August 15, 2020: Arrival and a Magical Boat Trip
My guesthouse owner Bent picked me and an Italian couple up at the airport and drove us into Greenland’s 3rd largest city. The ride took 10 minutes.
My first impressions are that the city is exceedingly clean. There is no trash anywhere. Also the buildings are all so colorful. Each building is painted a single solid color. The result is the town looks like a rainbow.
For a town of 5,000 people, Ilulissat has a lot going on. The main industry is fishing. There are two fish-processing factories in town. Additionally, this is Greenland’s most popular tourist destination. Between those two industries and the jobs needed to run a town (hospital, restaurants, city services, bank, etc) you have a real economic juggernaut.
After getting settled into our guesthouse, located about a 10-minute walk from the center of town, the three of us strategized our sightseeing schedules. We both wanted to do a whale-watching/iceberg boat ride and decided to team up and find out how to make it happen. We were open to going either tonight or tomorrow night. After walking into town, we found three tour companies but only one was open. Outside a shop near the bank, we saw a poster with contact info of a boat captain and prices for various trips. While not the cheapest, he offered a longer tour than anyone else and guaranteed that we would see a whale.
We were told to meet at the dock at 7. The boat was red and called Katak. We were also told to pay in cash (fairly common for Greenland since importing credit card readers and paying for the internet connection is so expensive. Most hotels and restaurants charge $6-10/hour to use the internet).
I had a few hours to kill before going on the boat. Since I hadn’t had lunch, my first stop was a café. Most restaurants in Greenland appear to be multi-genre. This one served coffee, baked goods, Thai food and burgers. For novelty’s sake, I ordered the musk ox burger which was quite good. Prepared food is more expensive than Denmark, but not that much more since the fish and the arctic meats are local.
Next, I went to a grocery store. There are two- right across the street from each other. Everything was imported from Denmark. Therefore this was the most expensive grocery store I had ever been to. For example, a double Snickers bar was 48 kroners or just over $7 USD. The only reasonably-priced items were the Oreos ($3 for a small roll) and the whale meat.
Adjacent to the grocery store was an electronics store and next to that was a clothing store with more parkas than I have ever seen. Some of the Canada Goose parkas were going for $1200. These must be their top of the line jackets since it gets to -45 C in the winter.
The three of us packed warm clothing and headed to the harbor. Sure enough the red boat was waiting for us. It was wooden and appeared to be very old. For some reason, this is exactly the type of boat I was expecting to go on. As soon as we stepped aboard, the boat took off. No safety briefing, not even a hello. Only after leaving the harbor did the captain actually explain where we were going.
We headed south past the town. The rainbow of single colored houses was beautiful. But the real beauty was ahead.
After rounding a small hill, we got our first glimpse of Greenland’s only natural UNESCO World Heritage Site: the Ilulissat Icefjord. The massive icebergs towered over us. Wow!!!
We cruised along the edge of the icebergs. They kept appearing with each iceberg more spectacular than the one before.
The icebergs got up to 85 meters (250 feet) tall. Approximately 1/7th of the icebergs were above water, so these icebergs could go down more than 1,000 feet underwater!!!!
The icefjord is a fascinating natural phenomenon. 75 kilometers inland, the very active Ilulissat Glacier calves, creating icebergs. Some of those icebergs are so large that they stick to the ocean floor, trapping them in place. The fjord eventually fills up, creating a natural jigsaw puzzle. The icebergs start to push against each other until the force is so strong that some of the icebergs break free and disperse into the ocean. When this happens, the bay becomes covered in icebergs and boating becomes temporarily impossible.
Global warming has had a serious effect on the icefjord. Since the start of the Industrial Revolution, the glacier has retreated more than 20 kilometers and the rate of calving has doubled.
We cruised the icebergs and all of a sudden, the captain screamed, “Whaaaaale!”. And there in the distance was a humpback whale! The whales like the icefjord because the icebergs are full of minerals, which attracts fish. We trailed the whale for a bit before moving on. Inuits in Greenland do hunt whales for food, but they cannot be killed within UNESCO World Heritage Site boundaries and are subject to strict quotas.
We sailed into a bay of icebergs and saw two more whales! This time, they decided to swim towards us- getting no more than 20 meters from the boat.
On the 3.5 hour tour, we saw a total of 7 whales.
On the way back at 10pm, the sun set. But it did not get dark because we are so far north.
We arrived back at the harbor at 10:30 pm. The three of us agreed that the trip was pure magic and we were so happy we did it.
Day 2: Hiking the Icefjord and An Even More Magical Boat Trip
The next day, I realized that there was a third group staying at the guesthouse- an older couple from Nuuk, the capital of Greenland. They decided to come to Ililussat for a week to celebrate a friend’s birthday. The wife didn’t speak great English but kept feeding me biscuits and juice. The husband was quite chatty and we had some great conversations on Greenland.
He said that Nuuk, which has 15,000 people, is quite the place to be. As the “national” capital, it tries to feel like a big city. Numerous people called it a Copenhagen in mini. There is also a lot of speculation on Greenland becoming a big destination for tourism and for mining once the ice cap melts. A 2-bedroom house in Nuuk apparently costs 2-3 million kroner ($300,000-450,000). That’s why I’ve been hearing about so many people working as carpenters- a housing boom! Ilulissat on the other hand, feels like a small town. Everyone knows each other.
My goal for the day was to hike to the icefjord along the city’s impressive network of trails. With so few people, hiking trails in Greenland aren’t really a thing- you normally just walk wherever you feel, but since the icefjord is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the government had to do something different.
There are three trails to the Icefjord: Red, Yellow and Blue. The Blue is a 7-mile loop that covers the most ground. The Yellow loops around the mouth of the icefjord. The Red is a simple out and back to a spot on the Blue. I decided to hike the Yellow and Blue consecutively starting with the Yellow.
Before starting the hike, I picked up a bagel sandwich with local halibut and shrimp. The café also doubled as a bar. They said to come back tonight to grab a beer.
Sandwich in hand, I headed out towards the yellow trail. As I reached the outskirts of town, I got my first glimpse of the Greenlandic sled dogs. Greenlandic sled dogs are similar to a husky. All of them work puling sleds in the winter. Because no two cities in Greenland have road connections, sleds have served and still serve an important land link. Dog sledding is considered one of the most cherished parts of Greenlandic culture. In Canada and Alaska, the Inuit no longer have sled dogs due to past government policies. In Canada, the sled dogs were apparently all slaughtered by the government.
The sled dog first came to Greenland 2,200 years ago at the same time the most recent race of Inuit arrived. Since then the line has remained pure. In order to keep the breed pure, the Greenlandic government has decided to make the Arctic Circle a canine boundary line: south of the circle Greenlandic sled dogs are banned and north of the Circle they are the only dog allowed. Therefore, people living north of the Arctic circle cannot have dogs as pets since all sled dogs are working dogs. Ilulissat is believed to have at least 1,000 sled dogs or 1 sled dog per every 5 people.
Since there is no snow, sled dogs get the summers off. The owners used to keep their dogs chained outside their houses. This caused all the towns in northern Greenland to smell like dog feces. Two years ago, the government forced the dogs to the outskirts of town. Almost immediately, the towns became noticeably cleaner. The downside is that the dogs bark at each other.
Past the dogs, I finally got to start walking. The ground was quite rocky so this wasn’t a typical “trail”. Instead, rocks were painted to indicate the way. About 1km from the start, I caught my first glimpse of the icefjord from the land.
The size of the icebergs is stunning from the water, but you can only appreciate the scale of the fjord from above on the land. The icebergs go back well beyond eyesight.
I tried to skip a seemingly unnecessary inland section of the trail by walking inland. This ended up being a big mistake because I had to cross a marsh. This ended up taking far longer than had I taken the trail.
The blue trail took me to hill overlooking the icebergs. This was apparently the place to be since I saw many locals hanging out. On one rock, I saw a bunch of teenagers smoking weed. I found this really funny they were out in the open in broad daylight- but then again there are no other options since there are no trees and no night here in Ilulissat.
The blue trail continued along the shore of the icefjord. It trail cut inland and started to climb. A lot. Reached a lake. And then climbed up to a second lake. From this high vantage point I could get a glimpse of the massive ice cap which covers 90% of the island.
Then it was downhill through a narrow canyon back into town. Just before reaching the road, I found another group of the sledge dogs. The trail officially went right through the middle of the dogs. I wasn’t sure if they were friendly- especially since the owner wasn’t around. They certainly are not the friendliest looking dogs. After encountering packs of wild dogs of the Marshall Islands, I have become aware of how dangerous dogs can be. I decided to walk around, which involved climbing a hill, but I was safe.
After the hike I was quite tired and rested up until about 7:30. At which point I realized that I needed to hurry if I was going to get dinner, since most restaurants close at 8. My first try was unsuccessful but I was able to get a table at the Inuit Café, which is actually run by a family of Sri Lankans. The menu was a mix of Greenlandic and Asian food. I decided to order the daily special: whale goulash. In most of the world, whale meat is banned, but here in Greenland the Inuits have hunted whales for millennia. There are no edible plants on Greenland and the climate is too cold to farm. Today, there are strict quotas on when and how many whales can be hunted. Normally I wouldn’t eat an endangered animal, but I believe the situation here in Greenland is unique. Anyways, the goulash was good. The whale meat tasted like fluffier beef.
When I got back to the apartment, Emiliano and Sara approached me and said that our guesthouse owner invited the three of us to go iceberg sighting in his boat for free! Obviously we couldn’t turn that offer down.
Bent picked us up at 9 and we headed down to the harbor. Instead of an old wooden boat, this time we were in a sleek white fishing boat. This boat zipped and we were at the icebergs in no time.
There were no clouds in the sky today so the lighting was considerably than last night. We ended up seeing two whales at the very first iceberg. Instead of heading further in, we followed the whales as they fed. As time continued to pass, the lighting got better and better. Eventually another boat and two “qayaq” also arrived at the scene. As the sun lowered in the sky the glaciers danced in vibrant colors and the whale fed on the fish. It was so beautiful. Perhaps the most beautiful sight I have ever seen.
We stayed until about 10:30 before going back to the harbor.
I then decided to go get a beer at the café. I had no plans tomorrow and my flight wasn’t until 2pm.
The staff recognized me immediately upon walking in. “Bryce! So glad you came back.” There was a Danish girl at the counter who invited me to sit with her friends.
It was so nice to meet locals! Well sort of…they were all Danish people here for work. The girl at the counter actually had a permanent contract to work as a physical therapist at the hospital, but most everyone else had a temporary contract ranging from a few weeks up to six months. Most of the people at the table worked at the hospital, but there were some carpenters too. Everyone seemed to be genuinely interested in talking to me. I guess as THE new face in town, I really stuck out. Tourists have only been allowed in Greenland for two weeks.
I asked my new friend about the winter. She said that during the winter, the sun doesn’t rise but it does get light for about an hour each day. She said that she tries to learn a skill each winter. Last winter she learned how to knit. This winter she wants to learn guitar. I suppose the entire world got a taste of a Greenlandic winter with the Coronavirus lockdowns. Interestingly, Greenland had a total of about 10 cases- never more than 3 at once. So they never locked down.
We drank and chatted about Greenland until 1:30 at which point we went to Ilulissat’s only “nightclub” Naleraq. I use the word “nightclub” but can you use the term if there is no night? One of the girls told me to watch out for ass-grabbing Inuit ladies. She smiled diabolically while making a crab clawing motion with her hands.
Once at Naleraq, the bouncer (yes there is a bouncer) informed us that the club was full and we had to wait in line. We waited about 10 minutes before we were let in. I paid the 80 kroner cover (about $12-13) and dropped off my coat. In the main room, I was shocked to see a packed dancehall with live music. It was truly hard to believe a bar this packed at this hour in such a tiny town.
The band was playing lively covers of Western songs but with Greenlandic lyrics. Everyone was swing dancing. The crowd was almost all Inuit except for our large group. The crowd went especially wild for the Greenlandic cover of Achy Breaky Heart. I loved that people were of all ages here. I met both teenagers and people with grey hair.
Obviously I danced and almost immediately I was aggressively approached by drunk middle-aged Inuit ladies. They were very fun to swing dance with. And yes, they grabbed me. I found that if I flirted back, they found it really funny and would let me be. But if I was shy, they would keep pushing me to dance.
I ended up running into one other tourist- an American/Australian guy living in Germany a few years younger than me. He was so glad to run into a non-Dane for the first time in days.
At 3AM, the club was still packed, but I was getting tired. So I left and walked back to the apartment. The sky was light.
I couldn’t sleep because of the sunlight but still decided to just hang out inside and rest up.
At 12:30, Bent picked me up and took me to the airport. He asked if I wanted to ditch the flight and go seal hunting with him instead. There are still so many more adventures to have here in Ilulissat. While I felt good with the amount of time I spent here, I could easily have spend another couple days.