Three Airmen participate in dog-sled expedition

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Jeremy Eggers
  • 821st Air Base Group Public Affairs
It is one thing to appreciate the hardened life of the Inuit; it is another to actually live it. Three tenderfoot Airmen, 1st Lt. Lance Brenneke, Tech. Sgt. Dan Rea and Staff Sgt. Chris Knabe, got a taste of arctic frontier life while on a six-day dog-sledding expedition from Qaanaaq to Siorapaluk recently.

Mogens Morgen, a fellow tenderfoot, and Dane, visiting here as a research project consultant, organized the expedition with the goal of showing a group of Americans how the Inuit live.

Initially, the trip was going to begin at Thule; however, because of poor sea ice conditions, the foursome flew north to Qaanaaq to meet up with four seasoned hunter guides: Otto, Thomas, Peter and Christian.

“I had no idea what to expect,” Sergeant Knabe said.

The tenderfoots said they wondered about what they would eat, where they would sleep, and would there be other people out there.

Language barriers compounded the uncertainty. The hunters only spoke a few words of English, and only one hunter spoke a little bit of Danish. None of the four travelers spoke Greenlandic, and only Mr. Morgen spoke both Danish and English. With few words exchanged and few curiosities answered, each “city slicker” paired up with a hunter and dog sled and set off traversing the vast expanse of sea ice blanketing the waters of Baffin Bay.

They traveled in a peaceful calm through the still frozenness. The only sound came from the skids gliding over the snow and ice, and the panting of the dogs. The clear air exposed miles of Greenland.

Lieutenant Brenneke kept track of waypoints using a handheld Global Positioning System unit.

“Average speed was about 5 to 6 mph,” Brenneke said of the 10 dogs pulling nearly 400 pounds through the snow.

During the adventure, the travelers ate a variety of dehydrated foods plus more traditional Inuit food such as seal, walrus and dried fish. They melted ice for water and stored it in thermoses. With no showers available, the Airmen used baby wipes to “freshen up.”

The first night on the ice, the Inuit set up camp by first creating a platform with their dog sleds and then erecting a tent around it. The tenderfoots opted to set up a modern tent, “tested to minus 40-degrees Fahrenheit,” on the ice.

“That first night was cold,” Sergeant Rea said. “The hunters were in their tent laughing and having a good time. We were in ours, freezing.”

The group learned an important lesson that first night: Trust the time-tested way of the Inuit. They also learned to let go of their rigidly scheduled lives in favor of “nature’s schedule.”

There is no concept of time on the ice, Sergeant Knabe said. The group traveled by the light of the midnight sun, set up camp, ate dinner together, went to sleep around 2 a.m. and woke up around 9 or 10 a.m. each day.

On the second day, the tenderfoots realized how dog sleds are key to keeping transportation lines open among the northern towns, which otherwise have no connecting roads. The group traveled to Siorapaluk, one of the world’s northernmost civilian communities, where they were mobbed by about a dozen school children.

“They were cheerful and curious,” Sergeant Knabe said. “I think I gave a dozen piggyback rides that day. The teacher tried to round the kids up a couple of times, but finally gave up and let the kids play.”

After a few hours in Siorapaluk, the group traveled toward the sea ice. They set up camp; this time, the tenderfoots abandoned their modern tent in favor of staying in the Inuit tents.

“It was so much warmer,” Lieutenant Brenneke said. “The sleds keep you off of the ice, and pelts laid out on top of the sleds act as cushioning and extra insulation.”

The next day, the four experienced all the work and challenges faced during a hunting expedition. In summer, hunters can launch their boats from land directly into the open water to fish or hunt; however, winter’s cold creates miles of sea ice separating land from open water. Dog sleds are a necessary tool for hunters to traverse the ice and close the distance between land and open water. In short, dog sleds help put food on the table.

Once they reached the ice’s edge, the hunter’s used boats moored there between Siorapaluk and the open water. Anyone in the community can use the boats, which left the tenderfoots appreciating the sense of trust and teamwork that exists among the Inuit.

Using their dog sleds, the hunters pulled a boat to the ice’s edge and then set out on the labyrinth of broken-up coastal sea ice to hunt seals; the tenderfoots shadowed their Inuit guides. By day’s end, the hunters claimed three seals.

On the journey back to Qaanaaq, they returned to Siorapaluk, where they were once again mobbed by the children.

“I taught one of the kids a handshake the first time we went through the town,” Sergeant Knabe said. “When we arrived again, that same kid came up to me and remembered that handshake.”

After six days of living on the ice, the four tenderfoots reflected on their experience with a fond appreciation of the culture they were immersed in.

“We adapted to their lifestyle,” Sergeant Rea said.

Nostalgia began to set in.

“I’ll probably never have a chance to do something like this again,” Sergeant Knabe said. “Hunting the seals and seeing the children in Siorapaluk were the highlights for me. I’ll remember this trip for the rest of my life.”