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Dogsledding delivers a reality check in the Far North

JOHN LEHMANN/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

My dogsled team is careening wildly across the frozen sea and I am hanging on to the creaking wooden sled on for dear life. There are no reins, and I don't know the Inuit command for "stop" so these frenzied huskies fly farther and farther from the rest of the group. I glance over my shoulder to see if anyone is following, but the other teams and drivers are small dots in the distance. All I can do is hold on and hope; I do not foresee a happy ending to this wild ride.

My driver had stopped our sled to help another team, and in that split second our 10 dogs sensed freedom and bolted. Does my life flash before my eyes? Do I scream like a banshee? Not really. I only wonder how I got myself into this situation, and, more important, how will I ever get out.

I am in the extreme north of Greenland on a six-day dogsled expedition with traditional Inuit hunters, billed as a "Narwhal hunt."

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In a world where ice is melting fast, traditional hunting is becoming more challenging and controversial. Can tourism provide an alternative income and way of life for the Inuit? A trip like this might give me a better understanding of the issues.

After seemingly endless, heart-pounding minutes, my dogs get caught up on jagged sea ice and come to a panting stop. Soon the other teams come alongside. I don't know who is more relieved: my hunter that his dogs are okay, or me, that I have survived the wildest, craziest, ride of my life.

I arrived in our base town, Qaanaaq, outfitted with the latest high-tech gear: five layers of merino wool clothing, an expedition parka and pants, two layers of socks, neoprene boots and thick mittens. I am further armed with a bag full of hand and foot warmers. My down sleeping bag is rated to -20 C. I have eight batteries for my two cameras, and several bags of toiletries that freeze before I can use them. My packets of dried food are organized into three large plastic bags: breakfast, lunch and dinner. With two pots and a small stove, I am sure that I am well prepared.

As we leave Qaanaaq, the icy katabatic winds howl around the sleds; the drivers and dogs seem energized by the cold, but I sink deeper into my parka. I think only of warmth and cannot enjoy the pristine beauty of the sea ice or the icebergs that tower around us. My hands and feet slowly turn into icicles. At our lunch stop, I pull on another jacket under my parka; I hardly taste my frozen cheese sandwich and the tea in my vacuum bottle is barely tepid. I stand with my back to the wind, wondering how I am going to survive the next six days.

Despite my modern gear, I am never entirely warm. At night, I take off only my outer layer of clothing before slipping into the sleeping bag, where I shiver through the night: The hunter's worn canvas tent provides minimal protection. During the day on the dogsled, I can feel wind creeping through the layers into places I was sure I had covered.

On the third morning, I find relief; my Inuit hunter motions for me to sit down and before I can protest, he pulls off my boots and replaces them with his own lightweight and wonderfully warm polar bear kamiks! Cinderella could not have been more delighted with her glass slippers than I am with these boots. No need for foot-warmers now. I cannot stop grinning as I pad around the camp in total comfort and flagrant political incorrectness.

But once on the path of sin, I am pulled into temptation again the next day when another hunter brings me his polar bear pants. Surely I cannot cross that line… after all, this is a blatant, fly-in-the-face-of-my-convictions act. But the promise of warmth wins over my ethics and I slip, (well, if you want to truth, it was a bit of a tug) into the small Inuit-sized pants with their beautiful iridescent, creamy-coloured fur glistening in the sun. I am lost. If I am going to be condemned to environmental hell, at least it is warm.

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For the rest of the trip, I am finally comfortable enough to appreciate my icy environment: the glaciers flowing off the mountains, the endless kilometres of frozen sea and the saturated sapphire sky, all illuminated by the 24-hour-a-day brilliance of the sun. The dogs and hunters enjoy the rhythm of the run and I close my eyes and listen to the swish of the sleds on the snow. The magnitude and solitude of the frozen North speaks to me once again.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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