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The second day, I took a two-hour dogsled (here, they call it a sledge) ride through the mountains, wearing a warm sealskin parka and leggings provided by the tour company. Greenland dogs and sleds are everywhere in Ilulissat, and the drivers are experts, so I was only mildly panicked when my sled at one point was tipped over the edge of a cliff with the dogs behind me scrabbling backward to keep the sled from plummeting headlong to our certain death.
You know that scene where the Grinch’s sled teeters on top of the precipice? Crrk … crrk … crrk … down, down, down. Luckily, the dog team’s strength held out until we reached a gentle slope below. I was fine, absolutely fine. And after about three days, my toes defrosted, too.
Too cold for an igloo stay
Before I went to Greenland, people kept asking, are you going to stay in an igloo? And at the Arctic Hotel in Ilulissat, you can stay in one. Just not in February.
The hotel’s five igloos are beyond the place where I stayed, down a long boardwalk, past the sled dogs, near the shoreline. Made of shiny silver aluminum and looking like space pods, they are so hip that Prince Albert II of Monaco and singer Björk have stayed in them. But they’re used only from May to September.
“Now is too cold for the igloos,” a hotel clerk explained, not grasping that this fact might be considered quite astonishing for people back in the Midwest.
And I do have to mention the food. The restaurants here serve Greenlandic specialties, and I had fresh halibut three times and a very fine lamb soup. No complaints. I also enjoyed a walking tour of Ilulissat with a local guide who pointed out all the sights, plus the fitness studio where she takes Zumba classes.
You may notice I have not yet mentioned global warming, which has been the major theme of every hand-wringing travel story about Greenland in the past few years. In my defense, let’s just say that it is hard to whip up a lot of interest in the topic when you’re wearing five layers of clothes, the temperature falls to minus 19 and you’re freezing your eyebrows off.
And what about the northern lights? Well, I did go outside on two clear nights to look for the aurora borealis, which can easily be seen from September to April in Ilulissat, 180 miles above the Arctic Circle. You just look north past the sled dogs and silver igloos, and there you are. But nature had other plans, for a full moon was hanging up above, shining like a winter midnight sun, blocking any other solar shows.
But standing in the sharp cold, listening to my jagged breath, wiggling my toes, hoping for a flash of green was its own kind of exuberant show.