When the opportunity to visit the largest island in the world presented itself, I couldn’t have been more excited. Contrary to its name which was given to attract settlers, Greenland is all about ice with ice sheet covering about 80% of the landmass or nearly 14 times the size of England while the ice-free area amounts to 350’000 square km equivalent to the surface area of Germany.
Where did you go and how did you get there?
Ittoqqortoormiit is not the easiest place to get to. We flew in from Reykjavik to the airport called Nerlerit Inaat or Constable Point which is the northern most commercial airport in East Greenland. From there it was a short helicopter ride with Air Greenland to Ittoqqortoormiit. The way back however was a bumpy freezing 2 hours journey on a home-made wooden sledge attached to a snowmobile across rough sea ice with trapped icebergs and snow covered mountains on your right and left in the Hurry Inlet after Cap Hope. Constable Point is the airport that serves the least population of 15 people by road in the world.
our helicopter’s pilot
the ride to the airport
Where is Ittoqqortoormiit?
It is in East Greenland, situated at 71 degrees north which meant that it was my first time going above the Arctic Circle. They have midnight sun from late May to late July and the sun doesn’t get above the horizon between late November and mid-January.
What do the locals look like?
They are mostly descendants of the Inuits and Europeans. Somewhat Chinese. I could pass for a local in this picture I took with some local kids. Their hairstyle also seemed quite similar and peculiar.
How big is the population there?
Ittoqqortoormiit is a small town of 373 people. About 30% of the men are professional hunters and all men are semi-professional hunters. There is one police, two people working at the fuel station, some people working at the supermarket, there is one doctor from Denmark, the wife of the police is a hairdresser from Denmark, people that collect trash, deliver water, schoolteachers, etc.
You mentioned hunters. What do they hunt?
Everything from polar bears, narwhals, seals, walrus, fin whales, killer whales and musk ox. They are allowed to hunt 35 polar bears a year and 62-65 narwhals a year. Only lone polar bears are allowed to be hunted, not if they are with pups or two or more together. Hunters must only use dog sleds when hunting, snowmobiles aren’t allowed. 2-5 boats usually go out together when hunting for narwhals. They use harpoons and also shoot them. The average weight of a narwhal is 700 to 1000kg. The biggest one is about 1300kg.
What is the diet of the local people?
All of the above. Mete our guide does not eat vegetables at all as she did not grow up eating them. Her first time trying vegetables was in Denmark at the age of 16 (It was also the first time that she had to learn how to use public transport). Most of the food they have are frozen (especially vegetables). The potatoes were from the last ship that came from Denmark. They get two ships coming from Denmark in a year when the sea ice melts. Musk ox was delicious. Polar bear tasted like beef. These meat are not available to be bought from the supermarket. You’d get them fresh from the hunters.
Narwhal skin is a delicacy in Greenland. We didn’t get to try it unfortunately. Mete said it is best eaten with Aromat – my favourite condiment on fries. Mete mentioned that polar bear and walrus meat must be cooked very well for at least 1.5 hours before they can be eaten. A French man who had been coming there for over 20 years lightly pan fried polar bear meat one day and spent 3 weeks in the hospital after that. Mete also commented that eating polar bear gives you instant energy and would warm up your fingers and toes. She added that musk ox in East Greenland is much more delicious than in West Greenland as their hunters know they should hunt a medium-sized/aged musk ox. The meat of the older ones are tougher. It is important to note that the government of Greenland prohibits the export of any of these meat. It is solely for local consumption.
How cold was it?
Funnily enough when asking what is the temperature today, the answer we got would be 20, maybe colder. They neglect to mention the word minus before 20. Perhaps in the summer they would say PLUS 20. Apparently March is the coldest month with clear skies and dry air. It snows a lot from December to January. Walking around town in -20C temperature is one thing. Being on a snowmobile for two hours with very strong headwind for two long hours however, is another. It was imperative to have every inch of your body covered. Unsurprisingly, it was always difficult to decide whether to get my camera or iphone out to take pictures and freeze my fingers and hands off or not. We also had to keep our cameras and phones deep inside our layers so the battery would survive the extreme temperatures. The feeling I got when my fingers were frozen was very scary and worrisome. Whenever my hair was out of the balaclava, it was frozen. We left some coke cans in the plane and this was what happened.
How did you dress yourself to keep warm?
I essentially had too many items of clothing and I could have done with more:
1 thermal body suit, 1 thermal top, 1 jumper, 2 fleeces, 2 pairs of socks, 1 pair of tights, 1 pair of long johns, 1 ski pants, 1 down jacket, 1 balaclava, 1 hat, 1 hooded down jacket, 1 ski mask, 1 shawl, 1 giant hooded overall, 2 pairs of gloves and an extra sheep skin lining in a pair of borrowed moon boots. I should have worn another pair of socks and had the feet warmers readily available. Try and imagine the pain of needing to go to the toilet while all dressed up like that.
Do they get many tourists? How do the locals feel about tourists?
We were the 13 – 16th tourists for the year. They get many more during the summer. Two years ago 14 cruise ships came and this year they are expecting 26. A cruise ship can bring up to 300 people. The locals are starting to warm up to tourists. The locals didn’t like them that much before as they’d enter the school and hospital without asking; but now information is provided before they arrive giving the tourists some basic etiquette instructions to follow while there.
Can you describe the town?
It’s a small town covered in snow 9 months of the year where the only method of transport is snowmobiles or dog sleds. In the summer when the ice melts, they use boats. The same journey we did from Ittoqqortoormiit to Cap Tobin and to Cap Hope and the airport by snowmobile would be with a boat during the summer. There is a hospital, a supermarket, a church, a school, a museum/art shop, Nanu Travel (the tour agency), a guest house, a playground, a football pitch covered in snow, a fuel station, a water treatment plant, a weather station, a grill house which serves sausages from Denmark and chips (being the only “restaurant”), etc. Of course there are no traffic lights here. There is also a huge snow bank surrounding every house. The supermarket was actually quite impressive. It had everything you needed: fruits, vegetables, toys, diapers, Nutella, guns, Kikoman soy sauce, instant noodles, soy milk, eggs, avocado, hardware tools, guns, etc. Funnily enough there was also a house which apparently sells ice cream. Like the town’s name, they also have the strangest street names.
What languages do they speak?
East Greenlandic as their mother tongue. Apparently East and West Greenlanders can hardly understand each other. They also learn Danish and English in school. The local school is only till tenth grade after which they would either have to go to Nuuk or Denmark.
What were the highlights of the trip?
Seeing the northern lights (from the living room and bedroom windows). The snowmobile drive on the sea ice near Cap Tobin between the trapped frozen icebergs. Sitting on an iceberg. The semi circle halo of the sun as it was setting during the 2 hour snowmobile journey to the airport.
What was it like to see the Northern Lights?
Seeing them for the first time was a dream come true. Sunset was about 8.30pm. At 9.30pm, one of us spotted a light green horizontal streak across the sky from our living room window. We ran upstairs to look from one of the bedroom windows and saw more activity there and started suiting up to go out into the cold night. Once I was out I couldn’t help but to scream and shout in joy, amazement and wonderment as I saw the lights shifting, swirling and dancing away so beautifully in the sky. No wonder the Greenlandic name for Northern Lights is “Arsarnerit” literally translating to mean “the ones who played ball” as the old folks tale is that the souls of dead children are playing with a walrus skull. I’m so happy I finally saw it. The lights stayed for quite some time but not too brightly at first. It came and went. There were times when they were very bright, completely filling up the entire sky. We went back in when it died down at one point and went back out later when it was bright once again. I stayed up till 12.30am outside in the unbelievably freezing temperatures. I somehow managed to get some pictures with the iphone but it didn’t work well on video nor with the SLR without a tripod.
First time wearing immersion suits. First time landing on snow. First time being above the arctic circle. First time seeing icebergs. First time seeing huskies. First time driving a snowmobile. First time walking on an airport runway (in the middle of the night). First time eating polar bear and musk ox. First time seeing polar bear skull, teeth and bones, the bones of a walrus’ penis and tooth as well as narwhal teeth. First time seeing polar bear skin/fur hanging out to dry. First time using toilets that are essentially a big bin bag that you cannot flush meaning pee and poop stay floating in there till the next collection round comes. First time seeing northern lights. First time being driven in a home-made wooden sledge. First drive and walk on sea ice.
An immersion survival suit is a special type of waterproof dry suit that protects the wearer from hypothermia from immersion in cold water, after abandoning a sinking or capsized vessel, especially in the open ocean.
What do people there do for fun?
They ski or go sightseeing in Cap Tobin or Cap Hope to look for polar bears.
How likely are you to see a polar bear in Ittoqqortoormiit?
Polar bears are sighted very frequently in these areas. You should bring a rifle with you when leaving town. Mete our guide mentioned that recently a polar bear was walking right outside her house in the town while they were having dinner. They called the police whose job was to frighten the polar bear away. Jan our other guide said that a polar bear was sighted at Cap Tobin two days before we were there. Once a polar bear even came right up to his kitchen window to look at him. Look at this crazy picture he showed us of said encounter. He has also seen about a hundred narwhals from his living room window in Cap Tobin.
What made Greenland a unique experience?
The nothingness. The vastness of space. The insignificance of you. The remote wilderness. The dominating landscape of snow and ice. The endless serenity. The sheer cliffs dropping down to meet the sea ice. The silence of the high Arctic (until I start talking of course). The deep valleys which beg to be explored. The extreme cold. The halo around the sunset. The dancing northern lights. The purity of the ice sheets. The secrets trapped in the glaciers. The sudden sound of snowmobiles zipping around town at 7.30am as the locals begin a new day. The bark of the Husky dogs. The polar bear skin hung out to dry. The tracks of the elusive polar bear that I never saw. The toilets that do not flush. The 62C hot springs with polar bear skull and bones in the middle of all that snow. The icebergs released where glaciers meet the sea which once drifted and crowded the fjords now stuck in the sea ice. The musk ox skin in the wooden sledge to help keep me warm.
What else is there to know about Ittoqqortoormiit?
The area has it all: the world’s biggest fjord system Scoresby Sund, the world’s biggest national park, the warmest hot springs in Greenland. Ittoqqortoormiit is the remotest inhabited community in the western hemisphere located at the mouth of the largest fjord system in the world. To the west lies Jameson Land known for the low rolling hills and steady numbers of musk ox while to the east lies Liverpool Land which is covered in mountains and glaciers which breeds the icebergs currently trapped in the sea ice. The climate here is characterised as high-arctic where the winter is long with severe cold and frequent storms and a dark period when the sun does not rise above the horizon from approximately November 23rd to January 17th. The first snow falls in the beginning of September and disappears again the following July. The fjord starts to freeze over in October/November and an edge of ice is formed at the mouth of the fjord.
Did anything dangerous happen?
While trying to get to the hot springs, the snow crumbled underneath me and I essentially fell into the water. Luckily the water was 62C and was just what I needed to warm up again. However snow got into my overalls and gloves. One of us was given the oldest snowmobile in town to drive which went crazy. Essentially it suddenly went to maximum speed and to avoid ramming into us, he drove over a small iceberg before deciding to abandon ship. Before that incident, he fell into a crevasse which couldn’t be seen as everything was white. The crevasse was essentially where land ends and sea ice starts. Driving the snowmobile which had poor suspension was also challenging to say the least; especially on the sea ice with virgin snow, it required all kinds of crazy maneuvering, shifting the entire body to one side so as not to be thrown overboard.
When is a good time to visit?
End of March as we did is seemingly good as the snow would have passed and you would have clear skies which helps with viewing the northern lights, but it is the coldest month. Our guide Jan mentioned that May is probably the best time as you can still go dog sledding and it is not too cold. Summer would enable you the possibility of seeing narwhals. The ice however begins to melt in the middle of June making longer lasting sledge trips no longer possible. The sailing season starts from mid-July allowing you to kayak or sail along the world’s biggest national park or in Scoresby Sund, the world’s biggest fjord system covering an area of 38’000 square km.
Did the locals share any other fascinating stories?
Narwhal tusks are used as clothing racks. Mete said that Nuuk, the capital of Greenland with a population of 15’000 is very stressful as there are too many people and nowhere to find peace. Nuuk has one traffic light and there are no roads leading to anywhere out of town.
Who did you travel with?
The 3 most amazing travel companions who have as much love and passion for travel and nature. Despite us being 4 different nationalities, we share common values and strong work ethics. I hope that this is only the start of our many adventures together.
Any last words?
My eternal gratitude goes to two people who made this journey possible: The person who flew us there and my husband who graciously allowed me to take this time away from my duties as a mother of two babies. I think that the soft spot I’ve had in my heart for Japan may have been stolen by this new island in the north. Greenland, I can’t wait to see you again with my family in tow. I see myself coming back to my new favourite place many times in the future.
My dream destination remains to be Churchill, Canada to see polar bears and beluga whales!