GLACIER SLEDDING IN ICELAND

Glacier Sledding in IcelandWe traveled from our home in Alaska all the way to Iceland not to run sled dogs, but to ride the thrilling Icelandic horses in their native land. However, my sister Miki and I had heard about Dogsledding.is (formerly Dog Steam Tours) and couldn’t resist investigating. Even in Alaska our working dogs took the summer off, and the unique chance to go sledding in July proved too tempting to pass up.The tour started with a two-hour drive from the capital city of Reykjavik through barren, gorgeous mountain valleys and past glacier topped volcanoes to the massive Langjökull ice cap. Our anticipation grew as we paused at a mountain hut for hot chocolate and snow suits; then a flatbed vehicle carried us with a handful of other tourists up a steep slope of snow-covered ice to where three teams of Greenland huskies waited.These stocky, heavy-boned, thick-coated animals were clearly built for their job as draft animals in severe cold and wind. Although we did not meet the tour operator, a Dane named Denis Pedersen, he wrote to us later about using Greenland dogs on his patrols for the Danish army in northeast Greenland in the early 1990s. Deeply impressed, he brought four dogs to Iceland in 1996 and began offering tours in 1999.The outfit keeps 30 dogs, all born in Iceland, to make three nine-dog teams with a few spares: the only known working sled dogs in this sub-arctic island nation. Hitched in double tandem instead of the traditional Greenland fan hitch, the teams pulled Greenland-style sleds loaded with tourists and a single dog handler skijoring off the front of each sled to keep it tracking on the side hill trail that contours along the sloping glacier. The dogs moved with a slow, powerful gait, controlled by shouted commands rather than a sled brake. The only braking device consisted of a loop of rope that could hook over the pointed runner toe, sliding under the runner to act as a rough –lock. The well-trained dogs lay down on command during stops, even while watching a departing team, and the drivers kept the teams 100 or more feet apart when traveling.On our sled we encountered typical Icelandic weather: a bright, cool sun glaring off the now pack alternated with a dense fog that reduced visibility until we could see nothing but the team ahead. We admired the powerful dogs and the sturdy sleds for a minutes, and then the fog swiftly dissipated to reveal a spectacular scene of expansive snow stretching down to the glowing valley below, with volcanic mountains and the North Atlantic beyond that. During a break the guides encouraged us to greet the dogs and we found them gentle and friendly with visitors, and rarely growly with each other despite the breed’s reputation as fighters. Careful socializing undoubtedly reduced aggressive behavior. Denis told us later that while he neutered the rare trouble maker to try to reduce aggression, he prefers to keep the animals intact for breeding replacement stock. Due to the difficulty of importing dogs to this remote European island, which has strict rules to prevent disease, he has only imported one additional dog beyond the original four to inject fresh blood.“The tour area is changing a lot, we just have to follow the snow,” he told us. The 2006 summer location was shifting from Langjökull to another glacier, Mydalsjökull, while in the winter he chooses from several sites closer to Reykjavik for touring. Denis would like to offer more overnight expeditions, but this would require a more expensive, intense marketing effort. After our sled ride on Langjökull, we faced two days of traveling back to our home in bush Alaska and another 10 weeks before snowfall allowed us to go dog sledding again. The thought of driving sled dogs between glacier ice caps across the gorgeous highland tundra of Iceland on a winter tour tugs at the heart. If Denis starts offering overnight trips, the Icelandic horses may not be the only thing pulling us back to Iceland!Those flying between Europe and North America will find it easy to stop over in beautiful, modern yet wild Iceland. Denis Pedersen can be contact at Dogsledding.is Boholt, 851 Hella, Iceland. Phone 354-487-7747; cell phone 354-863-8864. www.dogsledding.is e

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