Dog sledding? Over the frozen sea. Where? In a remote part of Greenland. With whom? Accompanied by Eskimos and the Northern Lights. For how long? A week.
The dogs are trapped in the snow again; the sleds are stuck once more. Three days of ceaseless snowing and the load, us, is too heavy to move. The exhausted animals pant while they sit on the snow. The solution? Get off the sled and lighten its load. My Eskimo guide does the same. Him at the front and me at the side. Suddenly, the cold ground gives way, opening up. My legs sink into the cold waters of the ocean. Instinctively, my hands grab onto the sled and only half of my body is submerged in water. At this point, a thought runs through my head. What happens if the crack gets bigger? Will the sled and dogs sink into the dark waters? But the ice doesn’t give. Using the sled, I heave myself out of the water as quickly as possible. The water is 33ºF, while the outside temperature is 17ºF. I have heard a thousand stories about what happens when you fall into freezing water but, inexplicably, I don’t feel cold or wet or anything. The outer layer of my waterproof pants and the plastic boots prevented it. I felt only a slight feeling of shock.
We find ourselves in the south of Greenland, on a sled route between the Inuit settlements Kulusuk and Sermiligaaq. No more than 400 people inhabit these two beautiful places. After being delayed for a few days in Reykjavik, we flew into a little airport hidden away between jagged mountain peaks. After José Manuel Naranjo, director and guide of Mundo Ártico, had spent several days preparing the material and the team, we were ready. (Besides being specialized in polar expeditions, Naranjo has also accomplished feats like crossing Greenland’s polar cap from north to south in record time.) Meanwhile, we had been living with Inuit families, observing their everyday lives in this forgotten place where modernity mixes with tradition. The dogs caught my attention. While we are used to having them inside our homes, here it is a different story. They live outside of the house, in the snow. They are not pets. Dogs are vital to the culture of this settlement. Dog sleds are the ancestral form of transport. Nowadays, they are progressively being substituted for modern snowmobiles. The dogs are a mixture of different Nordic breeds. They are not as used to basking in affection as our animals back home. The only ones who play with them are the Eskimo children. All you have to do is discover their gaze, midway between that of a wolf and a dog. But not being used to playing, or having such an intense look, does not mean that they are ferocious. We can get them to play with us. However, it is good to be aware of the fact that if one bites us, it will be killed, according to Eskimo custom.
Our expedition is made up of four dog sleds. In each one was an Inuit guide and a traveler. Ahead of us is a trip of 47 miles, many times over frozen waters, wending between icebergs trapped in the sea’s ice shelf. We were using traditional dog sleds in one of the few places in the world where this ancient form of transport is still used.
When you arrive for the first time in these faraway lands to make this journey a reality, some of the reasons behind certain preparations or materials used are unknown. The answers lie in the actual name given to this trip: an expedition. A small expedition, but an expedition nonetheless. We quickly realize that there are unforeseen circumstances that can cause plans to change completely, such as the state of the ice or snow, the weather conditions, or simply matters beyond our control. A week in the Arctic is a long time. “Why are we taking so much food?” I asked myself. I soon answered my own question.
On the first day, bright sunshine led the way for our sleds through the valleys and rugged mountains around Kulusuk. Dashing in and out of small fjords. The dogs pulled with strength, enthusiasm and joy over the hard snow. The miles flew by, and the weather was good. We quickly arrived at the open sea, and the first icebergs embedded in the ice appeared. We drew closer, escorted by their blocks of ice. The landscape is incredibly beautiful, without the slightest bit of exaggeration. It is so beautiful that you don’t know where to look. You start taking photos, but you feel overwhelmed. To me, it is the loveliest and most spectacular place in the world that I have ever visited.
The sun starts to leave us and the day is bidding us farewell as we make out a few small cabins in the solitary and remote landscape. The Inuits untie the dogs from the sleds. Meanwhile, their barks demand their well-deserved payment, which comes in the form of seal meat or feed. We have covered 22 miles over sea and land. Our companions are healthy, happy people who are warm and friendly. We enjoy the good atmosphere around them. They feed the dogs while we settle into the cabin. It is as simple as it gets. There is barely a little gap between the bunks where we are to sleep. We make the most of this space to melt ice over a stove, eat and chat. We have been lucky with the temperature: barely 23 or 21ºF. We didn’t even use all of our warm clothing during the journey.
But this secluded and beautiful place had a surprise in store for us. The weather started to change quickly and the wind and snow started reasserting their power. A huge blizzard that was going to confine us for several days was closing in. One of the aims of the trip was to watch the Northern Lights from a remote area. This possibility faded for the moment when the cloud cover blocked our sight. Our other aim, the polar bear, is also out of the question for now. Unless, of course, attracted by the smell of food, the dogs or ourselves, they decide to come and keep us company. The blizzard caused the temperature to drop and the feeling of cold multiplied, forcing us to stay in our wooden shelter for as long as it decided to keep us there. One day, two days, a week?
Now I started to understand why we had so much food and so much equipment. You know when you are going to start the adventure, but not when it will end. Greenland bares the human condition. This
is the place where civilization forgot to come; instead it just hides in small Inuit settlements. The rest of the island’s 836,330 square miles are an inhospitable polar ice cap. When you enter its wilderness, you do not know how it will treat you. It left us hiding out in this shelter for three nights. Outside, winds of 50 to 55 miles per hour whipped everything around us. We barely went outside. Our dogs were buried in the snow to protect themselves from the cold and the bitter wind. The ramshackle hut led my thoughts to polar expeditions of bygone ages and also gave way to a lot of photo opportunities. This, of course, while paying attention to the cold.
The days pass by and the bad weather does not leave off. Living with the Eskimos and our Venezuelan traveling companions makes the free time pleasant. After the third night, with no improvements in the weather, we decided to start returning to Kulusuk, discarding our plan to reach Sermiligaaq. Why? There is something fundamental that you have to understand: everything revolves around the dogs and the sleds. With very hard-packed snow, good weather, no headwind and flat terrain without any blocks of ice, the kilometers fly by. You can cover up to 25 miles in one day. But the arrival of snow complicates everything. The sleds get stuck. Thus, deep, soft or damp snow, along with precipitous terrain or chaotic ice, slows everything down, sometimes down to an average of 0.31 mph. It is easy to calculate the daily average. This is why a 93 miles journey by dog sled through the Arctic is a real adventure. The route conditions and the weather always hold surprises, but this is the spirit of the expedition.
We were 22 miles from Sermiligaaq and 22 away from where we started in Kulusuk. However, with the snow in these conditions, in which moving just a few hundred meters is utterly exhausting, and with time passing by, we start the journey back. We hope that the entire trek will not be made under the same conditions as when we left the camp. We were lucky and the storm subsided along with the blanket of clouds, allowing us to see what is possibly nature’s best spectacle: the aurora borealis. You will never forget it. You’ll rub your eyes to check if it is real. A mantle of moving colors paints the sky. They appear and disappear as if by magic. Happiness and amazement will engulf you. You’ll shout joyously. What’s more, you’ll have the fortune of contemplating them in one of the most beautiful places on the planet.
With Nanook, the white bear, we were not so lucky. We knew that it would be difficult and that the high temperatures left the ice shelf very thin, preventing us from reaching the edge of sea, where these formidable hunters find seals, their main prey. At any rate, these magnificent animals can appear anywhere: next to the camp (luckily we had the dogs, although the Eskimos always carry weapons), in a valley, or even in the streets of the settlement or on the airport runway.
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