Published July 23, 2004
The town has around 500 inhabitants, almost all of whom work at the airport. The area was uninhabited until World War II, although it was used for fishing in the summer by the natives and still has some ancient burial grounds. In 1941, a year after Denmark was occupied by the Germans, the Danish ambassador in Washington DC handed protection of the vast country over to the United States. Kangerlussuaq, known as Söndre Strömfjord in Danish, Sondrestrom in English, was chosen as the best location for an air force base as it is situated inside a very long fjord, promising reasonable weather conditions at all times of year.
Codenamed Blue West 8, it became one of the most important stopover sites between North America and Europe during the war. The base was handed back to Denmark in 1950 but, just as in Iceland, in 1951 the Americans were back having signed a new defence agreement with the government. The Americans also operated early warning radar stations in the area, and in the mid-fifties the airport became a stopover for SAS on its transatlantic journeys between Copenhagen and Los Angeles. The American base was finally shut down in 1992, and control was handed back over to Greenland´s Home Rule, and renamed Kangerlussuaq. It remains the country´s biggest airport.
A musk ox´s reputation
As I got out from the airport, a guide herded us into a bus the way his ancestors may have herded reindeer over the tundra, and we set off for the mountains. In Kangerlussuaq, there seem to be two things to do; golf and search for musk ox. This particular night, we were searching for musk ox. The musk ox looks like a cross between a sheep and a bull. It´s Latin name, Ovibos, implies a combination of the two. Translated into Icelandic, this comes out as sauðnaut. In the Icelandic language, someone inordinately stupid can be called a “sauður,” a sheep. If those boundaries are passed still further, the term sauðnaut may be applied, denoting someone even more daft than a mere sheep.
But does the mosk ox deserve its reputation? The bus stopped, and we tourists got out to take pictures. Somewhere out there in the distance, the oxen were blots in the landscape,. “Can we approach them?,” asked a girl. “Sure,” said the guide. “But they´ll run away,” he added. The girl decided to put this theory to the test. Whether it was curiosity about the habits of musk oxen or just an ingrained habit of following girls in whichever direction they were heading, I followed. It was a long downhill run. As we approached, we learnt that the guide’s prediction had proved correct. The oxen disappeared over a hill, and I looked back at the long uphill walk back, which seemed somewhat more imposing than the run down. In the intellectual battle between man and musk ox, it seemed the ox had won this round.
Breeding like a musk ox
It may have been the musk ox that originally brought man to Greenland. Before the invention of the kayak, the inhabitants lived mostly off land animals. There not being a great variety of these in Greenland, the musk ox must have been a staple. The natural habitat of Greenlandic musk oxen is the east coast, facing Iceland. From there they have lately been transported to other parts of Greenland. 27 specimen were moved to Kangerlussuaq in 1965. Now their population there numbers some 3500. No doubt the expression “breeding like musk ox” will be catching on soon.
Sweating more than I thought possible this far north, I made it up the hill. The guide herded us back into the bus. He told me he had been doing this for 17 hours straight now. He used to work in a shop at the airport and do part time guiding. He had recently taken the leap to being a full time guide. Business was good, but tiresome.
We drove back the narrow mountain road to the airport. The airplane took off and headed back over the glacier towards that centre of civilisation and urban excitement known as Reykjavík. During the Ice Age, musk oxen were found as far south as Illinois. When the icecaps retreated, the musk ox followed them north. Perhaps you need to be a “sauðnaut” to follow a retreating glacier. But then what does that say about all of us inhabitants of the far north?