Fog rolled quickly up the fjord enveloping us in a colorless milieu with no visible boundary separating the perfectly still water from the cold wet air. Small surface ripples created by our zodiac boat were the only indication that we were, in fact, moving. Our driver carefully navigated around massive chunks of arctic ice that suddenly appeared and disappeared like an enchanted mirage on the grey, featureless horizon. The baritone growl of the motor echoed off the surrounding granite walls as horns and whistles announced from the distance that we were not alone.
For two days we had waited for the wind and rain to subside before traveling down Tunulliarfik Fjord to our remote tent camp at Qaleraliq Glacier. Our guide Pedro casually noted that the dense fog can last for several days in South Greenland, but it was the high winds that made travel through the fjords particularly dangerous. As our speed increased, eleven of us huddled together around the outside of the zodiac wrapped in thick parkas, peering out of small openings in our protective hoods to catch a fleeting glimpse of a passing iceberg.
After a 45-minute, adrenaline-fueled arctic boat ride, we pulled into the small harbor at Narsaq. Low-lying clouds shrouded the twin peaks that frame the third most populated town in South Greenland. The iconic, brightly painted cottages were quiet as a soft rain began to fall. Our stop was brief. We boarded a smaller boat with a mountain guide equipped with crampons, helmets, harnesses, and ice axes. Before settling into our camp, we would be trekking across one of the oldest and largest masses of ice on the planet.
Recently, this mass of ice has inspired a flood of climate scientists, researchers, and historians onto the ancient ice sheet to sample ice-cores and document the thickness and movement of dozens of individual glaciers. In their quest to understand the causes and effects of climatic fluctuations, many scientists believe that what happens in Greenland over the next couple of decades will answer important questions about the complex interactions between our atmosphere and the world’s great oceans.
These scientists and researchers are no longer alone in their exploration of one of the world’s most remote and visually stunning destinations. Adventure travelers and hearty tourists from around the globe have also been lured to this icy world by spectacular images of a truly wild place. I joined travelers from Germany, Spain, France, Australia, South Africa, Greece, Ireland, England, and the United States to experience a landscape that has become the focus of an often intense and politically charged global warming debate.
As the boat carrying our group motored along the glacier front towards our landing, the enormity of the massive ice wall left us speechless. We disembarked onto huge flat rocks and scrambled up giant boulders to the base of the glacier where we geared up for the trek. We followed our guide in single file passing holes, drains, caves, seracs, and crevasses until we reached a vertical wall of translucent ice already affixed with ropes to belay our climb to another, higher level of the glacier. The persistent overcast sky and low-lying clouds unfortunately prevented a view of the vast inland glacier, but our intimacy with the impressive ice formations hinted at the incredible scale of the ice sheet beyond.
After several days of overcast, when the skies finally cleared and the fog lifted, the unmatched beauty of the landscape was revealed. From a small bluff near camp we could see for the first time that the three visible glacier fronts were actually one massive flow of ice with three separate routes to the fjord. As the sun dipped towards the horizon, deep shadows and pockets of iridescent blue created a three-dimensional glacial panorama. Soon the magnificent colors of sunset reflected in the fjord as our camp drifted into a perpetual twilight. The silence of the arctic night was only interrupted by the eerie rumble of moving ice.
The next morning greeted us with a spectacular sunrise and brilliant blue skies. We walked along the sandy shore before boarding our zodiac for the ride back to our base at the fjordside village of Qassiarsuk. We were excited and renewed by the sunshine as we once again entered the harbor at Narsaq. This time the town was bustling with activity. Fishermen packed their boats as children walked like mini glacier trekkers in single file on their way to school. We had an hour to wander through town and photograph the colorful cottages against the backdrop of blue skies and glowing white towers of ice.
With a total population of only around 57,000 Greenland is the least densely populated country on earth. Most Greenlanders are decedents of Inuit and eighteenth century Danish colonists and live along the habitable fringe between the ice and the sea. Over one quarter of the country’s population lives in Greenland’s capital, Nuuk. The rest live in a handful of small towns along the west coast, separated by a deeply indented coastline that makes road development between towns impossible.
There is very little remaining of the Viking presence on Greenland except for a few scattered ruins and the legends passed down in Norse sagas. By the year 874 CE colonists from Norway had settled permanently in Iceland bringing with them a dairy-based economy that they soon combined with seal hunting and fishing to earn a living in the new land. Warm summers allowed ample hay and barley harvests for winter food and fodder. They were successful and thrived at the edge of the arctic.
The Norse were essentially farmers and fishermen who did a bit of plundering and pillaging along the way. One of those tough seafaring farmers, the infamous Erik the Red, sailed west out of Iceland after being banished from the island for three years for of murder. He set off into unknown waters with a small group of men to explore reports of mysterious islands sighted by one of his relatives some half-century earlier. He landed on the rugged eastern shore of Greenland in 982 but soon sailed around the southern tip to a fjord near Qaqortog. He spent the next three years exploring the fjords of the south.
There is evidence that Erik the Red landed on Greenland during a period of exceptional warmth and stability known as the Medieval Warm Period. In the southwestern corner of the Island the Norse found green summer pastures that provided grazing land for sheep, abundant fish, and large numbers of sea mammals. Erik returned to Iceland with glowing reports about the fertile land he called Greenland, which he thought would be an attractive name to lure potential settlers.
A year later, Erik and 14 ships arrived on Greenland to establish settlements in the sheltered waters of the Southwest. Eventually 4,000 Norse settled the massive island raising sheep and cattle like they did back home. They built churches, homes, farms, and communities on relatively fertile ground compared to the thin volcanic soil and hardscrabble of Iceland. Erik himself settled in the heart of the richest farmland at a place that is now the village of Qassiarsuk.
We were greeted at Qassiarsuk by several staff of the Leif Erickson Hostel and by its Spanish owner, polar explorer Ramon Larramendi. Larramendi became a legend of sorts following his three-year arctic expedition from Greenland to Alaska by foot, kayak, and dog sled in the early 1990s. The Hostel has become his home in Greenland and a support enclave for kayak expeditions he leads throughout the country.
After Ramon welcomed us to the hostel, Pedro took us on a tour of the village and the ruins of Brattahild—the name of Erik the Red’s original farmstead. The modern village dates from a successful effort to reintroduce sheep breeding to the area in the 1920s and is home to about 60 year-round residents. The highlights of the tour were the picturesque recreation of what archaeologists believe was the first church built in the New World, and a turf-covered reconstruction of a Norse longhouse.
There are many theories about why the Norse mysteriously disappeared from Greenland after over four centuries of settlement. Maybe a massive epidemic swept the Island or a blight devastated their grazing land. But one contributing factor to the Norse exodus was most likely the onset of a 500-year period known as the Little Ice Age. By 1300, Greenland was already experiencing increasing cold and extreme, unpredictable shifts in weather. Glacial advances began in the early thirteenth century and increased ice pack while stormy seas in the northernmost Atlantic disrupted critical trading routes. What we do know is that the last known written record of the Norse on Greenland wasn’t about a war, plague, or famine. It was about a wedding in 1408.
By 1300, the Norse had also been sharing their remote island with Inuit, who arrived from northern Canada centuries earlier. While they brought with them dogsleds, kayaks, and other essential tools and skills that would help them survive the Little Ice Age, the Norse still relied on the same fishing and dairy economy introduced during the time of Erik the Red. Their existence depended on storing enough hay and fish to survive the long harsh winter. Even a small shift in the growing season would have caused livestock to die and put vulnerable settlers at risk.
Nobody knows if the current weather patterns will lead to another ice age or if we are heading into another prolonged warming period like the one that allowed the Norse to thrive, but the history of Greenland is a history of survival and adaptation in extreme arctic conditions. It is a harsh and unforgiving land of amazing beauty where life clings to the fertile fringes between the ice and the sea.
David’s most recent project is the 2013 launch of his nonprofit corporation Innocent Eyes Project, Inc. Innocent Eyes Project will support grassroots child education programs working in developing countries by raising and allocating funds for projects where small amounts of money can have the largest impact on underserved children and communities. Learn more about David’s project at: www.InnocentEyesProject.org