The story of Green Dog began way before we arrived on Svalbard ten years ago.
It all started with a call of the Arctic: it sent me to East Greenland as a 15-year-old teenager and at the same time, Martin started his dog sledding career on Svalbard, which then led him to become a member of the Sirius Dog Sled Patrol in Greenland. When we met, the internet was an unknown concept in that part of the world, where the main means of transport was with sled dogs and where 75% of the inhabitants in our community, made a living from hunting. We spend 14 amazing years in the Ittoqqortoormiit region, making a living from tourism and hunting, alongside with the local people. Living in these extreme conditions, without any safety net or infrastructure, you really learn to rely on man’s best friend, and I have the biggest respect for the Greenland dog…and for the Greenlandic people. Greenland gave us many fantastic experiences and friendships – and our years there really taught us how to appreciate little things, not to take anything for granted – and that nature rules in the end. Important lessons to learn!
Let’s fast forward to 2011, when a phone call from Svalbard planted an idea in our heads, leading us to move 8 degrees further North, with our two children, Storm & Freja. Moving from East Greenland to Svalbard may sound easy – but it wasn’t! First of all, the logistical part: in East Greenland, we had two supply ships… per year! And the freight to Svalbard was nothing a common family from Greenland could even consider affording. Therefore, we sadly had to leave our dogs behind – but also, most of our furniture, since nothing could fit into the 3 wooden crates we could afford. I arrived in the middle of the dark season on Svalbard with a 2- and 3-year-old, to start my new life in a cabin that hadn’t housed a family for 10 years, without running water or sewer system. And I didn’t have any furniture, since – surprise! – Martin had left all but hunting trophies behind in Greenland when doing the final packing. However, Martin managed to fix running water in the cabin and when I’d finished creating some sort of useful kitchen after 2 weeks, I also got a fridge!
The dark season in Svalbard is PITCH black and arriving at that time of year is nothing I recommend, if you plan on living in a valley, 12 kilometres outside of Longyearbyen, with no lights or signs but occasionally a chance of passing dog sledges and a polar bear or two. Living in Ittoqqortoormiit, which practically didn’t have any roads and where – with its 450 inhabitants- cell phones weren’t necessary, I was a bit of a hillbilly, who wasn’t used to dining out or going to the movies – and who never had had a cell phone and didn’t have a driver’s license. However, on my way further North I made a pitstop in Denmark and got a driver’s license. Meaning that I – as holder of a 2-week-old driver’s license- had to start my driving career in the Svalbard dark season…in an unusually icy winter (and we live on top of a hill! )..in a huge land rover, in which I could hardly reach the pedals, since I’m not very tall. Luckily, Svalbard doesn’t have more than 40 kilometres of road, so it’s difficult to get lost. And I finally got myself a cell phone at the age of 33!
I only knew one person, when moving to Svalbard. But when we celebrated Freja’s 4th birthday 3 weeks after arrival, more than 50 guests showed up! That is something being very typical for Svalbard – most people are incredibly welcoming and helpful, and you are never in need of babysitters or helping hands.
Due to long waiting lists in the kindergarten, Storm and Freja had to stay home for the first 4 months of their Svalbard life – and at the same time, Martin and I had to start up the company, maintain the kennel and the dogs. We had all sorts of teething challenges: booking errors meaning, that I had to run from the counter in the coop store with 30 seconds notice to pick up waiting guests in Nybyen (who were surprisingly quiet when realizing that I just barely could reach the car brake!), our road was disappearing in meters of snow all the time and I often had to carry children and groceries home through meters of snow, since the car got stuck. Our cabin turned out to not being very well insulated, so the first winter we had to wear 3 layers of clothing when the wind came from East (which it unfortunately did most of the time!) and the power disappeared all the time, meaning that I had to change diapers, wearing a headlamp and boil water on a primus.
…But then the sun returned! And I literally discovered that I had neighbours – or at least I could finally see other cabins, scattered in Adventdalen. And the blue February light was SO beautiful and made it all look like a fairytale. And Storm and Freja could finally start in kindergarten! Being the only family with children, living outside of Longyearbyen also means that we have to take care of all transport ourselves. There’s no busses or other means of public transport and due to changing weather and the risk of polar bear, our children cannot bike to town. We also have to deliver all trash to town ourselves and we have to pick up water in plastic tanks and drive it to the kennel. That along with taking care of our dogs, means that we have a lot of extra work doing practical stuff and that there’s never a dull moment – there’s always things that needs to be done. Running a dog kennel is not a job – it’s a lifestyle, meaning that you have to be flexible at all times and that you are never really off. During the past ten years, our phone has been switched off once – that was during the birth of our fourth child, Styrk. During the quick birth of our third child, Saga, Martin forgot to switch off the phone. However, he actually answered it – but the bank director quickly found out that the timing wasn’t right!
Now let’s fast forward to 2021! I simply can’t believe where the years have gone, but looking at photos from the first years, I realize that we’ve been pretty busy. I am incredibly proud of what we have turned our kennel into. There’s so much life and activity going on all the time, and it really is an amazing place for our children to grow up. Today we have put up some new buildings and all the cabins have been polished up. We have built a new dog yard and extended it and we have raised the road, to avoid the worst snow fans.The heart of our company and the reason for living in the valley are our Green Dogs. They – along with our 4 children – are our greatest pride. The dogs are a happy bunch and extremely social, which is the result of breeding Greenland dogs with huskies, and they have so much love to give. Ever since we started our company, we have been giving retired dogs up for adoption and along with the outdoor kindergarten, who regularly visits our kennel, these are two great concepts, that we are really happy for having started! It is fantastic to see how the children thrive along the dogs and how much learning they gain from being in nature. And it is amazing to see how our dogs adapt to indoor life and become family dogs, after their working career has ended. We kept in touch with their new families who often send us photos and videos. We have dogs all over the world – Denmark, Norway, France, Sweden – and even Australia. In Longyearbyen, we have around 20 retired dogs and they still recognize us and our cars, when passing by. It is so nice to see how the dogs are bringing people together and how much joy they give.
During the years, we’ve met many interesting people and had amazing experiences, from living in nature. Watching how the light changes during the seasons, from midnight sun to polar night and then, the northern lights! Having groups of reindeer living literally under your house. Ptarmigan on the roof. And a polar bear has even passed by once. We’ve met Hollywood actors and we took a Queen dog sledding. We had coffee with the Nato Secretary General in the ice cave and we’ve been on an evening trip to the North Pole. I can’t wait to see what the next ten years will bring, I feel that we only just got started!
But then Corona crisis happened. Not just for us, but for everybody. It literally came overnight in the high season and Svalbard went from being full of activity and happy people, to quiet as in really q-u-i-e-t.
During a crisis, you really get to see the best and also the worst, in people. And once again, the Svalbard society stood up and helped each other. I can honestly say that our dogs haven’t suffered a tiny bit, during the pandemic. A few may have gotten a bit fatter, but I guess it’s not just dogs who added a few inches during Corona. We had a bunch of volunteers, who came out daily to pet, run and spend time with our dogs. Our own guides did an amazing job, taking care of the dogs and also helping us out with our children. Restaurants and stores gave us food for both dogs and employees and many local people supported us by booking dog tours. And luckily Covid never reached Svalbard.
Now we can finally start seeing an end to Covid and we are all pleased to see visitors on Svalbard again. We really cannot wait for winter to arrive, so we can start dog sledding on snow again!
But just before winter arrives, we’ll celebrate our 10th anniversary on Svalbard, by inviting everybody to visit our kennel on October the 3rd from 13-17. Since it’s a birthday, we’ll offer coffee & cake (and maybe some puppy hugging) to everybody – local people, as well as visitors.
We hope to see as many of you as possible – and cheers to 10 more years!
Karina, co-founder of Green Dog Svalbard.