Into The Wild: A Week Of Nature And Culture In Greenland

Into The Wild: A Week Of Nature And Culture In Greenland

Photos by
Axel Sig

The descent to Greenland begins suddenly, after four turbulent hours of flying through a constant storm. I squeeze down into the cramped seat, tilting my head horizontally to see outside, nose touching the cold glass. Vague shapes appear through the iced-up windows of our small passenger plane. Above, the rippling cloud ceiling is just distinguishable by the white light of the low moon; it’s mirrored below by endless undulating bulges of glossy snow that recede into the grey horizon. Seen firsthand instead of on a map, the vast scale of the world’s biggest island nation becomes vividly apparent.

Greenland’s capital, the coastal city of Nuuk, feels miniaturised by comparison. After an abrupt landing that consists of skirting a nearby mountainside, taking an alarming last-minute swerve and then screeching to a halt on the short 950m runway, we step out into the frigid, snowy darkness. Within minutes, we’ve passed through the tiny terminal, and get our first glimpse of Nuuk through the fogged windows of a taxi—rows of colourful houses and apartment blocks occupying rocky outcrops, all hemmed in by towering piles of freshly ploughed snow.

We’ve just missed some bad weather, as it turns out. “You’re very lucky,” says Liisi, our host in Nuuk, who greets us at the door of the Inuk Hostel and beckons us inside. “There was a big storm this weekend. All the planes in and out have been grounded for days.”

As it happens, we’re crashing the tail end of her daughter’s birthday party, and soon find ourselves tucking into some generously proffered leftovers of roast lamb, vegetables and cold beer. Liisi’s Greenlandic relatives watch us with curiosity, and the boldest of her grandkids decides to practise his English on us, dishing out high fives after a successful exchange of pleasantries. The atmosphere is warm and welcoming, and as the family members gradually leave, we’re shown through the darkness to a homely wood-lined cabin, drifting off to sleep impatient to see the view come daybreak.

Blood and ice

When I awake, Axel—one of Grapevine’s trusty photographers, and my companion for this week-long trip around the southwestern edge of Greenland—is already returning from shooting some pictures at the seaside. Apparently there’s a huge chunk of blue glacial ice floating past in the bay. We wolf down some breakfast, and head out towards the city centre between the piles of snow and icicle-draped houses.

Nuuk, Greenland by Axel Sig

There are a fair share of tower blocks, too, jutting out of the snow like black teeth. Nuuk, it becomes apparent, is an unusual mishmash of both architecture and cultures. On one hand, it’s not unusual to pass a shop dealing in animal skins, claws, carved horns and whole tusks that would be considered illegal trophies elsewhere. On the other, many of the stores are homogenous Danish chain outlets selling generic European products. One large general store is all-but empty except for its plasticky cafe, which offers free coffee to a throng of people who gamble continuously on the Russian and US football leagues.

I’m mulling this over on Nuuk’s main street when three weathered guys appear and hastily set up a crate-stall on the ground in front of the supermarket. A crowd gathers around them instantly, groping hands reaching in and pulling out black and white seabirds. An old lady comes running over the slippery road and grabs two birds by their dangling necks, holding them up to compare them. Within minutes, all the birds have gone, and all that remains of the impromptu market is a patch of blood-splattered snow.

Nuuk, Greenland by Axel Sig

Road to nowhere

The afternoon is spent taking a car tour of the city with a local city guide called Grace, who’s spent her lifetime amassing knowledge on every aspect of the town, from its education system to its infrastructure, nature, culture and politics. We cruise around the entire city, from the historic harbour to various landmarks and colourful suburbs.

“You have to be strong to live in Greenland. There are no roads between the towns—people travel by boat or plane. Further up north, it’s harder—when the last boat leaves for the winter, you know you’re gonna be there for a while.” – Liisi, Inuk Hostel

After an hour, we pass the last newly built neighbourhood, and the buildings peter out. The road from there on is unploughed, and we power through the snow until it finally dips towards the sea to a chilly spot that looks across the fjord to Nuuk’s small, busy harbour. We stand in a circle of rough stones, the arctic wind tugging at our hair and clothing, and look out across the frigid bay. This is where the road out of Nuuk ends.

“You have to be strong to live in Greenland,” says Liisi, back at the cabin. “There are no roads between the towns—people travel by boat or plane. Further up north, it’s harder—when the last boat leaves for the winter, you know you’re gonna be there for a while.”

67º north

We take an early morning flight for two days in Kangerlussuaq, a small settlement 40 minutes from Nuuk, and just inside the Arctic Circle at 67º north. The town is built up around a small international airport that was once a US Air Force base called Sondrestrom. The airport workers’ apartments—and the scant shops and local amenities—are mostly located in stark, functional buildings whose clean-cut designs hint at their military origins.

We’re picked up by Rasmus—a young Danish tour guide and former driver for the armoured division of the Danish army—in an Iceland-modified Toyota Land Cruiser 4×4. He arrives straight from the visiting dentist; everyone in town gets their teeth checked for free once annually, in the space of a single fortnight.

“I knew someone who worked here, and applied for this job like a shot,” recalls Rasmus, as we chug along under a heavily laden sky. “I settled in quickly. There are two bars, but in winter people mostly stay home and watch movies, or visit with each other. In the summer, it’s always light, so we barbecue and hunt.” He pauses thoughtfully, finishing: “You either love this life or hate it. And you know pretty quickly which one it is.”

“You either love this life or hate it. And you know quickly which one it is.” – Rasmus, Tour Guide

The road ahead is the longest in Greenland, clocking in at 40km from harbour to ice cap. The landscape along the way is both beautifully bleak and surprisingly rich in features. We pass an improbably located golf course, near-invisible under deep snow. The road continues around the edge of a test track where car companies try out prototypes, and then passes through a restricted area. This swamp was marked out after a kid on a school trip found an old unexploded mortar shell from a failed routine detonation of expired munitions.

Soon after, we pass large chunks of debris from a T-Bird training jet, and some old Saqqaq-era (ca. 2500 BC – 800 BC) burial mounds. “You find these all over Greenland,” says Rasmus. “Sometimes, you can see the bones poking through.” Combined with the various radars, masts and weather stations silhouetted on nearby mountaintops, the glacier road is like a particularly eventful episode of ‘Lost’.

A shivering forest

The road also meanders through the remains of a 1976 attempt to plant a Greenlandic forest, with saplings taken from similarly intemperate regions such as Alaska, Siberia and northern Scandinavia. Most of the trees died, but a few lonely pines stand shivering amongst the willow bushes. It’s here that we first encounter Greenland’s wildlife, when a fat arctic hare bounds up a nearby ridge, its pure white coat vivid even against the snow. Soon after, the 4×4’s roaring engine startles a family of grazing reindeer, who run along the roadside before crossing in front of us. They’re magnificent, strong, antlered animals who bound effortlessly over the difficult terrain, retreating to a safe distance then staring as we plough onwards.

It’s a short hike from the road to the Russell Glacier, which was named by glaciologist William Hobbs after his professor, during his famous “Hobbs expeditions” of the 1920s. In summer, the glacier sits across a river, but as winter sets in it freezes solid. As we cross, the dramatic icefall comes into view. We stop to catch our breath, taking in the spectacle—a 70m blue ice cliff, the same height as Hallgrímskirkja.

This spot marks the most accessible edge of the vast Greenlandic ice cap, which contains 10% of all the world’s freshwater reserves. The surface is riven with seams, like the rings of a tree, punctuated occasionally by collapsed sections. We look across the windswept vista in silent awe, listening to the creaking of the vast ice wall. Rasmus lights up a cigarette. “Just another day at the office,” he smiles. We laugh, and start back towards the still-running 4×4 for the drive back.

Rowing club

Back on the outskirts of Kangerlussuaq, on the shore of Lake Ferguson, lies a well regarded restaurant named Roklubben, or ‘The Rowing Club’ in English. Named after the building’s previous use, Roklubben specialises in locally-sourced ingredients, including thick reindeer steaks, various cuts of musk ox, and gamey grouse—all hunted in the region—as well as Disko Bay halibut.

Having realised very early on that vegetarianism would be extremely impractical in Greenland without some careful (and lacking) forward-planning, I opt for the halibut courses. As a starter, it comes as a pile of delicious, thin-cut, heavily smoked slices; the main is a creamy, melt-in-the-mouth oven-baked fillet with shrimp and dill sauce. Both are well-presented and perfectly prepared servings of a top-quality ingredient.

The meal’s finale is a ‘Greenlandic coffee’—a super-strong dessert cocktail, mixed by pouring a stream of flaming liquor into the glasses from a height, to create an ‘indoor aurora’. Despite being in the smallest town we’ll visit, Roklubben served the most enjoyable meal of the trip.

“Just jump on!”

The next morning, we sit in the departure lounge, sleepily watching the sky’s gradient change from dark, inky blue to fiery orange and luminous pink. Kangerlussuaq airport is tiny, but it’s also Greenland’s main air travel hub, and an improbably atmospheric hive of activity, with snow-blowers constantly clearing the runway of ice. Planes come and go in rapid succession, with their attending baggage carts, landing vehicles and fuel wagons zipping busily across the frozen runway.

Kangerlussuaq Airport in Greenland by Axel Sig

The flight takes off into a glorious sunrise that floods the plane’s cabin, and the frozen plains below, in pink light. Just twenty minutes later, we descend into Sisimiut, coming to a halt on a seaside airstrip so picturesque that it feels almost unreal. Sun rays catch the tops of the snowy islands that dot the bay, casting long shadows over the icy sea, and the world takes on on an indefinite magic-hour glow.

We’re met at the gate by Ólafur, an Icelander and an enthusiastic champion of Sisimiut who’s lived there for several years. Our first order of business is to go dog-sledding. Before long, we’re in the hallway of a nearby wooden house, suiting up from head-to-toe in bulky sealskin clothing, worn over the top our lopapeysur, parkas, hats, scarves and everything else.

Marius, a no-nonsense Greenlandic dog-team driver with a weathered, lined face, waits outside. His dogs howl with building anticipation as he gestures for me to sit in the back of the sled. He sends Axel running up to the top of a nearby ridge. “Just jump on as it comes past!” he shouts. “Okay then!” replies Axel, gamely, running up the hill. The dogs’ howling reaches a crescendo, and suddenly, the creaking sled leaps forwards. I grip the ropes that criss-cross the frame for dear life, giggling uncontrollably as we shoot up the steep slope. Within a few seconds Axel appears out of thin air, plopping down in front of me, his camera held aloft. We cackle with laughter as we cross the ridge into a flat white expanse.

Marius reappears from behind us, clambering deftly to the front of the sled. He communicates with the dogs by shouting out high-pitched syllables such as “jú, jú!” and they turn or change speed in response. He sometimes hollers to us in broken Danish over the hissing of the runners scraping over the snow. “We’re crossing a frozen lake, now,” he shouts. “All of this is water in summer.”

“I took some tourists on a trip across the ice cap once, on the dog sled. It took a month to cross it, and another month to come back.” – Marius, dog-sled driver

We pass through a couple of route marker flags, picking up speed. “I take the sled to Kangerlussuaq every year to hunt the musk ox,” shouts Marius, “and bring back four, on the sled, to feed the dogs.” He cracks the whip to the either side of the pack occasionally to guide them. “I once took some tourists on a trip across the ice cap on the sled,” he says. “It got damaged and I had to repair it along the way. It took a month to cross it, and another month to come back.”

At one point, we see a stray dog ahead. “It must have gotten loose from another pack,” says Marius. The loose dog mistakes our pack for its own, and tries to rejoin, but is instead set upon and fiercely mauled. It gets lucky and rolls aside unharmed, baring its sharp fangs as we head onwards.

After an hour of mushing between the frozen mountains, the colourful houses of Sisimiut come back into view. As we reach the house once again, we clamber off the sled, breathless and aching. I’m filled with admiration for the indefatigable Marius.

A dog’s life

Sisimiut, population 6,000, has a very different atmosphere to the more urban capital of Nuuk. The people we pass smile and wave, instead of marching by heads-down as they walk the colourful, hilly streets. Ólafur tells us about the town’s culture, which includes an annual music festival called Arctic Sounds, now on its third year. He shows us around the recently-completed culture house, which hosts open mic nights, workshops, and an international exhibition programme, and takes us to visit a small independent music school. With no music on the national curriculum, the school aims to fill a valuable gap.

We also drop into a Greenlandic art centre, where a handful of old Inuit people are showing off their craft skills, whether knitting or carving from soapstone, whale bones, walrus tusks and bear claws. The most talkative of them is a funny old Inuit guy called Barse, whose work space carries the dentist-drill smell of burning bone. “I buy my materials from hunters all over Greenland,” he says, as Ólafur translates. “I got this Walrus tusk from a Japanese guy up North, to make these polar bears.”

He holds one of the finished bears to the sawed-off end of the tusk, showing us the before-and-after. ‘I also use polar bear claws,” he says. “I had twenty, and I’m working on the last two now. I have to finish them before December 11.” He hands us various finished and in-progress objects to look at, and gives out business cards with a gummy grin. “You have Facebook?” he asks, in rough English. “Follow me on Facebook!”

Around the corner is a workshop and store called Quiviut, specialising in clothing made from musk ox wool. The shelves contain expensive mittens, socks, and decorative scarves that feel cashmere-soft. “I buy the musk ox skins in Greenland,” says Anita, the store’s Danish owner, who pioneered the use of this material, which was previously burned by hunters who thought it useless. “They’re cleaned and washed here. But we don’t have anywhere to spin it into wool in Greenland, so I send it to Denmark and Peru to get the wool made.”

The tour winds up with a short walk out into the hills, where most of Sisimiut’s dogs are kept. The adults are kept apart in pairs, each one having a radius dictated by its chain. Some of mothers and their puppies run free, bounding around our feet. As we approach, dogs start to howl, and the sound soon passes through this dogtown, creating a chilling, discordant symphony as hundreds of dogs join in.

At one point, a fight breaks out—a large female picks up a puppy, shaking it violently until its neck gives a sickening crack. She carries it off as we stand watching, stunned. “I thought they were playing,” says Ólafur. “I’ve never seen that happen before.”

It’s a chilling reminder of the animal nature of the pack.

Greenland Dogs by Axel Sig

Seeing stars

When we return to Nuuk the next morning, the temperature has plunged down to -25ºc, and the city has gone fully Christmas. Every building in town seems to have sprouted an illuminated orange star in its window, a cosy tradition apparently passed down from German missionaries hundreds of years ago, and now apparently considered not so much a custom as a civic duty.

We spend our final day chatting to locals and checking out museums. The Nuuk Art Museum houses an excellent collection of paintings, sculptures and objects of interest, both contemporary and historic, and The National Museum, located in the well-preserved colonial harbour area, offers a fascinating history of the Inuit people. The displays start in pre-colonial times, explaining the hunting culture, instinctive survivalism, and other aspects of the Thule culture (the indigenous people known later as Eskimos and, today, Inuits). It also explains the traditional Inuit spiritual belief system, which centres on mythology, shamanism, and maintaining a respectful harmony with the natural world. I feel a pang of sadness that this deeply-rooted philosophy seems largely confined to museums in modern, Danified Greenland.

“The statement ‘We are an indigenous people’ is important to me. In 2009, we got the right to manage our own natural resources—the right to the soil. That day, I got goosebumps.” – Maliina Abelson, Arctic Winter Games

Afterwards, we stop off for a chat with Maliina Abelson—a former UN representative for Greenland, on the Indigenous Peoples’ Council, and current head of the 2016 Arctic Winter Games. “I’m quite sure that if you went to the high school here and asked students ‘Do you consider yourself an indigenous person?’ they would say ‘no, I’m just a Greenlander’,” Maliina explains. “But I think what they fail to see is that we’re also citizens with a relationship to the rest of the world. The statement ‘We are an indigenous people’ is important to me. That’s what got us self-governance. In 2009, we got the right to manage our own natural resources—the right to the soil. I got goosebumps that day, but a lot of people said: ‘It’s just soil.’ But for me, the land is a big part of our identity.”

As the sun sets, we visit a Christmas fair in a sports hall, meeting a boatman from Ilulissat on one of the stalls. He carves ornamental fish that he sells at craft fairs, and tells us about his planned trip to Hafnafjörður next summer to sell his work at a Viking fair.

We leaf through photo books and writings by various people who have, over the years, become curious and then infatuated with Greenland’s landscape and culture. I realise that, in the space of just seven days, I’ve become one of them.

A week in Greenland might sound like a lot, but it serves as just a tantalising glimpse of a wild, immersive and fascinating country.

Leaving Greenland by Axel Sig

Accommodation in Greenland
Provided by Visit Greenland
It's cold in Greenland
John & Axel were kept warm by 66º North Jökla parkas.
Looking for a Greenland flight?
Fly with AirIceland.