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Trip Report Vintage trip report: Greenland, 1995

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At the request of a few people, this is taken from my journal written during a three day trip to eastern Greenland (from Iceland) in 1995. There are changes, as ever, in the area, but the essentials seem to be much the same. I've made some notations of updates, but again, this is from quite a time ago. (Although somehow 1995 doesn't seem that long ago to me...)

Greenland, August 1995 Trip Report

This was an extension of our first Iceland trip: Iceland is stunning, unique, and seemed close to the ends of the earth, but, compared to Greenland, felt extraordinarily civilized and calm.

Flying out of Reykjavik city airport, our flight was into Kulusuk airport, which features polar bear skins on the wall. I figured that they were historical until I read the little sign that told how the polar bears had swum up to the island that the airport is on…the year before. You don’t want polar bears and people together, evidently. We landed on a pebbly strip between the mountains, then waited for our helicopter which was to take us to Tasiilaq/Ammasilik, the east coast town where we would be staying. (n.b. The town is now called Tasiilaq; the most recent name was Ammasilik, and the first name, its name at the time I visited, as well as the name of the hotel, is Angmassilik. Just to try to clear it up a bit.)

Choppering over icy seas and craggy mountains, we landed in what reminded me of a frontier town, with wooden houses painted deep shades of green, red, or blue, with an occasional purple thrown in. It’s exceeding picturesque, but closer inspection shows garbage galore and evidence of squalor. (There are 1600 people living here, after all.) Packaging seems to be a major problem, and then there’s that inverse proportion that I’ve seen before in man-made versus the beauty of the surroundings. These are incredibly gorgeous surroundings in a powerfully majestic way.

We stayed at Hotel Angmassilik, which has a great location on a hill. Our room is a separate building from the main hotel. It—and the pillows in it—is square and small. There’s a shared ladies’ room and shower for all seven rooms to share, and bunk beds in the rooms. There are also dogs outside the window who ooooooooooooooo quite a lot but are beautiful and wolfy. We’ve seen these dogs (huskies/sledge dogs) all through town, along with lots of adorable round faced children—even a baby crawling down the road.

The hotel staff really seems to have the team concept down: everybody does everything. Our lithe young busdriver, for example, was also working the reception desk and drives the helicopter. (Oh, and serves as a waiter at dinner.)

The first afternoon we spent out on a little red wooden boat to see the icebergs: fascinatingly sculptural, they are, with areas of celestial blue-green light from melting and refreezing. They were so pure and glorious, with some parts so smooth and others excitingly jagged: master sculptor. Dinner was at the hotel; not a lot of options this particular go-round.

In the morning we took a hike with Greenlandic native (Danish ancestry) Anna through the valleys around town, past lakes and little waterfalls, a graveyard (burials wait for summer), tiny triumphant flowers, and spongy moss. There were midges galore, I must admit, but seeing the “swimming pool” for the local little ones was worth it. (It’s a natural pool where babies are taken to learn how to swim.)

(The following refers to a town that now is a ghost town, abandoned but still visited. Sad, for me, but I suppose an inevitable change.)
In the afternoon was the boat ride to Ikateq. We got on a small red boat and bounced around for 2 ½ hours, past grandiose mountains and spectacular icebergs—although 2 ½ hours of anything is a bit much to look at—to a harbour where we clambered up the rocks to visit the eight family village of Inuits (and their dogs.) In winter it’s 2 ½ to 5 DAYS from Angmassilak, by dogsled, the only means of winter transportation. Summertime, they have speedy little boats to zip around in.

They are, of course, hunters and fishers: seals and whales and polar bears, trout and salmon and cod; but they are also subsidized by the government, as “sealskin is hard to sell in America”. That’s a quote from our Inuit guide, who spoke Chicagoan but was proud to the point of defensiveness (but not offensiveness) of East Greenland; seems West Greenland is quite a different story.

We started at the church, red outside, lovely in pale blue and white inside, which has a three-year divinity school Lutheran minister. He can’t perform the sacraments—the seven year minister in Angmassilak does that—but there is a school there in the back of the church where he teaches. (The fish chart is a very prominent feature.) Kids go to school there from ages 7 to 14, then three more years in Angmassilak. For university, it would be West Greenland or Denmark, but “they get very homesick.” In school they learn Greenlandic, in which words combine to form others: harbour, for example, is place-where-the-big-ships-land. They next learn Danish, and possibly a smattering of English. The most important subject is biology; they had a great biology textbook, but their ABD (no C in Greenlandic) book was from 1946. There are eight pupils this year, in a town of 40 people.

Outside are wooden houses, paint worn by 400km per hour winds. The wooden houses are very expensive, as all lumber is imported, but are much better than the traditional and unhealthy turf and stone houses. (Warm and wet=TB.) There are drying racks for the fish and meat, individual ones at the houses and then the big community ones. There were pups around these when we reached them; adorable. The dogs are only respectful of their owners, though. The mama dog usually leads the dogsledge team. The driver uses the sound of the whip or voice commands to steer them. If a storm comes up, you tunnel in and sleep with your dogs. “Very cozy” (says the guide.) The children start out with two dogs and work their way up to twelve. “You have to grow up doing it.” The Inuits eat dandelion leaves with seal blood “Vitamin C”, and eat seal fat “which is delicious fresh—tastes like nuts—and not at all like pig fat.”

The children were climbing around (most of them got on the boat after we left it) and are adorable and round faced, smiling at us from a distance and racing up and down hills.
Back on the boat we went below, very cute and cozy, to a meal of sausage and creamed cabbage and potatoes, with veg soup for starters and chocolate bars for dessert. The way home, however, was…not much fun. We were rolling, tossing, and HEAVING. (literally, in some cases.) It was interesting to watch the waves on the icebergs, but rather miserable to feel. It felt wonderful to be back on dry land.

The next day we were back in the helicopter to leave. The weather didn’t cooperate too well, being wet and rainy. Made for an interesting helicopter ride. There was quite a long wait at Kulusuk airport, as only six people per time can come on the helicopter. We had “weather” taking off, but eventually got back to Reykjavik and more familiar territory.

Quite beautiful, a fascinating experience; I would like to have had longer than the three days, but it has left an indelible impression.

Pictures are here:

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