Northern Exposure Part 2: Above and Beyond

June 27, 2012

Not entirely sure what to expect from the upcoming week, Meredith and I bade farewell to the mostly uninteresting city of Reykjavík. Before I go on, I think I should qualify that so as to avoid any undue criticism. First, I have no real problem with Reykjavík, it’s a fine and dandy city. That’s just it, however; to me, it’s par for the course when it comes to European cities. It doesn’t jump out or offer much aside from a quaint and somewhat charming downtown inundated with tourists in high-end outdoor gear (just like me). The night life is certainly fun, but equaled by many others out there… Reykjavík will need to do better than that to get my vote.

Our flight from Reykjavík domestic was due north about two hours. The destination was Nerlerit Inaat, a dirt airstrip on the shores of Kangerterajiva only suitable for STOL aircraft. After landing at Nerlerit Inaat we waited for the helicopter to take us the remaining 40 km to Ittoqqortoormiit. Ittoqqortoormiit is a strange town, founded by the Dane Ejnar Mikkelsen in 1925 and populated with East Greenlanders from other settlements essentially to stake a claim on that region of Greenland, otherwise extremely sparsely-populated; in particular, Denmark needed something to keep Norway off of the territory. The town itself doesn’t boast much, there is very little industry and a majority of the inhabitants survive off Danish welfare and subsistence hunting (polar bear, narwhal, and musk ox, primarily).

The region is known for its prevalence of polar bears. This caused a bit of a problem for us since we wanted to camp. Prices in Greenland are absurdly expensive, and the one public accommodation that Ittoqqortoormiit has is no exception. However, camping anywhere outside the town is not recommended, and polar bears have even been known to wander through town in search of food. We ended up staying at the guest house until we could find a proper place to camp, which never happened due to the heavy snow and lack of even terrain. Not content with being entirely dominated, we rented a 30-’06 from the local tourist office for hiking. Due to the wildlife, it’s necessary to carry a firearm with you whenever you leave town, and it’s not uncommon to see locals walking around town with a rifle slung over their shoulder. Never having fired a rifle before, I headed to the junk yard to get some practice in. It turns out bolt action rifles are pretty easy to use (and a lot of fun when you have an infinite supply of scrap metal to shoot at).

Ittoqqortoormiit has essentially nothing aside from one general store (the ubiquitous Pilersuisoq KNI) and one bar, the bar is only open on Fridays. The first few days of our visit amounted to soaking up a bit of the culture. The locals routinely looked upon us with a sense of detached curiosity. White foreigners (who are plainly contrastive with the local Greenlanders) are a somewhat regular sight, so we’re not greeted with awe or surprise, but rather idle disinterest. Several non-Greenlanders live in the town, but almost all of them are Danes there for work and the locals are used to them.

We had the good fortune of being there during National Day, which coincides with Summer Solstice. In the morning there was a painstakingly monotonous church service which consisted of bible verses (presumably) in stilted and awkward Greenlandic interspersed with considerably more entertaining organ music (played by the manager of the guest house, with whom we were well acquainted at this point). Later, pretty much the entire town congregated at the local sports arena (an indoor soccer field about a quarter the size of an official one) for some local cuisine and cultural exercises. The food consisted of a variety of meats, mostly walrus, seal, polar bear, narwhal, and musk ox stewed in their juices for what appeared to be not long enough (judging by their consistency). Regardless of origin, they pretty much all tasted like low tide. The singing and traditional costume was fairly interesting.

At a mighty 70.5° north, the sun didn’t drop below the horizon for the week that we were there (or indeed for many weeks on either side of that). The 24 hour daylight didn’t really bother me. I found myself getting tired and being able to sleep at the usual times, but I was also able to wander around town or hike, regardless of time of day. I would head out for hikes at around 20:00 and not have to worry about being caught in the dark (or by a polar bear, for that matter, with my trusty 30-’06 on my shoulder). There was more snow than I was expecting for the time, so hiking opportunities were slightly limited. Fortunately, the tourist office had a pair of snowshoes I was able to rent. I could use the snowshoes to head out into the valleys, at which point I could reach the ridge line where the snow gave way to barren rock and I could traverse the ridges for as long as I like with the snowshoes in my bag.

June is a time of many changes in that area. The punishing dark giving way to a constant light; the temperature, however, remains only slightly above freezing for almost the entirety of summer due to the angle at which the sun’s rays hit that area of the earth. We were witness to the river through the middle of town suddenly turning from solid ice to an uncontrollable rapid in a matter of hours. The pack ice over the bay was hardly what it was during the winter, but it was still navigable by dog sled. The dogs have a good sense of where the ice is thick enough to traverse and where to avoid; that in conjunction with the keen instincts of the driver and the locals are able to navigate across the ice well into July. We took a dog sled out to the abandoned village of Uunarteq on our last day in town.

That night was Friday, that means bar night. Our sled driver’s English was already barely comprehensible, but he insisted on taking us to the bar that night. After a many drinks (Greenlanders are heavy drinkers) he was rendered entirely unintelligible, but still fairly entertaining. The bar was slated to open at 22:00, but apparently the owner of the bar was either drunk or taking a shower (according to hearsay among the locals) so he didn’t end up showing up until about 01:00. We’re told that the bar gets pretty busy later at night, but we had an early flight the following morning, so we ponied up the cover charge (Yeah, cover charge… most of the other youth of the town refused to pay. I’d imagine the place would get more business if it had free entry) and hung out for an hour or two. There were about five people including us in the bar that night. (Yeah, the following picture is the bar)

Our return flight went via the town of Kulusuk, several hours south of Ittoqqortoormiit. Kulusuk is entirely surrounded by mountains and water and it was utterly socked in with fog at the time of our arrival. So much so that the pilot had to make several attempts at landing, each of which weighed heavily on our nerves. Eventually, however, we touched down and made it back to Reykjavík for a relaxing day at the Blue Lagoon before our trip home.

Everything about the trip was fantastic, but I have a strong feeling I’ll be visiting Greenland again.

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