Dog-sledging with Inuit hunters in Eastern Greenland is not for the faint-hearted, but it is carbon neutral and strangely addictive
'Hang on and pretend you're a sack of potatoes,' shouted our tour leader as we perched on wooden dog sleds at the top of a steep snowy slope – a vertical descent of 250 metres nicknamed 'Oh my God no' after what most people say when they see it.
As I plunge to the bottom in a spray of snow, my shrieks mingle with the yelp of a husky. It begins to dawn on me that eastern Greenland is no Center Parcs. This is only the second day of our Husky Sledge Adventure. Travelling with Inuit hunters, not tourist guides, this 'package' could include sharing your 'chariot of the Arctic' with a dead seal.
Bouncing on icy tracks up and down mountains the size of volcanoes, pulled on reindeer skin-lined sleds by up to 12 huskies – leaving the occasional bright yellow trail in the pristine snow – may not be everyone's idea of fun. It may also seem a strange way to celebrate your wedding anniversary - especially on separate sleds. Still, that’s what Sue and David are here to do. For city secretary singleton and dog-lover Sheila, the huskies were the draw. She shrieks with delight on discovering a dozy week-old pup in her saddlebag.
It's hard to find the remote Ammassalik region – known as 'the land of the small fish' – on a map of Eastern Greenland, let alone the tiny village of Kulusuk, where our six-day trip was based. Its brightly-coloured houses lie above a glittering sea of icebergs with dramatic mountain peaks.
Coming face to face with a polar bear grinning oafishly from the wall of the airport on arrival, it's clear we're in hunting territory. Seal were the main means of survival here before the gallunaat, 'the ones with the bushy eyebrows', came. And, if you’re wondering why old men sit on the hillsides gazing at the horizon, it's because, in Inuit tradition, the man who spots a polar bear gets to wear the furry trousers.
In the Ammassalik region, there are half as many dogs as its 4000 people – in a space as big as Western Europe. But petting these descendants of the Arctic wolf, we are warned, could lend new meaning to the phrase 'finger food'. We pull off with kissing noise to encourage the dogs. It isn't until we are en route that I realise there is no word for 'stop' in a musher's vocabulary.
The Lonely Planet guidebook describes Greenland, the largest island on earth, as 'the ultimate chill-out destination'. The world's latest discovery, Ammassalik, is one of the last wildernesses. Its untamed scenery is similar to that of Antarctica: icy crevasses, frozen lakes and an endless expanse of snow. But it's not as far to go – a four-and-a-half-hour flight, via Iceland. And, where Antarctica is barren, here you have culture.
Kenneth Branagh and his crew of 100 needed to charter an icebreaker to film Shackleton here; the pack ice stops ordinary ships for about nine months of the year. Most tourists come in summer, but in spring – when days are longer and there’s still plenty of snow – a lucky few can participate in traditional Arctic life. And there's still a chance to see the eerie and spectacular Northern Lights.
From the short, 'test' ride on the first day, our six-day adventure builds to a full-day sled round-trip of 16 miles. Warm evenings are spent in the international Hotel Kulusuk
, watching pink sunsets over the mountains and hanging out at the bar.
On the first day, I had longed to ease my cold, aching limbs in the hotel sauna. By the second day, I was getting used to be woken by the dawn howl of the huskies, and sidling like a crab – dressed in standard issue orange shell suit – down icy slopes to a waiting sled. By the third, I feel a tingle of excitement - dog sledging has become strangely addictive.
Itineraries and times mean little in a place where weather rules. Air Greenland is nicknamed Immaqa – 'maybe' – by the locals. It is sunny and -2˚C, but a blizzard could turn a half-day fun trip into a gruelling ten-hour ordeal. Dogs may only average 10 miles an hour, unlike Skidoos which can go 100mph, but they can see when you can't and are more helpful in rounding up a polar bear.
My sled driver, Tobias, who had been hunting since he could walk, once stalked a polar bear. I beg him to tell me the whole story. 'Hunting stories are for after dark,' he says, spits, and goes back to smoking. The Inuit don't talk much; they believe it disturbs the spirits in the mountains.
As we lunch on a rock high above a frozen waterfall, overlooking a lake of floating ice, I understand their sense of awe. Many of Ammassalik's mountains have never been climbed and it has some of the largest glaciers in the world. The Tourist Board accurately promotes Greenland as 'a world you'll never forget'.
Tour operator: Discover the World
Airline: Air Greenland