In July 2006 I gave in to curiosity and realized my ambition to visit West Greenland. I returned 6 times in the next 8 years! I knew that about 10% of the world’s freshwater was sitting on Greenland with the capacity to raise sea-level by several metres but I could relate to it no more than Antarctica at the bottom of the world! Back then you hardly ever heard of anything happening in Greenland…it was a silent, remote, unknown place to me, far to the north. I wanted to see something of it for myself, meet some of the people, see some Greenlandic towns and if possible, stand on that massive ice-sheet. I wanted to go somewhere out of the way, where budget airlines don’t fly tens of thousands of ‘everyone else’ each year!
My main plan was hiking out there in the region between Sisimiut on the west coast and Kangerlussuaq, about 100 miles east and just about 20 miles short of the edge of the ice-sheet. For me, if you want to really experience a landscape, you need to be out in it on foot, but more of that in Part II. This part is about three of Greenland’s towns that I’ve visited.
Greenland is part of the Kingdom of Denmark and there are daily Air Greenland flights from Copenhagen to Kangerlussuaq. Kangerlussuaq town hosts the main international hub airport with its own hotel and flights by smaller aircraft or helicopter disperse passengers from here to the other parts of the country.
If the weather is good, your first glimpse of the country is the stunning east coast with its pristine and rugged beauty.
Greenland’s spectacular pristine east coast…
After an hour or so of crossing the awesome and impressive ice-sheet, its western edge appears and the plane sweeps over Sondre Stomfjord to line up for Kangerlussuaq’s runway.
Flying in over the c.100 mile long Sondre Stromfjord. The ice-sheet in the background (looking eastwards) and Kangerlussuaq is at the head of this fjord.
Kangerlussuaq was established in 1941 as a US airbase but is now a town of about 530 people and its main business these days revolves around what is now a civilian airport. You do see C-130’s here though supporting international science projects!
Kangerlussuaq runway...(taken on departure!)
Kangerlussuaq airport buildings…over the years I’ve witnessed the expansion of the terminal buildings as the place has become more popular.
The town is on both sides of the runway and to the south, a bridge crosses a narrow ravine through which the melt-water in the Watson River gushes into what is the start of the c.100 mile-long Sondre Stromfjord.
An aerial view of Kangerlussuaq taken from a light aircraft. I was taken up to see what the pilot could offer in terms of aerial surveys and transects for wild goose research.
Running east out of town is what has been described as Greenland’s longest road! It’s a 20 mile long dirt track that will take you to the Russell Glacier about 14 miles out of town. You can go with various tour operators; you can hire a local taxi or bicycle or you can walk!
Relax at the Russell glacier, wait for collapses at the glacier face which you can watch from the hilltop or right down at the river. Before you, stretching eastwards, is about 500 miles of ice-sheet!
Note tiny humans for scale…!
I was camping by the Russell glacier one evening, having a cup of tea at my tent door…then an arctic fox cub walked by…! A typically unexpected wildlife encounter.
The arctic fox cub was unperturbed by my presence.
Another 6 miles or so up the dirt track road, you can easily set foot on the ice sheet, begin to grasp its awesome magnitude...and if you’re like me, experience that strong pull to go and see what’s over the horizon, and the next one…it gets me like summit fever every time!
View from the track near the end of the road.
This amount of ice is hard to comprehend and the ice-sheet is far from uniform, in other places it is like an ocean of frozen dunes!
A hundred miles or so west, on the coast, is Greenland’s second largest town – Sisimiut. It’s only about 25 minutes flying from Kangerlussuaq. In 2006 and 2007 I visited the Chinese restaurant here that cooked with Greenlandic ingredients…lovely spicy caribou for example. Sadly the northernmost Chinese restaurant I have ever visited is no longer here.
Looking down towards Sisimiut harbour. Sisimiut is north of the arctic-circle and it’s the west coast’s northernmost ice-free harbour in winter.
Sisimiut is a bustling town of about 5,000 inhabitants with supermarkets, hospital etc and plenty of history. West Greenland coastal cruises usually stop here.
Part of Sisimiut town with the distinctive peak of Kællingehætten in the background.
The old church (1775) on the left and the new one (1926) in the background…
Sisimiut marina. Roads finish at the edge of town and just about everyone lives on the coast, so boat ownership is high!
There’s good walking in this area of varying degrees of challenge and in Hotel Sisimiut in 2014 I met some Dutchmen who were being taken out on day-long fishing trips. The hotel is of a very good standard and has an excellent restaurant.
Another short flight north up the coast would bring you to Ilulissat. Famous for the Sermeq Kujalleq or Jakobshavn glacier and its World Heritage Site (…and occasional visiting dignitaries who come to highlight climate change impacts in the arctic.)
The town is a quite a busy place but the ice-fjord is the unmissable feature and only a short walk out of town.
With a calving front over 3 miles long, the glacier produces 10% of Greenland’s icebergs and calves enough ice each year to keep the USA in freshwater for the same period!
The most gigantic bergs ground at the mouth of the fjord on moraine and can be here a long time before eventually breaking up and drifting out to sea. Note ship for scale!
The ice-fjord produces scenes of breathtaking beauty but sadly reminds me that the glacier front has retreated a long way at increasing rates and recent science tells us that Greenland is losing at least 260 gigatonnes of ice each year, and it’s accelerating!
Visiting these Greenlandic towns has been a wonderful experience for me but to ‘know’ Greenland better and take home something deeper and more personal, most of my time is spent out in its Western wilderness in my tent…but that’s Part II!