Tim's Greenland sledging adventure

Tim wrote this blog whilst filming in Greenland for 'The Tipping Points' TV series

Friday 11 May 2012

The day dawns bright and sunny for our dog sled expedition. In fact it doesn’t dawn at all because it is bright and sunny all ‘night’. After a quick breakfast we gather provisions from the supermarket – a remarkably familiar establishment – although it stocks a wider range of thermal boots than you’d find in Tesco, and is not so strong on the fruit and veg. Several of the hunters are gathered outside eager to point out that the bank cohabits with the supermarket and could they have some money from this unholy tryst? Liz obliges whilst I lug the groceries up the muddy stream that forms main street. Then an intense period of packing ensues faced with the uncertain question; how cold will it be out on the ice? I decide to travel light, squeeze a sleeping bag into my daysack, a cag, mitts and some extra socks and feel ready for the adventure. David comes to pick us up at 11.45am and down to the ice we go, to load the sleds, mostly with camera gear.

Then we are off. The dogs pull up to speed and Niels jumps on. There’s a bit of bumping to get out of the sled park and then we are out onto smooth ice with a thin carpet of snow. It all feels so easy. The dogs are soon into a rhythm fanned out in front of us, the snow crunches quietly under the runners, and around us is the majestic Arctic whiteness under a crystal clear blue sky. Icebergs that were trapped in the sea-ice when the winter froze it over loom like modern art sculptures and icy cathedrals in the distance. The dogs are delighted to be on the go and start shitting profusely. This is a precarious manoeuvre as the rest of the team won’t stop, so the culprit’s business has to be done in a couple of seconds before the rest of the team drags them along on their arse. It leaves a feral twang in the nostrils in an otherwise unadulterated scene. Niels lights his pipe, producing a more agreeable aroma. We kick back and settle in to enjoy the journey.

Our destination is the sea-ice edge, on the far side of the island that is now connected to the fjord sides by the ice. Best estimate is a 5 hour journey, and we have lots of filming to do on the way. We settle into a rhythm with stops to rest the dogs every three-quarters of an hour or so. Soon I discover that my -30 degrees C rated boots are letting my feet freeze even at the balmy -2 C we are enjoying. So at the first stop I pile on my extra pair of socks. Ian goes to work on getting some good camera shots, trying to create the illusion that it is just Bernice and I with our Inuit hunters who are out on the ice. This illusion isn’t going to last with seven sleds in the party.

Leaning over the back of the sled as another team approaches from behind is like looking into the collective eyes of a wolf pack. The dogs have their heads bent down, their eyes narrow, and they look straight ahead with a vacant determination, tongues out and panting in a shared rhythm. This rhythm is broken just occasionally when one team tangles with another in a daring but usually flawed overtaking manoeuvre. Niels wields his whip rarely to sort out such altercations.

As the day progresses an Arctic trance starts to come over me. Sitting sideways I look across the barren expanse of ice to the snowy mountain slopes beyond. A varied light plays across the scene, enveloped in a dry cold. The sun starts to glint off the virgin snow which twinkles like coloured jewels. This is the stuff of fairy tales I say to myself, feeling the warm rug of a reindeer pelt underneath me and picturing Tolkein-like scenes from some bygone age.

We have found our way to the far side of the island and we make almost imperceptibly slow progress along it. The land seems to stretch tens of kilometres ahead of us. How far can the ice edge be? My thought is interrupted by Niels pulling the dogs up. A large fissure in the ice lies straight ahead, maybe a metre across. The sledge is around 3 metres long. The dogs aren’t keen. One or two makes the leap, one lands in the water and scrabbles to get out on the other side. Then they are over and start to pull us across. The back end of the sledge dips in the icy water but we are over. We stop to consider our options. The hunters think it is unstable to push straight on, and eventually we opt to retreat to the corner of the island where the current that splits either side of it exposes open water.

After another hour or so we reach our goal; the ice edge. It looks amazing. Gigantic icebergs sit in dark blue water with the red-brown slope of the island’s corner behind. But it’s not safe to camp where we pull up – so we follow the ice edge around to a safer position, the hunters cutting some large blocks of exposed ice on the way. We pitch camp several hundred metres from the edge and under strict instruction not to stray too far from the tents. These are constructed by nestling two sledges edge-to-edge against one another to form the bed platform and setting the ridge pole perpendicular to them to leave a snowy area to cook and store bags. To our pleasant surprise, a hefty paraffin burning heater come cooker is then lit in each tent, and the business of ice melting gets underway. I supplement a not-so-hearty dinner of pot noodle with some walrus meat from the hunters. This is like mild beef with a fishy twang. With great synchronicity everyone turns in around 11pm for the long bright ‘night’ ahead.

 

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Saturday 12 May

After the toastiest night imaginable amongst such frigid cold we rise around 7am. Outside the same staring sunshine greets us, the sun having simply tracked horizontally around the sky. It is a little colder in the ‘night’ but why is unclear. Liz has made porridge which cheers the spirits, washed down with tea or hot chocolate. First task is an 8.30 am interview about the concept of tipping points, and about the examples surrounding us; the Greenland ice sheet and the Arctic sea-ice.

Next the plan is to see if we can safely approach the ice edge nearby. We set off with the hunters and their spikes for prodding the ice. All goes well and after a ten minute stroll we are standing next to open water, with giant icebergs floating a few hundred metres away and the occasional seal popping its head up to say hello. We plod back to the tents to grab the camera gear. The shoot involves Bernice and I walking and talking with the open water a metre away. It is remarkably calm with the icebergs and the island reflected in the water. By the time we finish it is 1pm.

The hunters have struck camp and we rummage around on the sleds to find and scoff the remaining food.  Then we set off on the journey back to Qaanaaq, sleds in formation, spirits high. Our route winds its way among the iceberg field and these great icy giants loom around us. One is like a house from Dr Suess another has a giant circular hole in it. The hunters are a little uncomfortable when we get too close and the dogs speed up on the exposed ice. Blocks of ice can calve off the bergs at any time. The hunters clearly want to get home, but Ian has other ideas. He goes on ahead to film us all approaching. Predictably the dogs do not cooperate and go both left and right. Still we can see Qaanaaq  ahead and it is time to get home. The sleds slip into a track way in the ice and speed up. We crest the final rise and are back, invigorated and inspired after the journey of a lifetime.