Greenland: The Greatness of Silence

Greenland Hot Spring, courtesy
Greenland Hot Spring, courtesy

By Max Hartshorne
GoNOMAD Editor

Open boat in Illulissat, Greenland. Photos by Max Hartshorne.
Open boat in Ilulissat, Greenland. Photos by Max Hartshorne.

There aren’t many places like Greenland left on earth. The world’s largest island presents the traveler with unparalleled opportunities to observe nature and that rarest of modern commodities, silence.

There is simply nothing like the experience of getting out on the ice, as we did in November 2006, near the community of Kangermusset, once home to a US Air Force base.

The ice is exquisitely expansive—miles and miles of it stretching out in all directions, undulating like a winter desert, rippling, curving, into what seems like infinity.

Today this windy village of 800 is the standard jumping-off point for travelers who want to visit the three most popular cities and towns on the country’s western coast — Ilulissat, Sisimiut, and the capital, Nuuk.

To get there we flew a new air route being opened in late May by Air Greenland, a direct four-hour flight from Baltimore/Washington into the former airbase, a remote village and the only runway in the country capable of landing a big jet. There is not much here except the ice — and that is reason enough to go!

Sadly, this route was only operated for one season before the Air Greenland executives realized not enough people wanted to visit the territory.

Musk Ox Hunting

Here in Kangermusset, one popular activity is hunting the great musk ox. There are about 10,000 of them up here, they are docile and huge like the mastodons of yore. They have big ferocious tusks and weigh tons, and people like to go out and bag them during the hunting season.

Greenlanders though, prefer to hunt seals, which is the thing people here love to eat the most. We saw a shop in Ilulissat where they slaughter the mammals, along with the other local products like halibut and sea birds called Guillemots.

The Sirius takes people out to see the coast of Greenland. photo by Max Hartshorne.
Charter vessel Sirius takes people out to see the coast of Greenland. photo by Max Hartshorne.

Bo Ling’s Sirius

The polar ice cap is rapidly melting, as many environmentalists have proclaimed, and we were given plenty of first-hand evidence by Captain Bo Ling, who takes visitors out in his 35-foot charter cabin cruiser the Sirius.

“This harbor used to freeze every winter, until about fifteen years ago,” he told us, as we followed the snowy path from one abandoned building to another in the tiny village of Assaquaq. Today, one old man remains, dutifully bringing his catch into Sisimiut every week to sell and return with rations to sustain him.

Ling offers dive trips to a few wrecks near Sisimiut that offer stunning detail and untouched grandeur. The masts are upright and even the china is still in the cupboards of the Portuguese sailing vessels that went down hundreds of years ago but were well preserved and untouched in these 3-degree Celsius waters.

He also offers trout fishing excursions up some of the nearby rivers, offering anglers some of the best fishing anywhere and the experience of a coastal voyage, then travel by Zodiac boat to reach the further reaches of the many rivers and streams that empty into the fjord.

Walking on the inland ice, near Kangermusset. photo by Max Hartshorne.
Walking on the inland ice, near Kangermusset.

Ling and his wife Annette, who works for Greenland tourism, both so much love living in Greenland. They have grown up here, and though both were educated in Denmark, they’d live nowhere else.

The only flights now in 2020 to Greenland are to and from Copenhagen.

We were shown maps that show the extent of the shrinking ice fjord. Back in 1923, it covered the entire fjord. When we visited and took a boat excursion the pilot said he hadn’t ever gone this far up, he usually had to stop much farther back when he reached the solid ice.

The ice fjord here in Ililussat has been proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage site, but this doesn’t stop the daily melting that will someday forever change this hard and beautiful place. The glacier sheds a daily total volume of water equivalent to the entire consumption used by New York City — EVERY DAY!

While today there are floating icebergs here that are the size of the city’s skyscrapers, and the chunks that break off cause mini-tsunamis, someday these ice-filled fjords will be forever changed.

Butchering the number one meat in Greenland: Seal, it's what's for dinner! Photo by Max Hartshorne.
Butchering the number one meat in Greenland: Seal, it’s what’s for dinner! Photo by Max Hartshorne.

Seeing the icebergs up close is a stunning thing to behold. Dressed in today’s innovative clothing makes even being up on the windy deck watching the icebergs float by a comfortable experience.

My clothing included gloves, Polartec scarf, silk long underwear, a Polartec undershirt, flannel-lined chinos from LL Bean, and a combination of an Old Navy down vest and a down parka. Topped with the good watch cap, I truly was never cold despite the ferocious winds and blowing snow we found just about everywhere. It’s all about the layers, even in Greenland, and it works.

Nazis in Denmark

The Allies took over the administration of the Danish province when Denmark fell to the Nazis during World War II. In exchange, they built fourteen military bases, and left an indelible mark of the small number of inhabitants, besides instilling a fondness for Juicy Fruit chewing gum and camel cigarettes.

The Americans brought with them their music, and their Sears and Roebuck catalogs, and nylon stockings and modern music. To the people who lived here in their remoteness, these products were all new and fascinating.

Local girls in Kangermusset, where the big airliners can land in a former US Airforce base. photo by Max Hartshorne
Local girls in Kangermusset, where the big airliners can land in a former US Air Force base.

At the museum of culture in Greenland’s capital, Nuuk, we viewed a collection of artifacts that told the story of a civilization evolving in the modern world, just by proximity to these soldiers.

We visited an abandoned fishing village just outside the town of Sisimiut where the roof was painted with a 6-foot high E8, to direct the planes that dropped supplies on these villagers during the war.

Internet Connections

There are reliable if expensive Internet connections here. Greenlanders pay for every bit and byte they use. Unlike in the U.S., there is no such thing as unlimited monthly use. So the hotels expect to pay up to 80 Danish Kroners (about $12).

In Nuuk the capital, we found a great little internet cafe just around the corner from the snowy main drag. It’s called Well — not little exactly, there were more than 45 computers, all arranged in pods of four machines all facing in. Kids wore big padded earphones and enjoyed games on the superfast connection. It cost about $6 an hour.

Hungry, Crazy Dogs

At night when the sun goes down in frozen Greenland, the wind whips and the Aurora Borealis emerges like a Salvador Dali painting come to life, on cloudless nights. Outside north of the capital city of Nuuk, the unceasing yap and yip of chained up sled dogs never ends. But that is not the point.

“If a dog comes up close, we kick it away,” a guide told us. These are not furry huggable creatures to invite in to curl up next to the woodstove.

“These are working, hungry, crazy dogs who will bite you if you get too close to them.” She used to have 14 working dogs, but now like many other Greenlanders, she doesn’t run with them any longer.

Walking across a glacier in Greenland.
Walking across a glacier in Greenland.

Expensive to Feed the Dogs

Because they lost a source of free food for the beasts when the fish factory closed, it’s tougher to find people willing to pay to feed a pack of dogs.

But they still sit on windy hillsides, yipping and braying and curling up against the wind.

Greenland is home to just 55,000 residents. Last year only 30,000 travelers stayed here overnight. Most of the American visitors just came for the day from visiting cruise ships, these dock and debark in South Greenland during the summer.

My first impression of Greenland was to contemplate how far away it is from everything — yet like so many places modernity has touched, it is not that far after all.

But Greenland is a destination like no other — no other place can offer the experience of dog sledging, where the riders and the musher ride on the back of a wide sledge, or provide the grandeur of the inland ice. And there’s clearly no other place on earth where you can feel the greatness of silence like Greenland.

You’ve just got to see this for yourself.

The author’s trip was sponsored by Visit Greenland, the but the opinions are his own.

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