The town of Ilulissat, with 5,000 inhabitants, is the third largest in Greenland. When I got there, I was given a map that showed every building and amenity that it contains: three Spar shops, two halibut factories but no high school (Greenland has a total of three secondary schools). The suburbs were shown covered in diagonal lines, indicating “areas with sledge dogs”. Until recently, the people of Ilulissat were outnumbered by their huskies, which they needed to pull them over the snow and ice.
The town was founded in 1741 by Jacob Severin, a Danish trader, who called it Jacobshavn. Life for the Danish settlers – the last tribe in a succession of Inuit peoples and Vikings to give Greenland a try – was terribly dark and hard. During their first winter in what is now Nuuk, Greenland’s capital, half the Danes died.
Almost 300 years later, life in Jacob’s former colony retains a tough, explicit quality. Houses sit on top of rocks, their water and waste pipes laid across the lichen. The Spars are full of motor oil and power tools. Men in orange overalls walk down the street, armed with rifles equipped with telescopic sights, off to shoot a seal. One afternoon, I noticed the town’s battered hearse pull up outside the old black church. There was a funeral. Couples were converging on the water’s edge, carrying heart-sized bunches of small Arctic flowers.
What renders all of this so brightly – what gives even ordinary sights in Ilulissat a kind of luminous clarity – is that everything takes place against a horizon that is phantasmagoric. Ilulissat means “Icebergs” and the town lives in their company like a moon before the Milky Way. People texting on the bus; teenagers playing music on their phones as though you can’t hear it; there is always an iceberg in the picture. When I first saw Disko Bay, the ice-cluttered sea that the town looks across, it struck me not so much as beautiful as completely made-up.
Ilulissat gets its name, and meaning, from being next door to the world’s most active glacier outside Antarctica. Sermeq Kujalleq is one of a handful of funnels through which ice from the massive Greenland ice cap descends to the sea. About 40,000 sq km of ice feed into the glacier’s narrow, cliff-like front, which – forced by the unfathomable weight massed behind it – then cracks into icebergs. The largest, which are hundreds of metres high, take two years to travel 40km from the glacier edge down the Kangia ice-fjord, before emerging, at Ilulissat, to join the world’s ocean currents. This combination of glacier, fjord and spectral sea was designated a world heritage site by Unesco in 2004. Icebergs from Ilulissat have turned up in the Caribbean.
I walked out to the ice-fjord as soon as I got to Ilulissat, overtaking a digger that was labouring up the road and passing through the salty, dog-baskety smells. Then, I stood on a rock and stared.
At its mouth, the Kangia fjord is about 7km across and packed with ice. In the high, Arctic light – the sun was not due to set for another week or so – it made a kind of white answering landscape to the hills and scree around. Gulls winged through frozen canyons that would have been Narnian, or Tolkienian, if they had been at all believable.
The next morning, from a small aircraft, I saw the edge of the glacier itself, the messy breaking-place, and the innumerable crevasses and contours of the ice cap, fanning out from the heart of Greenland and expressing the titanic pressures beneath. It was like the world’s biggest worried forehead, and I confess I was overwhelmed. “This”, I wrote in my notebook, “is what eternity looks like.”
Except, of course, that it isn’t. Mighty as Sermeq Kujalleq is, with all its icy floes, the whole point about glaciers and the environment they produce is that nothing is fixed. Nothing is forever. Everything is slowly shifting. You can’t see it happening – sometimes you believe you can – but each piece of ice around Ilulissat is on its own, uncertain voyage.
Sometimes, their shapes hint at what has gone before. For example, if an iceberg is smooth-edged, it has probably spent most of its life the other way up. This can be hard to get your head around if the iceberg is the size of an aircraft carrier.
In most cases, however, the constructions of ice are just too various to read. Scattered across the sea are Frank Gehry museums, wrecked castles, plaster of Paris casts of undiscovered dinosaurs and baroque squares complete with statues. There is no telling how they got that way, and no way of knowing what they will become next.
On the water, up close, this sense of change only grows. Boats leave Ilulissat’s harbour each night at 10pm during the summer, and make their way to the mouth of the fjord, to a lip on the sea floor – known as the Isfjeldsbanken – that can strand the biggest icebergs for three or four months at a time. We stopped in a patch of clear water, killed the engines, and listened in the silence to the creaks and the distant sudden booms – like car doors slamming – of the white shapes melting around us. The ice breathed out cold. When I held a piece to my ear, I could hear the air trapped by long-fallen snow, crackling on its escape.
For some reason, though, the icebergs seemed to make an even bigger impression when I was on land. Perhaps it was simply confronting them so soon after leaving London. Starting this summer, Cox & Kings, the UK-based tour operator that claims to be the world’s oldest travel company, has introduced the rather mind-bending concept of the weekend break in Greenland. I flew from Heathrow on Thursday afternoon, spent the night in Reykjavik and arrived in Ilulissat in time for Friday lunch. I would be back on Monday morning.
On each of my mornings in Ilulissat, I took a picture from my room at the Hotel Arctic, to track the progress of a huge iceberg as it cleared the headland. The spectacle of such a massive object, moving on the skyline, suggested that the shore might not be immobile, either.
The Greenlandic summer, short as it is, is a quiver of green and red, grasses and mosses, birds and bugs (especially bugs). There are flowers all over the bouncy, sun-sprung turf. The most conspicuous are white, furry and known as ukaliusaq, which means “resembling a rabbit”. Whenever I was out on my own, I thought the rocks themselves were about to twitch and come alive.
It might have been the effect of the icebergs, but it might also have been the Greenlandic stories I was reading. Ilulissat’s most famous son is Knud Rasmussen, a polar explorer, who collected Inuit myths wherever he went. He published a collection in 1908, recording in print the long anarchic tales that people told to get each other through the months of darkness.
“No one has ever heard this story to the end” is the great boast of Greenlandic storytellers, whose job is to keep inventing until everyone has gone to sleep. The results, infused with the strange animals and landscapes of the Arctic, are unruly, mad, unnerving. This is the place of magic bears with jumping teeth; red dogs and thunder spirits; where ravens lie; where men slip down cracks in the ice and walk on the bottom of the sea; where insects flirt with you, to make you leave your wife.
Of course, the greatest engine of weirdness in Greenland – the uncertainty beneath the uncertainty – is climate change. The landscape has been transformed by shifting temperatures before. Just ask the smug Norsemen, who called themselves the Grænlendingafor the lush and pleasant island they farmed for 500 years, before relinquishing it to the advancing ice some time after 1408. In Ilulissat these days, people date a noticeable warming to the late 1990s. Before then, fishermen used to get in their cars in winter and simply drive out into the bay, cut a hole in the ice and fish. Now the ice is often too thin for running sledges, hence Ilulissat’s declining dog population, which has halved – to 2,300 – in a decade.
At the centre of the drama is the withdrawing Sermeq Kujalleq. The front of the glacier has receded by 15km in the past eight years, a retreat – according to an information poster in the airport – that was “very rapid, was unexpected, and remains poorly understood”. Maps of the ice now go out of date as soon as they are printed.
For now, warmer temperatures are actually making life easier in Ilulissat. Less ice means more fishing, fewer dogs to feed and, as is the case everywhere across the thawing Arctic, rumours of oil and gas.
The thing is to go and see it for yourself. Stand and stare at Disko Bay. Wonder about giants and ice and what will become of us. No one has ever heard this story to the end.
Sam Knight was a guest of Cox & Kings (www.coxandkings.co.uk) which offers a long weekend to Greenland priced from £1,495 per person, including flights from Reykjavik, two nights in Ilulissat with excursions and breakfast daily and two nights in Reykjavik. Flights from London to Reykjavik add £250; direct scheduled flights to Reykjavik are also available from 47 US and European cities
Weekend adventures: More time-crunched trips of a lifetime
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Three nights; from £4,099 per person starting from London, $6,299 from New York. www.blacktomato.com
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Three nights; from £8,600 per couple, including flights from London (other departure points in Europe and US can be arranged). www.originaltravel.co.uk
Heli-skiing in Iceland The mountains of the Troll peninsula in northern Iceland feel utterly remote but are surprisingly accessible from Europe and the US. From Reykjavik, it’s a 45-minute flight to Akureyri, then a 45-minute drive to Klængshóll Lodge, the farmhouse that is Arctic Heli Skiing’s base. Its helicopter takes off right outside, accessing a vast area of rarely skied peaks.
Four nights; from €5,285, including transfers from Akureyri. www.arcticheliskiing.com
The North Pole Robert Peary took nine months to travel from New York to the North Pole in 1908/09 (his claim that he was the first to get there remains disputed). Today, it is possible to reach the pole on a four-night holiday, and that includes a spare day to allow for bad weather. Guests fly to Longyearbyen, on Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, then get kitted out in arctic clothing. The next morning, they fly for two hours to Barneo, a camp on the ice at 89 degrees north. On day three, they are taken by Mi-8 helicopter to the pole, staying for two hours before returning to Barneo for a celebratory dinner.
Four nights; from $20,500 per person. www.adventure-network.com