My First Day in Greenland
The following post contains excerpts from my travel journal, replete with stories and photographs, from my time spent throughout the settlements of East Greenland in June of 2016.
Day 1. June 3rd, 2016.
Just like a scene out of the Secret Life of Walter Mitty, there were only seven people on the Air Iceland seventy-seater propeller plane. Seven. The flight attendants informed us that we should remain in our assigned seats, which were scattered about the cabin, for even weight distribution. Apparently, Kulusuk, Greenland is not a very common travel destination.
We disembarked a couple hours later at Kulusuk Island’s gravel landing strip and I made my way into a terminal building, after all this was an international flight and although Greenland is officially part of the Kingdom of Denmark, it is not part of the European Union. Therefore, it has its own customs and immigration procedures, supposedly anyways.
I was ushered right past the unmanned customs booth and into a small souvenir-store-turned-check-in-counter. Someone came out from behind a desk and promptly asked if I needed a helicopter ride to Tasiilaq, the region's largest town on the island next door. I politely declined. No big towns for me, rather, I was bound for the settlement of Kuummiut, a two-hour boat ride away.
As the fog settled in, icebergs were quickly choking Kulusuk’s small harbour and my window to leave was shrinking by the minute.
“If your plane arrived thirty minutes later there would have been no way to land; you would have been flown back to Iceland.” Commented Lars, my host for the day. Lars came to Greenland from southern Denmark nearly two decades ago, and after a few stints as a photographer and philatelic bureau director, he decided he could just hunt and fish for a living in Greenland. He owns a few boats and was bringing me to his former home in Kuummiut to stay for a couple nights.
As I loaded my gear from the back of a four-wheeler down into the boat, stumbling across the rugged, craggy, seaweed-covered coastline, local children looked on from their trampoline. They bounced up and down, taking turns at backflips, as I fumbled getting massive camera bags through the local cemetery.
White crosses protruded from the ground, down the rocky cliff face, all the way to the boat anchored below. Small, colourful houses dotted the rocky hill above the ice-latent bay. The place was strikingly beautiful, shrouded in mist that rose from the surrounding seas. The sound of icebergs clunking together echoed through the harbour.
A group of Greenlandic fishermen were also headed back to Kuummuit, and we took turns moving icebergs with spears and hooked sticks to clear a narrow path for the boats to pass towards the open sea. After about an hour of pushing through miraculously deep blue, white and translucent icebergs of all shapes and sizes, the sea appeared before us.
A pop rang out into the distance. One of the fishermen in the dingy was holding a rifle, butt firmly placed against his shoulder. “It dove under, one last bit of strength.” Lars lamented. A red blood spot was all that was left on the surface of the ice.
The ringed seal sank to the bottom of the ocean, a meal lost to the sea. Without any trees or agriculture, every seal, fish, whale and polar bear is a treasured food source; an opportunity to catch one is treasured by the locals.
Welcome to Greenland.
Once we hit the open ocean, Lars kicked the boat into high gear and we sped across the frigid yet calm sea to Kuummiut. Somehow it was only around two in the afternoon when we arrived, as if time becomes irrelevant in a land where the sun does not set in the summer. e walked up into the settlement.
Lars handed me a small metal key to the house, showed me how to use the toilet and turn on the heating, and reminded me I would be back to pick me up in two days.
“The little blue house is where you can get drinking water, and the grey houses down there are for showering if you would like. ” With that, Lars walked back down to the dock and took off for Tasiilaq before more ice could more in and block off the harbour.
Pilersuisoq is a general store that exists in nearly every eastern Greenlandic settlement—think of it like a tiny Walmart. It's a general store, grocery store, hunting supply store, post office and a place to pull out cash. And it’s large enough in Greenland that there are even Pilersuisoq-brand cereal and condiments for sale. Many food items come frozen from Denmark and although they are likely partially subsidized by the Danish government, they are by no means cheap.
I flipped through the freezers hoping to find some of the local catch—fish, seal, even whale, but we only found frozen pizza dinners, microwave-ready lasagnas, wedge potatoes, beef brisket and pork cutlets among others. Realizing that this may be a sort of blessing in disguise, we stocked up on DrOetker Pizza Tradizionale, Pilersuisoq brand Cocoa Crispies and pre-marinated frozen pork cutlets.
I took my supermarket catch back to the house and popped one of those pizzas in the oven. Good way to kill some time while setting up the house. I laid out some sleeping pads and took out my sleeping bag, placing it on the wooden bed frame in the back room.
It was a bizarre yet thrilling feeling to be looking out of a cabin window onto a bay of Arctic icebergs and colourful little houses, all perched on a rocky shore in Greenland.
After eating, I set out to explore the settlement. I did not make it out the door before I caught the attention of the local kids.
They had seen me coming up from the Pilersuisoq a while earlier, and were waiting outside the steps leading to the house. Before long, I had a troupe of about a dozen kids in tow, meandering around the settlement.
Although they learn English in school, most of the kids only know a few words and don’t really put together sentences. Everyone speaks Greenlandic to each other, as even Danish is not very prevalent around here. One of the older children, a rambunctious twelve-year-old who watches a lot of TV and wishes to become a ninja, has a pretty good English vocabulary, so he’s been my unofficial translator with the other children. They enjoy having me copy Greenlandic words, with their strong guttural stops and slurring, and laugh each time unless I get it right—then I get handshakes and little pats on the back.
One of the little ones just likes me to carry him piggyback across the settlement. The first time I put him down he patted me on the back. Two minutes later, he came back to show me a small cut on his finger as if it’s a great excuse to be carried around again. Well, it worked.
As I wandered through the settlement, scaling over boulders and seaweed, the grandparents would watch on and come out to chat. One grandmother who had a pretty decent command of English was really happy I came from Canada. She said we were neighbours but too removed from each other and could not understand why.
I walked to the end of the settlement, where there lies a gravel helicopter landing pad. Kuummiut, with less than three hundred inhabitants, does not have any cars and is only accessible by boat, helicopter, or when the sea ice is frozen by dogsled or snowmobile.
Nearly all the families in Kuummiut keep sled dogs; they are tied up across the village in front of houses. Occasionally, the dogs are let lose to roam around and get into fights (or procreate) with neighbouring dogs, creating a commotion audible across the entire settlement. Pieces of yellow, air dried seal blubber are found around the dogs, which leads me to think they are given seal scraps from the local families to eat.
The downside to this Pilersuisoq-based convenience is all the garbage generated by all the plastic wrappers and bottles. I guess it was not too long ago when settlements like this were completely dependent on the ocean and ice for their food. Now they can easily pick up a frozen pizza or chicken tikka masala. However, taking care of the trash is a different problem all together and there seems to have not been much progress in terms of protecting the local environment.
The pathways have become littered with wrappers and cans. This is eastern Greenland; there are neither trees nor soil to help bury and decompose garbage. The settlement’s official dump is just off one of the cliffs.
Looking around, I don’t think there’s an easy solution to all this. I guess they could burn it, but that would create a different problem all together. Ideally, at least some of the solution could start with what kinds of packaging materials are allowed into the settlements in the first place to cut down on waste, but they would probably further exacerbate prices in a place that is already really expensive given its inaccessibility.
The children left around six to head home for their family dinners. I decided to do the same and went back to the house to cook. This was my first time in a place with twenty-four hours of daylight and I did not know what to expect. Time almost seems to stand still—the only thing to pay attention to is when the Pilersuisoq is open so you don’t lose out on buying food supplies.
After crashing for a few hours from a combination of exhaustion and jetlag, I watched the nightless night pass by from the window, with a certain degree of bemusement as to what to make of it. Even as I write this post now in Kuummiut, it’s 2:10 am and still light outside. I will not see a dark night for the next three weeks; what an adventure lies ahead.