Our visit to Greenland was similar to Bolivia and the Falkland Islands in that it wasn’t our main reason for taking the trip (in this case to the Canadian High Arctic) and we had absolutely no expectations. And yet, as with our visits to Bolivia and the Falkland Islands, our time in Greenland provided many welcome surprises.
Why is Greenland called Greenland if it’s mostly ice?
According to legend, Erik the Red gave Greenland this name in the hopes of attracting settlers, enticing them with the mistaken perception that they would be coming to a verdant place. This was way back in the late 10th century A.D. You’d have to agree that this was early marketing at its best. The reality was quite different, which gullible Norse settlers would have discovered when they arrived. Greenland is huge – the largest non-continent island on the planet, and 80% of it is covered by an ice sheet that is second in size only to that of Antarctica. That leaves a fringe of green around the coastline that altogether has a land mass similar to Germany in size, and virtually none of it is arable, since it is mostly tundra and has an exceedingly short growing season. Hopefully, the new settlers overcame their disappointment and embraced the fishing opportunities; they were a long way from home!
The Inuit of Greenland, the Greenlanders, not surprisingly, did not rely on the Norse for the name of their native land. For them – 88% of the population – the name is Kalaallit Nunaat (meaning Land of the People). And they refer to themselves as Kalaallit, not Greenlanders.
Inuit and the Norse, Inuit and the Danes
It’s easy to understand why the population of Greenland is largely Inuit, once you stop and think about it. The Inuit are the indigenous people who populate the North American Arctic areas, migrating from Alaska, across Canada, to Greenland. They have adapted their lifestyle and culture to the harsh climate of the north over the millennia. A bigger question is why Greenland is a former colony and currently an autonomous country within Denmark, with 11-12% of the population Danish, even though Denmark is thousands of miles away. It started with the early exploration of the Vikings (aka Norse, including Erik the Red) lured by fertile whaling and fishing grounds. The Norse colony lasted for a surprising 500 years. In the centuries after that European whalers came into frequent contact with the Inuit of Greenland, and in true European style of that era, in the 18th century missionaries from what was then the joint kingdom of Denmark-Norway arrived. The rest, as they say, is history.
Most recently, Greenland has moved to Self Rule, while still within the Danish kingdom. It is not a member of the EU and considers itself an Inuit country. With a population of only 57,000 people, and with their few towns and settlements only accessible to one another by boat or plane, it will be tough for Greenland to take the step to full independence, weaning themselves from substantial financial aid for health care and education from Denmark. But they remain hopeful. They do sit on lots of untapped natural resources. Go, Greenland!
The Inuit way of life is evident in the towns. Sled dogs were pervasive on our visit. In those precious summer months when the green fringe around the coastline is really green, the dogs were tied near people’s homes, while sleds and snowmobiles lay dormant, waiting for the long haul of the fall, winter, and spring of snow and ice. Sea kayaks (qajaqs), an Inuit invention and mainstay, were being made in a local boat yard while finished ones were stacked nearby.
The coastline of Greenland is jagged in the extreme. [In fact, I just idly googled “Greenland coastline” and discovered that while Canada wins the world’s longest coastline hands down, Greenland places third after Indonesia. Factoid of the day.] The fjords that create many of these jags have been carved out by slow-moving glaciers coming off the ice sheet. The fjords are given definition by sloping mountains and drifting icebergs, and provide protected areas for fishing.
Kangerlussuag is located at the head of a very long fjord, 190 km (120 mi) in length. It’s home to an airstrip left over from a U.S. Air Force Base established during WWII, which now serves as Greenland’s main airport and transportation hub. Also, several of the buildings left by the U.S. Forces are now used for other purposes, including a tourist hotel.
If you look closely at a map of Greenland you’ll see that there is justification in Kangerlussuaq calling itself Greenland’s only inland town. Because of the length of the fjord, it’s 190 km from the sea! It has another claim to fame: it hosts Greenland’s only road of any length. Thanks to Volkswagen, there is a 40 km (25 mi) dirt road that leads from Kangerlussuaq to the ice sheet. For the truly adventurous, you can use Kangerlussuaq as a starting point for hiking trips on the ice sheet or across the tundra. Or you can do what we did and take a bus! En route to the ice sheet we passed a few hardy souls hiking with big backpacks, another hardy group that had pitched their tent by a lake on the tundra, and also a campsite of reindeer hunters. As well as people, we came across reindeer, arctic hare, and, much to our delight, a pair of musk ox.
The story of why this road was built at all is an interesting one. It was built in 2000 by a Swedish construction company to test cars in extreme conditions. Once they built the gravel road to the ice sheet, they actually built an ice road on the ice sheet stretching 150 km, with the intention of testing cars’ performance in extreme cold and in conditions with little traction. This test site was to complement Volkswagen’s other test site in northern Sweden and Finland. The cars to be tested were flown from Europe to Kangerlussuaq for testing. Really. Certainly it came to no surprise to me to learn that this experiment hadn’t worked well; after a few years they gave up on the idea. Happily, Kangerlussuaq was left with this tourist treasure: easy access to the ice sheet. The ice sheet is deserving of a blog post of its own, but just to say, to walk on a small part of an ice cap that covers 660,000 square miles, realizing that you are standing on the edge of that giant white splotch on a globe called Greenland, is pretty incredible.
The Ilulissat icefjord also needs a blog of its own. But such an extraordinary gift of nature – and a UNESCO world heritage site – must be included in any description of Greenland. The fjord runs 40 km (25 mi) from the ice sheet to Disko Bay, just beyond the town of Ilulissat. Its special label of “icefjord” says it all. Its name reflects the bounty that comes from its resident glacier, which itself is a product of the Greenland ice sheet. This glacier isn’t just any old glacier, it’s the most productive in the Northern Hemisphere. The glacier calves about 20 billion tons of icebergs every year. That’s hard to get your head around. And many of the icebergs are so big that they get stuck on the fjord floor and can remain stuck there for a few years until they break up and float on. When the icebergs finally leave the icefjord and Disko Bay, they head north along the west coast of Greenland on a prevailing current before turning south and heading for the Atlantic Ocean. The expectation is that it was an iceberg from the Ilulissat icefjord that sank the Titanic.
While we were there we flew over the glacier …
and boarded small fishing boats to meander among these giants.
Fish, shrimps, and seals
One cannot do justice to Greenland without mentioning the importance of the sea to its economy. A full 90% of its exports are seafood, and a large percentage of the population is engaged in the industry, including sealing. The sea is the “bread basket” of Greenland. We saw lots of fishermen as well as busy fish and shrimp processing plants in our visits to Sisimiut and Ilulissat.
How can you get to Greenland?
You don’t need to sign up for a National Geographic Expedition in order to get to Greenland, like we did, although it is a super way to go. Instead, you can fly to Kangerlussuaq from Reykjavik in Iceland. How easy is that?! And there are tourist accommodations and outfitters just waiting to help you. This is the perfect holiday destination for fit adventurers looking for an entirely new experience … but, if you wait until you’re my age, you’ll probably want to save up and go with National Geographic, no matter how fit you might be!
Map credit: PlanetWave.com
Other blog posts on our trip to the Arctic:
Exploring the Canadian High Arctic – the lazy way
Have you heard about the Big 5? How about the Arctic Big 5?