2nd September 2005

At school I was once hypotheticallly asked where my ideal holiday destination would be. In order to be different from the assorted Spain’s and America’s, I chose Greenland. My teacher gleefully pounced on an opportunity to belittle me: ‘It isn’t green, you idiot, it’s practically made of ice.’ I remained silent, though I had an Oxford Atlas at home and had figured out, despite the learning opportunities on offer at my school, what terms like ‘permafrost’ and ‘limits of pack ice’ meant, also deducing the white area wasn’t for colouring in. I suppose my imagination was fuelled by telly images of hardy explorers and their intrepid packs of husky sled dogs. In reality, I never thought that I would get north of the Arctic Circle but my wife Beth and I are stepping out at the airport in Kangerlussuaq, situated on the edge of the northern hemisphere’s biggest glacier. Dominated by adventure holidaying Danes, this former US airbase incorporates a hotel and still has a vibe of military cameraderie, enhanced by the isolated location, where you’re completely reliant on guided expeditions to get outside. At this time of the year even the peripherial coastal areas of Greenland are covered in snow and ice. That suits us fine, as our first trip is a snowmobiling expedition. We’re dressed in these big orange jumpsuits as we climb onto our vehicles - a cross between a tractor, motor bike and pair of skis. Snowmobiling is great fun. I’ve never been behind the wheel of a car in my life, but I was soon tearing along a frozen lake at 70 mph. The sense of isolation is unbelievable. No telegraph poles or masts interupt the unbroken terrain of snow and ice. This may sound boring but it’s anything but. Once your eyes become adjusted, you see that what you previously believed to be white and monolithic, is actually a constantly shifting kalidescope of colour, light and reflection. Our own little islands now seem positively monochrome. There’s a great feeling of freedom and abandonment but everywhere in Greenland, guides are at tremendous pains to emphasise that you stick close to them. Tracks can be wiped away by snowdrifts within a few minutes. If you wander off in the wrong direction and get lost, you’ve virtually no chance at all of running into anybody. At night a bus goes into the town of 500 souls, which has a bar, bowling alley, and fitness centre and swimming pool, which we find is closed. As you’d expect it’s very, very cold and thankfully the Polar Bear bar is open and has a bit more sparkle than the institutional Green Bar at the hotel. Unfortunately, we miss the last bus back and the local taxi has broken down. I don’t fancy half-an-hour walking back in the cold. Fortunately, the friendly barman sorts us out a lift. The next morning a curious Arctic Fox sits under our window at breakfast, looking quizzically up at us. As is generally the case with animals that get too close to man, his days are numbered. Such foxes are shot, believed to be potential carriers of rabies. Sure enough, we see him swinging from a rope on the door of a cabin the next day, bullet holes in his side. It’s our first lesson of how harsh life is in these parts. Today we’re heading for the ice cap in a big four-wheel-drive transporter, travelling a road that is little more than a rough-hewn track. The first section was cut by the Americans, then Volkswagen extended it for their test drives. We pass some of the iced-over snow-covered Lakes that we tore across in the snowmobiles yesterday. Outside, reindeer graze on the inhospitable surface in the sub-zero temperatures. We wheeze up the track, rising into a glorious range of jagged mountains. The word breathtaking is often used, but the scale, remoteness and desolation of this place has to be experienced to be comprehended. Suddenly a vibrant minty-green formation dramatically announces the start of the ice caps. The road abruptly ends in a sweeping panoramic platform, and we’re surrounded on all sides by glacial ice. The next move is to get out and walk on the glacier, which we do with some trepidation as it’s close to minus fifty and the wind is biting and blowing powdery snow into our faces. My boots are holding up so far -everything is dry so there’s plenty of traction - as are the jacket and thermals. I have excess saliva in my mouth, which I try to spit out, but it ends up on the fur rim of my parka and freezes into a drop of ice. I break it off with a gloved hand. As we go for an eskimo snog, I watch the end of Beth’s hair freeze under my breath. When we get back to Kangerlussuaq we’re exhausted after the long trip, but later that night we’re back out watching the northern lights dance in the sky. The next day’s the one we’ve been eagerly anticipating. Husky’s are up there with dolphins in our emotional landscape. We’ve all seen the Arctic dramas and the race for the poles, and the terrible sadness of having to shoot and eat the weakest link in our faithful chain, usually the most hand-licking, pining pup of the litter. There’s nothing like a healthy dose of reality to dispel those myths. The Inuit guide stresses that the Husky’s and Greenlandic sled dogs are not pets, discouraging you from getting too close. And there is something about them in a pack; it might be the skywards wolf-like baying, or how, like a Burburry-clad mob, they all look your way as soon as you approach one of them, but you feel that they’d almost as soon be tearing you apart as pulling you across the snow. Keeping them fed, not showing them love, is what sustains the relationship. Just as with the Burburry crew, the trick is to befriend the hardest one and the rest will generally fall into line. In this case it’s a hulking beast called Akiak, and once he deigns to receive my affections, the rest are soon queing up for their share. On the sled you’re positioned behind the continually farting and shiting dogs as they plough through the snow. As they eat loads of raw meat that fresh Arctic air becomes a little compromised. Thankfully, in Greenland, the dogs pull the sled in a fan formation, so that when they want to do their business they peel off to the sides, and their waste bypasses you, unlike their Canadian cousins who run in a straight line, kicking it all back at you. The dogs start their training at one year old, retiring between the ages of five to eight, depending on their condition. They sleep outside, thethered to the ground on patches of wasteland, as the temperature falls to a level where you can’t comprehend any warm-bloodied animal surviving. I’ve never been a great dog person but I’m strangely impressed by the dignified stoicism of those working animals. Beth, who loves dogs, is surprisingly more reticent about them. When I remark on this she says: ‘You’ve just bonded with them because their eyes are exactly like your wired-on-coke buddies in the pubs you drink in back in Edinburgh.’ We share the sled with Elisabeth, a nurse from Alborg, who is here with her husband, and teenage son and daughter. By the age of the daughter, you imagine its their last family holiday together, and Elizabeth is a little upset that they’ve been adopted by a ‘confused Danish man’ who is on the other sled with them. I’d thought this old guy was a bit loopy; prone to approaching us and ranting in Danish, even after we explained that we didn’t know any. But you have to admire him; mixing it with the able-bodied and young, determined to go for it in the last phase of his life. At one point I sheepishly find myself following him, not realising that he’s striking out into the wilderness, bound for the north pole. I head back into the pack, leaving it to an intrepid guide to rein him in. The dog sleds are a great experience. You have to pinch yourself to realise that you are being pulled along by twelve dogs in a sled across a frozen sea, at minus thirty degrees. That said, it’s so cold, and even under all the sealskins and boots, I’m feeling it in my fingers and toes and getting the dreaded white patches on my face, heralding the start of frostbite. An hour long flight takes us to Ilulissat, which lies on the splendidly named Disko Bay. The excellent Arctic Hotel sits on a hill overlooking the lights of the town and Disko Island, as icebergs the size of small towns weave down the river towards the open sea. In the morning I look out my window and see some tied dogs as the light comes up. Miraculously, they seem happy enough, some still asleep, not even feeling the need to huddle together for warmth. Nevertheless, something’s been bugging me. What happens when they stop work? Obviously, there isn’t much farm land around these parts. Ilulissat has a population of 6,000 to 9,000 working sled dogs, depending on whom you talk to, with about 4,500 human inhabitants. After breakfast, we’re off into town, accompaned by our guide, Maria, from Odense. She has two huskies and informs us that the dogs are ‘shot when they are of no more use.’ So there it is. Any sign of weakness and the faithful beasts are dispatched with a bullet to the head and are usually left outside with the rest of the rubbish to be taken away and incinerated. The more sensitive will escort them to a station where two men are kept in full-time work dispatching the four-legged friends. The big cull comes in the Spring, when the owners have to select the dogs20worth feeding through the summer. Even allowing for the fact that these are working dogs rather than pets, it seems a cruel and sad end to a harsh life of faithful service. Many Greenlandic hunters treat the animals in a cavalier way, often exchanging and discarding them like spare tyres. Maria has a friend from Norway, who is trying to introduce codes of practice and better care for the dogs. She recently found one dying by the side of the road. It had evidently been hit by a sled in a accident, probably its own, and the owner had left it to die. Maria took it to the vet to be put down. As a Dane who is a Greenophile, Maria sees both sides of the ongoing Inuit natives versus incoming Danes conflict. With characteristic candour, she tells us that heavy drinking and sexual promiscuity are both very much ingrained into Greenlandic society. Not surprisingly; it’s a tough life and and there isn’t that much else to do at night. The collapse of Denmark’s boat building industry in the sixties seems to occupy particular significance. To stimulate a demand for sea20vessels, the Danes forced many Greenlanders to give up hunting and take up fishing. It didn’t work out as the fishing industry worldwide went into recession. Though Ilulissat is hardly urbanised, it bears the mark of a modern settlement where underemployed people are seperated from their traditional way of life and forced to live cheek-by-jowl with the obsessions of those around them. We get a trip on a working cargo ship, which is taking a family and their supplies up to the town of Redport. Our guide, Chena, is excited, as it’s her first tourist gig. She and Lars, the skipper of the boat, are hoping to get into this as a sideline. She’s a great fun and he’s an excellent guy. A fishing industry veteran, he bought the cargo boat two years ago. We stop at edge of the ice and I have a concerned moment as Chena tells us to disembark down a flimsy ladder. The precarious ice around us is now starting to break up. We climb down and tentatively head for the town, which has forty-two inhabitants and declining; hardly surprising with this sort of access. The journey back takes us through the icebergs which have broken off from the glacier and are slowly melting as they float out to sea. When you get closer it’s hard to believe that these fantastic, towering palaces are blocks of ice. Greenland completely changes your perception of things. We bade our new friends a goodbye and head back to the Hotel for a tasty reindeer steak and an early night before beginning the convoluted journey back to Copenhagen. I return with the first cold I’ve had in years, but it can’t dampen what was a mind-blowing trip. I’ve been fortunate to visit inaccessable places that have left a mark on me. Most of them have been in very hot locations where people are engaged in a struggle for survivial against the elements, poverty or themselves. In a different way, Greenland is such a place. It’s a grindingly hard life, and I’ve nothing but admiration for the people who live it. While it’s not your archetypal tourist destination, it will continue to grow in popularity. On our crowded planet, people increasingly have the urge to connect with one of the last great wildernesses and to witness a vanishing way of life, as well as test themselves in unfamiliar situations. Not everybody, thankfully, is as anti-learning or life as that old teacher of mine who once sneered: ‘nobody goes to Greenland’. Thirty-odd years later I can finally say: ‘Well, I do’, and I really would have hated to have missed it.


Originally featured in the Observer.