Greenland: Island of Melting Traditions

sisimut greenland
Sisimiut Greenland

Greenland: Island of Melting Traditions

By Sonja Stark
GoNOMAD Senior Writer

Greenlandic has 49 words for snow and ice. Photos by Sony Stark
Greenlandic has 49 words for snow and ice. Photos by Sony Stark

Greenlandic is an Inuit language that fewer than 60,000 people speak. It’s a language with a large lexicon of words influenced greatly by Greenland’s ever-changing weather patterns. For example; there are 49 words alone for snow and ice that most West Greenlandic people use to communicate. Before each new story, I’ll mention just a few of these words to show you how omnipresent snow and ice are to the Inuit culture.

“Sikursuit” – Compacted drift ice

“Thar she blows!” calls out one of the passengers pointing to the ocean depths off the starboard side of our small modern sailing ship. We swing our cameras just in time to catch a few playful seals tricking us with their similar black dorsal fins. Shutters are cocked and ready for that iconic shot of a Humpback, Minke or Fin whale breaching the surface, but so far, no such luck.

It’s late August and we’re on a whale safari in the second-largest fjord system in the world called the “Fjord of Good Hope.” I’m hoping the name applies to our sightseeing trip as well. This is also the world’s largest sculptural park and it’s melting at an unprecedented rate.

“There’s one, over there, over there!” motions another anxious passenger. I pivot myself to the bow of the boat and get ready for the shot of a lifetime. But, alas, this passenger has mistaken the eerie mist looming just above a riptide as a blowhole.

Illusions and Apparitions

Illusions, apparitions, and figments of our imagination are commonplace in murky waters, especially among icebergs. No truer is this bizarre phenomenon than while navigating calving glaciers. It’s during an Ilulissat boat trip later on in my journeys that my own eyes play tricks on me as well.

There’s a fabulous sense of wonder and awe as we navigate hundreds of rocky islands that dot the bay. I feel like a 10th-century Norwegian Viking exploring an empty liquid moonscape.

Our Guide, Bjorn Bjornskov, recites the historical timeline of exploration that eventually lead to a Lutheran missionary by the name of Hans Egede colonizing the Inuits and establishing Nuuk in 1721.

Hans Egede
Hans Egede

Bjorn offers us a swig of fresh icecap thousands of years old melted down into crystalline bottled water. It’s fresh glacier water that’s especially popular in high-end restaurants and a huge exporter for Greenland.

We’re reminded that fishing still plays an important role in the economy but problems like over-fishing (especially shrimp and halibut) are causing major shifts in employment. Quotas and moratoriums have been requested by the fishermen themselves while others have turned to newer industries like the booming bottling water business, science and of course, tourism.

“Sikuag” – Thin ice floes

Nuuk is the capital of Greenland with a population of 15,000 that speak primarily Greenlandic, Danish and a little English. Its uniqueness is marked with one stoplight, two ATM machines, the only two-star Michelin restaurant in the country and the smallest university in the world – “only four, five, or six graduates a year” explains Bjornskov.

This southern town receives more than 78 inches of rain annually, far more than other parts of Greenland, so it’s no wonder that homes, apartments, even containers on ships, are dipped in vibrant colors to brighten up damp days.

Nuuk, Greenland
Nuuk, Greenland

The people of Greenland know how to market the landscape as well by staking claim to Santa Claus. There’s a giant-size mailbox (probably the biggest in the world) half-full of envelopes marked to Saint Nick as well as Santa’s bright red sleigh mounted further north in Ilulissat.

“Nunataq” – Mountain peak sticking up through inland ice

For good or bad, no longer is this country a lonesome outpost of inhospitable temperatures and indigenous tribes living off the land, though some of that still exists further north. Inuit traditions are changing just as fast as the ice is melting with ATVs replacing sled dogs, apartments replacing primitive settlements, and imports providing a wealth of variety.

Some of the Inuit people have had to assimilate or risk extinction since so much of their original survival depended on hunting. That doesn’t change the way people eat here, just the way reindeer, seal and even whale is caught and prepared.

At restaurants like Gertrud Rask inside the Hans Egede Hotel and Ulo at Hotel Arctic in Ilulissat plenty of fresh native cuisine includes staples inherit to this once frigid landscape.

In Greenland, sled dogs are being replaced by ATVS.
In Greenland, sled dogs are being replaced by ATVS.

“Siirsinniq” – Ice swelling over a partially frozen river

Bright, beautiful, balmy (about 48º F) and with a midnight sun that takes hours to sink – the pulse of Ilulissat is far more pleasant than in Nuuk.

I’m a few miles north of the Arctic circle and feeling an immediate connection to nature among 5,000 retired sled dogs, a population that exceeds people.

Kayakers are launching themselves from mossy rock, locals are picnicking by the water and high-end retail shops have opened their doors to let consumers peruse rare seal skin clothing, homemade umiaqs and handicrafts. This town has its share of melancholy moments too but today it’s cheerful and everyone feels euphoric for the blue skies.

“Kanirnartuq” – Icy mist

Disko Bay borders the town of Ilulissat and it reminds me of a Pablo Picasso painting: thousands of cube-shaped blue ice drifting and crushing into each other like shards of broken glass.

Disko Bay
Disko Bay.

I’m determined to get this rare painting on celluloid, so early the next morning, I’m up with the sun, at 4 am, for a solo hike to Ilulissat Fjord, a UNESCO World Heritage site declared so in 2004.

It’s a muddy walk over rocky terrain in between blue wooden markers positioned so to preserve the environment. I’m still caffeinated with two cups of famous Greenlandic coffee in me from the night before – a combination of Kahlua, Grand Marnier, whiskey, and strong beans with a dollop of whip cream. I race to set up my tripod atop a mountainous ridge overlooking the fjord.

Suddenly, the early morning fog burns off revealing the enormity of this scientifically studied illustration. It takes my breath away.

It’s 3,000 years old and stretches on for infinity with towers and spires filling the quiet bay like deserted skyscrapers.

The author contemplates the icy vastness.
The author contemplates the icy vastness.

An occasional cracking and popping of glacial sheets disrupts the silence and reminds me that underneath it all, it’s moving. That fact prevents people from bouncing from one iceberg to the next.

The icy vastness is hard to put into words so I sit staring at its complexity until my hungry stomach talks louder than my thoughts.

“Nutarniq” – New ice formed in crack of old ice.

“Fishermen no longer see the poetic beauty of icebergs like tourists do because of the dangers they pose to small boats,” admits Guide, Fin Siegstad of World of Greenland.

It’s a pity that all my boat trips are scheduled on foggy misty days because squinting to see icebergs is both dangerous and disheartening.

The icy mists can play tricks on the eyes.
The icy mists can play tricks on the eyes.

It’s nearly impossible to avoid the icy flotsam and occasionally we smash into fallen chunks. That spurs my imagination to see a half-submerged fishing boat, crowded with passengers, drowning in the near distance while aboard an old trawling vessel.

We’re on our way to a settlement called Ilimanaq when my make-believe vision paralyzes me. The fishing boat, identical to ours, appears to be keeping pace with us while taking on water at the same time.

I find it hard to comprehend what I’m seeing so I wait for a few seconds to call out to the Captain. Suddenly, the illusion passes in front of our boat and then vanishes into thin air. I wipe my eyes and scan the horizon. There is nothing there and none of the other passengers seem alarmed. I conclude that my trippy tale be best kept a secret until I reach dry land.

Ilimanaq, Nuuk, Ilulissat, none of these harbor towns are accessible by land due to the rocky Martian landscape. My advice is to bring plenty of Dramamine if the rocking and rolling of a small boat or aircraft makes you queasy, or in my case, prone to hallucinations.

Greenland also lays claim to being the home of Santa Claus.
Greenland also lays claim to being the home of Santa Claus.

Nilak – Piece of freshwater ice

Kangerlussuaq (also known as Big Fjord), is one of only two military outposts big enough to land a passenger plane. It was originally built in 1941 by the United States Air Force to keep tabs on Europe and then the USSR during the Cold War, but in 1992 it was handed over to Greenland.

On our last day, we flirt with finding muskox on the sandy plains behind the runway. But, like the humpback whale in Nuuk, no such luck is had to find this caribou-like creature. So we board a monster jeep refitted for 20 passengers and take off on a sandy off-road adventure with our guide, Jorgen Larsen of Kangerlussuaq Tourism A/S.

The 30-minute ‘bump-and-bruise fest’ yields far more than a shot at ice-age mammals. First, we see an icecap more than 8000 years old that Larsen described as “his favorite spot in all of Greenland.”

An aerial shot of Greenland
An aerial shot of Greenland.

Backpackers think so too because a few tents are positioned nearby, weighed down with sandbags to protect from the strong Greenlandic winds.

Then we get to see two territorial musk oxen, charging, colliding and locking horns with each other in the distance. The sound of their impact can be heard for miles. Lastly, we’re told that this area is the best place to observe the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) dancing in the heavens during the winter months.

Watch the author’s videos about Greenland on YouTube.

]Nuuk, Greenland

Ilulissat, Greenland

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