Greenland – wow! by Elizabeth Kay

Foreign travel has always been an invaluable source of inspiration for me, and I have used icy settings on more than one occasion – Jinx on the Divide, and Ice Feathers in particular. Covid-19 meant several cancelled trips abroad, and about ten months ago I looked for the place least likely to present problems. Greenland has a population of just over 56,000, so no danger of massive crowds anywhere, very few cases of coronavirus and no deaths. There were a lot of hoops to jump through to get there, and although we booked the holiday last March, thinking there was very little chance of it going ahead, by sheer chance we managed a small window of opportunity between when Greenland would let us in and whatever changes the new Omicron variant may bring. And what a source of inspiration it turned out to be. We didn’t manage to see the Northern Lights, due to cloud, but that was the only downside.

We were based at two centres. Two nights at Kangerlussuaq, which is where the main airport is (we went via Copenhagen, as there are no direct flights from the UK) and five nights in Ilulissat. Husband Bob Newman thought we had over-catered on the equipment. It turned out we hadn’t. Base layers, thick socks, crampons, walking poles, neck warmers. We both had Icelandic sweaters from previous holidays, which were better than anything else for keeping warm, and I had some sealskin boots which I’d bought seventeen years previously in Norway. They are still selling the same design today in Greenland, and they were perfect. Sealskin can only be used if it has a certificate to say that is was obtained on a traditional hunt conducted by Inuit communities for subsistence purposes. The cold hit us the moment we stepped out of the airport building, but it’s dry cold which is easier to withstand.

Kangerlussuaq itself was small, charming, friendly, and everyone knew everyone else. When we went to the gift shop the woman behind the desk said, “Ah. You must be the Newmans.” She also turned up at the restaurant, helping out due to an outbreak of flu, and at the brief information meeting. The restaurant was out of town, and provided transport and local dishes such as musk ox and reindeer stew. In fact, I think that was all they provided, but it was very good. Not a country for vegetarians, as everything other than meat and fish has to be imported. The main event at this location was a trip to the Polar Ice Cap, at Point 660. The only road of any length in Greenland stretches from Kangerlussuaq to this destination. It was far more spectacular than I ever imagined. A great wall of turquoise ice, stretching as far as the eye could see in both directions, and incredibly beautiful. Six of us, including the guide, hiked to edge of it, which was really demanding as even with crampons it was very slippery.

It was a forty-five minute flight to Ilulissat. We stayed at the Hotel Arctic, the only four star hotel north of the Arctic Circle. The food was Michelin standard, and the view from our window was of Disko Bay. This is where most of the icebergs in the northern hemisphere originate, and probably produced the one that sank the Titanic, although it will have had to have drifted for a couple of years first. We did a boat trip around the bay, and it was breathtaking. The icebergs were about 100 foot tall, and our captain smashed up a bit of one so that we could all have gin and tonics!

On another day we hiked to an old abandoned Inuit settlement, and that was the coldest day of the lot; -23, with the windchill. The mist on my glasses froze, and when I tried to adjust my neck warmer it felt oddly stiff. It had frozen solid. The crampons were particularly useful on that occasion, as it was very icy. When I took my gloves off to adjust my crampons after a couple of mnutes I couldn't feel my fingers, and I had to wiggle them for ages to warm them up.

Travel in Greenland is done by plane, boat or dog sled. We had ridden in a dog sled in Norway, a tourist set-up with six sleds leaving at the same time, one behind the other on a designated path and harnessed in the line formation. That had been at night, and I was anxious to do the same thing in daylight. Preliminary enquiries both before we went and after we arrived told me the season wouldn’t start until January, so no chance. However, an encounter with some Danish nurses in a coffee bar informed us that they were going the following day, and they had a Facebook contact. We messaged Konrad Seblon, and arranged to go on the Sunday which was remarkably convenient as everything else was closed! Like so many others in Greenland, he spoke excellent English and we were dropped at his HQ. There were dogs everywhere. Unlike Norway, they were really friendly and welcomed attention. There were lots of puppies there too, gorgeous bundles of fluff. The Greenland dog is larger than the huskies used in Norway – see here. Konrad uses the fan formation, which is considered to be older than the tandem line, and it felt altogether more authentic. The sled looked very traditional, three of us on board, sitting on cushions covered with skins. Konrad warned us that the dogs would set off at a fast pace, and they certainly did. It was great fun, through that beautiful landscape, although British Health and Safety would have had a fit. But the centre of gravity in the sled always felt completely secure. Several dogs ran alongside free, as Konrad said they would get jealous if they were left behind. The real surprise came just before the end of the ride, when Konrad said, “You’re an author.” I was gobsmacked, and said, “How on earth did you know that?” He smiled and said, “I googled you.” When we got back to the hotel I told our rep what had happened, and after that everyone seemed to know. I think I may have made a few sales…

There isn’t a lot of wildlife to see. The Greenlanders say they still have thousands of polar bears, and they are not malnourished. Apparently one was seen at Kangerlussuaq airport in 2018, and another two in 2019. We did see a lot of reindeer (caribou to those from across the Pond) and a couple of musk oxen. The birds were limited to gulls and ravens. But on the last morning Bob looked out of the restaurant window as we were having our breakfast and said, “What’s that?” Initially we thought it was a cat, but as it ran off I realised it was an Arctic fox, still in its dark summer coat. It came back a further three  times, presumably for kitchen scraps. Sadly it was too dark to take a photo, but what a lovely finale!



Oh wow - I loved this! Descriptions alone are exciting, are you planning a book? Our daughter did an Erasmus term at a Uni in Finland (in winter) and managed to go up to the Arctic Circle, but that seems nothing to this amazing land. Lovely photo of the dog sled.
Ruth Leigh said…
This was fascinating. I've been interested in Greenland ever since I read "Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow."

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