Breaking the ice in Greenland

Mark Stratton finds Greenland’s west coast is a glacial wonderland of giant bergs and gritty settlements – perfect for exploring by boat

Mark Stratton
06 June 2012

Why: Sculpted icebergs, groaning glaciers, Inuit culture – Arctic life on an epic scale

How: Fly UK to Copenhagen or Reykjavík, then on to Ilulissat, Greenland

When: May-Sept; long days and warmer weather

Like a dessert spoon cracking through the crust of a crème brulee, the Najaaraq Ittuk splintered her way out of ice-choked Ilulissat Bay. She nudged bobbing chunks of spearmint-blue glacial ice aside but steered wide of icebergs the size of cathedrals. She was the summer’s first ferry to Disko Island.

I’d boarded her in Ilulissat, the hub of west Greenlandic tourism, for the nine-hour trip to Disko Island – known locally as Qeqertarsuaq, which translates as ‘big island’ rather than ‘high-scoring Scrabble hand’. At 80km long, it’s Greenland’s largest coastal island.

Once through Ilulissat’s chaotic glacial meringue we sailed westwards as if towards Canada’s Baffin Island, slaloming between icebergs to cross Disko Bay where, in a
month’s time, humpback whales would be passing in force. I spent as long as possible on deck in the sub-zero temperatures, entranced by this ghostly flotilla, before being forced below with the sort of headache one gets after eating too much ice cream.

For the 17,700 inhabitants of North Greenland – a 660,000 sq km region on the western seaboard, above the Arctic Circle – sea travel has long been a lifeline; all the more so now, as milder temperatures ensure Disko Bay is largely free of sea-ice year round. Instead, the fragmenting icebergs from Greenland’s melting polar cap provide the most breathtaking nautical obstacle course on earth.

The coastal ferries offer a rare opportunity for adventurous independent travel deep inside the Arctic Circle. And this excited me because Greenland possesses no connecting roads; on two previous visits, like most visitors, I’d flown between locations to take part in prearranged activities such as dog-sledding and whale watching. I’d never really joined up the dots of Greenland’s wider geography or had any meaningful contact with its Inuit people. During various sea journeys, spread over two weeks, I planned to travel almost 1,000 nautical miles between North and South Greenland.

But it wasn’t supposed to be this cold. I’d arrived mid-May at the start of summertime, when the midnight sun refuses to disappear below the horizon. Yet prodigious quantities of calving glacial ice and late snowfall were reminding Disko Bay’s hardy souls of how tough life used to be before Greenland became a climate change cause célèbre. The cold snap reinforced a Greenlandic saying I’d hear on several occasions: ‘Silarsuaq sikullu kisimik naalagaapput,’ which translates as ‘the weather conditions and the ice decides.’

Down at the Disko

“Here’s the key, there’s the supermarket,” advised the laconic lady looking after Hotel Disko in Qeqertarsuaq, the island’s eponymous town. I was the only guest, but this was hardly surprising as Qeqertarsuaq remained in winter hibernation. I sank to my thighs in snowdrift just reaching the hotel’s little redwood front door.

If Qeqertarsuaq’s prevailing ambience was slow waltz rather than disko (ahem), this wildly pretty settlement nonetheless exuded abundant frontier spirit. Rainbow-coloured houses – mustard-yellow, lilac, ochre, lime-green – clung to the bald, rocky foreshore like barnacles. They were backed by trapezium-shaped flat-topped mountains, snow-whipped into zebra-skin patterns.

Qeqertarsuaq was settled in 1773 as – like all Greenlandic towns founded by Danish colonisers – a whaling settlement to process lucrative blubber exports. A rusty harpoon gun and a fin-whale jawbone on the quay recalled a legacy that is far from ancient history – mattaq (whale skin) was on sale at the local meat market.

“Nobody here survives from hunting and fishing alone now,” explained Linda Grønvold, a rare English-speaker and curator of the museum, which houses atmospheric photographs of Inuit life in the 1930s. “Youngsters don’t care for whale meat or hunting any longer,” she continued, “they prefer Danishfoods from the supermarket.”

She told me people were drifting away from the island to the bright lights of Ilulissat. “There are so many rumours of the oil industry bringing new wealth, but I’d never leave here. I’d miss winter, when our only light is moonlit ice and aurora borealis; it’s very special.”

During summertime Disko Island is popular with hikers; dog-sledding is possible year round on the Lyngmark Glacier, which hovers above Qeqertarsuaq like a gleaming diamond. I visited the glacier the next morning with hunter-turned-guide Kale Mølgaard. But we drove onto the glacier by skidoo – his dogs were resting.

Access was via a sloping col transformed by heavy snowfall into a perfect sine wave of blinding emulsion whiteness. From the glacier’s summit the views and stinging winds were similarly eye-watering. We gazed across Disko Bay to the mainland as icebergs glinted in the sunshine like constellations. Kale said he used to dog-sled across the bay to Ilulissat on sea-ice until the mid-90s but within a decade it had completely melted away.

Later that day, I hiked alone out of town, following Qeqertarsuaq’s black-sand beach, watching V-squadrons of Canada geese arrive overhead. Stranded chunks of leviathan icebergs had shipwrecked on the foreshore creating a divine graveyard of beached ice undergoing slow evaporation.

Where icebergs are born

After two nights I left Qeqertarsuaq before I’d mastered how to pronounce it. I returned by scheduled ferry to Ilulissat, which – with 4,500 people (Greenland’s third-largest settlement) – felt like the Big Smoke. Some 250km inside the Arctic Circle, the harbour’s brightly painted fleet of halibut- and shrimp-fishing trawlers remained entombed by thousands of tonnes of ice like some wintry kingdom straight from the imagination of CS Lewis. I had four days until my next ferry south.

A day covers most of Ilulissat’s cultural highlights, primarily a fine old 18th-century wooden church and a museum dedicated to legendary polar explorer Knud Rasmussen. I wouldn’t exactly count ‘Elvis of Ilulissat’ at the Restaurant Naleraq karaoke among those highlights – although his rendition of ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’ wasn’t bad. A mangled ‘Mama Mia’ ensured I skipped dessert.

Most visitors come to Ilulissat to visit the Unesco-listed Icefjord, ready to be dazzled by the icebergs disgorging from the Northern Hemisphere’s most active glacier, Sermeq Kujalleq. Ironically the glacier’s recent rapid retreat to 56km inland has ensured this discharge is even more spectacular. There are two ways to experience this frozen superhighway: by foot and by boat.

Several well-marked trails follow the mountainous coastline to the Icefjord’s mouth. With 24 hours of insomnia-inducing sunlight to explore in, I hiked out around midnight on the 2.7km ‘yellow’ path to the Icefjord’s mouth and was instantly transfixed by the phantasmagorical surroundings. In the purest of silences, the blazing low sun inflamed the floating ice, creating a mottled oceanic fire drifting out of the fjord.

Another afternoon I joined an advertised community group hike to Greenland’s most historic native site at Sermermiut. “The ancient Eskimos lived here all winter,” said Abia Offosen, local policeman and walk-leader. “But in summer they would travel to hunt and trade and stay in seal-skin tents.”

He was referring to the Stone Age Saqqaq people, the Inuit’s forebears, whose tenure at Sermermiut from 2500BC to 1000BC is marked by hut foundations in a valley truncated by the Icefjord. Some of the Saqqaq’s bone-carved implements are displayed in the Ilulissat Museum.

Sermermiut overlooks the Icefjord’s jumbled log-jam of nascent icebergs, and I wondered if any other civilisation in history could claim better views? While pondering this, the side of a 100m-high iceberg sheared away with a rumble like a thunderous avalanche and crashed into the fjord, causing a big wave to lap over the shoreline. “That’s why they built their huts higher up the valley,” explained Abia.

Art in ice

“I was on my boat and saw an iceberg split into two parts once,” David, skipper of the Katak, told me the next day. “The pieces capsized backwards into the sea and created a giant wave.” It must have been an incredible spectacle, I ventured.

“Sure,” he replied, “but I didn’t hang around to watch it.”

The Katak makes frequent pleasure cruises to the Icefjord’s mouth, where the icebergs’ shapes and variations are wondrous. I saw Casper the Ghost, toadstools, church spires, transparent glass, wedges of brie with blue Stilton veins injected by frozen rainwater; their overall bluish tinge is reflected skylight, a mirror to the heavens above.

“Much of this ice is 120,000-150,000 years old,” David told me and several Danish tourists as we drank coffee on deck within an amphitheatre of icebergs. The Icefjord annually discharges enough meltwater to meet the USA’s annual consumption: calving a mind-boggling 46 cubic kilometres of ice every year. Eventually these icebergs drift southwards. “They’re sometimes seen around New York’s latitude,” he added. “Remember the Titanic…?”

During my final two days in Ilulissat I continued my coastal meanderings by smaller boats. I joined halibut fisherman Johannes Mathæussen who takes guests out to fish in Disko Bay. He told me local fishermen were starting to catch different fish, which were migrating northwards from South Greenland to the area’s now-warmer waters. And I jumped aboard a new service to Rødebay (sometimes called Oqaatsut), 14km north. It didn’t take long to see a nuggety little settlement of 48 people far outnumbered by the huskies that howled en masse until reaching an air-raid-siren crescendo.

But these were hors d’ouevres prior to my longest voyage, aboard the scheduled passenger service Sarfaq Ittuk.

Set sail for the south

“You’re Mark Stratton?” asked Kent Andersen, chief-purser of the ship. “How do you know that?” I responded. “You’re the only foreigner aboard, and the only one making the whole journey to Narsaq.”

The Sarfaq Ittuk links most of Western Greenland’s settlements during a 659-nautical-mile journey south to Narsaq. The ferry would be home for the next four days as I voyaged down the coastline that North Greenlanders jokingly call the ‘Banana Coast’ because of its balmy double-digit temperatures.

The 270-passenger ferry would never have more than a few dozen locals aboard, hopping on and off between coastal towns. Yet in peak summertime it becomes a de facto cruise-liner, popular with visitors enjoying the fjordland scenery and whale watching. Indeed, I saw both beluga and Greenlandic whales before we’d even steamed out of Disko Bay.

In some settlements the ship docks long enough to allow exploration on land. The first morning we pulled into Sisimiut, Greenland’s second-largest port. The icebergs had all but disappeared already but the town remained gripped by winter; still, there was time to wade through knee-deep drifts to admire the 19th-century colonial centre’s Toytown architecture clustered around a postbox-red church.

Snow progress

The next morning we arrived in Nuuk, the capital, where suburbs of neat homes and shopping precincts appeared lifted from the urban design manual of Greenland’s protector, Denmark. Further south, Maniitsoq – perched on steep rock pedestals – reminded me of a fortified Cathar village. Kent told me a planned aluminium smelter for Maniitsoq would bring 4,000 foreign workers to a town of 3,000 Greenlanders. “It will change forever, ” he said.

Between ports I’d snuggle into my down jacket and hunker down on the upper deck to be blown away spiritually by divine beauty and, literally, by Arctic gusts.

Below the Arctic Circle line, the ship threaded its way through a nebulous archipelago of barrier islands, glaciers and interconnected fjords: most exhilaratingly around Hamborgersund, where the dark-chocolate massifs dusted by icing-sugar snow narrowed so much that a rogue iceberg, wedged like a rat in a drainpipe, halted our progress.

Going for green

When we reached South Greenland three days into the journey, armadas of icebergs reappeared, driven inshore by sea currents. Now emaciated by their progress south, they were fantastical formations – holed like doughnuts, with precarious arches. I also felt weirdly euphoric on seeing sparse coverings of grass finally appear on snow-free shorelines, just when I was beginning to feel Erik the Red – the Viking who put the ‘green’ in Greenland in AD985 – had perpetrated the greatest geographical gag in history.

Green pastures and mountain birches flourished at our penultimate stopover at Qaqortoq, although talk of the town was a polar bear spotted floating on an iceberg a few days earlier. Unfortunately, it had been shot and filleted in the open-air market.

Most of the locals had never eaten polar bear, let alone seen one, according to Suriya Paprajong, manager of the unlikeliest Thai restaurant in the world. He’d arrived in Greenland 11 years ago, swapping Bangkok’s 40°C for Greenland’s -35°C. He assured me sweet-and-sour bear wasn’t on his menu.

The Sarfaq Ittuk finally eased into Narsaq, near the tip of South Greenland and in the shadow of Mt Qaqqarsuaq; my odyssey had ended. It was time to reflect on a journey where almost every sun-blazed memory had been of an untameable beauty that promised unforeseeable adventure. And indeed, Greenland wasn’t quite finished with me yet…

The next day, after shuttling out of Narsaq by helicopter, a tumultuous snowstorm followed by ash blown in from another erupting Icelandic volcano trapped me for two unscheduled nights in a remote gateway called Narsarsuaq. “Silarsuaq sikullu kisimik naalagaapput,” the locals said.

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