Sisimiut

A view of Sisimiut

A view of Sisimiut

While planning my trip, I mostly thought of Sisimiut as the staging area for my backpacking trek, but as I should have anticipated the place has a great deal more to offer than that. At 6,000 residents, it’s Greenland’s second largest town. And due in part to the fact that its waters are home to unusual quantities of whales, it has a colorful, contentious history––something the tiny town museum documents efficiently. The museum building itself dates from 1725, a period when Dutch whalers maintained their hold on the settlement. Many of the other creaky but brightly painted colonial buildings in the Old Town date from the period of Danish rule––when John Ross’ ships would have passed by what was then called Holsteinborg.

The sled dogs west of town

The sled dogs west of town

Sisimiut was my first introduction to Greenland’s two most prominent varieties of fauna: sled dogs and mosquitos. The latter choke the summer sky in thick clouds whenever the wind dies down. Bugs and cold are the dueling nuisances here––as soon as one lets up, the other roars in to replace it. Much more appealing are the sled dogs; the entire west end of town is given over to them. Each team is staked to its own individual lot, and there are so many that the walk out of town feels a bit like strolling through an enormous open-air zoo, where wolf-like hounds pace back and forth across the hillsides, eyeing you warily. Sometimes hunters go for long runs down the dusty road, their teams following excitedly behind. Once I happened to walk past a group of dogs who immediately leapt up and began yipping and straining against their tethers while their neighbors yawned and rolled over in the dust. Puzzled, I waited a minute, and before long a tiny pick-up truck appeared on the horizon. I couldn’t even make out the truck’s color, but the dogs knew that it was their owner, and the signal that dinner was coming. Remarkably, the rest of the animals understood that it wasn’t for them, and not worth the energy expended to beg.

Sled dogs waiting to be fed

Sled dogs waiting to be fed

One of the nicest surprises in town was Misigisiaq––the best restaurant I visited in Greenland, although the competition is not fierce. They make Thai food with traditional Greenlandic ingredients, and the marriage is a great one: spicy curries of reindeer, musk ox, and halibut. It was a delicious and badly needed change of pace from the endless carousel of greasy fast food joints and supermarket self-catering on my camping stove.

Teleøen in the foreground, Sisimiut behind

Teleøen in the foreground, Sisimiut behind

Sisimiut boasts a small peninsula called Teleøen, a stark and windswept outcropping of rock that’s home to a number of intact archeological sites. The steep hill that separates the town from its harbor is enough to block the frigid mist that rolls off the water, keeping Sisimiut warm and Teleøen cold. It’s hard not to shiver out on the rocks, and then history hits you with the strength of gale-force winds. Beneath the thick grey clouds, tucked in amongst the boggy crevasses, are the foundations of  turf longhouses, untouched centuries-old graves, and the stacked-rock circles of 19th-century blubber storage houses. There aren’t really any trails––you just kind of poke around, looking––and something about the heavy fog and freezing winds makes it feel like the Saqqaq tribes and Dutch whalers slipped off into the waters, aboard umiaks and hunting ships, mere moments before you arrived.

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