Dog Sledding on Disko Island

I can serve you nachos, but you will have to wait a bit for the chicken. It is coming by boat in five days. Nachos without chicken it is then.

Dog sledding is a winter adventure in Greenland reserved for when the snow is new and deep. But there is one place which offers the experience of dog sledding during the Greenlandic summer. That is at Uunartuarsuup Sermia, also known as the Lyngmark Glacier. That this particular glacier allows dog sledding all year is because it is situated approximately 700 meters above sea level on Disko Island 80 km by boat from Ilulissat.

Since there is no knowing when we might return to this beautiful country, I had arranged for a two nights stay at Disko Island, including a dog sledding ride on the Lyngmark Glacier. What we got was so much more.

Disko Island

Disko Island in itself is pretty interesting. Apart from Greenland itself, it is the largest island in Greenland and one of the 100 largest in the world – slightly bigger than Zealand, the capital island of Denmark. It is in geological terms much younger than the mainland and was established some 25-65 million years ago through volcanic activity. Therefore, much of the island consist of steep basaltic mountains. Created from volcanic activity, the island offers a lot of hot springs and a plethora of plants and flowers. It is possible to find more than half of the 500 species of flora which Greenland has to offer on Disko Island, despite its northern position.

The island was first named in the Icelandic Sagas which chronicle Eric the Red’s visit to the island sometime between 982 and 985.

The main town on the island is in Greenlandic named Qeqertarsuaq, which means big island and is the same name as the island. In Danish, the town is known as Godhavn from its good natural harbour, which for centuries offered great whaling opportunities. It lies on the southern tip of Disko Island surrounded by Apostelfjeldet, Lyngmarksfjeldet and Skarvefjellet (Innap Qaqqaa) to the north.

While it has been possible to find traces of paleo-eskimo settlements around Qegertarsuaq dating back 5-6,000 years, the town itself was founded by Danish whaler Svend Sandgreen in 1773. It was the capital of North Greenland from 1782 to 1950

Apart from Qeqertarsuaq, only one small settlement remains on the island, namely Kangerluk situated 35 kilometres northwest of Qeqertarsuaq within Disko Fjord. Here 20 or so people live from hunting and fishing.

From 1924 to 1972, a coal mining town was situated on the north-eastern part of Disko Island. It was established by the Danish state and one of Greenlands largest communities, but after WW2 it was considered unprofitable and in 1968 the Danish Parliament and the Greenland Provincial Council decided to shut down the town. It was definitely closed down in 1972 and the remaining inhabitants forcefully removed. Some argue that the closing of the town was not due to the expensive mining of coal, but because of the strong workers union established there.

Our time in Qeqertarsuaq

Arriving in Qeqertarsuaq on Disko Island, one is welcomed by an entrance port created by large jaw bones of a massive whale. It is a stark reminder of the past as well as present focus on whaling in the town. The town itself is quiet and relaxing, but not particularly pretty though the colourful houses make a wonderful contrast to the mountains behind.

One of the central buildings in town is called Vorherres Blækhus, or in English Our Lord’s Ink House, and is the local church. Though I did not get the chance to go inside, the church to me was akin to a Game of Thrones tour in Dubrovnik. This is the church used in Nissebanden in Greenland for the wedding between Gemyse and Skipper – and yes if your not Danish this reference will mean nothing to you whatsoever, but if you are you’ll instantly start singing Det er risengrød…

We had not had lunch prior to leaving Ilulissat, which was mostly due to me stressing over finding the tourist port in Ilulissat, which to be honest did seem slightly confusing as there are absolutely no signs indicating that you’ve found it.

But for this reason, getting something to eat became a top priority when reaching Qeqertarsuaq, and we quickly made it to the only restaurant in town Restaurant Tamassa, where we got a cheeseburger without cheese and tomato. In the evening we’d booked a table for the same desolate restaurant and was offered a dismal meal of trout in a classic 80s sauce with watery potatoes and carrots. Fortunately, we decided to enjoy a walk through town and made it to the newly opened Blue Café, where we got a very cosmopolitan Chai Latte in the pleasant atmosphere, while a couple at the table beside us enjoyed a game of chess. little did I know that they would be our guides on the following day.

Hiking to the Lyngmark Glacier

We’d been informed on the day of our arrival as we visited the small local agency SikuAput that we would be alone for the trip to Lyngmark Glacier, which weirded us out a little. To be the only reason for a guide to make the hike and stay overnight seemed excessive. As we arrived in the morning we discovered that not only were we alone, but we would be joined by two guides as well as the dog sled owner for our trip. It also worried me that three people would have to wait for my slow ascend for several hours.

But my concerns were soon put to rest and our hike became a fantastic experience both in regards to the natural beauty of the place as well as the possibility of spending time alone with three locals, who not only told us of the island, but also freely told stories of their own childhood as well as shared their opinions and hopes and dreams for Greenland.

Though we are only a few days into our vacation, I have already come to truly value the Greenlandic openness and hospitality. Rarely have I met so friendly and engaging people as the locals in Greenland.

The hike up to the Lyngmark Glacier was rough, and more so than advertised. Sometimes it ascended very steeply, while in some places the snow had yet to melt, so that we had to cross deep rivers of snow. I put my foot and leg through several times, getting snow in my boots.

But it was all worth it. The view was stunning despite a coverage of thin clouds. After three to four hours we reached the glacier where a snow scooter was waiting to take us the last part to one of the two small cabins on top.

Here we were treated to a light and very Danish lunch before a bit of free time. The wind was howling outside so much so that I was almost blown over several times but inside the wooden  cabin it was cosy.

Say hello to Gaddafi

After a Greenlandic dinner of trout and carry sauce, the wind had settled giving way to a clear evening. It was time for meeting the dogs. Dressed all in sealskin we left the cabin to join Atip, the dog sled owner, setting off across the Lyngmark Glacier. It was a rough journey up hill as the snow was too soft but the slow tempo left ample opportunity for taking pictures and enjoying the mountainous landscape encircling us. On top of the hill was a stunning view of the beautiful mountains further inland on Disko Island.

It was absolutely amazing and with the wind gone we could enjoy a break in the massive silence only broken by the happy yelps of the dogs. The nine dogs were beautiful and much more healthy looking than those in the dog areas of Ilulissat and Qeqertarsuaq.

Particularly the nine year old lead dog with the surprising name Gaddafi was in high hoops. Sled dogs are not pets and one should never approach them unless given a green light by their owner. But with Atip’s okay, we got a chance to get close to a very friendly Gaddafi.

The return journey went much faster since it was downhill. The dogs ran quickly across the snow, some of them trying to sneak their way under the ropes in an internal battle for a better position. It was fascinating watching the movement of their behinds with tails straight in the air as they flew across the deep snow.

In March, we rode a camel through the Sahara. To think that only three months later we would be crossing the Greenland snow on a dog sled. To experience two cultures in such different climates, both of them closely connected to the nature that surrounds them, both originating in a nomadic culture where very different animals become a necessity for living.

Comfort-wise and for speed, I definitely preferred the dog sled. It is a trip I will never forget.

Returning to Qeqertarsuaq

On the following morning, the amazing view of Disko Bay and Baffin Bay was gone and instead we looked into a sheet of white as snow fell atop the Lyngmark Glacier. I will admit that I was terrified of the idea that we had to return down during a snowfall, which would only make everything wet and slippery.

However, the return journey was not as scary as I had imagined. Only at the very edge of the Lyngmark Glacier where we walked close to the edge of the mountain with a direct fall was I nervous for a glance. But as soon as we had cleared that section, it was one step at a time slowly moving down, cutting across the sections of snow and finding paths down the side of the mountain. Soon we reached the more comfortable part of the hike while the snow turned into rain and then cleared off, indicating a blue sky over Qeqertarsuaq.

Before we knew it, we were back in town making our way to the Blue Café for a bit of lunch. We were keen to avoid another sad burger at Restaurant Tamassa and we’d noticed previously that the Blue Café offered a plate of nachos with chicken.

You’ll have to wait long for the chicken…

We must have looked pretty weary and dirty entering the Blue Café. My boyfriends feet were wet, and I had mud up the inside of my pants. All we knew to think about was lunch. We asked the waitress for a nachos with chicken – in need of something that wasn’t fish.

“I can serve you nachos, but you will have to wait a bit for the chicken. It is coming by boat in five days” said the smiling waitress to us, showing us a dry sense of humour. Well then, nachos without chicken it is. We ordered our nachos, and spent the next 15 minutes watching the waitress organising for someone to bring the cheese. It seemed they’d run out of cheese too, but this at least could be provided in the town. First a young boy came running with half a bag of shredded mozzarella, and a little later a young man came in with a package of 20 bags of shredded mozzarella. This was when it occurred to me that in the cheddar cheese hasn’t made it to Greenland yet.

We got our nachos with mozzarella and no chicken as well as a toast each and enjoyed the relaxed and local atmosphere of the small café.

After finishing, we made our way to the beach taking a walk a long the shore line. The sand was black and in stark contrast to the small ice pieces which had rolled up unto the beach from the fjord. It was so very different from any beach I’d seen before and the smell of the ocean so much more potent than back home. In Greenland you can really smell the life beneath the surface.

Hours later we caught the boat back to Ilulissat tired and ready to drop, pleased that tomorrow would be a quiet walk around Ilulissat. In the back of the boat an old Greenlandic woman said something to the captain pointing to something in between the icebergs. She’d seen a wounded seal. Without further ado the captain set sail for the iceberg, and true enough a slim seal was lying on the ice flake, colouring it red. The captain took out his massive hunting knife and jumped on to the ice flake in an attempt to kill the seal and end its sufferings, but apparently it was not ready to go yet, and gracefully slipped into the cold deep sea below.

I can’t imagine that a Danish bus driver would stop the bus if he found a wounded animal on the side of the road, much less bring out a massive hunting knife to kill it off. We are so decidedly in Greenland, a land where nature is so much closer than back home.