Granny Goes to Greenland

Greenland Hot Spring, courtesy
Greenland Hot Spring, courtesy

Granny and I Go to Greenland

Connie and Birthe on a dog sled - photos by Connie Maria Westergaard
Connie and Birthe on a dog sled – photos by Connie Maria Westergaard

With an almost 80-year-old birth certificate, my grandma had almost given up the dream of dog sledding through sparkling frost, sailing amongst giant icebergs and snow-capped black mountains, and standing on the ice cap with nothing but ice insight.

By Connie Maria Westergaard

Greenland has always been the holiday destination of our dreams. This Winter Granny and I defied the cold, old age, and a generation gap of 50 years when we traveled to a different world for eight days.

Our first encounter with Greenland happens through the airplane’s window. My grandma, whom everybody else knows as Birthe Ewertsen, and I are desperately trying to look out at the same time on the snow-white landscape below us.

First Time to Greenland?

“Is this your first time to Greenland?” The female flight attendant asks. The answer is yes. Most of our lives grandma and I have dreamt of going to Greenland, or the Country of the People as the Greenlandic call it. Funny name for a country whose population could fit into a large stadium.

Granny’s 80-year-old birthday is just around the corner. And to celebrate it we have decided to defy the freezing cold, old age, and a generation gap of 50 years and go to Greenland for eight days. It is a trip that will demand vigor on grandma’s part. Luckily she’s an active old woman, who travels regularly and keeps fit by dancing twice a week.

Silent Sunset

Sunset ice fiord
Sunset over the ice fiord

After a stop in Kangerlussuaq, we arrive in Ilulissat on the West coast of Greenland, North of the polar circle. It is March and minus 19° Celsius (2° Fahrenheit).

However, due to the dry air, it does not feel unpleasant. The sun is shining which makes the snow sparkle like a blanket of tiny little diamonds.

The first thing that dawns on us is how fresh and clean the air feels in our lungs and on our faces. The next thing is the silence.

After arriving at Hotel Arctic we go for a walk in the surrounding area. We follow the path behind the hotel that leads down to the ice fjord.

To our left is Ilulissat town, to our right are the mountains, and straight ahead out on the deep blue Disko Bay massive icebergs are floating around.

Only 50 kilometers (31 miles) down the coast is the most productive glacier in the Northern Hemisphere. Every single day all year round approximately 20 million tons of ice flows out into the ice fiord. Some of the icebergs are more than a hundred meters tall, which explains why the town is called Ilulissat. It means iceberg in Greenlandic.

Later that night standing on the hotel patio Granny and I experience our very first Greenlandic sunset, and that is the deathblow. After a few hours in Ilulissat, we surrender to beauty in all its glorious blue and white colors. We agree that we have never before seen anything more picturesque.

Dog sledding in the Mountains

Dog sledding in Ilulissat
Dog sledding in Ilulissat

On our second day, we wake up to the sounds of the sled dogs playing outside our hotel. A quick look out the window promises another cold, sunny day.

The sun is hanging low over the snowcapped black mountains, but on the other side of the harbor, the town with the many red wooden houses and the approximately 4,500 inhabitants has already risen.

Grandma and I get ready for the ride of our lives, and an absolute ‘must do’ if you visit Greenland during Winter. Today we are going dog sledding.

We meet the sled drivers and their sled dogs on a plain on the outskirts of Ilulissat. We are wearing three layers of clothes, warm boots, and seal skin outfits on top to keep us warm during the next two hours.

Soon we are driving at top speed across the frosty, glittering snow while passing mountains on both sides. The area surrounding Ilulissat is hilly ground. Thus we experience the dogs running in front of the sled, when it goes uphill, and behind the sled acting as brakes, when it goes downhill.

Although it is a bumpy ride, it tickles your stomach when the sled jumps over the big rocks. I must admit I am a little worried about Grandma, who is convinced she got the most speed-crazy driver of them all. We have to hold on tight in order not to fall off the sled, and at times it gets rough. However, afterward granny has no regrets. That was an old dream come true back there, she says.

Ilulissat ice fiord
The icebergs near Ilulissat

Up Close and Personal with the Icebergs

One experience always exceeds the one before, when you are in Greenland. On our fourth day awaits another memorable experience of the cold and breathtaking kind.

Down in the harbor is a cutter waiting to bring us up close and personal with the icebergs we have been admiring ever since we arrived. We are a modest company of 12 sailing out, and not much time passes before we literally bump into the first fragments of drifting ice.

The sun is still shining and makes the ice sparkle, and we learn that ice is not just white. It is all shades between white and blue, and black if it is very old.

The ice creaks and breaks, when the cutter hits it, but the experienced captain keeps a safe distance to the icebergs, which are typically ten times bigger below the surface than above it.

Grandma and I are standing on the deck staring with disbelief upon the tall icebergs that surround us. Never before have we seen anything so magnificent and unspoiled as what is right in front of us.

Greenlandic Gastronomy

No visit to Greenland is complete without trying the local food and dishes. In Ilulissat it is possible, if you book one day in advance, to try a Greenlandic buffet at Hotel Hvide Falk.

greenland coffee
Enjoying Greenland coffee

We fight our way through 37 courses in three and a half hours. Polar bear, which we are later told is a rarity, Greenlandic lamb, reindeer, musk ox, whale and all sorts of fish and shellfish go down well.

A Greenlandic delicacy is Mattak, which is raw whale skin and stomach. It is kind of tough and has to be chewed for a long time before it can be swallowed. We are quite skeptical about it, but we have to try.

My piece goes back on the plate faster than anyone can say yuck! Grandma, on the other hand, is chewing away – the woman who hates chewing gum – finding it rather tasteful. I do not see her take a second piece though.

We finish up with a glass of Greenlandic coffee. The ingredients Kahlua, whiskey, black coffee, whipped cream, and Grand Marnier make Irish coffee look like water in comparison.

The next day we go for a guided walk in the Sermermiut Valley. We size up the situation and conclude that Granny is in a condition to complete the short distance. We are close to being wrong. Down in the valley, she walks without problems, but when the guide takes us across the hill it is almost too much for her.

Grandma ice fiord
Birthe enjoys a moment of solitude

Walking uphill is hard on her 80-year-old legs, and even though the view of the ice fjord, the valley, and the hills is beautiful, she hardly notices it. Even a super granny like mine has her limits.

Nothing but Ice

After five days in Ilulissat, our journey takes us southwards to Kangerlussuaq. Soon we realize that we have arrived in a different world than the one we just came from in Ilulissat. Kangerlussuaq is a former American military airbase, which now is the center of Greenland’s air traffic.

Approximately 500 people live in the small settlement, where we will spend our last three days.

Unfortunately, we arrive at a time where there is little snow. Thus the arctic desert looks barren and grey compared to the strikingly beautiful snowcapped Ilulissat.

But there is a reason why we have come, and that is the nearby inland ice. Not long after our arrival, we are on our way again in an off-roader to the destination ice cap. It is only 35 kilometers (22 miles) away, but driving in Greenland on icy roads it takes us an hour and a half to get there.

Dog sledding in Kangerlussuaq
Dog sledding in Kangerlussuaq

On our way, we pass Russell’s Glacier, which stretches out its long arms in the landscape like giant waves of whipped cream on an ice-cream gateau.

We reach the famous Point 660, which is 660 meters high (1969 feet), on the ice cap. From the car, our noses have been glued to the window for the last half hour. We cannot believe that what is all around us is nothing but ice as far as the eye can see. It looks neverending.

Our trip to Greenland ends as it began, with a ride on a dog sled. It seems the perfect way to end it. On our last day, we are riding on a sled with 13 dogs in front across the frozen 185 kilometers (115 miles) long Kangerlussuaq Fiord with the clean, fresh air on our smiling faces.

For more information on Greenland:

Greenland Tourism & Business Council

Greenland Guide Index

Destination South Greenland

Destination Disko

Air Greenland flies from Reykjavik (Iceland) and Copenhagen (Denmark)

Scandinavian Airlines flies from Copenhagen (Denmark)

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