Travel Journal: A Week in East 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. I was there shooting with photographer and aerial quadcopter pilot Karim Iliya and our gear was sponsored by Fjällräven Canada. For more photos, check out my East Greenland Gallery.
Day 1. June 3rd, 2016.
Kuummiut is a tiny fishing village perched on the edge of a fjord in remote Eastern Greenland. We arrived here after flying to Kulusuk, a landing strip with a miniature airport on a nearby island by way of a prop plane from Reykjavik. Just like a scene out of the Secret Life of Walter Mitty, there were only seven people on the seventy-eater and the flight attendants informed us that we should remain in our assigned seats scattered about the plane, until they too realized there were only going to be seven people on the flight.
We walked right off the plane at Kulusuk’s gravel landing strip and 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 and has its own customs and immigration procedures for international flights. We walked right past the unmanned customs check and into a small souvenir-store-turned-check-in-counter and were promptly asked if we needed a helicopter ride to Tasiilaq, the regions largest town on the island next door. We, however, were bound for the village of Kuummiut, a two-hour boat ride away.
As the fog settled in, icebergs were quickly choking Kulusuk’s small harbor and our 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, our host for the day. Lars came to Greenland from southern Denmark nearly two decades and after a few stints as a photographer and philatelic bureau director he decided he could just hunt and fish for a living in Eastern Greenland. He owns a few boats and was bringing us to his former home in Kuummiut to stay for a couple of days.
As we loaded our gear from the back of a four-wheeler trailer 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 we fumbled our gear through the local cemetery, white crosses protruding from the ground, down the rocky cliff face. Small, colourful houses dotted the rocky hill above the ice-latent bay. This place was strikingly beautiful, shrouded in mist that rose from the surrounding seas.
A group of Greenlandic fishermen were also headed back to Kuummuit from Kulusuk on their boat and we spend the better part of an hour navigating through the icebergs that had covered Kulusuk harbour toward the open sea. With spears and hooked sticks everyone helped out to push away the icebergs and create a small navigable path for the boats to clear. As the boats took turns in the lead (ours was larger and heavier, good for moving icebergs, theirs was smaller yet more agile, more adept at finding pathways through the ice), Karim flew the quadcopter overhead to capture the scene as it unfolded.
After about an hour of pushing through miraculously deep blue, white and translucent icebergs of all shapes and sizes, the sea ice appeared before us after a thin layer of sea ice still present across the bay. A pop rang out into the distance. One of the fishermen in the dingy was holding a rifle, butt firmly placed in 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 this time. Without any trees or agriculture, in this area every seal, fish, whale and polar bear is a treasured food source and an opportunity to catch one should not be spared.
Once we hit the open ocean Lars kicked the boat into high gear and we sped across the frigid sea to Kuummiut in a little over an hour. Somehow it was only around two in the afternoon when we arrived, as if time became irrelevant, and we walked up into the settlement. Lars handed us a key, showed us how to use the toilet and turn on the heating, and then said he would be back to pick us 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. We already walked by the Pilersuisoq, you saw. You’re going to want to sort that out first.” With that, Lars walked back down to the dock and took off for Tasiilaq before more ice could more in.
The Pilersuisoq is a general store that exists in nearly every Greenlandic settlement—think of it as a general store, grocery store, hunting supply store, post office and a place to pull out cash. It’s large enough 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.
Karim and I flipped through the freezers hoping to find some of the local catch—fish seals, 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.
We took our supermarket catch back to the house and popped one of those pizzas in the oven as we prepared out sleeping pads and bags for later. It was a bizarre yet thrilling feeling to be looking out of the cabin window onto a bay of icebergs and colourful little houses all perched on the rocky shore.
After lunch we set out to explore the settlement. Lars has found us a local willing to take us fishing with him at 5am the next morning so we had plenty of free time for the rest of the day to wander around. I did not make it out the door before I caught the attention of the children. They had seen us coming up from the Pilersuisoq a while earlier and were waiting outside the steps leading to the house. Before long, Karim and I had a troupe of about a dozen kids in tow.
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 Inuktitut and even Danish is not very prevalent around here even though this is technically part of Denmark. One of the older children, a rambunctious twelve-year-old who watches a lot of American TV and wishes to become a ninja named Robert, has a pretty good English vocabulary, so he’s been our unofficial translator with the other children. They enjoy having me copy Inuktitut 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 style across the settlement. The first time I put him down he patted me on the back and then all of two minutes later came to show me a small cut on his finger as if it’s a great excuse to get carried around again. Well, it worked. As we wandered through the settlement, scaling over boulders and seaweed, the grandparents would watch on and come out to chat. I’ve been surprised with their English level actually, better than most of the children. I guess carrying kids piggyback made me trustworthy in the community since all the old people come over to have a short conversation. One grandmother was really happy I came from Canada; she said we were neighbours but too removed from each other and could not understand why.
Karim had the quadcopter with him and the children loved watching him fly it around. They jostled for positions to see Karim’s ipad screen as the drone buzzed down the fjords and across the settlement. As the drone took to the skies, we walked to the end of the settlement to the helicopter landing pad, a square-shaped gravel field with a lines spray-painted yellow. 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.
Each family in Kuummiut keeps sled dogs; they are all tied up across the village in front of houses in groups. Occasionally the dogs are let lose to roam around and get into fights with neighbouring dogs, creating a commotion audible across the entire settlement. Pieces of 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 for their food, so now that 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 education on protecting the local environment.
The pathways have become littered with wrappers and cans and since we are in Greenland where there are neither trees nor soil, the settlement’s official dump is just off one of the cliffs. 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 remoteness.
The children left us around six to head home for their dinners, so Karim and I decided to do the same and went back to hour 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 being able to buy food supplies. After crashing for a few hours form exhaustion coupled with 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.
Day 2. June 4th, 2016.
The next morning I woke up to my 4:30am alarm with a pretty bad headache. I could not tell whether it was from a lack of sleep, a lack of good sleep, a reaction to the anti-parasitic medications I was on since picking up that little devil in Russia back in March or from something else. I popped in an Advil and got dressed, pulling up my black Fjallraven pants over a fresh pair of long underwear and layering myself with fleeces underneath my puffy.
Having never gotten dark, it was of course already light outside when we walked down the rock path to the fishing harbour. Fatty seal corpses and an entire whale skeleton could be found amongst the boats and fishing lines scattered about the dock. Illi, the local fishermen who me met the day before came walking down in his bright yellow jacket and sunglasses carrying a fishing pole and green fishing net attached to the end of a long stick.
Ammassak, a small, slender fish, were gathering along the fjords in massive numbers to lay eggs and this was a great opportunity for the local fishermen to stock up. We took the dingy past what seemed like a gate of icebergs through the harbour and into the open sea before turning down a nearby fjord. We hugged the coastline with the motor barely running until a large school of fish appeared below the boat in the shallows. Illi carefully pulled out his net and gently dipped it into the water before dragging it quietly though the school of Ammassak below. He slowly pulled up the net with about a couple dozen fish suck in its grasp.
Illi flipped open a large plastic bag and dumped the wiggling fish inside before navigating the boat back over the school of fish and repeating the process. Before long he had an entire forty-pound bag full of fish.
We spent the rest of the morning walking around the coastline, hopping over streams of glacial runoffs as they made their way to the open ocean. Thick moss, grass and lichens covered the rocky shoreline, providing a soft place to take a small nap looking out onto the fjord, with the icebergs floating in the distance. Karim woke me up after about thirty minutes, it was time to head back into the boat and explore some of the largest icebergs in the area.
We sent the drone flying over the icebergs as we meandered through them making our way back towards Kuummiut; the scene was spectacularly beautiful. The fog burned off from the ocean’s surface and the sun illuminated the bottoms of the icebergs, contrasting them against the dark ocean floor. The ice displayed a spectrum of light blue hues, uncovering the depth of the icebergs below the surface, with edges jetting straight towards the bottom of the ocean.
Back in Kuummiut harbour, Illi unloaded his catch with a crack of a smile and bid us farewell, hauling the bag of fish over his shoulder as he walked up through the settlement.
Karim and I stopped at the Pilersuisoq to pick up some goodies for lunch and went back to our house. I was exhausted. While my headache had subsided the exhaustion had most definitely set in and after getting only about halfway though lunch I crawled into my sleeping bad and slept for four hours. I awoke at around six in the afternoon and while Karim was still asleep I started sorting and backing up my photos from the past two days. It is still a strange feeling to be using my work computer, the very device that sits at my desk everyday in the office, now in remote eastern Greenland—I do genuinely love this semi-digital-nomadic life.
We did not leave the house until around ten thirty at night, just as the sun was low in the sky, shedding warm light onto the mountains to the east of the settlement. We walked over to the fjord and took the drone out for an hour or so, taking it high above the fog that was quickly approaching Kuummiut from the sea for a miraculous sunset as the sun dipped below the high stony mountains behind the settlement. It was just before midnight when we walked back to the house, and although it was getting colder outside, dipping just below freezing, it was still light out.
Day 3. June 5th, 2016.
We woke up the next morning just before nine and began to casually gather our gear and supplies, clean up the cabin and prepare a quick lunch all while listening to some Mumford and Sons from my laptop. The last chore we had to do before leaving was to switch out the plastic bag from the toilet.
Since there is no plumbing in the settlements, the toilets each have these biodegradable (?) black plastic bags that you tie off and place on the side of the pathway for collection. It sounds simple enough, not exactly a pleasant chore mind you, but not the worst thing either. Unfortunately for me, our plastic shit and piss bag had somehow sprung a leak, which I realized only after lifting it out of the toilet. Attempting to dodge the outpour of urine gushing from the hole in the bottom of the bag, I launched it out the doorway and onto the porch. I wish I could say I stayed clean, but alas, I did not. My clothing stayed clean though, but my hands definitely got wet. And I know that liquid certainly was not water.
Feeling a little big disgusted with myself and still mentally and physically recovering from the parasite incident in Russia, I was not about to take any more risks. Granted, I was thinking that thought while dripping with piss liquid that had been stewing in a couple days worth of shit. I tied off the bag as quickly as I could, rushed back into the house and proceeded to wash my hands as if I were a surgeon preparing to enter the operating room. Once finished, I repeated the process again and then once finished for the second time, I applied a satisfying amount of hand sanitizer across my fingers and hands. While not fully mentally ready to accept what had happened, I was at least physically okay with it.
Let’s move on.
We took a little speedboat from Kuummuit to a tiny settlement called Tiniteqilaaq (or Tinit for short), located about an hour and a half away. On the walk down to the harbour a bunch of the children from the past two days waved goodbye to us. The ride to Tinit went by quickly, as we sped past deep azure icebergs on our way up into the fjords.
Tinit is a small settlement, smaller than Kuummuit, and it somewhat feels abandoned, as many of the homes once occupied not sit empty, with windows boarded up. However, Tinit is located in one of the most dramatically beautiful places in the world, just alongside a massive icefjord covered in massive icebergs that have broken off from the glacier just above us. Many of the icebergs we’ve been seeing originated from here and it shows. The fjord is impressive and I spent hours today watching it—listening to the rumbling sounds of cracks and breaks, as massive chunks of ice slide off large icebergs and form smaller icebergs, splashing down into the sea below.
We have no plan here in Tinit and are not getting picked up for another two days, so we spend the afternoon wandering around. We met an old man who agreed to take us seal hunting by boat up the icefjord tomorrow morning and I’m really hoping that pans out. Much like other settlements, there is a very popular trampoline in the middle of town and many of the little girls love hanging out there, taking turns jumping three at a time, with the ice floe in the near distance. We showed them the drone as it flew over the incredible icebergs, revealing secret turquoise lakes on the tops of the largest icebergs as the water melts forming these exquisite pools only visible from above.
I took a short hike up to the top of the settlement, which provided an excellent birds’ eye view over the icefjord and gave me a little bit of time to reflect alone, which was a nice feeling. Since today is Sunday and Tinit is tiny, the local Pilersuisoq is closed until tomorrow morning and the shower house is also closed until 8am tomorrow. I’ll have to dig into my supply of cashews and protein bars for tonight’s dinner, since we ran out of the smoked minke whale (which tastes like beef and fish had a love child and then that love child was salted and put in a smoker for a while; I’m not going to lie, it was pretty good) and grilled trout Lars gave us earlier. Peace out until tomorrow’s adventure!
Day 4. June 6th, 2016.
We woke up this morning to a knock on the door at about half past nine. It was the old man we had met yesterday who agreed to take us out onto the icefjord in his boat. He knew a few English words, so I asked him for fifteen minutes and he motioned for us to meet him at the harbour. We got dressed, packed up our camera gear for the day and walked over to the harbour, stopping at the Pilersuisoq on the way to pick up some bread and dried dates.
Being amongst the icebergs was an incredible feeling that I cannot use words to describe. The immense size of some of them was incredible, and every few minutes you could hear cracks and breaks followed by a massive splash across the fjord as pieces big and small broke from the larger icebergs. The old man was very patient with us as we pointed out large icebergs we wished to see and he would navigate the boat over there.
One of the larger icebergs had formed an ice cave through the middle, as the sun hit the top a deep, aqua blue colour permeated throughout the inside of the cave. While it was far too dangerous to actually take the bat inside the cave, as car-sized chunks of ice were falling from it every ten minutes or so we did pull up pretty close and were able to take the drone inside as well as photograph it.
We continued on to more icebergs, one was so smooth and rounded, and reflected so perfectly onto the calm sea below that it looked like we were floating past an art exhibit in a modern art museum. It was impressive for us to need to take three spins around it, but none were as good as the first time when the seawater was perfectly still.
The old man found a flat iceberg, and it’s only when you approach an iceberg and can see how deep they go under the sea that they become truly impressive. This particular flat iceberg, while only a couple of feet above sea level, was massive, stretching far below where the eye can sea under water. He pulled out an anchor from the front of the boat and cast it onto the iceberg. With a cup raised he motioned for us to get off the boat and step onto the iceberg to collect fresh water from the aqua pools that had formed in the middle.
We ended up spending the better part of an hour on that one iceberg, dipping our hands into its fresh pools stocked with water that had been trapped in ancient glaciers from Greenland’s massive icecap, wandering around every bit of its surface as long as the ice below was solid enough to stand on, photographing its fresh water pools as they slowly drained out into the sea; the water around the mouth of the fresh water stream formed on top of the glacier was cloudy as the fresh and salt waters mixed together. It was a strange feeling, being on an iceberg for the first time, and it was only when some larger waives would hit the side of the iceberg and we would begin to gently rock back and forth that I was reminded that we were in fact standing on an iceberg.
We returned to Tinit in the afternoon and prepared a simple lunch back at home (read: frozen pizza). As we were finishing up the clouds began to clear and the sun started to beam down onto the icebergs. We spent the rest of the day, all the way until 2am, save for a small dinner break, outside chasing the sun with our cameras. Due to our high geographical position, the sun took a very long time to set down behind the mountains that form the edge of the fjord (which happened just past 11pm). Without a cloud in the sky, coupled with low tide, we were able to walk around the icefjord’s rocky shoreline, photographing the icebergs and the settlement as it bathed in sunset lighting. Some of the icebergs were washed ashore due to the tide and I was able to see all the intricacies of what was lying beneath the surface of the water while they were beached.
In the late evening, as the sun passed below the mountain peaks, the other side of the settlement was showered in a soft, pinkish light. We hiked back up the hill overlooking the village and photographed everything we could see, trying our best to avoid including the heaps of garbage scattered about the town and the unattractive water tower protruding from the middle of the settlement. We continued hiking around looking for the best angles until some of the untied dogs took too strong an interest in us and we headed back into the settlement for safety. By this point it was already past 2am and we decided to call it a night as the light began to intensify again.
Day 5. June 7th, 2016.
After scarfing down the rest of our pasta-goulash-canned-vegetables at a little past two in the morning last night I woke up naturally around 10am—another solid night’s sleep. I immediately popped on the water heater, since I knew this Greenlandic version of an AirBnB had instant coffee in the cupboard and we had bought milk from the Pilersuisoq the day before. I was happy to feed my caffeine addiction, although I’m even happier that I’ve significantly cut down on the amount of coffee I’ve been drinking since leaving Vancouver.
I made us breakfast— DrOetker Pizza of course—and then a man came to the door saying Lars sent him to take us to Tasiilaq, the de facto capital of Eastern Greenland, with over 2,100 inhabitants, or approximately eight times larger than the next largest place we’ve been to thus far.
We packed up our gear and walked over to Tinit harbour in three trips (we have a lot of gear) to load up the boat. On the way to Tasiilaq we stopped by an abandoned settlement with a dozen or so houses and a school attached to a church. The classroom was still littered with books and graffiti from travellers who have visited the site since the settlement bellied up in 1999.
The boat trip to Tasiilaq was much rougher than the previous rides. While before we were able to ride up and down the fjords to get to the settlements, for this trip we had to ride on the open sea, with large waves rocking little the boat side to side. One benefit to being out on the open ocean was the icebergs you get to see out there are far larger than the ones in the fjords. I’m assuming only the really massive icebergs still survive here from the winter and by massive I mean they would have dwarfed cruise ships had they been side by side. These things were incredible pieces of nature, like their own snow and ice islands off the Greenlandic coast.
The first thing I noticed about Tasiilaq was the cars and paved streets. I have not seen a car in days; in fact, I had not seen one in Greenland at all until Tasiilaq. A large container ship from the Royal Arctic Lines was unloading cargo at the harbour and lots more people were milling about the docks. The locals in Tasiilaq are far more fashion conscious than in the settlements, as makeup, earrings and trendy clothing (for what my sense of it is anyway, if any) became obvious almost immediately.
Backwards baseball caps reminiscent of home and died hair are common in Tasiilaq, East Greenland’s city of sorts, and there is more than one store, and even a restaurant, and I’ve counted at least five trampolines here as well (I have no idea why trampolines are so popular here, but it’s kind of amazing). The town is also clean, without heaps of garbage strewn about the pathways, and it had central plumbing and running water, all significant luxuries. I was able to even hop online for thirty minutes in the late afternoon to check emails and make sure things back at home were okay.
Karim walked around the town in the evening, stopped for some groceries (the Pilersuisoq had a lot more options here) and spend the evening chatting about how to make it as a photographer and how to grow one’s business along the same lines as one’s passion. It’s just past midnight now as I write this post and the sun recently went down behind the mountains surrounding the town; tonight’s sleep will be in a real bed. Tomorrow morning I would like to check out the post office before taking the boat back to Kulusuk. We are headed to Greenland’s capital—Nuuk—tomorrow evening without any plan mind you, but at least we will get to fly directly over the famed icecap.
Day 6. June 8th, 2016.
We woke up pretty late in Tasiilaq and scrambled to dry our still damp laundry before shoving it into our packs. We popped the last of our frozen pizzas in the oven to get them cooked before our ferry to Kulusuk, they finished just it time; I slid them right back into the boxes they came in and took them with me to the ferry.
Our ride to Kulusuk was relatively uneventful; save for the massive icebergs we passed on the way. The trip was pretty rocky, being at open sea and all and I was on the verge of getting seasick, thankfully the ride only took about forty minutes. Once there, we scuttled over the seaweed covered rocks at the harbour, that just days ago when we had arrived in Greenland was clogged with icebergs, with all of our gear and walked it up a short way to the local Pilersuisoq and asked them if we could store it there as well as book a ride to the airport for later in the afternoon—at 300 Krone for the ride it was practically highway robbery, but again, we had no choice with all the gear we were carrying and there were no other rides available in Kulusuk.
Karim and I spend the afternoon wandering around Kulusuk. There was a day tour group of foreign tourists who had just flown in from Reykjavik for the day wandering around as well; we ended up joining them for the first hour or so, and then wandered off to do our own thing. We headed into the hills surrounding the settlement and napped on rocks with a spectacular view over both Kukusuk as well as the sea. Every hour or so an Air Greenland helicopter from Tasiilaq would buzz overhead, shuttling passengers between the town and the airport.
We had a picnic lunch on the rocks and then walked down back into the settlement to grab our packs and shuttle over to the airport. Tons of sled dogs lined the pathways; one dog couple had newborn puppies and they were carefully carrying them in their mouths to prevent them from falling down the embankment onto the pathway below. I watched them for about ten minutes until I spotted our plane, a bright red Air Greenland Dash 8, making a turn over the settlement and head over to the airport. That was our cue to head over to the airport as well, so we walked back to the Pilersuisoq to find our bags already packed into the car. “There you are” the store manager said upon seeing us; “ready to go?”
With that we hopped into the pickup truck and drove the ten or so minutes to Kulusuk’s little airport. We were the last to arrive, even though we were still very much on time for the flight, and after shifting batteries into carry-ons, check in was simple. We did not even need to present our passports, they already assumed we were the two people yet to check in, and there is no security check at Greenlandic Airports, so we just weighed our packs and then they called everyone to board the aircraft five minutes later.
We walked straight onto the plane, seating was not assigned, and before long we were on our way to Nuuk, about thirty minutes earlier than our scheduled departure time. The flight took us directly over the ice cap, a bright, glowing white as far as the eye can see. After an hour and a half, we were in Nuuk, Greenland’s capital of about 17,000 people. We had no plan not any real idea of where to go, so we ended up taking a taxi from the airport around town until we found somewhere acceptable—an amazing little hostel called Vandrehuset—we practically had the place to ourselves and with full WiFi, beds, showers and a kitchen, we were thrilled. The owner is from Denmark, but has been living in Nuuk for thirty years—he had also recently been in Revelstoke for a snowmobiling trip, so we got along great from the beginning.
Karim and I settled into the hostel, went downtown to pick up some groceries, and spend the evening in, cooking and getting work done now that we were given unlimited Internet access—a rare treat for Greenland, since all internet is provided via the mobile communications companies or satellite, since there are no underwater cables to Greenland.
Welcome to West Greenland. Story to be continued...