Bearing North to Greenland

Only a whisper of cloud floats in the clear, blue sky, and castle-sized icebergs loll in the fjord. It’s a perfect, though not unusual late-July morning on the coast of South Greenland, ideal for rolling up sleeves and tending two-and-a-half acres of crops grown each summer at Upernaviarsuk, an experimental agricultural research station.

Only a whisper of cloud floats in the clear, blue sky, and castle-sized icebergs loll in the fjord. It’s a perfect, though not unusual late-July morning on the coast of South Greenland, ideal for rolling up sleeves and tending two-and-a-half acres of crops grown each summer at Upernaviarsuk, an experimental agricultural research station.

Hungrily, I eye the neat rows of cauliflower, cabbage, leeks and even strawberries. Eighteen different kinds of potatoes are underway, a spread that will be narrowed to the best varieties for this harsh, treeless climate, one where frosty nights persist as late as the beginning of July. The coldness makes things grow slower I am told, concentrating the aroma and sugar, making a turnip grown in Greenland taste as sweet as cantaloupe.

Wait, produce grown in Greenland?

Above: Greenland’s capital Nuuk

Above: Boat cruise with Blue Ice out of Narsarsuaq.

For those of us who’ve examined Greenland’s immense blanket of ice with wonder from an airplane window seat at 36,000 feet, en route home from Europe, it’s hard to deny the buzzy thrill of stepping off a plane and making contact with one of the planet’s most remote corners. But even before we landed I didn’t quite know what to expect—how did people thrive in what I could only assume was an impossibly bleak, disconnected environment?

There are virtually no roads linking one town with another — Greenland’s longest stretch of asphalt is seven miles. Four-fifths of the country is covered by an icecap up to two miles thick; most of its harbors are clogged with ice in winter. In winter, one flies from town to town, often via scheduled helicopter service.

But quality of life can be measured in other ways.

“Greenland is a very rich country,” said Aasi Chemnitz Narup, mayor of Greenland’s capital, Nuuk (aka Godthåb). “We have a lot of wildlife, clean water and clean air — the fundamental requisites for life. And we have mineral resources: gold, rubies, diamonds, zinc.” Not to mention oil reserves in Baffin Bay. Combined, they may help Greenland secure independence from Denmark, the country to which it has been a self-governing province for almost three centuries.

But climate change is complicating the picture. Although longer summers have allowed agriculture and livestock to be introduced in the south—both heavily subsidized—warmer waters mean shrimp that once filled the fjords of South Greenland have migrated north. Fishing communities now seek their catch in deeper waters. In the far north, hunting methods of Inuit are at risk; traditional foods like whale, walrus and polar bear have become harder to obtain. Sea ice is less reliable, meaning some frozen outposts are no longer accessible on a dog sled.

A budding tourism industry is having success with cruise ships, with 41 visits planned for 2010 (up from 33 last summer). A Greenland passport stamp is gaining cachet among the been-there-done-that crowd: In 2008 Bill Gates came for the heli-skiing, and Google’s Sergey Brin and Larry Page went kite-surfing.

Above: Viking ruins of Hvalse

Above: Town of Qaqortoq

On a group tour of southern Greenland, I found two days in Nuuk was enough to explore the town and travel by boat up the adjacent, glacier-fed fjords. Ostensibly the cruise was a whale-watching safari but when the giants were a no-show, we contented ourselves with the tender beauty of a tiny, summer-only settlement called Qoornoq—positively alluring on a sunny afternoon spent picking wildflowers against a backdrop of recumbent icebergs. We closed out the day wallowing in an elegant meal at Nipisa—smoked trout, mushroom risotto, filet of musk ox, and berries with curdled milk—walking back to our hotel past midnight without need of a flashlight or major bundling. One of the world’s smallest capitals — population 16,000 — Nuuk is short on architectural charisma but the town has an array of creature comforts, including an immense indoor swimming facility with a glass front overlooking the harbor.
But it was South Greenland, a 75-minute flight from Nuuk, where I fell in love with the arctic. Narsarsuaq, an international airport and settlement of barely 100 people, is the main jump-off point for villages along the south coast, a region that lies on the same latitude as Helsinki and Anchorage. Thousand-year-old Norse ruins dot the coast, most notably at Brattahlíð, where Eric the Red first settled and from where his son Leif Eriksson set off to explore North America, five centuries ahead of Columbus.

Brattahlíð was re-founded in the 1920s by farmer Otto Fredriksen, as Qassiarsuk, and sheep farming was successfully reestablished. Today’s visitors can explore a reconstructed church and turf-topped longhouse, both built in 10th-century style. Dressed in sturdy Viking garb, Edda Lyberth told the story of the settlement and served a traditional Inuit lunch of dried seal, cod and whale, boiled reindeer, honeycomb and fresh black currants.

I found seal, in particular, hard to stomach, yet it remains a staple food of many.

Down the fjord lies Qaqortoq, its wooden houses dappling steep hills that create a pointillist rainbow curling around the dainty harbor. This is South Greenland’s largest town, population 3,500, and as the main ice-free harbor in winter, twice-weekly container ships make Qaqortoq the region’s shipping hub. Primary export: frozen prawns.

A number of Qaqortoq’s charming structures date from the 1930s, the period when Charles Lindbergh came through while searching for a trans-Atlantic re-fueling stop for Pan Am. Ironically, the hilly town still lacks an airport—it’s reached by an exciting, low-flying 20-minute helicopter flight from Narsarsuaq (cue Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” please), or four-hour ferry journey in summer.

Qaqortoq also thrives culturally. A series of 24 rock carvings along outcrops around town create an outdoor art gallery, a summer project that has come to symbolize Qaqortoq’s streak of youthful creativity.

Above: Kayaking near Naysak

Above: Near Qassiarsuk

It’s easy to daytrip by boat from Qaqortoq to the agricultural station Upernaviarsuk. From here we continued up Einars Fjord to Igaliku, a village where the remnants of a Norse settlement are surrounded by cheerful cottages. On the way back we swung by the ruins of Hvalsey, a site Greenlanders are lobbying for UNESCO status. The stone walls of a church dating to the 1100s are relatively intact.
South Greenland lodging options are limited to one or two per town, and fairly basic, yet adequate for worldly travelers. Restaurants serve Danish-accented continental cuisine; surprisingly delicious reindeer and musk ox are often on the menu, and sometimes whale meat (considerably leaner than I expect, but also richer). To meet the new demands of tourism the government is stepping up to the plate with a vocational hospitality school in nearby Narsaq, where attendees can study as future chefs, bakers, butchers, waiters and hotel front desk receptionists.

The weather was perfect during my visit — clean blue skies, warm enough for hiking in shorts on a couple afternoons — allowing maximum flexibility with sightseeing.

Before leaving Greenland I met charismatic French ex-pat Jacky Simoud. A resident since 1976, he’s the jacky-of-all-trades in Narsarsuaq, running the town’s café, a hostel and outfitting company, all under the name Blue Ice. He also does boat trips to the nearby Qooroq Fjord, where a glacier extrudes 200,000 tons of ice per day.

“It’s one of the smaller ones,” said Simoud, steering his rugged boat through a minefield of icebergs toward the foot of the glacier. “The biggest produce 20 million tons a day.” When he had motored as close as the bobbing ice would safely allow, Simoud shut down the engine and one of his crew served martinis poured over nuggets of fresh glacier ice. Unavoidably, amid the utter tranquility, the conversation shifted to global warming.

“A good winter is a cold winter,” Simoud explained. “The sky is clear, the snow is firm and we can get around the fjord by snowmobile or even car. But the last four of five winters have been warm. Or alternating warm and cold.”

Up the fjord, the ice cap loomed between mountains like a featureless blanket of fog while the bergs around us writhed and crackled in the sun. For all its extremes, visiting Greenland was a haunting journey to the evanescent intersection of our planet’s past and its future.

I can’t speak for winter. But I can say a good summer is a Greenland summer.