In the quaint village of Sisimiut, along the west coast of Greenland, a dry but vicious wind blows powdery snow across the quiet main road. It’s the only snow-free spot in sight; the rest of the village lies buried under metre-high snowdrifts. It’s the middle of March and each day there’s a little more sunlight: Greenland is waking up from a long hibernation caused by ice-cold polar nights that are often endless.
In March the light returns, finally. But there is still nighttime and a good chance of seeing the Northern Lights; plus, to top it off, that magical blue Arctic light that photographers are so crazy about. We’re here at the perfect moment: the transition between winter and spring, when there’s still enough ice and snow, but the sun is back.
Sisimiut is compact and charming, with around 5,500 inhabitants. Go one kilometre inland and you’ll find nothing but the empty whiteness of the Greenland ice mass – the largest in the world. The edges of this volcanic island – which is the same size as Europe yet far more sparsely populated – are only ice-free in summer, when they display their true, green identity. But for now, everything is white and still, except for the howling huskies and the occasional local whizzing past on a snowmobile.
Devotees of snowy landscapes and pure icy temperatures will be in their element here. Lapland is busy and popular; Iceland is sinking under the weight of its own success; and nowadays in the Alps you can’t always be sure of snow. Greenland, on the other hand, has everything going for it: a genuine winter, few tourists, huskies eager to embark on an adventure, mountaintops where you can ski and snowboard, snowmobiles accustomed to speeding though the Arctic wilderness and, of course, that end-of-the-world feeling so typical for a remote destination.
Hennig Frisk waits for us on the outskirts of Sisimiut, together with his hyperactive, howling sled dogs. The 70+ Dane has lived his whole life in Greenland and his weathered face and gnarled hands betray a deep love for the wilderness of his adopted country. The dogs have just been fed, mostly with pieces of fish or seal, and they’re ready for a two-day journey with the fully packed wooden sled of their owner.
Hennig is taking us to his simple cabin in the hinterland of Sisimiut. The wooden hut, which he built himself, lies somewhere on the edge of a fjord that is now completely frozen. Hennig’s wife looks at my equipment and clothing and asks if I’m sure I’m wearing enough layers. The temperature can drop to -30 degrees at night. I nod, feel my numerous layers of clothing once again and give a thumbs up, a bit like an astronaut in an overlarge spacesuit.
When Hennig attaches the huskies to the sled, we take off with a powerfully sharp jolt. Me behind, my other half in front and Hennig running along behind to make sure everything runs smoothly, before jumping aboard the sled to recover. We glide through a silent Arctic landscape, quickly leaving Sisimiut behind us.
The huskies are harnessed differently to sled dogs in Lapland, where they all run behind each other in pairs. Here the dogs fan out in twos for several meters, each with a specific task: leading, steering, pulling… The Greenland husky is an ancestor of the Arctic wolf and much larger and sturdier than its Lapland brothers. We travel for hours through the silent wintery landscape, sometimes hilly with small trees and rocks, then flatter plains and frozen fjords. Our eyelashes grow ice crystals, which makes the perspective even more surreal.
The sky changes from metallic grey to Arctic blue; just before darkness falls we arrive at Hennig’s hut. Inside, the thermometer reads -16°C. I shiver and look with dismay at the Dane. He laughs and assures me that his ingenious self-built heating system will ensure that it’s definitely 22°C by bedtime. Meanwhile, he unharnesses the dogs, gives them more food and gets them ready for a cold night.
In the hut everything starts to warm up – frozen fingers and toes included. Hennig’s wife has prepared some delicious snacks: dried fish and reindeer, smoked salmon trout, dark homemade bread… After nearly an hour outside one of the bottles of Greenland beer we’ve brought succumbs to the cold: the glass cracks and the beer is transformed into sorbet. When night falls, the temperature outside drops to almost -27°C; but inside the hut it is 22°C, just as promised.
Hennig is in fact a hunter and often goes on expeditions to catch musk ox and reindeer. His life is here, with the dogs, in nature, hunting and enjoying the ultimate freedom that remains so important. When we crawl under the blankets, the hut steams and crackles pleasantly. Outside the huskies lie coiled in rolls. There are hardly any polar bears in West Greenland, so we wander around in the silent polar night.
Early the next morning, after a hearty breakfast, we head back into the wilderness in search of more impressive Arctic vistas. Few words are needed to describe the beauty of this landscape. Now and again we glance at each other and smile, mirroring the huskies who occasionally look back over their shoulders to check if everything is still okay and we’re loving it as much as they do.
Debbie Pappyn and David De Vleeschauwer are a freelance travel writer and photographer duo working as partners in crime for several newspapers and magazines worldwide. Read more about them on classetouriste.be.