NewsSled dogs in Greenland: how much longer will they...

Sled dogs in Greenland: how much longer will they cry?

People have been dog sledding through the Arctic for thousands of years. But this unique culture threatens to disappear. A report from Greenland.

In a small dinghy with a powerful engine, Karl Elias Guldager roars out into the fjord almost every day to fetch halibut from the bottom with longlines. The 49-year-old is a fisherman, hunter and catcher. Now, in the late afternoon, he rides his bicycle from the port of the Greenland coastal town of Ilulissat up to his dogs on the edge of the settlement area. Sometimes he has to get off and push because the climbs are steep and the two buckets in the trailer are full of cod. He greets the people who pass by, with some he stops. They talk about today’s draw for the musk ox. The city has only released 16 copies for the coming season. But there are more than 100 professional hunters in Ilulissat, says Karl Elias: “Unfortunately, I am not among the lucky ones who were drawn.”

The dogs howl greedily, their chains clinking over the rocks, when they see their master pedaling up to them. The neighboring dogs invade. It’s a crooked concert that belongs to Greenland’s settlements north of the Arctic Circle like church bells to Europe.

On the map of Ilulissat there are hatched areas around the built-up areas: These are the dog places. The animals are chained up all summer long, with a range of motion of a few meters, each one on its own. Only puppies up to half a year old are allowed to stray. The adult animals are just so far away from the closest that they cannot fight each other and seriously injure themselves.

Is that appropriate to the species? Hardly anyone in Greenland asks this question. The owners are even obliged by law to keep the dogs this way. If their owners are not around, the dogs can become aggressive, that is the argument that one hears over and over again. Bitches with newborns are particularly unpredictable. The municipality has even put up warning signs for tourists inside: “Sled dogs are not cuddly toys! They look lovely, but they are workhorses. Therefore, you must never approach them. Neither adult animals nor puppies may be fed or petted. Protect yourself and the dogs! ”According to the law, animals that bite a person must be killed.

In the German city of Frankfurt there are statistically 42 people for every dog. In Ilulissat, the third largest city in Greenland, 4670 people and 3108 dogs live. For many in Greenland this is a deplorable decline: at the turn of the millennium there were still more than 8,000 dogs in Ilulissat. The development can be found everywhere: The population of Greenland dogs has declined by almost 60 percent in the past three decades, from around 32,000 animals to 13721 animals, according to the latest figures from the statistical office. Greenland has a “sled dog culture that is unique in the world,” writes the University of Copenhagen on its website. “But the sled dog and the highly specialized technology and knowledge associated with its use are in danger of disappearing.”

The howling has stopped at Karl Elias Guldager’s dog park. After throwing a fish to each of the animals, all you can hear is the cracking of the cod skulls between their teeth. Karl Elias sits down on the roof of a hut that he keeps ready for bitches with puppies. “I had dogs as a child. My father and grandfather had dogs, ”he says. “We cannot live without dogs.”

In winter he needs them to fish on the ice fjord, a Unesco world heritage site. The municipality forbids the use of snowmobiles, so the fishermen take their dogs on the ice as they did centuries ago. There they chop a hole and let their longlines sink into the depth with 500 hooks. When they pull up the lines a few hours later, there is a fish on almost every hook. Sometimes a sea wolf, more often cod, mostly halibut, the bread fish from Ilulissat. The two competing fish factories in the port pay the equivalent of around three euros for this. Accordingly, the coat of arms of the municipality of Avanaata shows a halibut and four dogs. Only around 6000 people live outside the main town of Ilulissat in this huge administrative unit, which encompasses the entire north-west of Greenland.

Karl Elias will probably never forget a working day at the beginning of March: “Suddenly we heard a noise. It sounded like distant thunder. ”From the east, the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier pushes its ice masses into the fjord and presses on the sea ice in winter. “It was only quiet, so we didn’t react.” But after half an hour there was a second rumble. “Much stronger. We packed the sledges and headed for the mainland. I called a friend on the satellite phone who was trying to direct us from the mainland. “Too late. The groaning ice had already broken into clods all over the place, and it kept breaking. Most recently, Karl Elias and seven other fishermen found themselves on a floe that was smaller than half a football field. “So we made an emergency call.” The helicopter was there within half an hour and rescued the fishermen. The next day they came back with a cutter, navigated between the clods to look for sleds, equipment and dogs: “It was difficult. We hardly saw anything because of the fog and had to orientate ourselves by the barking to find them. “

It was the second time that Karl Elias was in distress. The first time he stayed on a floe with some colleagues for five days and nights because no help could come due to a snow storm. As always, they had tents, food and fuel on the sledges, and the dogs ate the fish they caught. “It was more difficult for the others because they ran out of cigarettes. I don’t smoke, ”says Karl Elias. “But it’s a bad experience. You have no control You are drifting towards the open sea. Your life is at the mercy of nature. You think of your family who cannot sleep. “

The fact that such borderline experiences come about is also due to the fact that the season is becoming shorter and more unpredictable. The fishermen are feeling the climate change. “Very strong, actually!” Says Karl Elias: “20 years ago we were able to go on the ice with the dog sled until the end of May. This year we had to give up our trips over two months earlier. ”On the ice that covers the fjord, the snow melts earlier in the year, the meltwater gnaws at the ice:“ It’s getting thinner, but you can’t see exactly where. Then it becomes very dangerous. “

The cost of food also makes it more difficult to keep many dogs. In the past, hunters and catchers mainly fed their dogs with waste from the fishing industry. Today the factories also export the cod heads to Asia. Often the keepers are forced to buy dry food, which results in high costs.

Morten Meldgaard, biologist and professor at the university in the capital Nuuk, has collected the equivalent of 1.5 million euros from charitable foundations in Denmark and, together with the University of Copenhagen, launched the “Qimmeq” (Greenlandic for “dog”) project: “ On the one hand we are researching the Greenland Dog, on the other hand we are looking for ways in which the dog sledding culture can be preserved in modern society. “

After all, this culture is unique: in winter, sleds were the only means of transport for the Greenlanders for millennia. Since people’s lives depended on sled dogs, the government even passed a law to preserve the extreme resilience of the four-legged friends: no breeds other than Greenland dogs are allowed north of the Arctic Circle. In this way crossings are avoided.

Greenland dogs could live to be twelve years old. But if after five to seven years they can no longer keep up with the younger dogs in the team, they are usually killed. “That sounds brutal to dog owners in Europe,” says Morten Meldgaard. “But the Greenland dogs are not pets, they were always work animals.” Over the course of countless generations, a dog has developed that is made for the polar region. The researcher and discoverer Roald Amundsen took advantage of this in 1911. Greenland dogs led his Antarctic expedition to success. Robert Scott, his competitor in the race to the South Pole, had bet on snowmobiles and Manchurian ponies. He died of cold and exhaustion on the way back.

Knud Rasmussen, probably Greenland’s greatest hero, was born in Ilulissat. His expeditions are documented in the city museum in the house where he was born: he went dog sledding from Greenland via Canada to Alaska, collecting Inuit stories everywhere and bringing an understanding of a coherent culture that spanned the Arctic Circle into the world. He and his colleagues covered 18,000 kilometers. “Give me dogs, give me ice cream,” said Rasmussen, “you can keep the rest.” In the museum you can also find out how diversely people in Greenland used dogs: in earlier times of need it was part of the Inuit menu. “I haven’t tried it again,” says museum director Anja Reimer, 44 years old, who grew up in Ilulissat. “But some old people told me that dog meat was like lamb.”

“The Greenland dog is incredibly persistent,” says biologist Meldgaard. “There is no other livestock with this ability to achieve so much under such harsh conditions.” Your organism has developed an amazing ability to use fats as an energy source and to withstand the cold. The dogs are also outside at minus 40 degrees Celsius. After a blizzard in the morning, the only thing you can see is the snout out of the snow. At the beginning of a tour, the dog sled drivers like to let their animals run wild. If the ground is ideal, they can briefly reach speeds of up to 35 kilometers per hour. They maintain a pace of five to eight kilometers per hour for days. On long journeys, the daily stages are 80 to 90 kilometers. The energy consumption of the around 30 kilograms heavy power pack is enormous. They expend up to 11,000 calories a day in their work. The Tour de France cyclists are about twice as heavy and consume around 8,000 calories.

Stadtansicht von Ilulissat, mit Eisberg im Hintergrund.


City view of Ilulissat, with an iceberg in the background.

The most spectacular scientific result in the Qimmeq project even made it to the title of “Science” magazine: Genetic studies showed that the Arctic sled dog was bred for running ability and cold resilience at least 9500 years ago. The researchers suspect that humans were already using dog sleds 10,000 years ago because of the findings of whale bones, which apparently served as runners.

The Qimmeq project seeks to arouse pride in this legacy among the younger generation. A textbook on dogs has already been published in both Greenlandic and Danish and is being distributed in class sets at all primary schools in Greenland. But tourism should also bring the Greenland Dog new perspectives, according to one of the recommendations to Greenland’s politics and economy. “We helped develop the idea of a dog center,” says Meldgaard. Similar to a horse farm in Europe, there should be dozens of animals there that can be booked for sleigh rides.

In summer, tourists hike inside on the edge of the ice fjord or marvel at the icebergs in the midnight sun on boat trips. In winter it has not been so easy to use the tourist potential of the sled dogs on a larger scale for Ilulissat. Some of the hunters and catchers only speak Greenlandic, or it is too difficult for them to drive strangers through the tundra because they can earn more money in fishing. But now Flemming Lauritzen, whose main job is one of eight police officers in town, and his wife Ane Sofie have set up their company “Arctic Living Ilulissat”. The two, he 55, she 46, offer sled tours lasting several hours and several days. In summer you can be there when the dogs are being fed. Then you can stroke the puppies – but only under the supervision of Ane Sofie and Flemming. “We have some scars,” says Flemming. “When the dogs are fighting with each other and I pull the neck band to separate them, it can happen that they snap because they don’t realize in the heat of the fight that it is me. But we are very sure that we have it under control. “

Tourism may not be needed to preserve the dog sledding culture, thanks to young people like Minik Olsvig Svendsen, who, as chairman of the dog sledding club in Ilulissat, organizes the annual qualifying races for the Greenland Championships. 25 teams then start, and at the finish more than 1000 people are waiting for the winner – more than a fifth of all who live in Ilulissat.

Minik, now 30 years old, went to boarding school in Denmark when he was 17. But he had to break off the stay after six months. The homesickness was too strong. Back in Ilulissat, he began an apprenticeship as a carpenter and took over an older fisherman’s team. In summer, after working for nine hours, he jogs through the tundra or plays soccer on the new artificial turf pitch. In winter he goes on a tour with his dogs every other day in the late evening after he has put his four-year-old daughter to bed. They run in a fan shape in front of the sledge. Nine in the third row, four in the second, and at the very front he harnesses two particularly obedient and easy-to-run dogs. Minik has a powerful headlamp, but when the northern lights flicker over the snow-covered rocky landscape, he doesn’t need it: “I feel free on the sledge.”

But isn’t it cruelty to animals to chain the animals all summer long? “In winter they walk hundreds and thousands of kilometers, work hard, maybe they also need a rest,” says dog sled driver Flemming. “We also built the fence so that we could give them a run from time to time under our supervision.” Minik says that he sometimes takes two or three dogs with him when he goes for a run. “They follow my word, I’m sure they won’t attack anyone.” He currently has 22 adult dogs and 15 puppies – so the individual dog rarely comes off the chain.

Since his return from Denmark, Minik has never been abroad. “My place is here in Ilulissat,” he says and smiles. He is looking forward to the reindeer hunt with three friends and to catching belugas off the disco island in winter. “Mattak”, the whale skin and top layer of fat that melts in the mouth with a sweet note, is the greatest delicacy for Minik, as it is for most Greenlanders. “Where you live you have to find your options. And I don’t miss anything. “

But one destination would interest him after all, he then thinks about: “Northern Alaska. There they live under conditions similar to ours. They also have sled dogs. I would like to see how they use the opportunities that their world offers them. “

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