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White wilderness in Greenland

Posted: 2017-11-11 01:35:00, Categories: Travel, Hiking, Greenland, 1925 words (permalink)

Arto and our friend Phil with his Land Cruiser.
Arto and our friend Phil with his Land Cruiser.
It's great to visit friends who live in exotic places. The eccentric scientist and wilderness expert Phil invited us in Greenland, where he works at a radar station just outside the town of Kangerlussuaq. The town hosts the island's largest airport in addition to 600 inhabitants, and is served by regular flights from Copenhagen, Denmark. That was an offer we couldn't resist so in March 2017 we flew over to experiment with various means of moving around in snow.

Kangerlussuaq viewed from above.
Kangerlussuaq viewed from above.
Upon landing, Phil was waiting for us in his Land Cruiser and we drove 15 km to Kellyville, along the only road which goes that far out of town. Kellyville consists of a big radar, main office and storage building, five container houses for the employees and a number of antennas and other measurement devices scattered around on the neighbouring hills.

Kellyville radar station.
Kellyville radar station.
Our headquarters was Phil's house, furnished in 1980's American style and stocked with all the outdoor equipment we could possible need. Phil had to work on most of the days, but he provided us a map and even a satellite phone, just in case we'd get lost or have an emergency. During the following two weeks, we explored the nearby surroundings on foot (with and without snowshoes), on skis, by car, by a snowmobile and on a dog sledge.

Sandra and Phil on tour.
Sandra and Phil on tour.
It was an arctic landscape of cliffs and small roundish mountains, with numerous streams, moors and lakes in between. They were naturally all frozen, as was the long fjord reaching over 100 km from the Labrador sea to Kangerlussuaq. There was not very much snow, the region gets little precipitation and the wind blows most of it away from the bare surfaces. Here and there bushes and grass were sticking out from the snow, hinting that in the summer there would be a colourful carpet of arctic flowers.

Sitting at the peak of Mt. Evans.
Sitting at the peak of Mt. Evans.
On our fist day trip we walked along the road a couple of kilometers further until it ended at an old warehouse filled with big rusting engines. It had been used in the past by the U.S. military to power a radio station, capable of sending a warning to the U.S. mainland in case of an attack from the east. After a quick look inside the building we headed towards the nearest peak, simply choosing a passable route between the rocks — there were no trails or paths.

Two reindeer passing by.
Two reindeer passing by.
On the way up, two reindeer passed by, searching for food under the snow. We also saw many ptarmigan tracks but no birds. Within an hour we reached the peak with views all the way until the huge ice cap, which covers almost the whole Greenland except for the coastal and most southern areas. It was a beautiful sunny day so we stopped for a while to enjoy the scenery and a cup of hot tea from our thermos.

Abandoned caravan in the middle of nowhere.
Abandoned caravan in the middle of nowhere.
We descended on the north side towards a lake and an abandoned caravan next to it. We wondered a bit how it had ended up there, as there were no roads leading up to the spot. The door was open so we took a look inside. It looked almost like a stage set from the movie Into the Wild, where Christopher McCandless leaves the civilization behind to live in an abandoned bus in the middle of wilderness. The idyll was broken only by the adjacent snowmobile and dog sledge track connecting the towns of Sisimiut and Kangerlussuaq. We followed the track around the mountain back to Phil's house to cook dinner and spend a relaxing evening with him.

Arto with skis and pulka by the fjord.
Arto with skis and pulka by the fjord.
The day temperatures varied between -10 and -20°C, nights being about ten degrees colder. We had sunny and cloudy days but no really bad weather during our two week stay. One of the sunniest but still the coldest days was the one when we went skiing on the fjord. In addition to skis Phil borrowed us a pulka to pull our extra clothes, drinks and snacks instead of carrying them on our backs. The pulka could also be used as a sledge to slide down after climbing up a small hill to enjoy the views.

A bit of colour sticking out from the snow.
A bit of colour sticking out from the snow.
On our day tours we saw reindeer, a few birds and two times an arctic fox. Muscox would be one more common sighting, but we didn't see any, only local hunters heading out on their dog sledges to shoot some. It was the hunting season and traditional ways of life are protected by allowing dog sledges out in the wilderness, while restricting snow mobiles and quads on a few marked routes.

Cooking party at Phil's place.
Cooking party at Phil's place.
Almost every day either Phil or one of his colleagues drove to Kangerlussuaq, so we could easily get to the town if we wanted. Most of the buildings were constructed by the U.S. Army during the time the whole town was an air base. They have later been converted to apartments and public spaces such as a school, swimming hall and a restaurant/bar. The supermarket was surprisingly well stocked and larger than one would expect for a population of 600. The inhabitants are a mix of Greenlanders and people coming from all corners of the world. Phil's Thai friends came once over to his house and cooked all of us a sumptuous meal, with leftovers lasting for several days. Authentic Thai food in Greenland - one of the surprises of the trip.

Northern lights at Kellyville.
Northern lights at Kellyville.
One evening, Phil gave us a tour at the radar station. It was a funky mix of analog and digital technology encompassing half a century from the 1950's until this day. The radar is used for measurements in the upper ionosphere, where polar lights are formed. At his house, Phil only needs to have a quick glance at the graphs on his TV screen to tell whether it's worth to go outside. A couple of times during our stay we could enjoy the beautiful dancing lights of the nature at night.

On the snowmobile towards Sisimiut.
On the snowmobile towards Sisimiut.
One of the highlights was our weekend trip together to Sisimiut, the second largest town in Greenland with 5600 inhabitants. Phil was able to organize us two snowmobiles — Sandra and I shared one and he rode the other with a bit more luggage in the back. Tucked in our warmest clothes, we set out for a 150 km ride on frozen lakes, rivers, snow covered hills and a couple of small mountain passes.

Icy landscape in the evening.
Icy landscape in the evening.
The scenery was fantastic on both sides of the snowmobile track. The small roundish hills near Kangerlussuaq turned into mountains, the highest peak being Pingu 1306 meters above sea level. Mostly we drove on lakes and rivers and once through a small canyon with high walls on both sides. Streches crossing land were rather bumpy and we had to carefully zig-zag between the rocks sticking out from the snow. On the higher passes we had great views over the smaller hilltops. There were a few basic shelters on the way to have a small break or to stay overnight. We saw a few other snowmobile riders, dog sledges and a few people on a ski tour, but most of the time it was just the three of us.

Break at a small wilderness hut.
Break at a small wilderness hut.
Our travel speed varied mostly between 30-60km/h. On the smoothest sections we drove sometimes a bit faster, but didn't push it near the top speed. There is no snowmobile speed limit in Greenland and the machines can do about 150 km/h — they're a bit like motorcycles, but off-road and on snow. Even on lakes the snow often accumulates in small ridges, which become dangerous jumps in high speeds. With photo stops and a couple of small breaks it was a full day ride. Sun was already setting when we arrived on top of the last pass and saw the lights of Sisimiut ahead us.

A small canyon.
A small canyon.
One of the first houses belonged to Phil's friends, so we met them and after a short chat headed together out to town center. We were lucky: it was Friday evening and a couple of local bands were playing at the multipurpose hall in the center. After a nice evening we crashed for the night on the floor at the same friends' new house — they were just about to move in there the next day!

Colourful houses at Sisimiut.
Colourful houses at Sisimiut.
Saturday morning we headed out for a walk around the town. It was a mix of nice wooden family houses and bigger apartment blocks, all painted in yellow, red, blue and other bright colours. Despite the cold weather the sea was not frozen at the coast, and the local marked offered various specialities such as seal meat and a fresh sea elephant head. We had lunch with another friend of Phil's who worked as a teacher at a local school. Most of the teachers come from Denmark and Danish is the main language, but also the local Inuit language is partly used in the schools. At the end of the day, we fetched our snowmobiles and checked into a hotel for the night.

Back towards Kangerlussuaq in fresh snow.
Back towards Kangerlussuaq in fresh snow.
On Sunday we woke up to a sunny morning with about 30 centimeters of fresh snow. That made our ride back to Kangerlussuaq smoother and even more beautiful than the other direction had been. We were the first ones on the track, which was now barely visible — it was good that Phil was able to guide us on the right way. We just had to give enough gas in the steep uphills to avoid getting stuck in the soft snow in the middle of the slope.

Following Phil on the snowmobile.
Following Phil on the snowmobile.
On the way we had a coffee break at a cozy wooden hut built by a local carpenter from Sisimiut. The Greenlandic flag was up indicating "Kaffemik" which means that everybody passing by is welcome to stop by for a visit. Often that means a house full of visitors, but at Amalie's wilderness hut we were the only guests. It was already dark when we came back to Phil's house, tired but happy.

Relaxed travelling by the dog sledge.
Relaxed travelling by the dog sledge.
On the last day before our departure we booked a two-hour sledge dog tour on the fjord ice. That was a quite pleasant way to travel, sitting relaxed on the sledge while the dogs were slowly jogging in front. Compared to the sledge dogs in Finnish or Swedish Lapland, the Greenlandic dogs are slower but have more endurance to run for hours and hours, covering longer distances per day. Contact was again through Phil, who recommended Jan as he treats his animals better than many other dog owners. After the ride, Sandra got to hold one of the puppies, which was at the same time very cute and stinky.

Sandra with the cute and stinky puppy.
Sandra with the cute and stinky puppy.
On the day of our return it was snowing and windy and Phil's four wheel drive car was the right vehicle to get from Kellyville to the Kangerlussuaq airport. Our return flight was delayed by more than ten hours. It waited for other planes coming from other towns and finally left late in the evening instead of in the morning. That's not a rare event in Greenland, a good reminder that despite all the modern services it's still an arctic and remote location. Greenland air is also specifically exempt on paying any reimbursement for delays in such cases. We did get a dinner at the airport on their tab, and only missed one night of sleep in Copenhagen — the flight arrived early in the morning and we were still able to catch our connecting flight to Munich.

Greenland was certainly one of the most interesting places we've been to, and we hope to return there some day. Perhaps next time during the short arctic summer, when the coastal areas are free from snow and full of flowers in various colours.

Mountains behind the fjord in the evening light.
Mountains behind the fjord in the evening light.

1 comment

Comment from: Päivi & Santeri [Visitor]
Great to hear from you!
2017-11-11 @ 13:50

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