Greenland: The Beautiful Empty

The ice fjord near Ilulissat, Greenland. photos by Paul Shoul.
The ice fjord near Ilulissat, Greenland. photos by Paul Shoul.

GoNOMAD photographer Paul Shoul and Editor Max Hartshorne went to Greenland in early November 2006. The opportunity to see the world’s largest island and share this unknown place with readers was worth minus ten-degree temperatures and a ferocious wind chill that November brings to this sparsely settled and beautiful landscape.

As the polar ice cap melts and recedes, Greenland is changing, and despite its remoteness, it is becoming a travel destination. Below are some of the daily posts from Max’s blog, Readuponit, published up during the trip.

Friday, November 3, 2006
Greenland: A First Glimpse of Life Above the Circle

We landed in Greenland’s biggest airport called Kangerlussuaq, above the Arctic circle, and stepped onto the windy tarmac. Inside the small airport, four youths stood in a row, as if waiting for us, they had features of Eskimoes, the high cheekbones, and Asian eyes.

We had a late dinner of reindeer, smoked halibut and salmon, and in the middle of the plate, a little bowl of 1/4″ long white squares with black at the ends. This was whale blubber, chewy, indistinct taste, but the flavor stays with you the next day. We were shown to spartan rooms, (this is a former military base), with common bathrooms and I fell into a deep sleep while the wind howled outside.

The Russell Glacier, near Kangerlussuaq, Greenland. Photo by Paul Shoul.
The Russell Glacier, near Kangerlussuaq, Greenland. Photo by Paul Shoul.

The next morning I got a glimpse of Greenland. It was stark, barren, absolutely treeless, and the only snow I saw was a dusting on a faraway mountain. Our first excursion was in a huge 16-wheel tundra buggy that took us 38 km out onto the inland ice cap, that covers about 85% of this home-ruled Danish territory.

The inland ice at the Russell Glacier was breathtaking — aquamarine stripes in white, crevices, and huge frozen streams where tons of water spews forth to a giant river during the summer. The glaciers here melt off more water in a day than NYC uses over 2 years! The billions of gallons that melt into the sea would make Saudi Arabia cry.

Slippery Ice

In places, there was clear ice, and walking on the pack, you looked for the snow to step on so you wouldn’t slip. There were crevices and places where you easily could perish in a fall. I wore my silk longjohns, lined flannel pants, down vest, thick down parka, gloves, scarf, and hat, and felt totally warm, despite the blowing winds on the pack.

Greenlanders are hardy and reticent, they mostly look like Eskimos or Inuits and have bright red cheeks like they’ve been outside in the wind a lot. There is almost nowhere to drive, so few roads, that nearly all travel is done by snowmobile or mostly, by plane. Air Greenland runs a fleet of helicopters and small fixed-wing aircraft to get the folks to and from the towns, the biggest of which is Nuuk, with 15,000 souls.

Wednesday, November 8, 2006: Take Her, She’s Yours for the Night

While I was in Greenland, there was plenty of time to snuggle next to your fellow travelers and get to know them. That’s what a cold climate does to people, brings them closer, to keep out the chill. I met a woman in Greenland who said that up there people had a different view of sex. A husband could invite his friend to enjoy his wife for the night. “Go ahead, she’s yours,” he would say.

The normal course up here is for the girls to get pregnant at 15 or so. They rarely marry; the custom is to have kids then and merge later. Another tradition is for the firstborn to be a gift for the grandparents to raise. Since they no doubt, the idea goes, miss having children around, you pass along son #1 to grandpa to raise.

We learned all this in a bar in Ilulissat, the furthest north, and the coldest of the places we visited in Greenland. A warm bar where beers were $9 and the snow slants sideways out the window.

Thursday, November 9, 2006: The Last Fisherman Hangs on in Assaqutaq

Fashion show that displayed impressive seal skin apparel popular in Greenland. photo by Paul Shoul.
Fashion show that displayed impressive seal skin apparel popular in Greenland. photo by Paul Shoul.

This afternoon we joined Bo Lings, a movie-star handsome, strong, and rugged boat captain who took 12 of us out in his new 35-foot cabin cruiser called the Sirius.

We cruised up the coast 6 km to an abandoned village called Assaqutaq. The last villagers finally left in 1967, and today, just one soul lives there: an old fisherman who comes to town once a week to sell his halibut and seabirds.

The buildings are abandoned, the fish factory long silenced, in the whipping winds, we slogged through the snow to peer inside old houses filled with dilapidated bunk beds and the remnants of life. After the fishing plant closed, there was nothing here for anyone, and the one store and tiny church just closed up.

Bo said that when he was young this harbor used to freeze, but for the past fifteen years, it hasn’t. Another sign of the ominous warning about warming.

Saturday, November 11, 2006: At Nuuk’s Barista Web Cafe, a Chance to Catch Up

Downtown Nuuki, Greenland's capital, a town of about 15,000. photo by Paul Shoul.
Downtown Nuuk, Greenland’s capital, a town of about 15,000. photo by Paul Shoul.

We are comfy in an internet cafe called Barista Cafe in downtown Nuuk. During World War II, when Denmark was occupied by the Germans, Greenland was run by the Allies, and 14 bases were built here.

Today only one, far north in Thule, remains. But the impact of all of those soldiers forever changed this place…soon people began chewing Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum, and listening to rock music…and ordering from the Sears and Roebuck catalog.

We saw a sealskin coverall that protected the Inuits from the wind and snow, completely waterproof, and they used these out in their open boats.

Hardy Souls Up Here

Spending just a few minutes out on the deck of the boat we took to tour Ilulissat’s ice fjord makes you appreciate how hardy these early residents were. And today, in November, most of these open boats are still in the water, covered with snow, and the people use them to visit neighbors and go fishing even when it is below zero.

At the airport, we met a pretty young woman who said she loved the hunt. She was wild about hunting seals, she loved the sport, the chase, the thrill of shooting, and of course, like all Greenlanders, she loved to eat them.

It is hard for us to fathom but that is the way of life and the custom that has never changed over the centuries.

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