Have pen, will travel. Sending letters.
A letter from Greenland. In which is covered a third kayaking expedition to the ice.
Greenland, summer of 2014
back in Greenland, my friend, I am actually glad to finally find the time to write again. Well, to be honest, time is not exactly an issue at the moment. We’re stuck here, I’m afraid. Actually, I’m not really afraid. I mean: Could there be a better place to be stuck than this wonderful largest island of the world?
So, here I am … although I should sit in some airplane approaching Copenhagen already by now. Yet this morning we woke up to a more than clouded sky; thick mist covering the plain around our tents. We probably should have been a bit worried already then, but we did not think about much of a problem when we went to the little airfield just outside Nanortalik, that small settlement from which the kayak expedition departed which took us through the nearby fjord the last three weeks. And three great weeks out here in Greenland’s breathtaking wilderness we had. In the kayak towards the mighty ice sheet, again, to the glacier at fjord’s end.
Already the journey to Nanortalik was a trip down memory lane. With the helicopter (which absolutely counts as ‘public transport’ in a country whose whole road system adds up to probably just slightly more than 100 kilometres) it took us not more than an hour to cover the distance we were following in the footsteps of Erik the Red and his band of Vikings six years earlier. Now these craggy cliffs and deep fjords, ice-dotted bays and green valleys were passing by below us – in rather short sequence. With each stopover on the route at one of the small settlements with their characteristic colourful timber houses the heli’s cargo and passengers changed (well, except us, of course) – when we finally reached Nanortalik at the very southern tip of Greenland, the large mail bags loaded in Narsaq already had made room for some kids in Qaqortoq.
Nanortalik – that means “place of bears” and this name wasn’t chosen out of the blue. Three polar bears are gracing the city arms for good reason: time and again these furry-white giants end up here with the drifting ice in spring when thawing sets in. Welcome bag sometimes, they are also a latent threat every so often. The city, which is situated on a small island right at the mouth of the Tasermiut Fjord, counts just about 1,400 inhabitants and was established only in 1830. A spotless white church dominates the scene and bears witness to the role of the German Herrnhuter Brüdergemeinde (Moravian Church) in the proselytisation of Greenlanders to Christendom in the region – just like numerous German sur- and street names indicate too, by the way. A view into Sunday service sure enough made clear that the church in Greenland isn’t doing much better than anywhere else these days: barely a handful of elderly faithful arrived to listen to the sermon delivered in Greenlandic (which was quite an interesting experience after all, actually).
At the old 18th century colonial harbour (today a museum still bearing the smell of smoke and tran oil after all these years) we bid our farewell to this town and their inhabitants before veering away paddle stroke by paddle stroke. And while Nanortalik’s silhouette with its church spire was shrinking and fading behind us, the scenery of the fjord opened up in front of us. High, surprisingly high, the granite to both sides of the passage was towering – the landscape certainly differing from what we were used to from earlier kayaking adventures here in Greenland: rougher, steeper, still higher. Jagged peaks and pinnacles reaching into the clouds – yes, proper mountains could be found here! These summits, whose consonant-rich names we could glean from the map hypnotised, were indeed real rock-climbing destinations – as we found out after making camp at the allegedly lonesome bank at one of these massifs’ foot, stumbling upon a climbers’ camp almost reminding of a small settlement.
Yet climbers and kayakers are of course not the only ones giving in to the genius loci of this terrific neighbourhood – and least of all were they the first. While we resumed our path through the fjord, time and time again we were discovering traces of earlier visitors. The picturesque ruins of a monastery (probably not even overly splendid during its best times) situated near a low but wide cascade attested that the monks probably did appreciate the grace of this place as much as its solitude – like, maybe, the Norsemen (and -women) who settled just a few kilometres upstream from the waterfall, too. Today, however, only testified by their overgrown graves – none of those enclaves survived long in the end. At some point in the early 15th century contact to these Scandinavian settlers called ‘Grænlendingar’ was cut off, their farmsteads and villages were finally left and abandoned. Maybe the ‘Little Ice Age’ striking Greenland at that time had a fatal impact when harvest got poor and poorer due to dropping temperatures. Maybe the newcomers just couldn’t arrange with local natives – but in particular here we found only few traces of historic Inuit presence, noticeably less of the typical tunnel-houses and burials than we could have documented elsewhere, closer to the Arctic Circle.
Surprisingly, we were also rarely coming across ice as well. While on several occasions pale-white floes and turquoise-blue icebergs much like chilly cathedrals and palaces used to be constant companions and often enough obstacles as well, we were only encountering those sporadic and exceptionally during this expedition (which made it a bit difficult to keep up the dear little ritual of celebrating every day’s arrival with a dram of rum on the rocks from the enamel cup).
The glacier at the end of Tasermiut Fjord is no longer active, does no longer have contact to the water below. More and more did the ice retreat, now revealing smoothly polished granite. There, with the so often evoked ice cap directly in sight, advance and consequence of global warming becomes suddenly very real and literally tangible. Dull rock where ice was resting not so long ago. Less than two years ago the situation still did look different. Much different as a couple of photos we’ve seen in the small Nanortalik tourist office illustrated: polar ice sheets from the frozen hinterland moving to the waterside and into the fjord, giving birth to dozens of floes and icebergs – still back in 2012.
These thoughts and pictures were accompanying us all the way back through the fjord, back to Nanortalik with its colonial harbour and white church. And these surely are the impressions and sentiments I will take home, too. Actually, I should have taken them home already. Yet, I’m still here … and not in some airplane approaching Copenhagen by now. That clouded sky in the morning, I mentioned – it actually became impenetrable mist. At least foggy enough to prevent any helicopter to land at the little airfield just outside Nanortalik where we are still sitting. And waiting (well, at least I could use the involuntary break to write some letter, couldn’t I?). Meanwhile the cloud cover is clearing away bit by bit and everyone around here seems quite confident the next heli (scheduled in the afternoon) will take its chance. Well, our plane will be already on its way by then – which, on the other hand, means we will have the pleasure to enjoy Air Greenland’s hospitality, staying here in Greenland until the next plane towards Copenhagen departs … in two days time.
Actually, not the worst place to find yourself stranded, to be honest.