Published: April 2009
By Nathan Lump
Have you driven a fjord lately?A chilly trek around this huge island that's more than three-quarters ice uncovers a different kind of adventure: just staying warm.
At the far end of Sermermiut valley, just outside the town of Ilulissat on Greenland's west coast, the wide, gently sloping land suddenly gives way and plummets to the sea. As you walk toward the edge, your eyes can't help but focus on the spot where the valley floor and walls disappear, framing Greenland's greatest tourist attraction—the Ilulissat ice fjord, a serpentine inlet that runs 31 miles inland to Sermeq Kujalleq, the world's most productive glacier.
At any given moment, the fjord is crammed with icebergs making their way to open water, each a blindingly white testament to what nature can do with snow. One looks rather like a giant chunk of Gorgonzola cheese, its high, jagged peaks and sides riven with blue-tinged cracks. The next has a perfectly flat top on which upright boulders of snow form a kind of frozen Stonehenge. Yet another recalls the Sahara, its undulating curves and powdery texture a perfect evocation of windswept sand. Farther off is a berg spurting massive quantities of water from an icy drainpipe in its side.
The approach to the fjord through Sermermiut is one of the world's greatest walks, so dramatic that you can easily understand why Greenland is bidding to have the ice fjord named a United Nations World Heritage Site. To qualify, the location must meet several criteria, including the construction of a visitors' center to handle the sure increase in tourist traffic. And where do the Greenlanders propose building it?At the edge of Sermermiut, smack in the middle of the view.
IT'S REALLY NOT SUCH AN UNTHINKABLE DECISION IN GREENLAND. After all, 80 percent of the world's largest island is composed of nothing but ice, and for the scant 55,000 people who live here, the various forms of water below the freezing point are simply an everyday fact of life. At one point during my visit, when a group of Greenlanders in a bar ask what impresses me most about their country, I say, quite seriously, "The ice." Silence. Exchanged glances. Then laughter like I've never heard.
If Greenlanders fail to appreciate the novelty of their ice for those who live far below the Arctic Circle, they certainly understand its significance. Ice does more than dominate the landscape; it's in all the stories Greenlanders tell, which means that to travel in Greenland is to receive your Ph.D. in ice.
Walking through Sermermiut, my affable guide, Finn, is chatting about winter, which is just coming to an end in April. Each year, Finn says, the seas become so frozen that boats can no longer deliver supplies from Europe or North America. In the unofficial winter olympics of Greenland, the main event is stocking up, anticipating which items will disappear from stores before the first boats of spring arrive and making sure you've got them, presumably so your neighbors have to beg. (Perhaps this is the reason behind the famous Greenlandic sense of community?You never know who'll end up with the last remaining can of coffee, so you'd better be nice to everybody.) And what did they run out of this year?I ask. "Toilet paper. And beer," he says. Which was more difficult to go without?"Beer," he says, laughing. "Definitely."
At the end of the valley, just below the bluff, is a small beach and a bay of shallow water that merges with the fjord a few hundred feet out. Still a freshman in the school of ice, I comment on the spot's peacefulness, suggesting that we clamber down to get closer to the water. And so I get my first big lesson in ice: this spot, Finn says, is actually extremely dangerous. When an iceberg cracks and its shards tumble into the water, the waves produced are like tsunamis. Years ago a family drowned here, when a berg suddenly shattered. (It tells you something about Greenlanders that no fewer than six people relate this story when I remark on the beauty of icebergs.)
Finn and I cross to the fjord's edge, then stop to admire the view and have a cup of coffee from a thermos he has brought along. Despite the danger, fishermen spend a great deal of time in the shadow of the icebergs, he notes, because fish congregate around and beneath them. They learn—and here comes my second lesson—how to read icebergs so they can avoid being squashed. They know that: 1) Icebergs with the most veins are the most likely to crack if their bottoms scrape the ocean floor; 2) About 85 percent of an iceberg is submerged, so the tallest are the deepest, and the likeliest to upend in shallow water; and 3) Icebergs make a thunderous pop when they start to rupture.
Throughout the afternoon Finn continues to give me lessons, many of which, frankly, test the limits of my knowledge of chemistry and physics. He explains what causes that popping sound (basically, the pressure on the berg as it hits the earth below) and what accounts for the blue tinge along an iceberg's edges (something to do with the way ice absorbs light), as well as the vectors of cracking ice, the dynamics of an iceberg when a current catches it, and the patterns of the invisible waves that sweep through a fjord. It's as if I've stepped into Smilla's Sense of Snow, which, for those of you who didn't read Danish writer Peter Høeg's best-seller, concerns a Greenlander with an uncanny ability to interpret ice and snow. (The movie version was filmed in Ilulissat, so if you're one of the 15 people who saw it, the landscape will look familiar.) I'm thinking that Smilla's got nothing on Finn. "Do all Greenlanders know so much about this stuff?" I ask.
Such a stupid question doesn't deserve a direct answer, I surmise, since this is how Finn responds: "When I was a kid, we'd go out on the fjord and jump from iceberg to iceberg, very fast, to get to the big one we wanted to play on. Sometimes we'd go too far, and it would take a long time to get back. But we always made it."
"Wasn't that dangerous?"
"Maybe. But you learn how to do it—which icebergs can hold your weight and which ones can't. Besides, you're going so fast. I've never heard of anyone falling in." But if you did, he adds, you wouldn't last long; the water in the ice fjord is generally about 35 degrees Fahrenheit.
WHEN YOU MANAGE TO COEXIST WITH ICE AND DEAL WITH ALL ITS ATTENDANT HARDSHIPS, I guess you earn the right to be proud, which is how Greenlanders are often described. Greenland's modern-day inhabitants are largely descendants of the Thule people, Inuits ("Eskimos," if you're not PC) who, historians believe, migrated from nearby Canada in the 10th century. They invented the kayak, dogsled, and harpoon—and swiftly and irrevocably supplanted other groups on the island.
They fared better than the Norse, who arrived at about the same time but lasted just a few hundred years, leaving behind only a handful of archaeological remains and the island's name. The Icelandic sagas tell us that Erik the Red sailed to Greenland, founded a settlement, and returned to Iceland with civilization's first great marketing scheme: he called the land he had discovered Greenland because he thought the name would attract settlers. The idea worked reasonably well, but ultimately the Norse couldn't cut it. By the 1500's they had disappeared—what happened to them remains a mystery.
While the Thule people thrived, they weren't exempt from European rule. The fact that colonization came from tiny, faraway Denmark remains something of a geographical joke. The Danes annexed Greenland in the early 17th century because of its importance to Denmark's whaling interests. But it wasn't until 1953 that Greenlanders became full Danish citizens. A generation later, in 1979, they were also granted home rule, which means Greenland handles its domestic affairs while Denmark oversees international matters such as foreign relations and defense. Most Greenlanders today speak both Greenlandic and Danish (English proficiency is a rarity).
The Danish influence is evident in Ilulissat, a colorful collection of buildings on the cliffs of Disko Bay that, from a distance, has the look of a Scandinavian village. At the harbor, where many of the town's 4,600 residents work, I learn that nothing goes to waste. After catches of halibut are filleted, the bones and scraps are ground to make food for the town's 6,000 dogs, many of which are used for hunting and transport in winter.
At the Knud Rasmussen House, a three-story red building with all the requisite exhibits of small-town museums (think dioramas and stuffed birds), my primer on Thule culture ends up being a lesson in Greenlandic resourcefulness. There are beautiful (and very sensible) traditional costumes made of seal fur, whose beadwork indicates marital status; carved (and very sensible) soapstone lamps that burn seal blubber for light, heat, and cooking; and the ulu, a versatile (and very sensible) tool employed in skinning seals, making clothes, and cutting food. Then there are special rooms devoted to local heroes, including Ilulissat's most famous native son, Knud Rasmussen, an explorer who mapped northern Greenland and collected lore about the Inuit people.
Finn's favorite room charts the tragic tale of Jørgen Brønlund, a Greenlander who in 1907 accompanied Rasmussen on the first Thule expedition as an interpreter, guide, and dogsled driver. One purpose of this expedition was to find the land that Robert Peary claimed he had discovered en route to the North Pole. (As it turned out, Peary had lied.) On the return journey, Brønlund and two Danes became separated from their party and lost. Brønlund, the last to die, built his own grave to protect his body, the map they had made, and the data they had collected. His final diary entry is the only one written in Danish, presumably for the Danish explorers he thought would find him: ". . . arrived here in waning moonlight and could go no further due to frostbitten feet and darkness." Brønlund's courage (and, no doubt, his ability to stick it out longer than his Danish companions) is a point of great national pride.
THE SPIRIT OF THESE GREAT ARCTIC EXPLORATIONS STILL DRAWS PEOPLE TO GREENLAND and makes it a significant adventure travel destination. During my visit, the island was abuzz with reports about the Crown Prince of Denmark's dogsled expedition in northern Greenland to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Sirius Patrol, which "maintains sovereignty" for Denmark in the north. (Who, exactly, would want to conquer north Greenland is anybody's guess.) Prince Frederik is young, handsome, and trained as a diver in Denmark's elite navy Frogman Corps. He's a big deal in both Denmark and Greenland, a shining example of the monarchy's vitality. Although there was some grumbling about there not being any Greenlanders selected to accompany his party, the expedition was front-page news.
So, not to be outdone by some European prince, I threw myself into the kind of adventure that Greenland has to offer the likes of me. At great expense, I helicoptered over to Disko Island to go dogsledding. (It's the only place you can find good snow once winter is over.) The Greenlandic husky is genetically closer to the wolf than any other dog, and they're definitely fierce-looking. But they give a thrilling ride across Disko's vast white plateau surrounded by mountains, icebergs, and the bay. And all you have to do is sit and enjoy the view while your driver does the work. This is a good thing, since the drivers direct the dogs by using incomprehensible commands that sound, variously, like !Kung clicks and Apache war cries from old westerns.
I took a helicopter ride to the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier, which spawns the icebergs that drift down the ice fjord. Getting up close and personal with a 260-foot wall of ice—keeping in mind that, however unlikely, it could collapse at any moment—is rather exciting and provides yet another opportunity to learn about ice. (For example: Sermeq Kujalleq produces enough ice in one day to provide all the freshwater New York City needs for a year. It also moves 92 feet a day, or six miles a year. Go ahead, ask me anything.)
On the way back, we swooped in and out of the icebergs' arches and crevices. And we flew low to see the hundreds of seals sunning themselves on the ice. "Seal hunting," my pilot joked, in what I'm sure was a backhanded reference to my virility with respect to the prince, who at that very moment was hunting polar bears in the north.
I also hopped on a fishing boat for a tour of the fjord, yet another chance to observe the icebergs' raw power and intricate shapes. This was in fact a challenging exercise in warmth management, since the temperature drops significantly when you get close to these oversize ice cubes, and I missed the fetching (and very sensible) spotted sealskin outfit that had been thoughtfully provided on my dogsledding excursion.
Then there's the adventure of eating. Although you can get plenty of tame Continental dishes at the fine Hotel Arctic, where I stayed in Ilulissat, there are also many local delicacies available in town, each and every one of which I sampled in the line of duty. In descending order of preference, omitting the more mundane selections like shrimp: caribou (a little like gamy beef, similar to venison), musk ox (gamier still), whale (the texture and flavor of beef crossed with the fishiness of salmon), seal (a little like whale, only fishier), dried halibut (tough, stringy, oily, salty, fishy), dried whale (even tougher and fishier, resembling a tar chip), and dried seal (see dried whale, and add a dreadful fishy aftertaste). Intrigued?You can have it all at the Hotel Hvide Falk's Greenlandic buffet.
Last but not least, nightlife. Rowdy, noisy, chokingly smoky, and not exactly thoughtfully decorated, the bars in Ilulissat have a frontier feel to them. Drinking is really the only thing to do at night, and everyone is exceedingly friendly, if often also exceedingly drunk. Within moments of my arrival at the Naleraq, I'm sitting with the owners, having an ur-Greenland conversation about the merits of Tuborg versus Carlsberg beer (which taste identical to me and are, in fact, made by the same company, although a fierce rivalry exists between their respective devotees). Not long thereafter, someone buys me a shot of a syrupy, anise-flavored liqueur—"It's Greenland!" a woman says—and suddenly I'm on my feet, dancing the Greenlandic polka. I'd like to see the Crown Prince do that.
THIS KIND OF ADVENTURE TRAVEL IS MORE POPULAR THAN EVER (except maybe the polka), particularly since it doesn't require physical prowess or specialized skills. Ditto traveling to far-flung, unspoiled places, the ones you never thought you'd visit—and that none of your friends have been to either. In these respects, Greenland is keenly aware of its newfound appeal. If you haven't heard of the National Tourist Board's ambitious new marketing campaign, perhaps that's because it's aimed primarily at Danes. At the same time, all kinds of ventures are being launched: an ice golf course, an ice hotel, cruises to the far north, sports like shark fishing.
As with all emerging destinations, particularly those trading on beauty, there is serious concern among conservationists about how wisely development will be managed—hence the question of that visitors' center for the Ilulissat ice fjord. There have already been casualties elsewhere. One day I took a boat tour to Rodebay, a pretty collection of clapboard houses north of Ilulissat. The town, which once was home to 90 people, now has a population of 30, and my young Danish guide hinted that tourism was to blame. Residents moved away after an outsider built a youth hostel and restaurant in the village.
Yet the general tenor of travel in Greenland is freewheeling. You're welcome to walk where you want (treading on delicate lichen and Arctic plants), poke around where you want (including archaeological sites and ancient burial grounds), land helicopters where you want, and build hotels where you want. Greenlanders have an expansive view of their homeland and aren't eager to fence you in, which, of course, is part of the island's appeal. And with just tens of thousands of tourists each year, this approach hasn't caused many problems. But what about when hundreds of thousands come?
Greenland's geographic isolation limits the pace of its development, and those involved in tourism do seem genuinely concerned. Still, I'm here to tell you: See it now.
On my last day in Ilulissat, I went back to Sermermiut, this time alone, to take a final look at the ice fjord. It was a perfect Greenlandic day: cloudless, sunny, the air utterly clear and crisp, so cold it was almost painful to breathe. Suddenly, I heard a pop and then, immediately, I saw it before me—a tall iceberg, lined with baby blue cracks, splintering into bits and sending clouds of powdery snow into the air. I'd been waiting for days to see this, taking repeated trips to fast-calving glaciers in hopes of witnessing the display. How kind of Mother Nature to comply with my wishes at the last possible minute.
And how lucky for me, I thought. If there had been a visitors' center at the end of the valley, I wouldn't have seen a thing.
THE FACTS: GREENLAND
It's a classic case of supply and demand: airline and hotel capacity are limited because so few people visit Greenland each year. It's imperative that you book well in advance, particularly if you plan to visit Ilulissat; the main tourist town is very popular for Danish business meetings.
Prospective dogsledders should visit in March or April, while those interested in warmer weather (high fifties, low sixties) will want to wait until summer. The midnight sun is visible in Ilulissat from late May to late June.
Keep in mind that swarms of ravenous mosquitoes terrorize Greenland from late June to early August. Although you can buy mosquito-netted clothing on the island, be sure to bring your own repellent, since the more effective deet-based varieties aren't for sale there.
Getting to Greenland is something of a chore, and few travel agents can guide you through the process. First Air has a weekly flight from Ottawa, Canada, to Kangerlussuaq, the main hub in Greenland. Last year, Icelandair had a few flights each week from Reykjavík in the spring and summer only; schedules may change in 2001. The most convenient way to go is through Copenhagen on SAS, which has three weekly flights to Kangerlussuaq. Whichever way you choose, you're looking at an overnight en route. Because there are no roads between towns, all travel within Greenland is accomplished most efficiently via Greenlandair turboprop and helicopter flights.
Hotel Arctic Ilulissat; 299/944-153, fax 299/943-924; doubles from $130, igloos from $177, both including breakfast. Ilulissat's best and most attractive hotel is on the outskirts of town, overlooking Disko Bay. Try to book one of the five freestanding, space-age metal igloos, which have the best views; rooms in general are comfortable but not posh. The restaurant is probably the best on the island, serving refined takes on Greenlandic and Danish dishes. Upstairs is Ilulissat's most relaxed bar.
Hotel Hvide Falk Ilulissat; 299/943-343, fax 299/943-508; doubles from $125. A bit simpler than the Hotel Arctic, the Hvide Falk is in the town center and has picture-perfect bay views, especially from its dining room.
RESTAURANTS AND BARS
You'll want to eat most of your meals in hotels, but there are a couple of acceptable options in town, worth trying if only to mix with the locals.
Café Iluliaq Ilulissat; 299/942-242; lunch for two $12. A cute, sunny storefront café in the heart of town for sandwiches, burgers, and pasta. Connected to Murphy's, an Irish-themed pub that's one of Ilulissat's most popular bars.
Hotel Naleraq Ilulissat; 299/944-040; dinner for two $44. Although the Naleraq has rooms and a restaurant, come for the scene at night, when there's live music, dancing, and a great deal of good-natured carousing.
THINGS TO DO
Aside from a couple of museums and shops in Ilulissat (see below), most of Greenland's attractions are natural; to enjoy them you'll need to make arrangements for guides, hiking, dogsledding, helicopter trips, and the like through one of the town's tourist agencies. I recommend Ilulissat Tourist Service (299/944-322; email@example.com), which is exceedingly helpful, professional, and friendly. ITS also operates a store with a fine selection of Greenlandic arts and crafts. Keep in mind that some of the most exciting souvenirs—sealskin coats and bags, jewelry of Narwhal tusks and walrus ivory—are illegal to bring to the United States.
Knud Rasmussen House Ilulissat; 299/943-643. Note that the display text at the town museum is only in Greenlandic and Danish, so it's helpful to go with a guide.
Kunstmuseet Ilulissat Ilulissat; 299/944-443. A small art museum dedicated mostly to the work of Emanuel A. Petersen, a Danish artist for Royal Copenhagen who spent much of his life in Ilulissat.
Mersortarfik Assaviit Ilulissat; 299/942-069 or 299/944-216. Next door to ITS, this shop sells Greenlandic cotton anoraks and wool sweaters, great for those who must pass up Greenland's famous furs.