Sunday, November 7, 2010

Greenland: One of the Last Great Places on Earth

s I watched the bow of Hurtigruten Cruise Line’s MV Fram cut through the grey waters of the Arctic Ocean off the east coast of Greenland, a puff of spray rose in the air. Within minutes the ship was surrounded by rising spouts of spume like friendly smoke signals from the depths of the sea.

Then a broad, black back cut the water and dove beneath the ship’s bow, the humpback’s flukes waving for a moment before disappearing. The sea seemed to boil with whales, humpback and fin, enormous slick-skinned leviathans that had risen to check us out.

This Is Greenland!

Adventure cruising in Greenland was full of such moments—a ring-necked seal sun bathing on an ice floe, a glacier calving a mountain of blue ice, a young gannet with a four-foot wingspread riding the air currents off the port bow.

Greenland is the largest non-continental island in the world. It is just over 800,000 square miles of rock covered by a massive ice cap, and a new destination hot spot for savvy travelers. With rocks that date back to the creation of the planet, the island is both one of the oldest places on earth and one of the newest.

The diminishing weight of its rapidly melting ice cap is allowing the island to rise out of the ocean and exposed rock is gradually being ground into new top soil. According to geologists, 50 percent of the world’s untapped oil reserves are above the Arctic Circle and Greenland, with its potential mineral wealth, has been dubbed the future Dubai of the North.

A Clash of Cultures

The native Inuit are friendly to visitors and keep their struggle with the complexities of the new century in the background. However, conflicts between a hunter-gatherer tribal society that traces its roots back nearly a thousand years and the multinational conglomerates of the 21st century percolate below the island’s placid cultural surface.

Nowhere is the history of the ancient conflict of cultures more in evidence than in the capital city of Nuuk on the west coast.

In the Greenland National Museum lie the mummies of two Inuit women and a baby, found buried close to the small settlement of Qilakitsoq. Buried about 1475, the mummies were found not many miles from the remains of Brattahlid, the site of the farm of Viking real estate developer, Erik the Red.

In 985, exiled from his home in Iceland for murder, Erik led a group of Norse settlers to the southern tip of Greenland where they established farms along the coast. As the ice of an increasingly colder climate crept south so did the Inuit hunting sea mammals. The two cultures didn’t mix and by the mid-15th century the Vikings were gone and the Inuit occupied their lands.

Erik the Red’s Legacy

As our ship reached the site of Brattahlid, we loaded into small polar circle boats to go ashore. Erik’s farm looked idyllic in the light of late afternoon. A rich carpet of green grass and wild flowers covered the rolling hills grazed by sheep and ponies and cut by a small stream. On the rock above our landing place a heavily armed statue of Erik’s son, Leif, kept watch over his father’s former estate.

Erik had chosen the site for his home wisely, on a rocky headland with a wide view of the sea. Reproductions of his traditional Viking long house and the tiny Christian chapel built by his wife, Thjodhildr, greeted us.

A reconstruction of Thjodhildr’s elaborately carved wooden loom stood at one end of a stone-lined fire pit that ran the length of the house.

Strangely enough, this Nordic long house was nearly identical to the traditional Inuit winter home that we saw a few days later in Tasiliik on the western coast, right down to the reindeer hides lining the walls.

To complete the illusion of time travel to the Viking age, a local guide named Eadda, dressed in medieval clothes, opened her arms to draw us in and tell us the story of the Norse settlement.

According to Eadda, the last known reference to the Vikings was a wedding held in 1408 at Erik’s farm. After that there is only silence and the eloquence of the Vikings’ successors, the Qilakitsoq mummies.

Geological Marvels

Although Greenland is dotted with abandoned towns, mining camps and fishing villages, the island is more than a record of man’s struggle to survive in a hostile environment. It offers a master class in the never-ending geologic forces that shape the earth.

Skjoldungen is an island off Greenland’s eastern coast and our ship had never before been able to sail completely around it because of pack ice. Now as we entered narrow ice-free fjords, soaring peaks that reminded me of the western coast of Scotland rose sheer from the water.

Apart from the sounds of the ship, the silence was absolute. Great abstract sculptures of tabular ice floes floated away from calving glaciers. Brilliant blue ice rivers spilled down the vertical rocks that, twisting and folding back on themselves, marked the volcanic activity that had created the view. Black lines of magnesium oxide deposited by ice melt painted the face of the cliffs in Mondrian-like lines.

Blue is the oldest ice, we were told by MV Fram’s resident geologist. The weight of the frozen water has pressed enough oxygen bubbles out to make a hard layer of clear blue that looks like translucent marble.

Icy UNESCO Beauty

The cliffs fell away and then we were out of the Skjoldungen passage into Koge Bay. Diagonally across the island of Greenland lay the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Ilulissat ice fjord, the largest calving glacier in the world. However, Koge Bay can certainly give it a run for its money.

Crammed with icebergs, some more than 300 feet high, it was near here that Fridtjof Nassen, the Norwegian explorer, set off in August 1888 to trek across the Greenland ice cap. As the huge mountains of ice floated silently by the Fram in that unforgiving landscape, I couldn’t help thinking about HMS Titanic and its close encounter with one of them.

Arriving at the largest port on the eastern coast, Tasiliik, was like being welcomed in from the cold. The ship was greeted by a friendly chorus of howling sled dogs as the town emerged out of the fog like some Greenlandic Brigadoon. Below a new church set at the summit, brilliantly colored houses were scattered across rocky hills like a child’s Lego collection.

From the dock, we set off to climb the hill to the church for a performance by the Tasiliik Chorale and strolling Inuit families smiled shyly at us.

This was Greenland, a new church built on rock from before the age of the dinosaurs, ancient and modern, friendly and stark, frozen in time and emerging into the future, one of the last great places to visit on earth.

Susan James is a California-based writer who has lived in India and the U.K. She specializes in art and history and has written about China’s Silk Road, Henry VIII’s England, and Singapore’s art scene.

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