From a distance, the ice stretches forever. But up close it is clear that time is running out to see the wonders of this frozen island.
From the air, the mighty Greenland ice sheet looks magnificent, stretching as far as the eye can see – a vast, visual symphony of white ice and innumerable blue-green lakes sparkling in the summer sun and covering 80 per cent of the world’s largest island.
It appears immortal. But it doesn’t take long after we land to be reminded that Greenland is on the frontline of global climate change. The evidence is everywhere. We see it in the first couple of hours when we drive up to the enormous 30-metre-high face of the ice sheet – the largest in the northern hemisphere – and listen to our Greenlandic guide describe how he’s seen it shrink visibly over the past decade.
We hear it from the fishermen who talk about how their catch is changing as the waters of the Davis Strait grow warmer, and from the villagers who tell us the winters are shorter and much less severe than they used to be. And we deduce it from the number of foreign scientists whose summer field camps we pass, most here for climate-change-related research.
It’s also evident when our ship, the Sea Explorer, glides into Sisimiut, 75 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle. With just 6000 people, this is the second-largest town in Greenland after the capital, Nuuk.
Sisimiut’s growth over the past half century has been driven by a simple fact: traditionally, it’s the most northerly ice-free port on the west coast of Greenland. But that proud claim may not last another 50 years as the ice retreats further and further north.
Our Greenland adventure began, surprisingly, at Copenhagen Airport where our Peregrine Adventures/Quark Expeditions group gathered for the five-hour charter flight to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland’s largest commercial airport. There we boarded three military-style snow buses which took us on one of the most northerly roads on the planet to marvel at the edge of the ice sheet, its fragile cliffs reaching hopefully towards the heavens.
Hardier types, with more time than us, can go camping for a few days on the ice sheet, tramping up the glacial moraine to the crevasse-ravaged surface of a gigantic ice block that is up to 3000 metres deep at its centre. Our guide, a Greenlander, had told me how he took the king of the Netherlands on such a camping trip a few years ago: the king was here to remind everyone what low countries like Holland had to lose if the ice sheet melts, forcing the world’s oceans to rise.
For 45 minutes, our group watched the face of the ice sheet, hoping to catch that moment when there is an almighty crack followed by a shard of ice the size of a six-storey building crumbling into the raging torrent below. On warm summer days like this, it’s a natural phenomenon.
But I still felt sheepish: each summer more ice is lost than can be replenished the following winter. Our guide told me that, within his lifetime, the great Greenland ice sheet may split in two.
If we were feeling melancholic as we left the ice sheet, the mood changed as soon as we glimpsed our first sight of the Arctic wildlife we had come to see. Not a polar bear, Arctic fox, bowhead whale or walrus, though there are plenty of them here.
No, this was a musk ox with its distinctive Viking-like horns and shaggy coat, looking like a cast-off from the Ice Age movies.
Somehow it restored our spirits, and soon we boarded the luxurious Sea Explorer, our home for the next 14 days as we made our way to Churchill, on Canada’s Hudson Bay.
On the first evening we cruised along Sondre Stromfjord, the longest fiord in Greenland. But our trip really began the next morning when we docked at Sisimiut. This was the first chance we’d had to see how the lives of the 57,000 people who live in Greenland have been changed by the modern world.
We are greeted at the dock by local volunteers who offer to show us their town. My group’s guide is Louise, a Danish school teacher who arrived in Sisimiut with her husband and two young children four years ago.
Though Greenland is a now a self-governing country, it remains part of the Kingdom of Denmark, reliant on Danish grants for half its economy.
Most Greenlanders are a mix of native Inuit and the Danes who colonised their land in the 18th century. The majority speak Greenlandic, but those who speak Danish tend to be better educated and better paid, taking the more professional jobs or joining the exodus of 20,000 Greenlanders who have moved abroad. Naturally, says Louise, this builds resentment: sometimes strangers tell her to go home to Denmark.
People have been living in the Sisimiut area for at least 4500 years, long before the exiled Viking Erik the Red ‘‘discovered’’ the country he named Greenland 1000 years ago. For most of that time, their lives followed the traditional eskimo ways.
Louise shows us the beach where whale carcasses were hauled ashore, points out how the locals still take pride in hand-making their own kayaks, and takes us to the tiny co-operative fish market where individual hunters sell the reindeer and seals they have shot: today there’s the fin of a minke whale for sale.
We even get a taste of Greenland cuisine at the town’s picturesque museum complex, located in a series of heritage timber buildings originally built for the Danish trading company and marked by an arch made out of two gigantic bowhead whale bones. We’re fed a plate of minke whale (tough), beluga blubber (inedible), dried cod and shrimp (passable), and musk ox and potato soup (strangely appetising).
This heritage district, with its church dating back to 1775 and its reconstruction of a typical Greenland peat hut, represents the charming old Sisimiut, with its plethora of brightly coloured wooden buildings and postcard scenes.
But the town’s character changed in the 1960s, Louise tells us. That’s when the local Inuit who lived in the outlying communities were encouraged to move into public housing in the town. Today those apartment blocks are run-down and cramped – a stark contrast to the rest of the town.
We meander through the streets, spread out on the rocky hills above the working harbour. Essentially Sisimiut is an overgrown fishing village, its economic driver being the Royal Greenland fish factory which exports shrimp, crab, halibut, salmon and cod around the world.
Soon we’re taking photos of wild dogs. These aren’t huskies, Louise explains. They are Greenlandic hounds – larger and more fierce than their Alaskan counterparts, perhaps a step closer to the wolf, and definitely not to be trusted. Louise has 11 and they are working animals, not to be confused with pets. Each winter, she and her husband harness the pack to their traditional wooden sled and take their children on long weekend treks across the snow.
We soon realise the smell and sound of howling sled dogs is one of the distinguishing features of any Greenland community. At Sisimiut, the dogs are gradually being moved to the outskirts of town. They’re more noticeable the next day when the Sea Explorer powers through Disko Bay to Ilulissat, Greenland’s third-largest town, with 4800 humans and 2800 dogs.
Though Ilulissat (the Greenlandic world for iceberg) is smaller than Sisimiut, it has a more worldly feel, with a nightclub which bills itself as ‘‘The Disco at Disko Bay’’ and a tourist office which offers helicopter tours of Sermeq Kujalleq, one of the fastest glaciers in the world, moving up to 35 metres a day.
Colin, our expedition’s glaciologist, tells us it thrusts 20 million tonnes of ice into the ocean every 24 hours – equal, apparently, to the volume of water used by New York City in an entire year. We don’t have time to visit the glacier itself, but set off instead on a rugged, 13-kilometre round trek to see the incredible geographical feature it has formed – the amazing ice fiord known as Ilulissat Kangerlua.
Named a UNESCO world heritage site in 2004, it’s one of Greenland’s main tourist attractions, running for 40 kilometres from the Greenland ice sheet to Disko Bay. The glacier continually pushes huge icebergs into the fiord. Some are the size of small towns, up to one kilometre from top to bottom, too large to scrape over the shallow lip at the mouth of the fiord. Monumental chunks of ice are forced hard against each other under enormous pressure, sometimes for 50 years, until they break into smaller sections that can mount a great escape.
Our trek allows us to follow the edge of the ice fiord for about six kilometres. Sadly, it’s raining for our visit, but every so often the weather clears and we get sweeping views of this immense natural spectacle. When the sun shines, apparently, you can hear the explosions of cracking ice.
Once we’re back in town, I head to the small museum dedicated to the Danish explorer and anthropologist Knud Rasmussen, who was born in Ilulissat, the son of a Danish pastor and a Greenlandic mother. When Rasmussen was seven, he’s said to have rescued an injured hunter by driving the hunter’s dog sled to safety. It was the first time he’d ever driven a sled, but he soon had his own pack of dogs.
Thereafter he dedicated his life to Arctic exploration.
After studying in Denmark, Rasmussen went on his first expedition in 1902 to study Inuit culture, writing a book, The People of the Polar North, which helped earn him the nickname ‘‘the father of Eskimology’’.
His daring deeds and subsequent books made him a hero in Denmark and North America.
His fifth expedition is the one for which he is most celebrated. In 1921 Rasmussen’s team of seven set off to realise his dream of visiting every indigenous culture that had made its home in the Arctic north. His objective was to discover ‘‘the origin of the Eskimo race’’.
Leaving most of the team in Arctic Canada, Rasmussen and two Inuit companions embarked by dog sled for Alaska. It took them 16 months and is regarded as one of the greatest ice journeys in history and made Rasmussen the first European to complete the North West Passage by dog sled.
He tried to continue to visit the indigenous people of Siberia, but the Soviets denied him a visa. Welcomed as a hero in Washington and New York, he spent the rest of his life travelling between Denmark and Greenland until his untimely death in 1933 as a result of food poisoning.
The museum, in the house where he was born, documents his achievements including clips from Palo’s Wedding, the black and white movie he made with European filmmakers showing the traditional Greenlandic way of life. The entire top floor is dedicated to how climate change is affecting today’s generation of Greenlanders.
Among the serious scientific displays are interviews with Ilulissat residents. They all agree the winters are shorter and less severe. But not everyone complains about the impact that is having on their culture and lifestyle, or on the ice field and glaciers. Some say they prefer the warmer weather.
After a display of kayaking by a local expert who demonstrates 20 different ways of doing an eskimo roll in ice-cold water, the Sea Explorer leaves Ilulissat to cross the Davis Strait to Canada. Once we enter Disko Bay, we’re greeted with one of the most awesome seascapes I’ve ever witnessed. Dozens of icebergs are floating silently as far as the eye can see, sparkling in the sunshine.
According to legend it was an iceberg just like these, released from the Ilulissat ice fiord, which sank the Titantic – not exactly a comforting thought when you’re on a ship heading into night. None of us move, despite the evening chill. Not because we’re worried (the Titantic didn’t have sonar or GPS) but because we are simply spellbound. This glorious, berg-bejewelled ocean is my abiding memory of Greenland.
It’s the reason we travel rather than sit at home and watch documentaries. How sad future generations may not have the opportunity to see it.
The writer travelled courtesy of Peregrine Adventures.
Qantas and its oneworld partner Emirates fly to Copenhagen, where tours leave for Greenland, from Sydney and Melbourne via Dubai. Qantas and American Airlines fly from Copenhagen to Sydney and Melbourne via Los Angeles. See qantas.com.au; emirates.com.au.
Peregrine Adventures offers numerous Arctic and Antarctic polar cruises each year. In 2015, the 14-day Greenland and Canada High Arctic cruise costs from $11,370 a person twin share, excluding airfares. The route is different from the 2014 cruise, visiting more of West Greenland before travelling to the islands north of Baffin Island and finishing in Resolute.
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About the writer
Steve Meacham has written about his travel adventures for 40 years with his work having been published in as many countries. His enthusiasm for new travel experiences is undiminished. He found Greenland not just visually stunning but endlessly thought provoking.