What is this Sirius?
by David Matthews, 3/30/06
What is this Sirius?
Not a lot has changed in the past 50 years in the beautiful and desolate expanses of Northeast Greenland. Yes, it is now a National Park- the largest in the world - and yes, the late spring and summer do now usher in more visitors from the outside world. Thanks largely to the versatility of the Twin Otter aircraft, and the skill of the Icelandic pilots, some of this vast area can now be visited with relative ease by groups of mountaineers, scientists and travellers. No longer the slow and tortuous approach by ship, only possible in the later months of each summer and even then a difficult business thanks to the unpredictability of the great belt of pack ice that guards the coast every year. Now it is swift and sure to fly to one of the prepared air strips or to make an un-reconnoitred snow landing on the edge of the inland ice cap. Nothing to worry about ... except summer blizzards, coastal summer fog, etc. etc.
What about the rest of the year? There are no Inuit people known to have lived north of Scoresby Sund (latitude 71º N) since 1823 when a British party met a small Inuit community at Dødemansbugen (Dead Man's Bay); the trappers and hunters too have gone long since, but there are people living there all the year round; just a very few, using boats in the more sheltered fjords during summer and dogs and sledges in the traditional way for the rest of the year. Danish people; young men living there for 2 years at a stretch away from the comforts of western life and from their homes and families. Why, and what do they do?
The answer goes back to World War II and to the cat and mouse war that was waged in Northeast Greenland in the pursuit of weather data vital for military shipping routes in the North Atlantic. That was a strange episode in the history of Greenland and has been written about in the '50's book "The Sledge Patrol". After the war, a continued presence was needed in that vast and desolate region and Denmark, criticised in the past for not 'flying the flag' sufficiently in her arctic territories, kept a military patrol there, in addition to the weather and radio stations needed by the rapidly expanding civil aviation and shipping industries post-war.
To start with, this military presence was top secret and carried out patrols up and down the coast of Northeast Greenland. By the mid 1950's, this unit had become a permanent feature and had been given the name Sirius Patrol, but it was still small - around a dozen men - and it was still secret. Not too secret, though. Many major geological exploration programmes were under way by the 1950's, putting scientific teams in the field each summer and, if there was sometimes an opportunity for a party, the veil of secrecy seemed to lift just enough to let the military and the scientists get together!
One thing to understand is that all this activity, military, scientific and social, took place on the coast and the mountainous fringes; the interior - a huge dome of more or less featureless ice and snow rising to over 10,000 feet above sea level, remained totally empty except for the occasional explorer trying to cross to the other side (or vice versa) and the mysterious domes of the Dew Line stations established by the US military during the Cold War.
When I first went to Greenland in 1971, the changes were beginning to appear. By 1974, the National Park was established, the Sirius Patrol was no longer a secret and its patrolling activities were devoted more and more to what was becoming essential; a national park policing service. So there you have it; the origins of the present-day Sirius Sledge Patrol in a nutshell.
What is remarkable is that the formula established by Sirius was so successful. Although banned by political treaty from the Antarctic, dog teams have proved so successful that they continue to the present day in Greenland. Yes, there are now GPS and satellite communications to replace the old maps and radios, and some aircraft support is available, mainly in the summer, but small teams of well trained and motivated men can still carry out their patrol duties over thousands of miles of coastline, safely and leaving behind almost no pollution. What a tribute to the dogs and the men. Together they make the perfect unit for arctic travel.
Now, for the first time in English, you can read the story of one man's life with Sirius in recent years and enjoy full-colour plates of some of the places he visited. You can also access, through the web site, the same man's subsequent work in preserving some of the legacy of the old days in Northeast Greenland, restoring many old trapper's huts and preserving artifacts and memorabilia from those days in the first half of the 20th century. Read the book and also take a good look at "Nanok". I think you'll enjoy them both.
One Thousand Days With Sirius,
The Greenland Sledge Patrol
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