Experiencing Greenland

By Mike Grenby Special to the News ILULISSAT, Greenland They say an iceberg from here sank the Titanic.

ILULISSAT, Greenland

They say an iceberg from here sank the Titanic.

After breaking off from the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier, which produces some 35 cubic kilometres – 86 million tonnes – of icebergs each year, it would have pushed its way down the Jakobshavns Isfjord into Disko Bay. It would have entered Davis Strait, between Greenland and Canada, and eventually floated south on the Baffin and Labrador currents.

Large Greenland icebergs, typically travelling seven to 20 kilometres a day, have reached New York before melting, and have always threatened North Atlantic shipping lanes, where the Titanic met its fate in 1912.

Yukoners will feel both at home and also in a foreign country in Greenland. Northerners have a kinship with each other in all Arctic and sub-Arctic regions. Yet the massive glaciers and icebergs, as well as the unique Inuit-Danish population (Greenland is moving toward home rule but is still subsidized by Denmark), offer experiences found nowhere else.

The most sparsely populated place on earth (.026 humans per square kilometre – almost one-third less crowded than the Yukon), Greenland is the world’s largest non-continental island with 2.4 million square kilometres (equal to five Yukons) – 85 per cent of which is covered with ice up to 3.2-kilometres thick.

And this ice makes Ilulissat, Greenland’s third largest town with 4,500 residents and about 4,000 husky sledge dogs about halfway up Greenland’s west coast and 250 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, such a fascinating place. Lonely Planet, not given to exaggeration, says in its guide, Greenland & The Arctic:

“This is it. This is why you came to Greenland and spent all that money. Ilulissat is one of those places so spectacular that it just makes everything else pale in comparison.”

As the Air Iceland Dash-8 comes in to land after the three-hour flight from Keflavik or Reykjavik in Iceland, you see them: Giant icebergs either float or are marooned in the harbour and out into Disko Bay, which with a ridge “only” 200 to 300 metres deep is shallower than the ice fjord. Because of trapped air, six-sevenths instead of the more usual nine-tenths of the iceberg is below water. However, that still means an iceberg up to 100 metres above water extends up to 600 metres below the water.

The glacier moves 35 to 40 metres a day, choking the 40,240 hectare-ice fjord and eventually the ocean around Ilulissat with ice – from tiny lumps to giants with amazing shapes. The icebergs can take as long as two years to reach the ocean and often another year before they move out to sea.

The Ilulissat Glacier is the largest glacier in the Northern hemisphere that flows into the sea. It produces an amount of sweet water per day equivalent to the amount of water used by New York City in a year.


– A Tourist Nature midnight cruise to get up close and personal with the icebergs in the ice fjord, which was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2004. I wore my long johns and rented sealskin pants and jacket to ward off the wind-driven chill even though the sun stayed above the horizon all night as it does from May through July. Icebergs that are rounded or smooth have typically rolled over – an event you want to witness from a distance because of the mini-tsunami such an event causes. Cost: about $100.

– A World of Greenland hike along boardwalk and then often-marshy tundra to see the icebergs from the shore – and the warning sign in English, Danish and Greenlandic: “Extreme Danger! Do not walk on the beach. Death or serious injury might occur. Risk of sudden tsunami waves, caused by calving icebergs.” Just off the track, we saw a grave where original inhabitants were buried sitting up, facing the sea – covered with heavy rocks to keep the huskies away. The dogs are usually tied up during the summer and then put to work in the winter for both hunting and transportation as communities are connected only by water and air. Cost: about $40.

– A World of Greenland helicopter trip up to the 7.5 kilometre-wide Ilulissat glacier. The Bell helicopter or 24-passenger Sikorsky lands on the mountain near the start of the ice fjord. This excursion really gives you a sense of how vast the 40 kilometre-long ice fjord is. It’s also a unique experience to land on such a remote spot, where we were lucky enough to see a reindeer – not a common sight in this area. Cost: about $500.

– A Tourist Nature boat trip to Ilimanaq, a village of 80 inhabitants south of the ice fjord, where we had lunch with Arne Lange and his family: halibut and rice soup followed by whale meat steaks and whale soup with potatoes and rice. A whale is a mammal and the meat reminded me of flavoursome beef pot roast. Cost: about $200.

– The Monday buffet and Saturday barbecue featuring Greenlandic specialties like reindeer, muskox, whale and seal in the dining room at the Hotel Arctic which sits on a cliff overlooking and about a 20-minute walk (five-minute shuttle ride) from the town. Rooms: $200-$400 including breakfast.

Ilulissat, like many Greenland communities, lives by catching and processing halibut (I watched one fisherman painstakingly baiting the dozens of hooks on his long lines), shrimp, snow crab, cod and seal and, within limits, whale – plus tourism.

“Until 1972, we had no electricity or running water,” said Karen Filskov, IT and project manager for Destination Avannaa.

Ilulissat is the administrative centre for Qaasuitsup Kommunia, which covers 660,000 square kilometres stretching to Greenland’s far northwest and is the largest municipality in the world.

Travel writer Mike Grenby teaches journalism at Bond University on Australia’s Gold Coast – mgrenby@staff.bond.edu.au