“I was talking for maybe two hours to this Greenlandic hunter with a translator. There was an elderly Greenlandic woman who didn’t say much but in the end, she said to me, ‘Without the Greenlandic sled dog, there would be no Greenlanders,” photographer Ragnar Axelsson, or RAX, explains. He’s just weeks away from the release of his latest book ‘Arctic Heroes,’ an intimate 40-years-in-the-making documentation of the Greenlandic sled dog.
Lifesavers on the ice
“When you look at a dog, you look at it as a dog. A dog is a dog. But when you hear stories from the [Greenlandic] hunters, they talk about them like they are human,” he says, sitting back in his Laugavegur studio. “Those dogs saved these hunters’ lives often from bad conditions. They would take you home. They are the forgotten Arctic heroes.” He pauses, letting the title of the book sink in. “What’s remarkable about these dogs is that they took people to both poles. They tried to go on horses, it didn’t work, even bicycles. It was because of [the dogs] that people could reach the poles.”
The importance of the dogs as opposed to snowmobiles or other machinery, Ragnar emphasises, is reliability, “You have to hunt on a dogsled because if something happens you are days away walking, but the dogs never fail,” he says. The subsequent relationship between dog and owner, therefore, is a serious one.
While Ragnar spent significant time documenting the dogs on their hunts, he also took great care to present a more personal side of the animal. “I tried to capture moments, expressions,” he relays, pointing to a picture of two young puppies in the snow. “I was following these two, watching them, and the older brother was teaching his younger brother.”
He turns to a later page, proudly showing off a shot of a mother dog cuddling her young pups. “The mother’s love for her puppies,” he says fondly. “I tried to capture what it would be if the world was just full of dogs. I tried to get into their lives.”
Ole & Qerndu
Ragnar also spent time hearing hunters stories about their personal relationships with their dogs—a select few which were put in the book. One particular story that touched him was that of his friend Ole and dog Qerndu.
Ole was reluctant to tell Qerndu’s story to Ragnar—in fact, he said it would go with him to the grave. But Ole later decided to open up to the photographer, first giving him a warning. “He took me to the ice and taught me how to think on the ice,” Ragnar remembers. “If you feel bad or you’re angry or frightened, it’s not going to be a good trip. But if you have a positive mind, it will be the greatest trip of your life.”
Ole had been given Qerndu when the dog was but a pup. They were best friends before Qerndu joined Ole’s sled. One day, Qerndu crossed the sled reins of an old man as they were inspecting polar bear tracks. Ole warned the dog, “A polar bear will get you if you behave like that.” Immediately, the old man told him to watch his tongue, as Mother Nature listens to you on the ice.
Later, while hunting a polar bear, Qerndu and a few others gave chase to the beast, attacking him as they had been trained to do. The polar bear fought back fiercely, throwing Qerndu off and breaking his spine as Ole shot the bear.
“Qerndu called Ole and they looked into each other’s eyes and he licked him and closed his eyes,” Ragnar relays. “And the old man said, ‘Do you remember what I told you a month ago? Never talk like this.’”
The next issue
While Ragnar seeks to shine a light on an oft-ignored pillar of Greenlandic history, he emphasises that this is but a small piece of a bigger puzzle about the Arctic.
“I think after this COVID thing is over, life in the Arctic will be the biggest issue on the planet,” Ragnar says. “Whether that’s because of us or a natural thing—I’ll let scientists tell us that—but I’m just documenting the lives that will change because of the melting of glaciers and the melting of sea ice.”
And these changes are drastic, Ragnar relays, referring back to a story he tells in the beginning of the book, that of a text message sent to him by his friend. “He said, ‘Hi, there is no ice. What’s already frozen is very thin. There’s no way to go to the other village. We have to go over the mountains. No hunt for a long time. I miss the old Greenland,’” Ragnar relays. “They are sensing it more than anybody else and they did many years ahead of everybody because they walk on the melting glaciers that we read about.”
In fact, Ragnar asked another one of his friends what they would wish for if they had one wish. “He said he’d ask for 25 years back in time to when the ice was safe,” Ragnar says softly.
The chance to continue
“You see so many differences,” Ragnar concludes, turning his thoughts to the declining sled dog population “There were 30,000 dogs just 10 years ago but now there are 11,000-12,000.”
“But the people living there, they have to have a chance to continue living there. And I think I’m telling the world, just in pictures, that this life is changing fast or passing away and the young generation of Greenland might not have as many hunters as they used to,” he explains sadly. “It’s a hard life but it’s a beautiful life and it’s getting worse for them. You show a picture in that puzzle and put more pieces in by making books and [documenting.]” He pauses. “That’s what I want to do.”
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