The only glimpses of Greenland during the long flight to Ilulissat on the west coast were of ice. This should be called Iceland I thought and Iceland from whence I had come, should be called Greenland given the wonderful varied hues of green across that country in summer.
I had done no reading. I had no expectations. To my embarrassment apart from media on the problem for polar bears with melting ice floes and vaguely knowing the people were Inuit, I knew little. From Borgan, the Danish TV series, I had a visual of a sparse settlement tumbling down a hill and a suspicion that tensions existed between Greenlanders and their legal “protectors”.
I soon got up to speed. Firstly our destination Ilulissat is on the west coast of Greenland, a 3.5 hour flight from Iceland and 250k’s north of the Arctic circle. From the hour plus it seems to take fly over this, the largest island in the world, it appears much of its land surface is covered in ice. Most of its small population lives along the ice-free, fjord-lined coast.
At the airport we are picked up and in the 10 minute drive to town, the driver volunteers that the icebergs are 30% smaller than they used to be. This is Ilulissat, the 3rd biggest town on the island. The word means “iceberg” and it is why we are here. This is a UNESCO world heritage site because of the “living” glacier which produces the largest iceberg flow in the northern hemisphere into the oddly named Disco Bay.
The first impression of the town is that the people, apart from the tourists at the café (which is run by Thai women) and the Danes who provide much of the tourist infrastructure, the people are all Inuit; 4,500 people live here with an island wide population of 56,000. Apart from a theory that the Inuit came from Mongolia, their antecedants are unknown
It is summer and a pleasant 10 degrees with some people in shirt sleeves. Good weather for a G&T on a balcony overlooking the bay.
Firstly some context: Greenland is an autonomous territory of Denmark which provides two thirds of the money. This town’s secondary source of funds is tourism, while overall the country supports a $1 billion fishing industry (and a huge Royal Danish refrigerated ship is a sight in itself). A more recent policy allows mineral resource (including uranium) mining and there is also a guest US air base in the north. One optimist even suggested the Americans could give them enough money to enable the self-sufficiency that would allow a break from Denmark.
Fishermen setting up lines for trolling and some of the catch
Like other very cold climate countries, Greenland has its share of social problems many centring around alcohol and unemployment.
The Inuit have lived in Greenland for over 4,000 years. Original houses were sunk into the earth and made of peat, driftwood and furs. Occasionally they built igloos.
Historically, whale fat was traded for sugar, salt and tools.
Now red, blue, green brightly coloured houses sit on concrete foundations in an erratic layout that mystified the town planner in me but seems to reflect the hilly stone outcrops of the landscape. Occasional apartment complexes stand out.
Dr Google reports: “Hans Egede’s arrival in Greenland in 1721 marked the new colonial style whereby wooden houses were sent up from Scandinavia as timber kits.The colourful tradition of the characteristic, brightly coloured houses began here. The colours were practical and indicated the function of the building: commercial houses were red; hospitals were yellow; police stations were black; the telephone company was green and fish factories were blue.”
Indeed the hospital on the point is still yellow and the houses are now a range of bright primaries.
Open ended thick pipes jut out from the foundations of many houses. They are attached to the water truck since the town has no reticulated piped water. When I asked why some houses had no water point, one young Greenland man told me that often the “old people” could be seen dragging blocks of ice, off the icebergs, up the hill to supply their water needs.
I am surprised by the size of the electrical goods shops near one of the 2 supermarkets. The TVs are huge, there are many DVD, baby alerts and other electrical paraphernalia. Then I realize that this part of the world is totally dark 24 hours a day in November and December until the sun fleetingly reappears in January. Watching TV would help to pass the dark hours.
In the 24 hour summer days however, flowers bloom:
Packs of small huskie puppies play around town and we were told they cannot be touched until they are 6 months old. Full grown huskies are chained up around the town. They work pulling sleds all winter but in the summer energy needs are slight so they are fed only twice a week.
The living glacier and its icebergs
Isulissat means iceberg and the Isulissat Icefjord is the fiord where the icebergs float into the bay from the glacier.
The next day was all about this, the reason we had come here. It was spent walking through the national park to the shore to see the icebergs, then flying over the glaciers in a 6 seater aircraft, and finally sailing the Bay in the night to see the icebergs from the water in the fading light —– although the sun doesn’t really go down at this time of year.
Below is the peat moss of the national park and the first sight of the icebergs at the end of the walk
Sailed them in the evening:
The Icefjord is the sea mouth of the 7 km wide Sermeq Kujalleq, one of the few glaciers through which the Greenland ice cap reaches the sea and therefore sometimes called “a living” glacier. Sermeq Kujalleq is one of the most active glaciers in the world.
(According to the air charter company)
- it regularly calves around 46 km of ice every year;
- It is one of the fastest moving (up to 40 m per day);
- if melted the amount of water could cover the annual consumption of water in the USA;
- it accounts for 10% of the production of all Greenland calf ice and more than any other glacier in the northern hemisphere;
- The largest icebergs calved are the size of 1.5 cubic kms of ice. This is the equivalent of 30 football fields covered by a layer of ice as high as Mount Everest.
- at their highest the icebergs can be 125 metres but not now
Irrelevant post scripts
Underneath, the charters and other well-oiled tourist experiences the town remains touchingly local and unsophisticated.
The best hotel in town is the Arctic Hotel on the cliff top overlooking the harbour. Our hotel although central was a version of Faulty Towers. One of our number did not have a phone in his room yet he was told to ring for room service; when he walked up to order dinner, he was told he would be rung when it was ready.
I leave a cardigan in a cab. The receptionist identified the driver from my description and rings her. The cabbie is off duty; after a number of calls, the cabbie is back on duty but says she does not have the cardigan.
At the airport the Philippino man behind the kiosk (and that’s another story – he thought the agent had organised him a job in Denmark) tells me the cabbie has been there looking for the owner of the cardigan; I cannot ring the hotel and give up; a fellow traveller arrives and hands me the cardigan. He saw it on hotel desk and on spec. picked it up and brought it to airport. The hotel receptionist who made all the calls appeared to have forgotten it
A short stopover
On the way back to Iceland we land for refuelling at Kangerlussuag population 499. The town which seems sparse and in the middle of nowhere, is known for its airport, which is Greenland’s major international transport hub. The airport’s Museum illustrates the town’s past as a U.S. airbase during WWII. A road runs northeast from town to the vast Greenland Ice Sheet. Here, Russell Glacier is a vantage point for ice-calving events.
It is farewell to the summer night in Greenland, the land of the midnight sun.