With the powerful commands Højre!, Venstre!, Hoooole … (left, right, stop) NCO Morton Petersen will guide his sleddogs over the snowy coastlines of Northeast-Greenland this winter for the first time. For over 60 years the Sirius Sledge Patrol, a special military unit, guards the Danish sovereignty over the world’s largest national park and its natural resources. Cruising the uninhabited wilderness between 70 and 80° I go ashore at Daneborg (74°20’N – 20°14’W), where the famous sleddog patrol resides. Five years ago we were sailing the area and got pretty close to Daneborg with our Icebreaker. Back then tricky pack ice kept us from a safe visit to the base. Palle Norrit, sent by the Danish government, was accompanying us at that time. The man is a living legend for all Sirius-soldiers. For twelve years he was in command of the patrol. In a hut, serving as a museum nowadays (showing how an old trapper’s hut looked like in the fifties) Palle’s cap is proudly laying in between other hunting stuff and trophies. Today Palle is not here as we’re being allowed for an exceptional, quick visit. A little after 3 o’clock our anchor hits the bottom of the ocean, about 100 feet beneath sea level, at the bay of Young Sund. Four out of the 12 soldiers from the sleddog patrol are welcoming us in their summer outfit with badge, no uniform. The sun is pouring down, high above us. It’s hard to imagine this is an arctic base with temperatures as cold as minus 40° C in wintertime. In a couple of months Sergeant Morten Petersen will be patrolling thousands of miles along the uninhabited coast. Together with a colleague and 13 dogs he will be guarding the Danish sovereignty over Nuna Allanngutsaaliugao, the biggest National Park in the world. “Only young men in between 20 and 30 years of age, not married nor engaged, without children, can sign up to be lived by nature in complete isolation.” Morten (age 25), was one of the six chosen ones this year after serious psychological and physical tests. He’s been in service at the Sirius Patrol for nearly two months now. Sam Deltour, one of Belgium’s best mushers, is accompanying me as Morten is guiding me through Sirius HQ, his hometown. Together with his 11 colleagues and about 80 especially- bred sleddogs he will lead a two year spartan and isolated existence in the desolate wilderness between 70 and 80° North. Guarding, not fightingAfter a political conflict with Norway, Denmark gained sovereignty over Greenland from the International Court in Den Haag. One of the conditions the court demanded was Denmark had to show its willingness to own the land, including the uninhabited and inaccessible parts, especially North and Northeast Greenland. From 1933 until the end of World War II Denmark was actively patrolling the area but after the war there was hardly anybody there. “Because they didn’t want to provoke other countries,” Palle Norrit knows. “All they did was some scientific and meteorological research.” This minimal presence of the Danish led to a warning from the International Court and NATO was expressing its concerns as well. Denmark didn’t want to risk losing its sovereignty over Greenland and in 1950 the Sirius Sledge Patrol was born. “This new military defense unit started off as ‘Operation Resolut.’ It took its final shape in 1952 when the headquarters moved from Ella Island to Daneborg. One year after they moved they changed their name to Sirius to avoid all confusion with the existing Canadian weather station at Resolute Bay. Sirius is the brightest star in the constellation of the Big Dog or Canis Major. The patrol is pretty famous by now and has been under the command of the Danish marine since 1994.”Other than guarding Danish sovereignty over North and Northeast Greenland, Sirius has two other main tasks: They function with police authority in the National Park and by patrolling the 100,000 square miles by dogteam, they’re conducting some military survey over the area. “The dogs do not know commands like ‘attack,’” Morten tells us, hereby disproving the rumor that Sirius is a cover-up for a military elite unit of officers who, because they know the area so well, could serve as a fast deploying and specialized avant-garde. This is not an unrealistic scenario. The Russians never did hide their interest in the natural resources of the area. “It is true, on paper we’re a military unit guarding Danish sovereignty over the area. And yes, we’re trained extremely hard. But in the field we don’t feel like GIs. You could call us park rangers that would report a treat, but we would never operate as a combat unit.” Ready for the big journeyEvery year about 50 young soldiers apply to serve with Sirius, one of Denmark’s crown jewels. Only Danish, Greenlanders or inhabitants of the Faeröer Islands can sign up. The criteria are not put aside for anybody. “For one week you’re subjected to the most diverse and exhausting physical and mental assessment exercises,” Morton reflects. “This is followed by eight months of incredibly tough training. The dogsledding itself we have to learn over here.” The Sirius Patrol exists of twelve soldiers nowadays, two groups of six. They all have to stay in Greenland for two years. Every year a group of six new soldiers arrives together with about 200 tons of fresh supplies. At Christmas, when the moon is full, the Danish Marine will drop another box with presents and goodies. That’s it.The group forms six sledteams, each consisting of two men, thirteen dogs and a sled. In Mestervig, 180 miles south of Daneborg, two Sirius-soldiers maintain a radio-station and an airstrip. A support station at the island Ella in Kong Oscar Fjord (72°N) is operational for just a couple of weeks in summertime. During the warmer months of the summer the teams patrol by boat and supply and maintain the 65 huts or depots along the coastline. In wintertime these will serve as places to shelter and re-supply during their long and dark patrols. “Near the end of October we leave for a first patrol with the dogs,” patrol commander Jens Bonde tells us after he joined us casually. “Some teams fly to Mestervig first or to the even more Northern station Nord (81°36’N) and then back to Daneborg. They camp in tents or spend the night in one of the 65 Sirius-depots. One duo at a time will stay stand-by at the headquarters and function as the nerve centre of the Sirius Patrols, organising, coördinating and informing the five other teams. In the mean time this team has to keep the station operational.”The soldiers are completely self-sustaining. The 23 huts and cabins at Daneborg station all have facilities to last in full autonomy for one year in this barren wasteland: kitchen, carpentry, radiostation, generators, oil- and diesel silos, weapon depot, tool shed, seawater desalination installations (through reverse osmosis)… as being mentioned above there is even an old hut serving as a museum for eventual visitors like us. During the summer, marine biologists and archeologists find a place to stay here to do some research in the area. “You see that hut over there?” Morten points out. “An Italian photographer built that dome on top of it in order to study the northern lights a little better. In the high season we’ve got up to forty people living here because our logistical team is flying back and forth as well to do some stuff we can’t take care of ourselves, ICT-applications and so on.” But all sleds, lines, equipment, dog harnesses, etc. the young men make themselves. Their credo: the things you made yourself you can fix better as well. That comes in pretty handy if you have to travel the wilderness with nothing but a friend and a bunch of dogs. All terrain vehicle vs. Ferrari“I’d rather have you not entering our private-areas,” Morten politely asks. “Everything is nicely in place and we like to keep it that way.” Sam and I cannot suppress a cynical smile. Men living together, keeping things in order… that’s like puppies keeping their first winter straw in their houses. “No really,” Morten says. “That’s the way it is. You know, after being out there for months at a time, during long and chaotic camping trips when it’s pitch dark outside, it’s really a relieve to come into your own house where everything is spic-and-span.” Pamela Anderson in an Eve costume softens the lonely nights.In front of their state-of-the-art animal hospital—even that’s around—hot Sally is on her chain. “Bitches get a little crazy when they’re in heat. They destabilize the pack. That’s why we keep them apart. You can pet her if you want. Sirius-dogs are very kind and friendly. They don’t really fight. The more you cuddle with them, the better.” Sally is obviously enjoying the attention. We enter the fenced area of team nr. 7. Thirteen males and females chained to their personal houses are looking at us with enthusiasm and give us a happy howl and bark concert. Soon enough they all turn quiet as they’re getting petted, scratched behind their ears and rubbed over their bellies. But don’t get fooled: Buster OM, Elenor N, John T, Nazak K… they’re not pets, they’re real working tools. Their names refer to insiders dating back from kitchen adventures. Historical famous polar travelers also provide some inspiration. Behind every name there’s an unmistakable code referring to the place in their purebred pedigree. The Sirius-breeding program follows strict rules, just like every purebred line, to select for the best characteristics and avoid inbreeding. The family line of Greenland Huskies goes back to their Siberian siblings. “A Sirius-dog is a little bigger, weighs approximately 80 up to 100 pounds and has to pull and have a steady character. He’s indestructible, has a thick outer fur and a warm, fuzzy, inner coat, upright ears and long, heavy legs. Because of their huge muscles they can easily pull a loaded sled (up to 1,000 pounds) up a steep hill. A Greenlander husky doesn’t easily ‘break down’.”According to Sam they require less care than racing dogs. He compares the Greenlanders with all terrain vehicles, the Alaskan husky with a Ferrari. “Alaskan huskies are fragile top athletes weighing about half as much as a Sirius-dog and following a meticulous training program. They’re more prone to injuries. During the Iditarod there are up to three veterinarians in every checkpoint. If we have to we can leave our four legged friends behind with them and we know they’re being taken care of. It couldn’t be more different for these Sirius-dogs journeying over 1,500 miles without any support along the way. Sirius dogs are bred to travel, Alaska huskies to race.”Dogs firstAll of a sudden we hear a sharp command, “Tille!” All dogs shrink and go lay down on the ground, head between their paws. Feeding time. Morten is walking around filling dog bowls out of a big bucket full of dried fish and meat enriched with fat and vitamins. “A dog is using just about 5,000 calories a day, his boss almost 7,000.” No dog is touching his food until they’re told to. On his command they munch their food down in a heartbeat. This ritual is daily routine. “After this we have lunch ourselves.”“We don’t do stuff like this with our racing dogs.” Sam explains. “Probably because we don’t like to make time to teach them, but also because we want our dogs to attack food as soon as they see it. Racing dogs will travel over 100 miles a day and they need to absorb every possible calorie as soon as they can. A Sirius-patrol travels 20 up to 40 miles a day. There’s more time and need for order and discipline. And after all, they are military dogs,” Sam laughs. Every afternoon the Sirius-soldiers ‘play’ with their dogs. At the same time they check their dogs for injuries and diseases. “At the base we can take care of pretty much everything, out in the field it’s a whole different story. Sometimes we have to put the sick dogs down,” answers Morten to my question of what happens with dogs if they get hurt along the way. The love of the soldiers for their dogs goes deep. They are the ones putting the old dogs down when their time has come. “Horrible question,” Sam whispers in my ear. These topics obviously touch him. In the past dogs were taken out of the pack when they were about 5 years old. By that time they had run just about 14,000 miles. “With a little bit of luck he got transferred to another unit to serve as a guarding dog. Otherwise they got the honorable death with the bullet,” Morten explains. “Because of better living circumstances and improving dog care most dogs will live until they are 10 nowadays. Nonetheless, it’s hard to say goodbye to the dogs. Some soldiers even try to smuggle dogs home at the end of their service.”The Sirius-patrol loses about 10 animals a year. Depending on this number the veterinarian will correct the breeding program. Pups are being mixed into the teams when they turn one year. In the past it used to be at six months. Because of this they probably got burned out turning six. Morten: “We don’t train the dogs to run in a certain position or for a special task. We do; however, divide them over the gangline according to snow conditions as puller or follower. We use the fan-formation on a hard and frozen surface. In deep, soft snow we will have the dogs all lined up, one by on. If there’s a crust on the snow we’ll run them two by two. As drivers we will run or ski next to the sled, Norwegian style.” Lead dogs will be exchanged regularly. The dog in front will follow your commands but that puller is not necessarily the leader of the pack. Followers don’t obey as well. Young pups will run along loose. Instinctively they will follow the team. A strong, enthusiast dog will climb higher in the hierarchy of the pack. To put it shortly: hierarchy is being established without human interference. “With racing dogs we got similar profiles: drivers and survivors,” Sam explains. “The driver is super enthusiast, always digging in, giving 100%, but he gets tired faster than the survivor. A survivor is more easy-going, not pulling like a maniac but always hungry and at the end of a race he will still be there. As if he knows at the finish line there will be a hot meal and a comfy place to rest his head. During the last days of a longer race they are the ones making things happen. Generally they’re older dogs, smarter dogs,” Sam says with a smile. An own opinion is allowedA race-team is being created with time and training. When Sam was training a puppy team for Iditarod Champion Mitch Seavey, he started of with about 25 young dogs. Eventually 16 would be selected for a long race. Dogs not eating well, who stop pulling after a heavy run or just don’t like pulling all that much, are out and get sold. “They might become good sleddogs, but they will never be super athletes. Their anatomy has to be perfect as well if you want to race at a high level. Leaders will distinguish themselves because of their special talents: intelligent leaders will be able to follow your commands smoothly. With them you can navigate over tricky terrain (ice, rivers, overflow, windblown trails). ‘Dumb’ leaders don’t think quite as much. They just like to run, and will run forever, no matter how hard the wind is blowing, how tired they are or how tough the trail might be. In their own way they will guide the team to the finish line. Lead dogs are not necessarily the smartest dogs.” Opinions differ, but Sam believes a leader can sometimes make his own decisions. “If you’re on a windblown trail for example, sometimes the dogs can still feel where the hard packed trail is. Also, dogs don’t forget places they’ve been and sometimes they will guide you straight to a checkpoint in a storm with zero visibility for the musher.” Pullers at the Sirius-patrol master eight commands. ‘Attack’ is not one of them as mentioned above. “Our dogs are not trained for combat situations. It’s in their nature to guard and defend us. When something is wrong they will warn us, when there is a polar bear around for example. Other than that they serve as sleddogs and they’re good company along the road. If you are travelling for four months it’s good to have the dogs around you. Besides, using them for our own defense is too great a risk. A claw or a kick from a bear or musk ox could be fatal. That’s why we prefer to have them on a chain. Their growling and howling will keep wildlife at a distance.”Tradition, honor and strengthSirius swears by the dogsledding, in contrast with the Canadian rangers using snowmobiles. Dogs don’t need fuel and they’re more reliable, Jens argues. “A patrol will travel 2,000 miles a year. Dogs are far better suited for these long trips than machines are. A dog getting sick or hurt along the way will not stop you. A snowmobile with critical motor issues on the other hand, cannot be fixed in an instance at temperatures dropping beneath -30° C. Believe me, even nowadays, sleddogs are still the best and most efficient way to patrol big parts of the National Park.” What’s motivating these men? The honor? The thrill of being out there? “The nature you can see around us here. And the dogs.” Jens’ eyes are twinkling. One question is how long the Danish Sirius-patrol will last. On November 26, 2008 the Greenland population was demanding more autonomy. Therefore Greenland got almost full autonomy and self-determination over the natural resources of the country right now. “If you have never worked with sleddogs it must be kind of hard to understand these people.” Sam laughs. “It’s the combination of man, dog and nature mingling together that’s so powerful they prefer tradition over functionality. You got to admit, patrols could easily be done using snowmobiles, maybe even more comfortable, and cost-efficient. The logistics alone of sustaining over 80 dogs that far up north, the sleds, the supplies, maintaining tons of food-depots along the coast … it must cost them a fortune. Still Sirius is so very special. Men living over there are getting so much strength and meaning out of it all they don’t want to throw away this piece of their heritage. No matter what, they want to keep this special way of living alive. I really hope they succeed.” •Who is Sam Deltour?Sam Deltour is going to medical school and was the first Belgian (together with his good friend Dries) to finish the 1,000 mile Iditarod, aka The Last Great Race in 2008. That year he was the only one to finish with 16 dogs. Last year he finished the Iditarod for the second time after he completed the Yukon Quest in 11th position one month prior to that. “When I was twelve I saw a documentary about the Iditarod on National Geographic Channel. When I had seen all those amazing images I knew: this is what I want to do. It never let me go.”


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