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24 hours of daylight

Story and photos by Diana Hunt   APRIL 1, 2010

  Disko Bay   Ilulissat  
Fishing among the ice bergs in Disko Bay
Village of Ilulssat in western Greenland

When I saw the boulder slowly moving horizontally across the hillside I wasn’t too alarmed. My mind already had been messed with by 24 hours of daylight, day in and day out.

I had been in Greenland for a week and by that time I had seen whales, endless ice in the form of sheets, glaciers and bergs and the endless sun in the endless blue sky. Except for the southern tip of the country, most of Geenland lies above the Polar (Arctic) Circle. The long days of sun and long nights of darkness create a time warp of reality.

On closer inspection, however, the boulder turned out to be a huge, mangy musk ox bull, one of about 10,000 in the Kangerlussuaq area of central Western Greenland. He moved with stately, determined purpose, stopping to look around every few minutes.

  Greenland glaciers and flowers  

The 56,000 inhabitants of Greenland cling to the edges of the world’s largest island – three times the size of Texas – living in small settlements built on bits of impossibly scrambled fingers of glaciated land reaching out into the Arctic Ocean. Because of this geography, no roads connect villages and settlements. Transportation is by airplane, boat or dog sled.

Although politically part of Denmark, Greenland geologically is part of North America. Separated from the Baffin Islands by the Davis Straits and Baffin Bay, it nestles nicely along the northern Canadian coast. Greenland is an adventurer’s paradise. As with other off-the-beaten-path, exotic destinations, it attracts a certain kind of die-hard, tough, slightly unkempt but benign globe-trotting backpacker. It also attracts the more mainstream adventurer who wants to take day hikes, kayak, fish or cruise among the ice bergs – fodder for great cocktail conversation back home.

While Greenland abounds with off-beat adventures, it is a modern society with the comfort level and service most people expect. The difference here from other remote cultures is that the native Inuits have had more contact than many other native peoples with European cultures. First it was the Norse, with Erik the Red making landfall around 984; then whalers from Portugal, Scandinavia and Britain; in the 1700s the Norwegians and Danes repopulated southern Greenland, three hundred years after the last Norse settlement died out. Today, Greenland is a protectorate of Denmark. It is typically Scandinavian with an aboriginal overlay.

Wildflowers with the backdrop of glaciers
  Greenlandic kids   Whale breaching in Nuuk Harbor   Musk ox bull  
Greenlandic kids
Whale in Nuuk Harbor
Musk Ox bull
  Start your Adventure  
  There is every reason to start your adventures immediately upon landing, with no darkness of night to cut short any sightseeing. If you arrive at Kangerlussuaq International Airport - the country’s main airport -- find the tourism desk is just a few steps from the arrival/departure gate. Book the Musk Ox Safari followed by dinner at the Rowing Club on the shore of nearby Lake Ferguson. The airport hotel reservations desk is within steps of the tourism desk, making arrangements simple. The clean simple rooms are upstairs; so is the swingingest bar in Greenland, a great place to snag a couple of off-duty eco-scientists.  
  Uni-Mok custom vehicle   Pleasure and fishing boats  
The Uni-mok is specially designed to go over sand and ice
Pleasure and fishing boats, Ilulissat Harbor
  Next morning take the Uni-Mok – a weird hybrid sort of all-terrain truck – to Point 660 to walk on the ice sheet, which covers 85 percent of the island. Light shirts are comfortable at the start of the trip, but be sure to have wooly layers and a hat to put on once on the ice -- the wind is bitterly cold, even in July. I felt like a tiny ant as I skittered around and over the giant moguls. Only one other ice sheet exists in the world, and that is Antarctica.   Arctic ice cap   Arctic ice cap  
The vast ice sheet that covers 85% of Greenland
Crawling around the ice sheet. This is no flat walk in the park.
  For golf fanatics, take time to play the front nine or all 18 holes at the Sondre Arctic Golf Club next to the airport. No kidding. Built by the Americans during the Second World War, it is the northernmost 18-hole international golf course in the world. Don’t expect emerald fairways and velvet greens, however. It is a brown course meandering on the improbable desert that lies in the shadow of the glaciers. Kangerlussuaq Tourism will fix you up with clubs and as far as ”greens” fees are concerned, the tourism company’s owner, Jens Laursen, laughed and admitted ”I just couldn’t do that to people. They should just play and have a good time.”  
  Further afield          
  Greenland glacier   Ice bergs   It is a short flight from Kangerlussuaq north to Ilulissat, renowned for its giant ice bergs floating in Disko Bay. Check into one of Arctic Hotel’s modern bayside igloos with panoramic views. An afternoon or midnight cruise to see the ice bergs up close and personal is a must. The low sun edges the `bergs with a luminous glow. A short hike up the hill behind the Arctic Hotel affords the best ”sunset” view as the sun briefly touches the horizon about 1AM before rising again.  
Hiking toward the glaciers
Ice bergs, Disko Bay
  There are hiking trails of varying difficulty out of Ilulissat where you can take an hour’s walk or a week’s trek. A hut system has been established for the long distance trekkers and, with advance reservations, you can throw your sleeping bag down at one of several scientific ice camps. Excellent maps and knowledgable personnel are found at all the tourist offices.  
  Retreat of cie cap   One indication of global warming was right under our hiking boots. The spongy tundra that cushioned each step on the trail signalled the melting of the permafrost. For millennia, the ice has melted every summer, and frozen again each winter. However, the last seven years or so has seen the melting of the ice cap perimeter, the retreat by five to seven miles of the glaciers, and the torrent of melting water off the glaciers that is starting earlier and lasting weeks longer each summer. The south of Greenland even supports vegetable crops, just as it did when Eric the Red first settled here.  
The ice cap has retreated some five miles in five years. everything in the picture was under the ice cap before then.
  For another view of the vast ice sheet, take Air Greenland’s helicopter trip from the Ilulissat Airport. The whirlybird swoops and churns inland only a few hundred feet above the contorted crevasses of ice. These massive canyons are caused by the melting and freezing and movement near the edge of land where the flat ice sheet starts breaking up into glaciers. Due to enormous pressure and the force of gravity, the glaciers calve skyscraper size chunks of ice that become ice bergs in the harbors, bays and ocean. The ice crushes everything in its path. What we see of the ice bergs above the water would be akin to only the penthouse, with the lower floors all submerged.    
Ice bergs, Disko bay, from an airplane
  Modern Greenland   Whale in Nuuk Harbor
Whale in Nuuk Harbor

For ”big-city” life, fly south to Nuuk, Greenland’s capital. At 15,000 people, it has the largest population, at least one gourmet restaurant (try the Greenlandic coffee: hint -- it’s more than coffee) and the only two stop lights in the country. Nuuk also boasts a downhill ski area, an indoor swimming pool, an excellent cultural center, museums and a huge summer-time Humpback whale population. Book an early morning charter boat to go in search of whales.

Modern Greenland, Nuuk Harbor
  On our last afternoon in Greenland, after hiking, kayaking, ice berg chasing, walking on snow and ice and sleeping very little, a group of us sat on a friend’s sun deck that literally jutted out over the pristine waters of Nuuk Harbor. As we enjoyed the warm sun and a cup of tea, we watched sleek pleasure boats speed by. It could have been a peaceful summer scene anywhere in the world. Except there were ice bergs in the harbor and whales breaching the surface, reminding me I was above the Arctic Circle. My mind was in total meltdown.  
  If You Go      

Unfortunately, Air Greenland cancelled its twice weekly non-stop flights from Baltimore to Kangerlussuaq International Airport two summers ago, due to the deadly combination of high fuel prices, sinking economy and low passenger demand. It was only a four and a half hour flight with a two-hour time change. Currently, you can book Icelandic Air from Boston or New York to Reykjavik (about five hours) and backtrack to Nuuk, or fly Continental Airlines or SAS to Copenhagen and choose from 14 weekly flights on Air Greenland to various Greenland cities.

Check for activities and bookings around Ilulissat; also Another great website is for information on the entire country. Kangerlussuaq Tourism website is or email for tours and activities around the airport area.

Diana Hunt
The author, July on the Greenland ice sheet
  Where to Eat  

Hotels in Ilulissat and Nuuk have excellent dining rooms. Fish, obviously, is the main menu item. In Nuuk, make a point to dine at the extraordinary Restaurant Nipisia in the wharf area. For local action in Ilulissat, have a brew at the Tuukkaq Pub. Just don’t follow the local ladies to the back rooms. The bar on the second floor of the Kangerlussuaq Airport terminal rocks.


Suggested Reading


Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond. He discusses why some civilizations disappeared over the centuries, including Norse Greenland.

Greenland Today by several authors, one of the better books on Greenland found at tourist offices.

  Diana Hunt can be reached at:  

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