One dog starts to bark, then another and another. Soon the mass barking turns to plaintive howls as the Greenlandic dogs all over Ilulissat start calling to one another — echoing across the Arctic tundra.
It’s a sound I’ll never forget, haunting yet at the same time, filled with excitement and anticipation. It’s only the start of September, but the huskies know autumn has already arrived here in Greenland. Soon the temperatures will plummet, heralding the return of the snow. Then once again these powerful and proud Arctic dogs will start doing the job they’ve been bred to do for hundreds of years — pulling the sleds which take the Inuit people out to their winter hunting grounds.
People travel to the Polar regions to experience the wildlife, the glaciers and the wilderness, but Greenland has an extra-added ingredient — a fascinating indigenous population. Greenland was one of the last places on Earth to be populated by human beings. Our life in the freezer began here when the first wave of Paleo-Eskimos crossed over from Northern Canada more than 4,000 years ago. Today’s Inuit are descended from the Thule people who arrived around 1,000 years ago, and it’s understanding these people, their culture and their visceral connection to the natural world that will shape any trip to this inspiring wilderness.
The interior of Greenland’s vast landmass is covered with a permanent ice cap. Even with rapid climate change, all human life is forced to cling close to the coastline. But don’t worry, you won’t feel pushed out — there are only 57,000 people here including 5,000 Danes. The population is so small and the terrain so mountainous and wild that there are no roads connecting the towns and tiny settlements. Only a handful of places actually have tarmacked roads.
Not surprisingly, the best way to experience what Greenland has to offer is by sea and I’ve joined Quark Expeditions’ Greenland Explorer itinerary. My trusty ship, the Sea Spirit, is as comfortable as many standard cruise ships, despite being on the small side, but that’s where the similarities end. The focus here is on adventure, discovery and education — there are around 50 passengers, with as many crew. The 12-strong Expedition staff are all ridiculously qualified outdoor types, most of them experts in Polar exploration.
From day one, this is no ordinary cruise. In his soft Canadian accent, expedition leader Alex McNeil calmly announces to the assembled travel-weary passengers: “OK, well let me start by asking you to throw your travel itinerary out of the window.” A brave yet well calculated move. “For any particular day we may start with Plan A, but we more than likely end up with Plan Z.”
In an instant everyone understands — this really is an expedition. You must expect the unexpected and just go with the Arctic flow.
As he speaks we’re sailing down a massive fjord from Kangerlussuaq (you soon get used to the impossibly long words in the Greenlandic language). Kangerlussuaq sits just north of the Arctic Circle and is the main gateway to Greenland. It’s a tiny settlement in the south west with a large runway, built by the Americans, who first used it as a refuelling base during the Second World War.
Alex explains the expedition is broken up into three sections. The first he just calls “Ice Ice Ice”. As we reach the coast we head north, towards one of the world’s most dangerous shipping lanes. The next morning the reason becomes apparent — I spot icebergs dotted across the horizon.
As we enter the vast area of Disko Bay, the Sea Spirit starts to weave its way through the highest concentration of icebergs I’ve ever seen in my life. They’ve broken off the Jakobshavn Icefjord — the most active glacier in the Northern Hemisphere. It moves at a rate of around 65ft a day into a fjord just south of the town of Ilulissat. Its journey ends as the glacial ice reaches the comparatively warm ocean water. The result as it loses its grip are huge and dramatic carvings. Throughout the day the near silence is sporadically broken by the unmistakable and ominous sound of the ice fracturing, deep and guttural like distant thunder. It’s a reminder that even on glorious days like today, the Arctic is a wild place.
Shining like diamonds in the bright sunlight, it’s easy to forget icebergs are potentially lethal — only about a 10th of an iceberg sits above the surface of the water. These ’bergs are pushed south by the Labrador Current and can take four years to melt. I discover it was an iceberg from this very glacier that sunk the unsinkable Titanic in 1912. Now, I’m even more impressed with Captain Peter’s remarkable navigation skills as the Sea Spirit finally squeezes its way through two particularly massive iceberg fortifications and the pretty town of Ilulissat is revealed.
Cafes and kayaks
The following day I head into the town, dotted with brightly painted traditional wooden houses. They somehow look too delicate to withstand the battering of the winter months ahead. I walk uphill past clothing and souvenir stores, as well as a few coffee shops. Unable to resist a cappuccino I pop into the Icy Café, run by a lovely lady from Sri Lanka, of all places. Caffeine-fuelled, I continue my stroll out of town, passing first from the road onto a footpath and then clambering onto smooth grey rocks and carpet soft, autumn-tinged tundra.
My new vantage point allows me to see the Jakobshavn Icefjord from above. The view is staggering, back-lit by the sun low in the sky, — this vast fjord is choked with thick glacial ice several hundred metres thick. Under constant pressure, the ice’s surface has been twisted into thousands of giant Mr Whippy shapes. In January this is where the people of Ilulissat traditionally come to welcome back the sun, after over a month of total darkness.
Later that afternoon, I get to see more ice, this time from sea level. Greenland is the birthplace of the kayak, so what better place to go kayaking? Paddling in Greenland is something very special and part of the cultural experience. Even today, every town and settlement has kayaks. Traditional Inuit craft are one-offs, each made from wood to fit the individual owner. The hunter wears the vessel rather like a tailored suit from Savile Row. Armed with harpoons, the Inuit have used these Arctic torpedoes as hunting platforms for thousands of years, moving silently through the water to sneak up on seals and other prey. The bond between Inuit and kayak is so close that some hunters are actually buried with their kayaks.
While being kitted out with immersion suits and other paraphernalia, my kayak leader Val Lubrick says: “Now, I don’t want to burst your bubble, but don’t expect too much wildlife. Everything here will be afraid of you — most animals here don’t like kayaks.” And this mantra applies to the whole Greenland experience. This isn’t Antarctica, where the animals have never been hunted, but what you lose slightly in wildlife encounters you gain massively in cultural experience.
My first paddle in Disko Bay is all about icebergs, and who needs wildlife when you can be surrounded by hundreds of Arctic ice sculptures freshly carved from the glacier. The sun is out — it’s positively balmy in Arctic terms — the water dead calm and ice blue. In short, the conditions are perfect. You really appreciate the size and beauty of ’bergs when approaching them at water level. Nothing can compare to the utter tranquillity of paddling in this environment. Mesmerised I listen to the gentle lapping of the seawater against the ’bergs; the drop, drop, drop of meltwater and the occasional sound of waterfalls — often hidden within the heart of an ice diamond. I hear the pop, pop, fizz as air bubbles are released into the water.
I’ve plenty of time to sit back and stare at the myriad shining shapes — my imagination runs wild. Each ’berg takes on a new life. I see vast cathedral spires, haunting faces, reindeer antlers, tiny ’bergy-bits floating together like a family of ducks and even a Cornish pasty ’berg. No wonder the Inuit love this environment.
The second half of the trip is about the people, with visits to larger Greenlandic towns, including the capital Nuuk along with tiny settlements where subsistence hunting is still an integral part of life. As we head back southwards, Alex encourages everyone to brush away Western preconceptions and to be open-minded: “This is about cultural understanding. You’ve travelled thousands of miles to meet people who are culturally different from you — embrace these differences.”
I guess I’m better prepared than most, having recently spent four years as the series producer of Human Planet, made at the BBC’s Natural History Unit. The whole series followed people who still live close to the natural world, and much of the Arctic episode was filmed in Greenland. We often don’t connect the meat and fish that’s processed and vacuum-packaged for our supermarket shelves with living and breathing wildlife. In Greenland it’s very different. In a land where so little grows, the Inuit had to find a way to consume vitamins and other essential minerals from a limited number of animal species. It’s normal for people to go out and catch their own food for the family. This is sustainable hunting — for instance, Greenlanders have never been responsible for the worldwide crash in whale populations.
I adore animals but you have to be pragmatic. By the end of the trip I’d watched a couple carry the torso of a freshly shot reindeer into their house; I’d eaten delicious musk ox burgers; tasted all sorts of dried fish and chewed on uncooked whale blubber. My surprise favourite was seal meat; it’s just like sashimi, when served raw with soy sauce.
Even though whales are hunted, these waters seem to be filled with them; barely a day goes by without at least one sighting. One dusk, the Sea Spirit was surrounded by around 30 whales from at least three different species — minke, humpback and fin, the latter being the second longest animal on Earth. It was incredible.
Sisimiut, Greenland’s second largest town, is one of a number of places I meet local people. Here I book myself on a walking tour led by Betina Mathieson, a Dane who’s lived in Greenland all her life. The Danish colonised the country some 400 years ago and still hold power. Although the physical opposite to the indigenous Inuit — tall, blonde and blue-eyed — Betina is still every inch a Greenlander. Sisimiut has its own mountain and as I look up, I glimpse snow dusted like icing powder on the high peaks, a sign of things to come. I ask Betina what her favourite time of year is. “Winter — even though the sun leaves us. The snow is so white and with clear skies and a bright moon it isn’t really so dark. For me it’s the most beautiful time. The time when you can get out and be free.”
She didn’t mention the fact that in winter, with wind chill, temperatures can drop to below -50C. For Betina though, it’s also the time she can start using her sled dogs. She proudly shows me her seven Greenlandic dogs — you need at least six of these tough creatures to pull one sled.
Back on board and south of the Arctic Circle we reach the last leg of our journey, sailing into the land of the Vikings — the conquerors who named this magnificent land Greenland. On the western coast, sheep graze; the terrain seems familiar, rather like the Outer Hebrides. Then we enter the pure drama of the southern and eastern fjords; clear green waters, framed by vast granite mountains, gripped by glacial fingers stretching out from the hand of the ice cap. A farewell handshake? Perhaps. Too quickly, I realise my journey into Greenland’s freezer has come to an end.
Fly to Copenhagen — SAS, Easyjet, Norwegian and BA all fly from regional UK airports — before a connecting flight to Kangerlussuaq with Air Greenland. flysas.com easyjet.com norwegian.com ba.com airgreenland.com
Alternatively fly from Glasgow, Gatwick, Heathrow and Manchester with Icelandair via Reykjavik. icelandair.co.uk
Average flight time: 1.5h to Copenhagen; 4.5h from Copenhagen to Kangerlussuaq.
Greenland isn’t the easiest or cheapest place to get around. All the towns and main settlements are on the coast and there are no roads connecting them. The ideal way is by ship, while planes or helicopters are speedier. The unpredictable weather can cause delays, even in summer.
When to go
To see the Northern Lights and to go dog-sledding, you need to travel earlier or later in the season. For warmer weather, the midnight sun, flowers and breeding birds go in June or July. In mid-summer the average temperature is 10C but it can drop to around -15C during the winter months.
Need to know
Currency: Danish Krone (DKK). £1 = DKK 8.8.
Health: Due to the nation’s remoteness, it’s essential travellers bring all medication with them. Rabies is present but is only carried by wild animals. Even in summer bring warm and wind-proof clothing. Quark provides an expedition grade jacket and waterproof boots for excursions.
International dial code: 00 299.
Time Difference: GMT -3.
The Vanishing Arctic by Bryan & Cherry Alexander. RRP: £13.95. (Facts On File)
Human Planet by Dale Templar and Brian Leith. RRP: £25. (BBC Books)
How to do it
Quark Expeditions’ Greenland Explorer starts from £4,120 based on a triple occupancy room on the Sea Spirit for 13 nights including all meals, shore landings, a Quark Expeditions parka, photographic DVD journal and emergency evacuation insurance. Excludes flights. Kayaking (expect to go between four to six times) costs from $595 (£369) per person. quarkexpeditions.com
Greenland Travel offers a wide range of land-based tours including dog sledding, Northern Lights trips and whale watching. greenland-travel.com
Published in the Jan/Feb 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)