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Summer's Not So Fine For Greenland's Huskies

Resting against a rock (in the foreground, to the right), one of Ilulissat's huskies seems unimpressed by the beautiful view in the background. i i

Resting against a rock (in the foreground, to the right), one of Ilulissat's huskies seems unimpressed by the beautiful view in the background. Philip Reeves/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Philip Reeves/NPR
Resting against a rock (in the foreground, to the right), one of Ilulissat's huskies seems unimpressed by the beautiful view in the background.

Resting against a rock (in the foreground, to the right), one of Ilulissat's huskies seems unimpressed by the beautiful view in the background.

Philip Reeves/NPR

NPR reporters are traveling the far North to report for an upcoming series on the thawing Arctic and what that's going to mean to nations in the region. Click here to see their dispatches. London correspondent Philip Reeves sent in this post from Greenland:

Midnight is approaching. The sun shines across a glassy sea cluttered with giant icebergs. The sound of indignant howling wafts over the rooftops of a tiny Arctic town.

It is coming from the second largest group of inhabitants of this distant place. They are feeling bored, hot, and fed up with the clouds of mosquitoes buzzing relentlessly around their ears.

This is Ilulissat, a fishing port tucked in the craggy shoreline of north-western Greenland, some 175 miles north of the Arctic Circle.

Three thousand five hundred huskies live here.

Ilulissat's huskies seem to wish they could be out pulling those sleds to the left. i i

Ilulissat's huskies seem to wish they could be out pulling those sleds to the left. Philip Reeves/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Philip Reeves/NPR
Ilulissat's huskies seem to wish they could be out pulling those sleds to the left.

Ilulissat's huskies seem to wish they could be out pulling those sleds to the left.

Philip Reeves/NPR

The dogs are only 1,000 fewer in number than the town's humans whom they haul around by wooden sled, towing them off in the winter months into Greenland's immense icy wilderness to hunt reindeer and musk ox.

The humans seem to love the summer. It brings relief from the refrigeration of the winters, the long and tedious months when daylight waves briefly and from afar at the Arctic, and then disappears below the horizon again.

For them, summer means the arrival of cruise ships full of tourists willing to spend freely in the handful of cafes, bars, and gift shops dotted around Ilulissat, a town founded by a Danish grocer.

It means soccer competitions on the town's gravel pitch. It means outdoor barbecues and boat trips exploring the vast maze of fjords and glaciers along Greenland's coastline. And it means warmth. On a good day — or night — you can walk around Ilulissat in shorts and T-shirts.

But for the huskies, the summer months are about as interesting as a dead cat.

They spend their days at the end of long chains, yapping and napping, and waiting for their owners to arrive to feed them dried fish and scraps of seal from the nearby ocean.

There are dogs all over town — wolfish-looking, tatty animals lounging around raffishly on top of granite rocks in big boggy fields, next to their makeshift wooden kennels and their battered-looking sleds.

All 3,500 of them are huskies. Other breeds are banned in this part of the world to ensure that they remain untainted, and eager and willing to tow Greenlanders around the snow for ever more.

Twenty-six of these dogs belong to Johannes Mathaussen, 49, a halibut fisherman, hunter and guide. Like most of the 57,000 people who live in Greenland, the world's largest island, he is from the indigenous Inuit people that are spread across the Arctic regions.

The dogs have done good service, Mathaussen explains. He is sitting in his small wooden shed, puffing on a wooden pipe and shouting to be heard above the din of his canines.

You can see inside the heart of any middle-aged man by visiting his garden shed. Mathaussen's contains three guns (for shooting duck, reindeer and seal), a grey seal-skin suit, a collection of ice axes, a big hand drill for boring through ice, and a huge sack of dried fish that he went out and caught himself to use as dog food. He feeds me some: it is delicious.

Over the years, Mathaussen's dogs have won him a cupboard full of silver cups, which he keeps in his house — in another part of town. He once placed second in the Greenland dog-sledding championship.

He knows these animals well. In the summer — he says — it is important to keep your huskies lean, only fattening them up as winter approaches so that they are ready for the cold. "Right now, the dogs are on holiday," he says, with a grin.

His dogs have also played their part in securing some rather more unusual trophies: Mathaussen's home is adorned with the evidence of successful hunting trips. He has a collection of reindeer antlers, a musk ox skull, and a whale's jaw bone on his balcony.

And inside, proudly displayed on a wall, there is a worrying line of dried birds' feet.

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