We have left behind the wonders of the Disko Bay and the Ice Fjord. On the small Dash 8, we’ve flown south to Kangerlussuaq, meaning Big Fjord. As so many other names in Greenland, the name Kangerlussuaq is used many places around the country. But this must be the best known. Kangerlussuaq in the Qeqqata municipality of Western Greenland is an old American Airbase, which today functions as Greenland’s international airport. This is where the flight from Copenhagen lands twice a day.
While it is possible to travel directly to Nuuk or Ilulissat from Reykjavik in Iceland, most people will find their way to Greenland on the Copenhagen flight to Kangerlussuaq. It is the entrance way to this beautiful country.
But Kangerlussuaq is more than that. The fjord from which the small community and airbase received its name is 190 kilometres long and at its widest 8 kilometres. With these measures it is the second largest fjord in Greenland, and the fifth largest in the world. The fjord waters come from Russell Glacier and the Ice Cap through Qinnguata Kuusua, in English known as Watson River, and spills into the Davis Strait.
Following the fjord and river inland, Greenland’s longest road leads directly to the Ice Cap. At Point 660, the very end of the 37 kilometres long road, only a small hill separates you from the Ice Cap. From here the Ice Cap extends 600 kilometres to the East. For the foolhardy, it would take approximately 25 days to cross the Ice Cap from here to the small settlement of Isortoq on the East Coast.
I have no desire to attempt a crossing.
What I did want however was to get an idea of this massive ice sheet, and we had therefore planned for an excursion to the Ice Cap, getting a small taste of walking on it.
It takes two hours to drive the 25 kilometres to the Ice Cap and point 660. Included in this was several stops and a lunch overlooking Reindeer Glacier, which is a small branch off from Russell Glacier.
This is the land of reindeer and musk oxen and on our way to the Ice Cap, we were lucky to catch sight of a young female reindeer walking close to our truck. Prior to 1941, when the area was used for an American Airbase, the original Inuit population never actually settled down here. but there are excavations showing that the area was used as hunting grounds by Inuits.
It was because of the stable climate that the Americans chose this place as a fuel stop on the way to Europe during WW2. The region is under an inland climate with 300 days of clear weather a year. It is an arctic desert, however difficult it is to imagine this.
The glacier grinds tonnes of rocks into silt, which is just as fine cut as the sand of Sahara. With the dry climate and the massive prevalence of silt, not much can grow in this area.
This however did not stop s couple of extreme entrepreneurs of the 1980’s to build a golf course. It is a desolate and sandy stretch of land as we drive by. The most northern 18 hole golf course in the world. A proof that the 80’s was an entrepreneurial time with lots of optimism and crazy ideas. I was later told that the golf club did a count a few years back of their membership archive and found that they had two active members. I guess that means no waiting around.
Apart from the golf course, the Americans used Kangerlussuaq as a radar station during the Cold War and made scientific investigations of northern light from 1971 to 1987 though the results were far from impressive.
In 1992, after the end of the Cold War, the US sold Kangerlussuaq to Denmark for one dollar. This agreement however stipulated that the airport should for all time have 4 months worth of fuel ready as well as allow the scientific research of the climate by US scientists.
By selling the area to Denmark, the US also left behind a testing ground for explosives. It was swiped once during the initial take over, but due to lack of funds the place was never swiped for unexploded bombs a second time around.
After the discovery by a school class of unexploded grenades in the late 90’s, the area has been off limits, closed as a mine field. It is very odd to drive by signs warning against a mine field in a country such as Greenland. But then there are also signs warning you from flight engine jet blasts and quick sand.
Walking on the Ice Cap
When we reached Point 660, we were given steel frames for our hiking shoes, so that we walked on steel picks. We each carried a walking stick and thus were ready to conquer the vast inland ice.
It was an odd experience to walk in a landscape only made from snow and ice. Everywhere you looked were hills and valleys cut from the melting water and created by the pressure between the ice further inland and the bedrock of the coastal region. We were told that travelling further inland, the ice cape would even out, but here it seemed a crumpled fabric.
In the valleys of the ice were clear blue lakes. Not the turquoise blue of a Greek island, but a truly clear blue, lighting up its surroundings. Melting water was creating rivers and water falls as well as holes deep into the ice sheet.
The ice is a mysterious and dangerous place, and one wrong foot could have dire consequences. Some off these holes made from melting water had been measured to more than 200 meters in depth. At one point we all had to jump over a narrow crevice of which I could not see the bottom.
But apart from a few scrapes from falling with the steel picks, we returned to Point 660 in safe condition. Having walked on the ice cap for four hours, it is even harder for me to understand why anyone would attempt to cross it.
We had booked a table for the weekly Greenlandic buffet at Restaurant Roklubben a little outside Kangerlussuaq. It was a weird experience. A shuttle bus picked us and most of the towns tourists up at 19.00 to drive us the five kilometres to Lake Fergusson. The old bus was darkened by steams of mosquitoes, making it almost impossible to see out the window. I truly felt for the guy on the seat in front of us, who had only shown up in a t-shirt and bare arms. We were covered from head to toe in clothes and mosquito nets, but still managed to get eaten alive. Thankfully we gave as good as we got.
The buffet was supposed to be a culinary experience, but felt more like the buffet at a chain café in provincial Denmark. It wasn’t particularly bad, but it was not particularly good either, and it seemed as if this was what they had dished up with every Saturday for the last 30 years.
I did buy a grouse schnapps made from the food stored in the gizzard of a grouse. It is quite a Greenlandic way to make schnapps, and I look forward to tasting it this Christmas.
Day trip to Russell Glacier
On our final day in Greenland, we’d booked a day trip to Russell Glacier. It was only us the guide and a middle-aged Danish woman, who had been to Greenland several times before.
It was a perfect way to say goodbye. The temperature was reaching 17 °C and the sun was shining. We were going off road to the front of the glacier. The van drove up and down steep hills covered in silt, and at some times it felt as if we would tip over. But it was fun and definitely worth it to almost fall off our seats.
Russell Glacier is approximate 700 meters wide and move 25 meters a year. Al Gore filmed parts of An Inconvenient Truth at Russell Glacier in 2006 and returned last year to show the effect of climate change through the massive changes to the glacier, which had shrunk much further back in the 10 years since.
Whatever the size was before, the glacier is beautiful. It does not have the same romantic appearance as Eqi Glacier, but it feels so much closer.
We spent our last day drinking coffee and eating biscuits at one of the true wonders of this world, a glacier in all its glory.
The only thing we seemed to be missing after two weeks in Greenland was a couple of musk oxen. Having tasted them and having seen so many other of Greenland’s wild life, it was a bit disappointing to not get a glimpse of the musk oxen, we knew were usually grassing across from the glacier.
But as it happens, on our way back our guide stopped the van to point out three dots moving around in the far distance.
And there they were, a family of three. Two grown musk oxen and one calf, which should actually be a kid since musk oxen are related to goats, but who cares. Here they were. We could family tick off the last remaining thing on our list of things to experience in Greenland, and with a few grainy pictures, it was documented.
The rest of the day, we walked around Kangerlussuaq and waited in the airport canteen for our midnight flight. We were going home from one of the most amazing travels of my life, in a world so different from anything we ever saw before. I would not be surprised, if we found ourselves on the Copenhagen flight to Greenland again some day.