The Sirius Sledge Patrol is part of the Danish military, created in 1950.
I stood in the North East Greenland National Park. A shrill wind ripped through me, chilling me. Behind an old trapper’s hut stood a pristine and sturdy storage locker. A pale yellow sign with a crown stated Danish Defence Property. What was the Danish military doing in a barren stretch of land like this?
And when I say “stretch”; that is quite an understatement. Greenland itself is the largest island in the world. This national park founded in 1974 is simply vast. Many superlatives can be used to describe this land. The park is two and half times the size of Germany and it is the largest national park in the world. In complete contrast to the expansiveness is the total lack of residents. Greenland in its entirety is a sparse 56,000 residents. Even more exaggerated, is the park which numbers less than 30 people.
Greenland historically has the played the role of failed Viking settlement (Erik the Red), home of native Intuits, and hunting ground of intrepid European trappers. During WW II, Greenland’s visibility increased significantly. The first reason was to prevent the Germans from establishing a forward operating base where they could attack the US. Second was to control the oracle of European weather. The weather in Greenland provided a direct window to Western Europe’s weather 24 hours in advance. This would provide a distinct advantage to the Allies.
While Greenland is a self-governed region it is under the sovereignty of Denmark. And following the end of WW II at the height of the cold war, the Sirius Sledge Patrol, which is part of the Danish military, was created in 1950. The Sirius Sledge Patrol (SSP) maintains a presence with continual patrolling in the North East Greenland National Park. Its original goal was as a deterrence of the Soviets and the second to demonstrate Danish sovereignty through the SSP’s presence.
I was cruising the east coast of Greenland and on my ship was Expedition Guide/Lecturer Bjarki Friis. Bjarki was a former SSP patrolman. He is part of an elite fraternity. Only 320 patrolmen have served in the SSP since its inception. It may be considered that Bjarki was predestined to be a SSP patrolman. He is a second generation SSP patrolman and even spent three and half years living on Greenland as a toddler. Maybe it is in his blood. And finally, he even owes his existence to the unique Sirius Sledge Patrol vacation policy which I will explain later.
Bjarki had quite a circuitous route to joining the SSP. And if it wasn’t for a new medical technique he would never have been considered. As long as he can remember, Bjarki had been enthralled by his father and his friends with tales of polar bears, spectacular glaciers, and the peaceful tranquility of North East Greenland. SSP patrolmen need to have 20/20 vision and unfortunately for Bjarki, he was nearsighted. Despite being regaled with story after story regarding the Sirius Sledge Patrol he realized he could never follow his father’s footsteps.
This half Danish, half Icelandic man grew up in Norway (and Greenland for a couple of years) and after high school spent time as a carpenter. In his late 20s he joined the Danish military and also corrected his vision with Lasik surgery. Thoughts of the SSP now were reignited. As he rose to the rank of sergeant (another SSP requirement) he applied to become a member of the Sirius Sledge Patrol. But the Danish military was not going to make this a streamlined process. The application process included multiple meetings, assessments, and interviews. An applicant would meet with doctors, dentists, current patrolmen, and SSP commanding officers. One of the critical assessments would take place with a psychologist. Imagine not seeing anyone but your partner for a couple of months in sometimes complete darkness. You would need to ensure your patrolmen were of sound mind.
He applied twice, once in 1999 and once in 2000. In 1999, he was one of eight men selected to attend the six month course but was not one of the six who were sent to Greenland. In 2000, he was not selected to attend the six month course. He applied for a final time in 2004 and was finally accepted to join the SSP. He would now become a second generation Sirius patrolman. When Bjarki arrived for patrol in Greenland he was 31 years old. The unofficial standard for the SSP is that men must be between the age of 20 and 30.
As I learned of the duties and responsibilities of the SSP, I equated it to a Special Forces soldier. Both required mental toughness, extreme resourcefulness & adaptability, and physical endurance. While they shared these attributes, Sirius Sledge Patrol training excluded virtually all physical training. The philosophy of the SSP was the patrolmen would quickly build up their strength and endurance with on the job training. Being in some of the world’s most isolated and severe environments, you were literally dependent on yourself and your partner for survival. Sirius Sledge Patrol School lasted six months with a four week winter survival course that took place in Greenland. Other parts of training included a two week shooting class, a communication class, and a technical class for things like welding and generator repair. And finally, there was a medical course. Imagine being on the northern tip of Greenland. There is 24 hour darkness, it is -40 Celsius degrees, and the wind is howling. You are literally inaccessible. You are alone. Your partner breaks his leg or his tooth is infected. It is up to you to provide medical care. During training, Bjarki’s classmate had to shoot Novocain into a fellow student’s gum and then rip out one of his wisdom teeth (with the supervision of a dentist).
After training, you are typically sent to the Daneborg or the Ella base in eastern Greenland in July. The Sirius patrolmen now have approximately 4 months to prepare for their patrols. The first two months are focused on the supply chain. The Sirius Patrol maintains around 60-70 depots throughout the North East Greenland National Park. During these two months, the patrol supplies, repairs, and builds new depots.
September and October finds Bjarki as one of 12 members of the Sirius Sledge Patrol. They will be divided into 6 teams. Five teams will be on patrol and one will remain at the base in Daneborg as a lifeline to Denmark. This time is used for fine-tuning. There are test runs where the two-man team familiarizes themselves with their dogs (13-14 dog teams). And then there is that OK Cupid / Tinder moment. This is when Bjarki and the other rookies are matched with their partner, a man who had spent the previous year on patrol. The last couple of weeks are a sounding board where you meet your potential partners for the upcoming year of patrols.
When November sets in and the days grow shorter and shorter, Bjarki and his partner Andreas head into the cold wild. They will sled with their dogs for close to two months covering around 1400 km. At times, they will sled in total darkness as the sun never rises in this part of the world. Temperatures plummet as low as -50 Celsius (NOT incorporating the wind chill factor). Bjarki and his partner quickly fall into a daily routine. Six days of sledding with one day of rest. You plan your route to end the 7th day near a supply depot and hopefully a hut to sleep in.
The other six days you sled between 4-8 hours to cover approximately 35 km. The days starts at 8 am where you and your partner eat breakfast and then pack the two-man tent. You tend to the dogs, feed them, and prepare them for the day. Sometimes the days hold unlimited promise while others threaten with mortal threats. On a good day the sun will shine, the sledding will be quick, and the panoramas will be heaven sent. Other days will include blinding snow that will obscure you from viewing your own hands and winds that will whip across the ice flows at 100 kph.
After Bjarki’s day of sledding they will set camp. One patrolman will set the tent while the other feeds and checks on the dogs. Bjarki tucks himself into his compact tent. A stove for cooking and heating sits between him and his partner. They eat a monotonous diet of canned goods with neither fresh fruits nor vegetable during their entire time on patrol. After dinner they will write their journals and radio the command center at Daneborg and chat with the other teams. Prior to drifting off to sleep they will read a book that they picked up at the library. The library is better known as the supply depots where other patrolman discard books that they have read. The stove is switched off at night. The cold seeps into the tent.
As Christmas nears, the five patrol teams descend on Daneborg. Bjarki will now get the opportunity to recharge his battery over his holiday with the other 11 members of the Sirius Patrol. Christmas will be celebrated with a visit from Santa, letters from home, and gluttonous feast. Patrolmen are not allowed to be married and encouraged not to have girlfriends.
After a month’s respite, it is time to start the next patrol. Bjarki steadies himself for a four and a half month patrol that will cover 3500 km. The coldest part of the Greenland winter is ahead of him. Despite the raging cold Greenland has its share of wildlife. Bjarki over the months will encounter seals, walruses, artic wolves, rabbits, polar bears, and musk oxes. Musk oxes are a potentially aggressive, ugly and dark haired goat like creature. Bjarki and his partner will also have several run-ins with polar bears. Despite what the marketers at Coca-Cola want you to think, polar bears are not cute, lovable animals that like to drink Coke and wear sunglasses. One incident saw Bjarki shoot over 10 flares into a polar bear, as Andreas steadied a rifle if the polar bear did not retreat. The polar bear eventually reverses course. The wildlife is protected in the park and the patrolmen will kill only in self-defense. While the patrolmen are sleeping in their tent, the dogs act as a trip wire for any potential animal threats.
Hygiene is a challenge. There are no showers at 80 degree north latitude. Daily maintenance consists of washing your hands with a wet-nap and a twice a day brushing of the teeth. The patrolmen are able to don a clean pair of socks on a weekly basis (and underwear even more infrequently) when they arrive at a supply depot. They will go as long as two months without a shower and a clean set of clothes.
As June nears, Bjarki races to Daneborg. It is time to grind the accumulated dirt and grime from his body. Bjarki has lost close to 15 kilograms during his four month patrol. He looks forward to eating fresh food at the base and catching up with his friends from the other patrols.
The team in July gets to go to Reykjavík, Iceland for a one week respite that will include a visit to the dentist and multiple visits to pubs, great restaurants, and plenty of hot showers. Bjarki commented on his slight culture shock going from the wilderness to the cosmopolitan capital. His smell and hearing tingle with the “smell of perfume, and the clicking of high heels”. Two sensory experiences that are void in the expense of Greenland. The week ends suddenly, and Bjarki with quiet resolve leaves the comforts of civilization for his second year in Greenland.
Bjarki upon completing his service with the Sirius Sled Patrol returned to Reykjavík to complete a Masters in Geology. With his degree he moved to Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen, another relatively inhospitable environment for the average person. There he works in the mining industry and occasionally joins cruise ships in the Arctic region as an Expedition Guide/Lecturer. Bjarki is also married to an Icelandic woman just like his Dad. But unlike his father he did not meet his wife during his one week respite in Iceland. The apple does not fall far from the tree. A second generation Sirius patrolman with an Icelandic wife.