Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Tapas in Ilulissat

That's it, transition complete, we are in tourist city. Ilulissat, Greenlands Paris, has so much to offer that you have to take your pick; in only one or two days you won't make it all: So, what's it gonna be: Fly into the fjord with the helicopter, go on a really long hike to Holmsbakke (beau-ti-ful!!) or take it a little slower by joining a boat trip into the icefjord or simply by walking down to Sermermiut, the "Great Glacier" which cuts through wide parts of the land behind the town. Whatever it is, you will encounter the largest, highest, most impressive icebergs there are. In the world. The size is hard to believe, it is more a mountain range made of ice that anything else. It is a truly unique sight, you cannot help but breathe more deeply, and if you sit down somewhere on a rock, silently, without moving, you will have a true Arctic moment that stays with you for a long time.
The rest is relaxing, shopping, having a coffee on a terrace in the afternoon sun. Or go and witness how much this place has adapted to international standards by having seal tapas in a restaurant nearby. If it weren't for the many, many fishing boats in the harbour or the large number of dogs in the plains just outside town you'd really think this place could be anywhere. But just a few days ago we were in Kullorsuaq, remember?

Epic Eqip

No road, no house, nobody. Just us, in the far recess of a long fjord, strewn with ice blocks of all sizes. And I mean all sizes, the biggest bergs by far taller than FRAM, let alone the volume under water. Equip Sermia, the "glacier of Equip", releases incredible amounts of ice every day, and blimey!, it is an impressive sight. No one wants to believe that the front is actually nearly 4 kilometers wide and some 3,5 miles away. That's because we don't have a reference object. Normally, that is.

To our amazement there is a local ship that appears out of nowhere just in front of that huge blue-and-white wall. And suddenly we get the real picture… The rumbling and thundering keeps our heads spinning around every few instants - we all want to see it calving. But since most of the collapses occur inside the glaciers body, there is only minor splashing to be seen. Nonetheless a fantastic stop, inviting for long hikes into the tundra, on top of the hills or along the shoreline. Some, of course, have tough duties like Janus who, is in charge of watching the glacier… After a splendid stay ashore we are lured back on board by the smell of the on-board barbeque, the olfactory equivalent of sirens singing. With the most spectacular background we end this day eating peacefully, and with the last light of the day FRAM makes slowly out again towards the open sea.

Monday, 30 August 2010


If you were a taxi driver, would you stop for someone who has a rifle under his arm? No? Well, it is possible in Upernavik, capital of a very large community on the northern west coast. So there's taxis and there is hunters, and they live in peaceful cooperation. Here, as it seems, the transition to modern times is smooth. The whole aspect of Upernavik is different from any other town in Greenland: It is clean, almost neat, the houses are in good shape, there is a big sports hall and a soccer field, a pretty church and a nice little museum. There is graffiti on the walls - beautiful whales. No kids at the pier, though, that is something we immediately notice. And miss. 
Apart from that, the whole place looks organized, we get a good and instructive introduction on board, the meeting with the choir at the church is well planned, people are on time. Upernavik works. Even national soccer championships are being played while we are in town. A modern, friendly town. But remember the man with the rifle. We are still in Greenland.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

The Children of Kullorsuaq

People have a tendency of giving names to prominent landmarks. And so this village bears the name of the steep column of rock that miraculously survived the millions of years of erosion - The Devil's Thumb. Apart from the name there is not much to feel of Lucifers presence, on the contrary: After the introductional little welcome concert by the locals on board, dozens of children are hopping up and down on the landing site, eager to meet us, hold our hands, jump on our backs, tickle us. It is a waist-high wall of little exited faces that we have to gently permeate before we get to the village. We do not come unexpected - all are on their feet, have set up tables with coffee and cake and things they hope to sell. But next to the usual assortments of handicraft you see objects that clearly indicate that we are far from the common tourist route, next to large amounts of narwhale penis bones we find bags of freshly extracted seal claws and polar bear teeth. This is a hunters settlement, and no mistake. All over the place you find kayaks, tied-up dogs, sleds, hunting tools and remains of dead animals. Don't let the warm welcome fool you - these folks do not supply themselves from the supermarket round the corner, they use weapons. They are tough, weather-hardened and used to a dangerous life.
But no, you wouldn't think that today, everybody is so cheerful, so welcoming, so friendly. You cannot help but smile. Of course the traces of contrast between old life and modern world are obvious like in Kraulshavn, the "modern" cemetery with its white fence sticks out like a foreign object next to the old stoneheaps, garbage issues are also not to be resolved any time soon, and to see a mobile phone used from a traditional kayak is a strikingly strange sight.
We get invited for a singing in the church, painted in friendly blue and white. It's psalter, pure christian contents, only in Kalallissut, greenlandic language. Paulus, "Paalu" in his country, is the local priest, the catechist of hunters. It is a place so full of contrast! Young girls texting messages on their phones while their fathers are demonstrating their Kayak hunting skills, TV antennas next to the seal skins that are pinned up for drying.
Finally the sunset reveals the most stunning of all colors on the opposite side of the bay, where the slopes are suddenly gleaming red, with bluewhite ice swimming in front of them.
But - again - what remains longest is the unadulterated happiness of the many children who are growing into this world of contrast with a big smile.

Friday, 27 August 2010

The Qaanaq event

Twice a year a big ship arrives in Qaanaq, "Ultima Thule", the place to where people were evicted by the military in 1953. It is always a sensation, attracting everybody in the village. Today, there is something completely different going on, attracting many a tourist instead of the villagers: The unveiling of a memorial in honour of Eivind Astrup, one of many participants of Robert Peary's expedition of 1892, when the men crossed the Greenlandic icecap for the first time. A monumental walk, indeed, and today quite a few relatives of young Eivind Astrup are gathered in Qaanaq to witness the ceremony, along with FRAM's officers and all the "bluejackets" that take a shot of the inscription.

Even without this uniqe event, the landing would have been remarkably nice: A few bizarrely shaped clouds drift across the blue skies that frame the iceberg-loaden bay with the tricky tide that requires sophisticated pontoon building by the landing party. The museum shows many fantastic artefacts and features one of the last iron meteorites that had been widely harvested and brought to the US by the above mentioned Peary. Beautiful carvings are to be found in a small shop nearby, the hike to the icecap keeps a large number of mountaineers busy for hours. And then there is the great basketball game, FRAM's crew versus the villagers. And - believe it or not - victory was ours, 29:25 in the end! A very rare day indeed...

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Crossing the line

Heading North.

No destination specified, just North. What a wonderful thought!
There is a big landmass coming into view on portside. Canada! We are entering Smith Sound and more and more ice is floating around us, sea ice this time. That means we are getting to the latitudes where the ocean is freezing over, real polar waters. And somewhat during the night we are getting to where not very many people get the chance of going - beyond 80 degrees north!
Many a brave sailor has ventured to come here in order to find the Northwest Passage, many of them have failed, quite some have died. Hardly anyone has been able to sit in a comfy armchair in the Observation Lounge and enjoy live music while we cruise these extreme waters. And so a fierce visitor comes aboard to remind us: It's the Hotel Manager, hidden under Neptune's huge coat and beard. But you don't fool kids on Christmas, the secret is soon lifted. In exchange staff and guests alike are getting baptized with copious amounts of ice-cold water, our King of the Seas obviously having a lot of fun with it...

Our search for the King of the Arctic, however, remains futile. No matter how much we strain our eyes from dawn till dusk - no sign of a polar bear is to be seen. But everybody takes it very relaxedly, the scenery is just way to beautiful to hold any grudge against the furry fellows.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Polar plunge in Siorapaluk

The Greenlandic name of this northernmost natural village (in the world!) describes a beach. And indeed, you could easily expect sun-tanned people with towels, beach chairs and glasses with little umbrellas in them. If it only wasn't for the lumps of pretty white ice that is spread out in many places, or for the nasty fresh wind that picked up speed over the inland ice and hits the landing site with the statement: Don't you forget where you are!
But where are we? Does the position on the map describe it? A little bit maybe - more than 77° north. Considering that the few other places in these latitudes had been erected for mining or military reasons, it seems a very bold move for people to come to this. But hunting  is good here. Very good apparently, nearly everybody in "town" is a hunter, many a platform (where the prey get's prepared, skins scraped, meat cut, and so on) is sporting numerous walrus and musk-ox skulls, whalebones, baleens and lumps of blubber. Certainly the most interesting biography has Magsannuag, who is actually named Oshima, of Japanese origin and has been living here for nearly 40 years. He is the most successful hunter around and also crafts beautiful things from bones and musk-ox horn.
Certainly he is indistinguishable from his Greenlandic neighbours, only when he speaks English you hear a slightly asian accent. Proudly he presents his "workshop", the fresh polar bear skin, his knives. When he tells the tale of the last big fishing on the first of August you clearly notice that up here nature is the boss. It's all about currents, weather, ice. A tough life, but somehow we can't help but admiring it. Maybe because we know for sure that we wouldn't stand a chance in this environment? Well, come on, our life is tough, too - we haven't had internet for two days now…
Towards the end of the landing a few brave ones defy the cold wind and the ice in the water - and go swimming, much to the amusement of the villagers, of course. They have a story to tell now of these crazy people, until the next ship will arrive. When? Who knows...

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

The lights of Thule

Thule - for a long time the name was used as a synonym for the end of the world. It could have been in 1968, when four American nuclear warheads were lost in the ocean after a plane crash.
Peaceful times these were in the beginning of the 20th century, when Knud Rasmussen founded the trade post by the name of Thule together with Peter Freuchen in the place that was formerly know as Uummannaq (not the same as in the Disko Bay area). Mainly fox furs were the trade goods and the cleverness of the two founders ensured a successful business. Big parts of the earnings went into infrastructure and improvements of the village. However, the arrival of Uncle Sam in 1943 ended the peaceful times, and after ten years the people of Thule were forced to move to Qaanaq without compensation. Today, the big airbase is still domination the bay, although the old part of the trade post is now accessible again.
And that's where we land in finest weather conditions. It is a strange feeling to walk among the abandoned houses, see the children's playground deserted, like a memento mori. But there is more to this place than the unpleasant events of the Fifties: Take the hike to Mount Dundas, for example. From afar the slope seems near-vertical and certainly not hikable. But what the heck! Let's try.
And believe it or not, by the end of the day more than thirty have managed to climb up this looming mountain and utterly enjoy the splendid view across the country. Where there's a will…
Long shadows are cast on the beach when we leave. Now we will be heading faaaaaar north…

Hearts on a dump

Hello, everybody - we're back! Back from the great North which is also a blind spot for the satellite. So, take a bit of time and follow our last adventures that are posted here. Going back as far as Kraulshavn...
Everything in life we judge by looking at it only briefly deserves at least a second, closer look. The shiny new world has left us sometimes merciless towards the shadowy side of things.
Kraulshavn, our afternoons destination, is such a place that no catalogue would mention, no sales agent in the full possession of his wits would recommend.
Why on Earth do we go there? For the heaps of smouldering garbage that are piled on the beaches in front of the most beautiful icebergs? For the filthy dogs that lie in the littered mud outside their broken pens? For he constant putrid smell in the air? For the miserable houses, windows and roofs patched with plastic tarps? The answer is clear: Yes!
Because in this forlorn place that seems so far away from the world there are people living. Warm, welcoming, friendly, smiling people, who gather immediately around the landing site, of course kids up front. People who embrace this weird invasion by inviting us for coffee and cake, by proudly showing us how to hunt the narwhale from the kayak. The children exchange autographs with us, written in ballpen on our forearms, giggling and running around to display theirs.
Young couples curiously approach us, shyly holding hands, some take pictures of us. And slowly it starts to dawn on the visitor that this is not misery we are witnessing but a bizarre way of the still existing traditional Greenland being confronted with the changes of the times. Only thirty years ago, as we learn, there was no material whatsoever that didn't decompose in a short time, so garbage was simply no issue. It is now, but changes manifest themselves slowly in this society that has survived for centuries by not changing. So no blame here at all. And the closer you look, the more often you find symptoms of this place being still way more traditional than the neat villages with their restored peat huts and museums; look at the graveyard, where under the christian crosses numerous piles of rock display the old way of burial on the ground. Walk with David, the hunter, who proudly shows you the 32 seals he has shot in only two days, see mother and daughter in their traditional garment coming back home. It's the people that define a place. Nothing else.
And so we all leave with undiluted sympathy for this place, still thinking of the laughing children on the rubble. This is more Greenland than many other places. In a good way.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Shootout in Uummannaq

When five people in orange jackets climb into one boat, carrying a big rifle each, it is not necessarily the beginning of unfriendly negociations. In fact, it is an important precaution for the time ahead, after all we are headed for polar bear country. Thus, most of the guides/lecturers have to brush up on their aiming skills. So we grab a Polar Cirkel Boat and make for the opposite shore, where we simply plant some cardboard targets into the ground, and off we go! After twenty minutes all "bears" are hit, and we have to hurry to get back - we even have our lunch on the boat ride… We make it just in time for the hike to Santa Claus' cabin, a very famous address in Greenland, at least if you ask Danish children. Under the looming heart-shaped mountain we scramble up and down the rocks until we reach the little green cabin in the bay, where coffee, tea and some delicious additives are put up on our arrival.

Regardless of the long day in fresh air many attend to the lectures in the afternoon and the  soiree of classical music by Hans and Susanna Bechmann, our Danish musicians on board. But then it's finally time to sleep, while FRAM is relentlessly heading north.

Important: Folks, we are headed now for the far North, which means that we will run out of satellite connection every now and then. Even two, three, days in a row we may be in the black. So don't you worry, we'll be back!

Sunday, 22 August 2010

At the Foot of the Volcano

There's the distinct smell of sun lotion on the tender deck this morning. Yes, that's right - blue skies again! In these conditions we can easily dare to try a hike that will lead us out of Qeqertarsuaq, the little village with the whalebone gate, way beyond the initial destination - the "Valley of the Winds". Instead a large number of us continues along the shoreline of this wonderful place, following the lush tundra at the foot of the huge table mountains, all relics of the volcanic activity that took place around 60 million years ago. The sun is nearly blazing, unbelievable 18 degrees make us entirely forget that we are far above the Arctic Circle. And the colors! Reddish brown on the mountain slopes, stark green on the plains, with tiny bright blue dots (that's us, in the blue expedition jackets in the far distance) following the yellow dots (the markers for the path). If you turn your head to look across the sea: All shades of blue, deep and spotless in the sky, glittering with reflections on the oceans surface. But nothing is as bright as the biiiiiig icebergs sitting in the bay. Their surface is wet from the heat as if they just came out of the shower, so they gleam and shine like clean giant heaps of cream. Try to capture this, or stop!, even better: Sit down in complete silence for a couple of minutes and breathe the pure air, listen to the waves and feel the wind and the warmth. A true arctic moment...