Ilulissat and the Huskies - And Greenland's biggest Glacier that isn't there anymore: Ch 13 of Go Greenland

September 30, 2021
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The Ilulissat area in relation to Nuuk

I LOVED exploring Ilulissat, which I thought was a very quaint little town. Blanketed in patches of ice and snow, it was positioned on a slight incline with stunning views out to sea.

I managed to rope Leo into visiting the Ilulissat Art Museum with me. Most of the pictures’ theme was — you guessed it — ice! There were some stunning images and scenes portrayed by many Greenland artists. It didn’t seem to matter if most of their world was grey, they were very skilled at getting the whitish blue colour of ice perfect. A museum we visited gave a good look at Greenland’s history. This was, of course, Knud Rasmussen’s Museum. It was contained in the house he had been born in, and there was a statue of Ilulissat’s most famous citizen outside. There were also lots of preserved boats of various kinds, and the hunting and fishing equipment the Inuit traditionally used. It was quite a cultural eye-opener to see all that, and so was the house itself. I have been to so many different museums all over the world and I make a point of visiting them wherever I go. Sometimes the little ones are just as intriguing as the big ones.

Leo and I spent a lot of time just exploring Ilulissat — we also found the little church, Zion’s Church, perched right on the waterfront. It was funny and amazing to see a church with icebergs casually floating in the water behind it. I have never seen anything like it.

We went and did a few of the walks and trails around Ilulissat and found some great areas where we took a few photographs. We made our way to a part of the UNESCO World Heritage site — the so-called Ilulissat or Jakobshavn Icefjord, the maker the maker of some of the biggest icebergs in the world. The icefjord is so named because it is a fjord full of floating icebergs.

The present icefjord was completely occupied, as recently as the mid-nineteenth century, by a huge glacier called the Jakobshavn Glacier, which has since melted almost completely (more on this remarkable development below!) The smaller glaciers that used to feed the Jakobshavn Glacier now fill the icefjord with icebergs instead. In winter, the icefjord also freezes over on top. When I was there, the winter ice was just about to melt. It was still strong enough to go dog sledding on top, but my dog sledding trip would be one of the last ones of the season.

It was a few hours’ hike; although it wasn’t really what I would class as a hike apart from all the rocks and rough arctic grasses we had to scramble over. Eventually we found ourselves on a wooden boardwalk over the more sensitive grass-type plants. Another thumbs-up to Greenland for being so environmentally conscious — I heard that the Greenlanders were early adopters of the nature boardwalk idea.

All around Ilulissat there are paths leading to the massive icefjord, and Leo and I just sat on the picnic table watching the ice move around in the water. It was so peaceful. We had expected other tourists, but we were the only people there! What made my jaw drop was the sheer size of the things: these icebergs were monstrous! Just massive walls of ice that towered into the sky. Their low rumblings and sounds of cracking ice were magical. We sat there in silence for an hour or two just watching and listening to everything. It felt really like a dream: I couldn’t believe I was here. I had travelled nearly twenty thousand kilometres across the globe to lay my eyes on the world’s most productive icefjord. It wasn’t bleak, dull or boring here either — it was spectacular even with the lack of greenery. That was made up for in the deep green and grey of the ocean and the sparkling ice. The tundra and alpine grasses and shrubs were even soft hues of yellow and brown. In fact, it really was mesmerising and beautifully peaceful. Leo and I returned to town, and just gushed at how incredible the whole thing was, and how glad we were to have done it!

Back in town, we went back to my hostel for a cup of coffee. We got talking about making a more serious tour of the icefjord, which penetrates a long way inland and was fed by a colossal glacier variously known as the Jakobshavn Glacier, the Jakobshavn Isbræ (which means Jakobshavn Glacier in Danish), the Jakobshavn Isbræ Glacier (which repeats itself), Sermeq Kujalleq (Southern Glacier in Kalaalissut Inuit, Southern in the sense of just south of Ilulissat), and the Ilulissat Glacier. This was perhaps the most studied glacier in the world and was generally known worldwide as the Jakobshavn Glacier, so I will stick to that name while using the indigenous name for the town, Ilulissat. As to why I keep saying “was,” well, I’ll get to that in a moment.

The ice-streams that feed into the icefjord are altogether the most productive in Greenland and perhaps in the Northern Hemisphere, calving possibly as much as 46 cubic kilometres of icebergs a year, or about 40 billion tonnes of ice, into the icefjord, which is about a kilometre deep for most of its length but with a shallower sill, about 300 metres deep, at its mouth. This is a very common depth profile for fiords (or fjords) that used to contain glaciers; the fiords in south-western New Zealand are similar. The glacier excavates the fiord to a kilometre in depth, but the scraping effect is weaker near the end, where rocks actually pile up (the terminal moraine).

In the Ilulissat Icefjord the icebergs, themselves up to a kilometre tall, float down from the Greenland icecap until they get to the entrance near Ilulissat and pile up, grinding and groaning and being smashed into by newer bergs, until they break down into smaller bergs and get pushed over the sill.

The Jakobshavn Glacier used to occupy the whole of the icefjord, calving its bergs directly into the open sea. The glacier was regularly monitored by scientists from 1851 onwards, which is why I say it was one of the best-studied in the world. In 1851 the Jakobshavn Glacier presented the striking sight of a tongue of ice running like a giant frozen river across 50 km of open country from the inland icecap to the shore. It lay in the trench that the ice had carved for itself over millennia, the ice dropping off into the open sea when it hit the sill at the end.

Remarkably, what the scientists got there just in time to witness was the transformation of that river of solid ice into a finger of the sea extending 50 km inland from Ilulissat, with ice floating on top. In other words, the transformation of a large glacier into a large fiord: something that possibly hadn’t happened anywhere since the end of the last ice age, and certainly hadn’t been scientifically observed from start to finish.

Today, the Jakobshavn Glacier no longer exists as a single glacier. What now exists are the ice-streams that historically fed into it. These are the Kangia Glacier and the Dead Glacier.

With the Jakobshavn Glacier gone, the glaciers feeding the icefjord flow at something like twice the rate that they used to. It’s a bit like removing a cork from a bottle. Although, even in the old days, the Jakobshavn Glacier was still probably the main source of icebergs in the Northern Hemisphere, including (most probably) the one that sunk the Titanic.

It’s thought that the icefjord, its bottom well below sea level, may penetrate all the way across Greenland, so that, hypothetically, the collapse of the ice sheet could continue all the way across, isolating the southern part of Greenland as a new island.

We looked at some of the tours to the remaining headwaters (head-ices?) of the former Jakobshavn Glacier, which meant travelling 50 km inland from Ilulissat. The cheapest we found was one for 1,400 Kroner or US $150. It entitled us to a two-hour sledge ride to the glacier. There were quite a few companies offering different tour packages.

We thought about it for a bit and Leo decided he would go on a shorter tour while I decided that no I would go all out: because I am in Greenland for goodness’s sake! So, I booked a tour with a company called Nature Tours that was managed by an Italian guy. The tour I booked meant I would spend the day travelling to the main area of the Ilulissat Icefjord and then spend the night in a hut there, where we would get to do some ice fishing! I didn’t mind fishing, though I wasn’t keen on eating seal or seeing one killed. Then we would travel right up to the Kangia Glacier and the Dead Glacier (not the best name, I know).

At 11a.m. I met my guide, Yush, and his pack of twelve sled dogs at the meeting point to the south of the town. The trip was amazing: the way the dogs run harmoniously along the slippery ice, the way the sun glints off the bumpy surfaces and that feeling of flying across the ice. It was all just marvellous. I couldn’t help but call out in the pure joy of the moment!

Yush was very friendly. He told me how he only feeds his dogs whale meat, seal and halibut. I could see that dogs were very well-trained. He said they were very well-behaved and listened to him most of the time! He would call out what sounded like “you-you” to them, and he explained to me that meant ‘go on’ ‘go on’.

The trip to the hut would be a solid five hours of sled riding, though we would make a couple of stops along the way to let the dogs rest. The poor dogs had a bit of struggle getting up some of the hills, it was getting warmer, and the snow was melting in places. I’m pretty sure I was one of the last tours to the glaciers for that season before it got too warm, and the ice became thinner.

So, that was a quid pro quo for arriving too early to do the full summer hikes!

The wind was icy, and it battered me full blast in the face. About an hour into the trip, I was putting on another layer of gloves over the insulated ones I already had on, it was getting colder the closer we got. We arrived at the hut at about 4 p.m. Yush helped me unload my pack and take it into the hut. I watched him from the window as he settled the dogs and fed them. I was amazed at how sleek their bodies were, all the fatty meat they had to eat and yet there wasn’t an inch of fat on them. Although it was pretty hard to see much beyond all their fluff!

Yush told me sometimes he did have to whip them sometimes when they didn’t do what they were told and tried to stray from the path. It was only because the ice was thinning and there was always the possibility of them running onto a soft spot and going through the ice. Still, I felt a bit sorry for them. They worked very hard, those dogs.

Yush made me salmon and rice for dinner. It was the beginning of summer and so the sun was in the sky for 24 hours, or nearly so. Even when the summer sun does go below the horizon in these latitudes, it’s more of a brief onset of twilight around midnight after which the sun pops up again. It felt weird eating a late evening meal in what still seemed to be broad daylight.

We put the heaters on and got the beds ready. I needed to go to the toilet and there was none in the hut, so I went for a little wander and to my surprise could make out the huge spikes of ice from the Kangia Glacier in the distance. At night I could hear the glaciers moving; it was unreal and really loud!

I woke in the morning and started packing. I could hear the dogs were having a tussle outside. Yush said that usually the others will try and have a go at the lead dog: they all want to be pack leader but only the toughest is. I noticed that Yush’s lead dog was much larger than the rest and I thought the other dogs must be pretty brave to try and take him on.

The history of dog sledding is quite interesting. The Alaskan husky is the most common breed used to pull sleds, or sledges or sleighs, which all mean pretty much the same thing as far as I can tell. The final refinement of dogs bred for that exact purpose, the Alaskan husky became a recognised breed in the 1800s. Beyond being a most enjoyable sport and the highlight of my trip, dogsledding was for a long time a means of transport for the Inuit, a way to haul the fruit of hunting trips back to their outposts and villages.

Historians believe that the ancestors of huskies were brought from Mongolia during the original migrations to the Arctic. However, for a long time they were just dogs. The development of practical dog sleds is associated with the Thule culture, which also perfected the kayak and the Inuit version of the toggle harpoon, a hard-to-pull-out design used by several indigenous whaling cultures. Thereafter, dog sleds became an important means of transport wherever the Inuit lived.

Europeans and Inuit used dog sleds for exploration of Arctic areas. Well-funded expeditions also took this traditional form of transport to the opposite pole, in Antarctica.

Another husky-like breed called malamute was also developed in the 1800s. This was like a husky but stronger and stockier. The malamute was used to pull wood from lumber mills.

Dog sleds were the deliverers of mail and other essentials across icy landscapes in the 1800s and 1900s before the development of more motorised methods of transport. Dog trails have been formally established in regions where horses and trains cannot reach. And most famously of all perhaps, there is the example of the January 1925 mercy dash in which a dog team delivered medical serum to Nome, Alaska to stem an epidemic when nothing else could get through the winter dark and biting cold; an event commemorated each year in that state’s famous Iditarod dog sled race.

Anyway, in Greenland the dogs that pull the sleds are simply known as ‘Greenlandic huskies’ or ‘Greenlandic dogs’ — they looked like huskies to me!

Here are some scenes of our dog sledding trip that I filmed at the time:

We left by about ten in the morning: although, really, I had no physical sense of what time it was. After we left, it was just a short, one-hour trip to get to the Kangia glacier. Yush got me right up close, which was just magic, and I got a heap of photos! Yush said that by late June the whole area would turn into open water. I found that hard to believe looking at all the snow everywhere, as if it lay on solid ground.

The ride to the glacier was smooth and felt quick! The dogs pulled with ease over the snowy ground, ropes attached to each harness and held tightly by Yush. There were six dogs either side with the same two dogs at the front. We got within ten metres of the glacier and the dogs got a bit stuck in some snow. It was beginning to melt so we couldn’t go any further. I got off and let Yush attend to the dogs and to getting the sled unstuck from the snow. I could see the huge ice cap moving and shifting. The sounds of ice splitting and crashing into the water echoed around the vast landscapes. It was beautiful — epic even. I got some amazing photos of the Kangia glacier and the ice cap.

We continued on to see if we could get close to the other glacier, the Dead Glacier, where the Inuit go fishing. We saw men with guns hunting for seals. They called out greetings to us as we passed by. I could see they were having trouble with their dog sled teams too. In places, the ice had water across the top, making it tricky. It was a Thursday, and that seemed to be the local day for hunting and fishing as there were quite a few people around. They had snowmobiles or twenty-dog sled teams that covered more ground at a faster pace than we could.

Yush decided it would be too dangerous to try to get any closer, so we reluctantly headed back to Ilulissat. The views were amazing and if we had gone under the water at that moment, I would have died a very happy woman. Yush was very apologetic the whole way back that we didn’t get to the second glacier or that I didn’t get to see the men fishing. I told him not to worry: the scenery and experience had been enough and at the very least I had seen the Kangia glacier.

Seeing Yush’s relationship with his dog sled team was fascinating, and I told him I had learned so much from our short trip. I had seen glaciers in New Zealand, France, Pakistan and Nepal, yet I was still amazed by the Kangia Glacier. Yush told me on the way back to Ilulissat that using dog sleds was becoming more unusual in modern times. People now used snowmobiles or helicopters in preference to the traditional dog sleds.

But of course, these modern (in)conveniences are horrible noisy things: not the same as dashing through the snow in a sleigh pulled by eager animals. Maybe in the future people will have electric transport charged by the perpetual sunshine, and that will be closer to the old experience.

On return to Ilulissat I caught up with Leo and told him about my journey. He was a bit jealous he didn’t come in the end. I went back to my hostel at Hans and Mona’s, where they were cooking dinner. It was my last night in Ilulissat before I returned to Nuuk to catch a flight to Iceland, and they wanted to cook something special.

To my shock they were cooking seal meat. It was something I had made a conscious effort not to eat; it just didn’t sit right with me. In New Zealand, seals are heavily protected by the Department of Conservation (DOC) and I had been a uniformed volunteer DOC ranger myself, so you can see the conflict. Not to mention the fact that seals look a lot like dogs, to which they are in fact related, with their big faithful brown eyes!

But of course, I couldn’t really tell Hans and Mona I wasn’t going to eat their wonderful seal meal. So, I sat down at the table with them, and they dished me a big portion of suaasat, a traditional soup. It is a very simple soup with onion, potatoes and sometimes other vegetables and always with seal meat or another marine mammal.

This time it was made with seal meat, maybe a harp seal. It was very different, quite unlike any meat I had ever seen before. It was a deep reddish brown and very oily.

Like all animals that have red meat, seals store up oxygen in their muscles in a red compound, much the same as the red substance in blood, to give them more endurance. The more an animal is likely to go into what athletes call ‘oxygen debt’, the darker and redder its meat. You even see this with fast-swimming fish, which is why tuna steaks are red. The meat of marine mammals that need to make deep dives, such as seals and whales, is incredibly dark.

I had expected the seal meat to taste fishy, but it didn’t at all. I was thankful, though, that it wasn’t whale meat. I don’t think I could have brought myself to eat that!

The nineteen days I had spent exploring Greenland had been fantastic! I had found it quite expensive, but because of its remote location that was understandable. The further north you travelled the more expensive it got; the cost of transporting items really accounted for the high prices. I found out that most of the produce is flown in from Denmark, which only adds to the premium.

A few families told me that their children went to Denmark to make more money to pay for things. Often, this migration was seasonal. The Greenland winters were a time of temporary unemployment in many local occupations, especially the ones that depended on tourism. It was actually quite good for young people to get away at that time of year.

The only downer on my trip was learning and seeing the effects of pollution and overfishing. Some fish species were near extinction because of commercial fishing, and some whale species had been close to extinction before whaling was banned as well. I also got an insight to the Inuit people’s way of life, and how they were viewed within their own country. In Greenland where the Inuit are the majority it isn’t too bad, but in Denmark I saw they were treated quite badly as so many minority groups in the world are.

As for the staple foods in Greenland, these really are anything related to the sea, plus caribou (wild reindeer) in places that are temperate enough for caribou to graze. All marine animals are eaten everywhere: seal, seabirds, whale and fish. It is cheaper and probably more wholesome, overall, than buying expensive shop goods.

(From Greenland to Polynesia, shop goods such as sugary soft drinks and fatty corned beef are often blamed for the deteriorating health of indigenous peoples, who seem to be healthier when leading a traditional lifestyle. Marine mammals contain a lot of fat, too. But it’s the healthy Omega-3 kind, as in the fish.)

Greenlanders rely most heavily on the proceeds of hunting and fishing in winter, when the shipping of supplies becomes more difficult and when the freezing weather preserves locally caught meat and fish naturally in any case.

I would have liked to have gone north beyond Ilulissat, but it was going to cost me at least another US $1,000 to go any further. I hadn’t realised it would cost so much to go beyond the end of the regular ferry service, until I got there and explored my options. But that’s OK — there is always next time!

I had loved every minute of it, and the chance to see glaciers and meet the local people had been even better. Learning about the history and traditions of the Inuit had been the icing on the cake!

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