing us to pet him and take some photos. He seemed to enjoy the attention so much that when his neighbor dog started to show some interest in us, Agisdor growled at him. We belong to him!

We started to see some isolated snowflakes falling. We got seated on the sled, and Agisdor kept peeking his head around the back of the sled to get more petting from Craig. He's such a sweet dog!

As with most things, we felt like we finally got into the rhythm of dogsledding by the last day. We had perfected our gear and my photography routine, as well as our positioning on the sled to make the physics work in favor of the dogs just in time to be done. But that is part of the adventure, doing something outside your comfort zone and eventually gaining confidence through experience.

We feel like we didn't really get to see the area surrounding the cabin. The weather had kept us inside, so the camp had become a waypoint more than a destination in and of itself (except for the awesome shelter, of course!)

We left camp on our dogsled at 9:45 a.m. The snow became progressively heavier. Everything was white and the flat light meant that we couldn't even see where the trail led ahead of us. But of course the dogs knew where to go.

In the four days of dogsledding, we had been through a wide variety of conditions, but it had always been pleasant. Temperatures while we were on the sleds were generally between five and ten degrees Fahrenheit. There hadn't been much wind. Even during today's full-on snowstorm, the wind was at most 10 miles per hour.

Even though I was seated directly in front of Craig, it was surprisingly difficult to comunicate with one another while on the sled. Our mouths were covered by our balaclavas, and our ears were covered by a buff, a balaclava, a winter hat, and a hood. I couldn't turn to see him because I had no peripheral vision within my hood.

At one point, we could see the pale ghostly sun try to break through the storm, but it soon was obscured again. Dry powdery snowflakes whizzed by our faces and clung to our gear, but one wave of the hand would brush them away. We passed beautiful translucent blue glaciers.

As we approached the final ridge, the dogs got the sled into such a position that it was impossible for them to dislodge it without tipping. I knew that I needed to get out, and Harald regretfully asked Craig to get out as well. It is amazing that Harald managed things such that Craig only had to get off the sled to walk once over the four days of dogsledding. And it was greatly appreciated. Craig only needed to take a few steps at this time, but found it to be exceedingly difficult for him.

After that incident, it was mostly downhill, and the dogs were pulling at a good speed. They knew that they were on their way home, and that was motivational. We recognized a landmark: a stake in the ground on which is painted a simple leftward-pointing arrow. We remembered passing this on our way from Tasiilaq to Ice Camp on Thursday, so we knew that we were getting close as well.

We finally dropped down onto the sea ice below town, and Harald turned to us with a smile and said "Home sweet home!" As we approached the shore, we could barely see the colorful buildings of town through the whiteout.

Dogsledding to Tasiilaq in a snowstorm

Harald parked the sled and immediately tended to feeding and chaining up the dogs. We wandered up a hill but really had no idea how to get to the house where we had put on our gear four days ago. The whole whirlwind of our late helicopter arrival and subsequent rushed departure meant that Tasiilaq was a blur to us, and we had no idea where we were headed.

The roads were steep, snow-covered, and hard to walk on, especially after your legs have been immobile on a dog sled for three and a half hours. We saw Sivert, and asked him how to get to the house. He called Line for us and told us that if we wait here, she will pick us up in a few minutes.

While we were waiting, Egon approached us. When Line drove up, Craig stuck out his thumb and Egon stuck out his leg and mimed hitching up a skirt. These guys have such a great sense of humor! The three of us hopped into the truck. Line dropped Egon in front of his cheerful green house, and then drove us to the guest house. It actually wasn't even the same house we had visited on Thursday. Also owned by Arctic Dream, this house had more rooms and could accommodate the two single travelers in our group.

Like the prior house, this house was also blue. The main house contained two full bathrooms (!), a utility room, a kitchen, a dining room, and four guest rooms spread over two floors. Two additional rooms (each with a full loft) are attached to the house but have separate entrances.

Craig and I were in room #1, one of the annex rooms. We had to suit up in boots and go outside to walk the few yards to the main house for meals or to use the bathroom, but that was fine. Once again, the only thing that we wish we had known to bring with us was some type of waterproof slippers, as our socks continually got wet from snow tracked into the entryway via people's boots.

Both showers were already occupied by folks who arrived before us, so we poured ourselves some ice water and sat in the dining room. Line was preparing lunch, but since we had never stopped on the trail today, we still had our sandwiches as well. We didn't want any food to go to waste, so we ate the sandwich first and followed it up with Line's delicious curry soup and toasted garlic bread. The soup warmed us to our core. It was quite cozy in the guest house as snow continued to fall outside.

The dining room had a rustic feel, but you had the feeling that rather just being a trendy design choice, it was born out of necessity. Wood reclaimed from shipping pallets was repurposed both to create two large wooden dining tables and to clad one of the walls. A polar bear skin covered most of the opposite wall. Its clawed paws were enormous. It was intimidating. Black and white landscape photographs taken by the owner of Arctic Dream (Lars) were hung around the room. Shelves held board games, magazines, and books.

We chatted with Gideon and Anna, who were well settled after arriving yesterday. Gideon seemed to have done a complete 180 in terms of his health now that he had spent a day in the warm comfort of Tasiilaq. He explained that he had overexerted himself walking behind the sled on the first day of dogsledding, and that the cold air had gotten into his lungs and had taken his breath away. He was unable to warm up when riding on dogsleds. We were happy to see that he was not actually ill and instead was just having difficulty adapting to the cold climate. Craig and I were lucky that we never felt exceedingly cold during the course of the trip. This seems to be the one instance in which our obesity is a feature rather than a bug! Some of the more fit people were succumbing to the cold because they didn't have as much natural insulation.

By now the bathrooms were free. Craig and I took consecutive showers so that we didn't tie up both bathrooms simultaneously. The hot shower felt amazing after 5 days without a shower and wearing the same clothes.

Luckily, the climate had been in our favor. It was so dry and cold that we never got sweaty, and our clothes never got wet. So we had managed to keep enough clothes untouched that we could dress in a fresh clean set of clothes after scrubbing ourselves clean. The only thing I hadn't brought was an extra sweater. My sturdy wool sweater had held up well, but I didn't want to wear it again. Craig had brought a sweater that he had never worn. He offered it to me and I gratefully accepted it.

We hung out in the dining room for a while, chatting with Line. After five days with the guys, we were now solely in Line's care. The guys had immediately kicked into caring for their dogs and then returned to their families. We hadn't had a proper chance to say goodbye to Harald, nor to thank him and give him a gratuity. We asked Line if we would see the guys again. She said that most of them would be able to stop in today or tomorrow.

After four days off the grid, I now had 3G connectivity. I posted a few photos and videos from the dogsledding adventure to Facebook and Instagram.

We also checked in with family to get the latest news on the COVID-19 situation in Massachusetts. Things had really taken a downward turn in the past few days. Schools had closed. My office facilities had closed; everyone was instructed to work from home for the foreseeable future. There were restrictions on the size of public gatherings. This meant that sporting events and concerts were canceled. Even Craig's brother Steve's impending wedding, scheduled to take place in his own house on April 4, would now be illegal. Restaurants had shut down for dine-in service, but all restaurants were allowed to provide take out and delivery, even if they normally don't have a permit to do so. Universities were shutting campuses; over spring break, professors were expected to hastily convert the rest of their semesters into online-only courses. And a phrase that we had never heard before, "social distancing," had become ubiquitous.

We also learned that Greenland had indeed shut its doors. Non-essential flight arrivals had been suspended. Ours had been the last plane to enter from Reykjavik. The government of Greenland had also shut down tourism-related activities. Dogsled season in East Greenland, of which ours was just the second trip this year, was now over. There were questions of whether even the summer tourism season could be salvaged.

Tomorrow's itinerary had included a visit to the Ammassalik Museum to learn about Inuit culture, and a visit to the Stunk handicrafts workshop. Both were now closed. This meant that we wouldn't have a chance to buy any handmade local souvenirs. Line told us that her friend Sven would be stopping by with some Tupilaq that we could buy if we wanted to. We were excited about this; I didn't know much about Tupilaq other than that they are traditional Inuit carved figurines. They are a quintessential Greenlandic souvenir, and Tupilaq carved from reindeer horn are legal to export from Greenland and import to the U.S.

Craig and I were the only ones in the dining room when Sven and his colleague Ian arrived. They introduced themselves and we didn't shake hands, and we kept a couple of meters away from one another. It seemed unnatural.

I was happy that I was the first to browse through the basket of Tupilaq. Sven explained that the Tupilaq is a traditional Greenlandic Inuit art form carved from reindeer horn or narwhal tusk. Traditionally they represent the spirits of ancestors, and are displayed in a prominent location in one's home to provide protection. But they could also be cursed by a shaman, and thrown into the sea to impart bad luck to an enemy.

Today, Tupilaq are produced as souvenirs for tourists. Local artisans carve and sell them in the a workshop in town. But Sven says that the quality of workmanship can vary. Some pieces are very detailed and some are very simple, and they are usually priced by size regardless of quality. Sven has had some clients who have been disappointed with the selection of Tupilaq for sale when they visit; supply doesn't always keep up with demand. So he decided that when he sees particularly good workmanship for sale at the workshop, he will purchase a few Tupilaqs himself. If clients are looking for a high quality elaborate Tupilaq, but none are available for sale at the workshop, Sven will re-sell the ones he has purchased, without making a profit. He will then replenish his stock when high quality specimens once again appear in the market.

Given that we would not be able to visit the workshop due to COVID-19, and that no artisans particularly wanted to visit a guest house full of foreigners during an escalating pandemic, Sven offered to bring his Tupilaqs over to us. If we saw anything we liked, we could purchase it from him. It was a win-win situation; we got to leave East Greenland with a piece of Inuit art, and Sven got to convert his inventory back to cash at the end of a much-abbreviated season.

Most of the Tupilaq depicted anthropomorphic figures, often with prominent mouths (precise teeth, fat tongues, etc.) I was immediately drawn to one carved from reindeer antler which features two of these figures on the front, and a polar bear and walrus on the back. This Tupilaq seemed to represent the integral relationship between the East Greenlandic Inuit and their natural environment, and it reminded me of a totem pole of sorts. I asked Sven the price, which was a flat price for any "large" (3 inch tall) Tupilaq. He said that he was glad that I chose that one; he felt it was the best one he had. I had gotten some Danish kroner from our bank before leaving home, so I went to our room to get it.

Some of the other guests came to browse through his inventory, but we were the only ones who purchased something. We chatted with Sven and Ian for a while. Sven, who is Norwegian, runs a dive company in town. He provided dive support and logistics for the "Frozen Planet" documentary, and was scheduled to work on the sequel this season. He was embarking on his best season ever; not only was he totally booked for the first time, he had a wait list. Now he had to hope that he could reschedule these people once the crisis passes.

His colleague Ian is from Louisiana, and just finished his Peace Corps service in Ethiopia. We chatted about Greenland, COVID, and Multiple Sclerosis (we had mentioned Craig's MS and Sven explained that he was all to familiar with it, as someone in his family suffers from it). We enjoyed meeting Sven and Ian and were very grateful that they had come by. We learned that we would all be on the same (last) flight out of Greenland on Wednesday, so we thanked them and said we'd see them in two days.

Right after they left, Line served a delicious dinner that she had prepared for us: black halibut with noodles, broccoli and bacon salad, green bean salad, and cole slaw salad. It was so flavorful and amazing!

Unbeknownst to us, Gideon had previously promised everyone a round of beers once we reunited. He had procured said beers, and handed them out. Craig enjoyed a Carlsberg, and on learning that I am allergic to beer, they offered me a glass of a red wine that Anna was drinking.

Egon, Daniel, Mikael, Mathias, and Mathias' girlfriend Sanne stopped by for a visit.

Even before we had known that everything would be shutting down due to COVID, Bill had wanted to go ice fishing on our free day tomorrow. He had talked to the guys about it over the course of the dogsled trip. Some of them had to work tomorrow, but Mathias was available and would take Bill and Nicole ice fishing. This had sounded very cool, but we certainly didn't want to invite ourselves along. Plus, prior to our arrival in Tasiilaq, I had honestly thought that I would be perfectly happy spending the next day and a half in the cozy comfort of the guest house.

But now that most places in town would be closed, Line and Mathias asked if anyone else was interested in going on the ice fishing expedition. It would cost 500 Danish kroner per person. Now that it had been opened up to the group (not to mention that we were showered, refreshed, and comfortable), we decided that it was another opportunity not to be missed, like the seal hunt.

We made plans that Line would drive us to the dog yard at 10:30 in the morning where we would meet Mathias and dogsled out to the ice fishing spot. We believe that the dogsled was an accommodation for Craig. We think that if we hadn't planned on going, they probably would have walked. Everyone was so good to us, and it was definitely appreciated.

For dessert, Line had prepared a gluten-free chocolate cake with local "blackberry" (black crowberry) jam and coconut. It was delicious! Line is spoiling us!

After dinner, we retired to our rooms.

Although we longed for the relative ignorance of the past few days off-grid, we decided that we should call Craig's mom to learn a bit more about what we would be in for once we returned home. It was really shocking how much the world situation had degraded over the past five days. This was unprecedented, and raised more questions that answers.

International air passengers can only enter the U.S. through airports which are screening for COVID-19. Luckily, Boston was one of these airports. Assuming that our flights would proceed as scheduled, we would need to quarantine ourselves for 14 days at home after returning from Europe, which is considered a high risk for exposure. We wondered how we would even get home from the airport. Would taxis still be operating?

Then there was the issue of provisions. Our kitchen was pretty bare; I hadn't bothered stocking up on food since we were away for two weeks. Craig's mom said that grocery stores were still open, though there were shortages of certain items (toilet paper, hand sanitizer, canned soup, pasta). That was a good sign, but if we were in self-quarantine, it's not like I could go to the store.

Hand sanitizer was something that we did have, thanks to my Mom, who stuffed our Christmas stockings with travel supplies for decades. We suggested that Craig's mom help herself the next time she was at our house to feed the cats.

Speaking of the cats, I had bought enough food to get them through until we got home, and Craig's mom was feeding them and cleaning their litterbox. I didn't have enough food to get them through an additional two weeks of quarantine (or longer if we ended up stuck abroad for a time). Craig's mom ordered 2 boxes of canned cat food online, so that there would be enough food for the next few weeks.

We thanked her and said we would talk to her soon. Then I caught up with email. Our contact at Greenland Adventures had tried to contact Icelandair on our behalf to check on the status of our flight to Boston on Saturday. She was unable to get through to a human, but since tickets for the flight were still available for online purchase, she assumed that it was not canceled as of yet.

Although we had booked two free days in Reykjavik before returning to the U.S. in case of weather delays, now we wanted nothing more but to get home. The situation was developing rapidly, and a day could come when they suspend flights into the U.S. for citizens as well. We would just be laying low in Reykjavik anyway, social distancing until our flight.

Despite our eagerness to get back to the safety of our home, we resisted the urge to try to switch our tickets to an earlier flight back to the U.S. We knew that flights were in high demand these days, and we didn't want to inadvertently screw ourselves over by giving up the seats that we had booked a year ago. We just had to sit tight and keep the faith that our flight wouldn't be canceled.

I set up my electronics to charge, and we got settled in our sleeping bag liners. Each bed had a duvet which was so warm that we only used it sporadically.

Breakfast in the Pitserpaajik Peninsula cabin

Breakfast in the Pitserpaajik Peninsula cabin



Agisdor checking in on Craig

Agisdor checking in on Craig

Dogsledding in the snow

Dogsledding in the snow

Dogsled selfie

Dogsled selfie

Harald, Steph, & Craig on our dogsled
Photo courtesy of Roger Eggenberger

Harald, Steph, & Craig on our dogsled (Photo courtesy of Roger Eggenberger)

Landmark pointing us back toward Tasiilaq

Landmark pointing us back toward Tasiilaq

Approaching Tasiilaq by dogsled in the snow

Approaching Tasiilaq by dogsled in the snow

Catching a lift to the guest house

Craig catching a lift to the guest house

Our reindeer horn Tupilaq

Our reindeer horn Tupilaq

Group dinner: Steph, Hildegard, Gideon, Anna, Dieter, Hak-Ye, Roger, Bill, Nicole, and Craig

Group dinner: Steph, Hildegard, Gideon, Anna, Dieter, Hak-Ye, Roger, Bill, Nicole, and Craig

Tasiilaq at night

Tasiilaq at night

See all photos from March 16

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