Kalaallit Nunaat: Part One

Last week, I had one of those life-changing experiences, the kind that you know you’ll tell your children and grandchildren about someday.  My wanderings took me to the edge of the map, all the way past the Arctic circle, to the breath-taking country of Greenland. The five day trip was integrated with my core course at DIS, so it was an all-expense paid trip to a place that very few people are able to visit. I was lucky enough to travel with all three of my professors, two of whom (Trevor and Sune) work together at the Center for Ice and Climate. The third, the great Henning Thing, began his career in the Arctic at age 20, and at 65, it seems that he hasn’t slowed down one bit, and is just as passionate about studying wildlife in the Arctic as he was when he began. Needless to say, Henning is really an incredible man, and I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to spend five days with him in a place that he clearly holds dear to his heart.

Our flight left Copenhagen at 9:00 on Monday morning, and we arrived in Greenland at 9:40…that same morning. It was the beginning of the first of a series of very long days. Our group was stuck in the middle rows of the massive AirGreenland airbus, and as we approached for landing, 20 American students crowded the aisles to get a view of the sunrise climbing over the snow dusted mountaintops. I stepped off the plane into below freezing temperatures, completely unprepared and overwhelmed by the stunning views; this was only at the airport.

We arrived at our lodging shortly after, called “Old Camp” because it is located in buildings that were once part of the US Air Force Base, which is the reason that Kangerlussuaq even exists.

The entire town of Kangerlussuaq.

Kangerlussuaq, seen from a hill on the edge of town.

The sun rising over Old Camp.

The sun rising over Old Camp.

Our first activity was visiting a “kennel” for sled dogs; kennel is probably not the right word, as it consisted of a collection of fenced in areas in the middle of a field. The teams are kept in areas together, but are kept on chains to prevent the alpha dogs from constantly brawling with the dogs lower down in the pecking order. Some of the dogs were free to roam for our visit, so we had the chance to play with them and show them some love.

After that, we took a bus and stopped on the side of the road to trek up a hill. Here, Henning talked to us about a rock that had been carved out by a meltwater river; it was particularly notable because raven poop that fell from the ridge provided nourishment for elegant sunburst lichen to thrive on the rockface. We also visited the recently built cemetery, which housed only one grave. As the sun sunk in the sky, it was an eerily beautiful sight.

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That night at dinner, we ate muskox meatballs wrapped in bacon. The next day, we went on a muskox safari! We were lucky enough to catch two muskox grazing very close to the road.

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Then, the bus took us up a mountain so we could talk more about how glaciers had shaped the landscape. We then hiked to a salt lake, where Henning told us about how muskox graze on the peat moss that grows there in the summer time because it prevents salt deficiency. To be honest, it was difficult to listen when we were surrounded by beautiful views!

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After that little excursion, we drove back to town to visit Nini, who operates a muskox quviut workshop. Nini buys muskox skins from hunters, shaves them and collects the incredibly soft wool, and cleans it before sending it to Denmark where it is spun into yarn. When the yarn returns, Nini and her business partner dye the yarns and knit them into beautiful scarves, gloves, hats, and anything else they can think of. They also make products from sealskin and jewelry from muskox horns.

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Last but not least, we visited Russell Glacier in the afternoon. We arrived after an hour long, semi-off-road bus ride just as the sun was starting to set. The sheer size of the glacier is enough to make your jaw drop, but combined with the golden light of dusk and the sparkling sapphire blue that seems to radiate from somewhere deep inside the ice, it was truly a sight to behold.

Russell Glacier, the edge of the Greenland ice sheet. (And yes, those tiny little dots are people!)

I think that’s enough beautiful mountains, snow and ice for one blog post. Stay tuned for the second half of my trip!

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