Sunday, April 14, 2013

Why Go?

If you have been wondering if the reason I went to Greenland was just to see the ice fjord and northern lights, the answer is yes.  Those were reasons 2 and 3, but the primary one was to go on a dog sled excursion in a country where it is still the dominant and preferred mode of transport between villages.  You gotta love a place that is otherwise only accessible by boat, plane or helicopter. Snowmobiles are not allowed here.

So why haven't I showed any pictures of my excursion?  Because it was cancelled.  For a month before my arrival I had been tracking the weather.  When we came home from skiing, I had brought back my ski pants and base layers in anticipation of Greenland.  It was going to be a game time decision, the final packing list, all dependent on weather.  Iceland was going to be down right warm in comparison.

Average temperatures in Ilulissat had been cold, -25 to 35 C.  In preparation I tried on a number of different layering combinations to make sure I could still move my arms and squat because dog sledding is more active than you think.  You're not going to be just sitting there.  You will have to be ready to get off and push the sled.  Plus if you noticed in my pictures, the sled is pretty primitive -- Read:  Hard surface.  So I expected a bit of jarring.  You could rent seal skin clothing and boots if you do not have appropriate gear. 

A week before, there was a massive heat wave, so large, it melted a lot of snow in Ilulissat and warped the dog sled trails to the point they weren't safe to be travelled on.  You risked breaking your arm.  I didn't find this out until I arrived to the tour office to pay for everything.  You can imagine my disappointment. 

Dog sled excursions run from Feb - Apr usually and the lot of us who came to do this were surprised at this turn of events.  That's why the in town pictures didn't show a whole lot of snow.  I was hoping everything would be stark white and windy with a portion of Disko Bay frozen, dotted with icebergs.  A true winter wonderland, my vision of what I expected Greenland to look like.

Ilulissat is a pretty small town -- around 4000 people with just as many sled dogs.  The town map has hatched areas showing you where the majority of dogs are kept (perimeter) with many private homes having a few of their own.  You are not to approach them.  They are working dogs, not pets.  And are built to sleep outside in the extreme cold.  They are often deadly silent. 

A few times I'd be walking along the road (no sidewalks or sewers, so very slippery in the morning) and all of a sudden I'd feel like I was being watched.  They never barked or charged at me but witnessing a whole rocky field of them can be intimidating.  And I would have to admit, when a loose one ran right out from behind me in town, it did make me brace.

It was fun seeing them get all animated when their owners were in range, all jostling to be picked.  At first sight, because I was projecting the North American pet culture, I felt sad seeing them all chained up sleeping on the ice.  But upon careful observation, they give off a contented feeling. 

Had my dog sled excursion went ahead, I would have had to learn to channel my alpha side as that is the only way you can get the dogs to respond to your commands.  You also learn quickly to check the length of their chains as well as location of dog poop piles.  Some chains will allow the dogs to reach the edge of the road where people are walking.  I found it to be pretty obvious when you were approaching a sled dog area from the smell. 

Because the town is small, you end up seeing the same people who flew on the plane with you at restaurants, hotels, shops and on various excursions.  There are a number of tour outfits and if numbers are low, they group you together anyway.  With all dog sledding out of the picture that week, people had to scramble to secure hotel accommodations for the nights they now had to spend in town as well as organize other things to do. 

Because it was low season, (most people go to Greenland in the summer) there were pretty much only 4 restaurants/cafes open for food outside of hotel restaurants.  Don't let that deter you because you can still eat very well.  Their ice fjord halibut (poached and finished with sea salt and curry sprinkled on top) quickly became a favourite which surprised me because until now I only like my fish raw or deep fried.

Should you wish to cook, the main supermarket is fantastic.  The seafood and wild game selection was incredible.  You could literally buy a quarter of an animal.  Fruits and vegetables were not the freshest but look where you are.  For a town so small there were about a dozen smaller supermarkets too.  The only explanation I could come up with was that the winters are so harsh, you don't want to have travel far to get food?

I encountered a minority of travellers who had this idea that the Greenlandic people were Eskimo.  They are Inuit and in my observation, do not take kindly to being mistaken for Eskimo (Alaska and Canada).  So don't go around hoping to see and take pictures of "Eskimo kisses" because you won't find any. 

Surprise to find this as part of my hotel room binder. 
Obvious, no?


  1. I'm not surprised by the binder addition, actually. Some tourists ARE culturally insensitive and are surprised when they can't find the same things as they can at home, or people behave "strangely/rudely/etc." There are those who don't do their homework before they travel (your Eskimo example above is proof, although it's still kind of confusing here, too, because it depends what part of the Arctic you're in: Eskimo/Inuit/Inuvialuit). I like these sorts of reminders because it does help me to realize that I have to be aware of my reactions, interactions and speech with others.

    I had no idea you'd gone to Greenland! I've been focused on finishing school and am very far behind in my blog reading. How exciting, although unfortunate that your dog sledding didn't work out. It appears you made the best of it and had a great time anyway. Fantastic!

  2. As always, Thank You for your insights!

    Common sense and being observant does go a long way when in a new environment. The list must also be indicative of the collective experience of this small town, enough that some education needed to be passed on. I wouldn't want to be treated like the "attraction" either if I lived there.