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Why Greenland used to have more sled dogs than people

When travelling in Greenland in 2016, a long way from Sea Zen, we wanted to understand the story of Greenland’s sled dogs, and jumped at a last minute arrangement to meet the owner of some sled dogs, in a tourist group of just four.

We recognised the driver taking us there, our guide Simone who had taken us to see whales 2 days before. The minibus she drove had a slight fishy smell, and we stopped a few minutes later beside some chained dogs and a hut by the side of the road.

Dog owner Simone

Simone herself was the dog owner! As we got out, the dogs recognised Simone and were yowling and jumping with joy to see her – and the prospect of some more food. 6 little puppies emerged from nowhere.

Puppies and adult Greenlandic dogs2
Simone tells us how she looks after her sled team.

We had to stay one side of the wooden sled while Simone explained about the feeding. “Tourists have to stay that side, so you don’t go too close to the dogs and get bitten.” The dogs respected her as feeding them, but no one else would be safe near the dogs. They could attack suddenly and bite with tragic consequences – for the dogs.
Once a dog has bitten a person, the other dogs smell the blood and the story goes that the pack will learn to bite humans and the whole pack must be destroyed. So for the dogs’ sake tourists should keep away and not get bitten!
The owner is welcomed by the dogs, strangers beware. Note the extra wood sled near the shed.

dogs near sled

“I don’t pat the dogs, they are not pets, they are working dogs.” She explained that dogs had to learn to respond to spoken commands while pulling the sled. If they looked for touch they would be useless for a sled.
The dogs are fed and checked every 2 days. They are deliberately kept lean so they don’t get too fat and overheat in the summer sun. When it snows, they are fed seal meat and quickly put on weight so after 3 weeks of training they are ready for hard work.
Food is anything nourishing. In Simone’s case, she has uses Halibut waste after filleting. This explained the slightly fishy smell of the minibus, obviously used recently to carry fish scraps for the dogs.   Simone fed fish scraps to two of the dogs and the fish disappeared in seconds.

On the other hand, the dogs owned by our hotel manager and kept at the hotel no doubt were given kitchen scraps!

Simone gave some smaller scraps to the puppies who already at 2 months were starting to fight over possession, and one enterprising pup hid some scraps in its secret spot while the others were fighting over one long piece of fish skin.

While talking with us, Simone had to keep moving her Seal sinew whip clear of the puppies who would readily have eaten it if given the chance.

puppy finds whip to eat
Here a puppy is about to steal the whip.

In recent years a law was passed requiring all adult dogs to be on a 3m chain and for dogs to be kept out of town to stop roaming dogs and fights.

puppies playing at sled base

The puppies are free to roam but will stay close to their mother and the other dogs in the team. They instinctively know to keep clear of the other teams. “If they get too close to another team they will be eaten, so they stay away”, said Simone, very pragmatic in all things. “As they grow there will be fights within the team and everyone will sort out their place in the order.”

The leader is not necessarily the biggest but the smartest, important when the fisherman musher falls asleep and the lead dog will take the sled 30km over familiar territory to home.

The 6m long whip has 2 uses. The first is to crack to indicate the direction to turn if needed. It is also tied onto the sled and trails behind so if the driver falls off she has 1 second to grab the trailing whip and get back on the sled! “If the driver falls off the dogs will return home and the driver will have to walk 30km home, so they (the drivers) don’t like it!”

It is a lot of work looking after a team of 15 dogs. In summer, the fish food will only last a few days in storage before getting flyblown, but in winter it will last for many weeks and being oily won’t freeze. “They will eat anything, even if frozen”, says Simone.

The dogs have a working life of about 4 years and one or two litters of 6 each year will keep the numbers up. Most of the dogs are males. Excess dogs are culled. “Females make too much trouble.” She shrugged. “There is a man who comes with a rifle and shoots them. Also the weak, the old, the sick. These are working dogs and must pay their way.” The man with the gun also does vaccinations, and rounds up escaped dogs, quite handy for the dog owners.

So what is the work? Fishing!

In winter the ice freezes, so the dogs sleds take fishermen out overland the back way to the ice, over the fijord, where they drop their line. It has about 100 baited hooks and is lowered 900m deep to where the Halibut are. The lines are left overnight and hauled up next day, usually heavily laden with fish.
“It is very hard work for the fishermen”, says Simone explaining that a catch of 300kg of fish is not unusual, and the line is very heavy. A reel is slowly turned to haul the catch to the surface. It is too tiring for just arms, the whole body of the chunky Inuit fisherman is used for the long haul to the surface.

“Not for me”, says Simone. She is a tall willowy Dane, with red hair, so different from the short black haired Inuit fisherman who own dogs.
“How is it that I am a dog owner?” She tells her sweet/ sad tale. How she came from Denmark for a tourist ride on a dogsled, and fell in love with the driver. She worked for a while as a social worker and learned how to drive dogs with her new boyfriend Inuit fisherman. They went fishing together on the ice covered Fijord. She explained how 2 sleds are placed together to hold up a cover of seal skins, reindeer fur for a bed, and a primus stove alight at the entrance to keep warm – no sleeping bags required.

Sled driver pants

Sled Driver’s trousers made by Simone’s Inuit boyfriend. Seal skin at the top, polar bear skin for legs and dog skin at the bottom.

Old photo fishing with sled dogs

Traditional sled. Pic from Arctic Hotel. Driver’s trousers are traditional Polar Bear skin.

Tragically, Simone’s boyfriend died 2 months before our visit. This alone has been shattering for her. Will she stay? ‘Of course’, she says with wet eyes. What will happen with the dogs? She has given away one team of dogs and has retained the other for running a sled team in winter.

She now works as a guide for the main tourism company and had done a great job two days before on our excursion out to sea watching whales.

She explained how it is quiet in winter which is what she loves with the quiet and solitude. She says the fishermen also love the quiet out on the frozen ice fishing. But it can be dangerous.

Sometimes the ice opens up unexpectedly. A few years back 4 teams had to beat a hasty escape to an iceberg as the sea opened up. It was several weeks before they were rescued, but they were self contained till then. Survival is a way of life.

She shows us the sled, made of wood and tied together with rope. “It is simple to fix if you crash, just retie the ropes, simple is good.” Rocks are not a problem as the runners are lined with tough nylon runners like skis.

Is it profitable? “Oh yes, Halibut pays 35Kr ($7) per kilo.” The usual sled carries 300kg of fish back to the fish factory, good pay for a few days fishing.

Sometimes new blood is brought in to the team for genetic variety, but only the purebred local Greenlandic sled dogs.

Dog on chain
Here is the purebred Icelandic sled dog.

No domestic dogs are allowed, and the local dogs can be exported, but no external dogs are allowed in to keep the purity of the local breed. All dogs are vaccinated as puppies and Rabies has not been a problem.

The number of dogs has declined steadily in recent years. There used to be about 7,000 but now there are only 2,000. They too are a victim of climate change. As the air is warming, the ice is not freezing over for as long, and fisherman can catch fish for most of winter by just heading out to the open sea. The dog teams are not needed for the long inland journey to the rich fijord fishing sites.

Fishermen with dog teams keep to the old the way of life because they enjoy it. The fish factory makes life easier for the dog teams by going out to them and halving the 70 km journey. More fishing, shorter dogsled trips laden with their 300kg of fish.

Will the dog teams be here in ten years? In a warming climate, no one can tell.

Rex and Sibylle, Ilulissat, Greenland, August 2016.