Arctic Winter - Uummannaq and more during winter

Spring is in full swing in Munich and I still have to write about my last travel. I must say it was one of the most extraordinary experiences I had during the last years. Geenland beyond the arctic circle during the hight of winter. You think it is a crazy idea? Most people I was talking to about this idea agreed, but I had lots of fun. but I had also lots of warm clothing......

After visiting the fjordland of Uummannaq last fall, I was hooked by the idea to see the fjords frozen! Imagine the icy fjords dotted with icebergs frozen into the sea ice, the steep rock faces and the ice cap in the background and dog sleds commuting between the villages. Sounds strange and fantastic, but reality in this part of the world is not so far away from this vision!

As I wanted to have a good coverage of winter topics for my agencies I added some more destinations to my itinery including some days for getting stuck in severe winter weather (proved to be a very good idea..).
To include Ilulissat was a no-brainer, as I had to stop there on my way to Uummannaq anyway. The third destination needed a bit more consideration:

  • It must have an airport served during winter
  • it should not be to far away from Ilulissat
  • it should not be to difficult to organize
  • pictures should be of commercial interest

Basically I had three choices: Kangerlussuaq, Nuuk or one of the towns in the deep south. For convinience and for commercial reasons I decided to visit Nuuk, the capital of Greenland. As I had to fly through Kangerlussuaq anyway I could see the village during the stopover, even if the village itself is quite uninteresting. But to venture inland to the ice cap would have added three or four days to my trip. Not this year!

Die Normalität des Exotischen - the normality of the exotic

Originally this travel was mostly about landscape photography, but it developed also to a travel into the very different way of winter life in Greenland beyond the arctic circle. Of course it is hardly possible to understand a way of life, if you just stay in a place for a few days. But it allows a little glimpse into a world very different to our world in central and even northern europe, not to mention the differences to the more southern regions.....

Nuuk however is not so different to other towns or small cities in the arctic, but Ilulissat and especially Uummannaq show a very different way of life and it was at least as interesting to watch the daily life as to take  pictures of magical icebergs frozen into the sea ice.

Lets start with Ilulissat, touristic hub for West Greenland, UNESCO world heritage site, and full of tourists (in summer....)

Ilulissat - Town and Icefjord

Yes, there is tourism during winter in Ilulissat, but very little compared to summer, when hundreds of tourists flock to the magnificent icefjord, an UNESCO world heritage site. And no doubt about it, this place deserves to be visited in whatever season! Watching the gigantic icebergs spilling into the Disko Bay is a very special and rewarding experience!

During winter Ilulissat is a much more sleepy town and tries to lure tourists with northern lights, dog sledding and other attractions. You can book easily into guided tours into the hinterland, even overnight trips. Dog sleds, snow scooter rides, snowshoeing and boat trips can be booked as well!

I did not make to many plans as I expected to book these things on short notice depending on weather and my mood. It was a wise decision.

I booked the Air Greenland flight from Copenhagen to Kangerlussuaq and a connecting flight to Ilulissat a couple of hours later. As I wanted to be in Uummannaq for a qualifier for the national dog sled races the day after I could stay just one night in Ilulissat. But my flight further north was the next day during afternoon, which should give me nearly 8 hours daylight and a night for northern lights. On the way back I would stay much longer in Ilulissat, to see the town and the iceford.

I arrived in Kangerlussuaq in good weather, -25  C, skies slightly overcast but mostly sunny. My connecting flight to Ilulissat was half hour late, then it was 1,5 hours late, suddenly only 25 min late and suddenly it was boarding. I rushed to the gate (the airport is tiny....) and we boarded under bright arctic sun. It was a lovely flight and we approached Ilulissat, the landing gear was extended and it got cloudy. I got some nice views of the icefjord, Ilulissat town was already hardly to see, to foggy and cloudy. The plane decended more and more, I could see the landing strip and suddenly the plane climbed again. My first idea was, oh the pilot missed the strip. But we climbed and climbed and the sun changed position, but still no message from the pilot.

We never made it to Ilulissat this day, we returned to lovely Kangerlussuaq and had to spend a night there. A very local snow storm made any landing impossible. Winter in Greenland.

The backcountry of Kangerlussuaq is awesome, the village is boring! Moreover I started to be nervous as I had to get my flight to Uumannaq the next afternoon!

Back in Kangerlussuaq I talked to my B&B in Ilulissat and cancelled my room, but also arranged to leave some of my luggage in the B&B as I stayed there on the way back again. I was booked on a quite early flight the next day, but due to the many cancellations the day before, Air Greenland just flew as much as possible and as quick as possible. Flight departure times where an indication not more.

But I made it to Ilulissat in the finest weather possible, no clouds, no wind, bitter cold and lots of fresh snow.

I had enough time to stroll through the town and had a good lunch in my favourite chinese (!, highly recommended) restaurant. My flight in the afternoon was postponed to late afternoon, postponed to early evening, but I finally made it to Uummannaq! But lets talk about Ilulissat first.

On the way back to Ilulissat I had much more time in town. The flights were (nearly) in time, the weather was again beautiful and I could explore Ilulissat and the icefjord.

The Kangia Icefjord - a UNESCO world heritage site - and the Disko Bay

Last fall I loved to walk the paths around the Icefjord, it was awesome regardless the weather. Lots of ice, wonderful colors, it was just a unique atmosphere. This winter it was different. Not as many icebergs, very difficult light and no colors. No colors, thats winter. winter is basically black/white/blue, especially after heavy snowfall when even the blue ice of the bergs is covered by fresh white snow. You can't change the light either, the sun is always against you as you look straight south.

Moreover the fog over the fjord was unpredictable. Waiting for sunset, which might come or not is a very different story, when you have -25C and light katabatic winds coming from the -50C icecap... It was just more rewarding to get the evening light or the sunset in town. Bottom line is, the icefjord from the shore is great in winter, but much greater in summer. I tried to hop on one of the boats doing the ice cruises, but this is difficult in winter as well. It would have been no problem on my way towards Uummannaq as there was beautiful ice on the bay but navigation for the excursion boats was easy. I saw quite a few out there and must have been breathtaking. Loose seaice in foreground and the mighty icebergs behind. But I had to fly to Uummannaq.

When I was back from Uummannaq Disko Bay was very different, as you see above. No boat, not even the fortified fishing boats could leave the harbour for days. Disko Bay was full of ice! In winter I loved the view over the bay, in summer it was not half as interesting. The ice condition is not so much temperature dependent but depends more on wind and tides. If the wind and the tides are pushing the ice floes towards the shore and if it is cold enough, no boat can leave the harbour, for hours, days or weeks!

If you stay in Ilulissat, check the weather forecast and book your boat exkursion as soon as possible! That's something I learned!

The town however was a good experience, even better in winter than in summer! You must feel the atmosphere. If you in a rush you calm down easily. It is a small place, but I did not get tired exploring the streets.

I was a bit sad not being able to go on a boat excursion, but I was lucky with aurora. In Uummannaq I just had one night with faint northern lights and I did not bother to go out in the cold. In Ilulissat and later in Nuuk I had aurora nearly every night!

I just had to walk out of my B&B down to the shore of the Disko Bay....Great. I could have called a taxi to drive me out of town, but why. It was great just where I was......

I had a good time in Ilulissat, but next time I would try to do some snowmobile tours along the Icefjord. There are some more fjords to see, including fully frozen ones and even getting close to the glacier itself is possible in winter. As usual there must be reasons to come back! By the way the UNESCO world heritage site itself is off limits for motorized vehicles, you have to walk or snowshoe....

But now lets move our attention towards Uummannaq!

Uummannaq - winter wonderland

Uummannaq town, island and its surrounding fjordland was my main destination. Access in winter is not as difficult as you might think. Weather permitting there are three flights per week. As Uummannaq is a small island you first fly to Quarsut, change to a small heli and fly over the frozen fjord to Uummannaq. Ummannaq town is quite large (for greenland) and offers everything a small town needs. But no hotel and no restaurant (in winter, summer is different). You have to go self catering, which is not a bad thing. As there are no roads in Greenland you have to hire a guide with a snowmobile to drive you to the places you want to see.

The approach to Uummannaq can be breathtaking! I arrived in Quarsut when the sun was going down over the mountains. After a short break I boarded the heli (-2oC, inside!), got a window seat and could not stop watching the frozen fjordland.....

I am not in the video thing, but I could not resist to use my mobile to capture the moment (click right to enlarge)....

Heli Flight to Uummannaq

 

I was greeted by Paaluk from Uummannaq Sea Safaris, whom I knew from my last stay. He would be my guide for the next days. We drove to my appartment, bought food for the next days and discussed the next days.

The plan for the next day was easy. A qualifier for the national dog sledge championship was taking place in a neighboring village and I had to see this. The weather was going to be clear, sunny and -30C. I was very curious and full of exitement....

The Race

The race was a big experience, but also quite a challenge in terms of photography. Due to the flight problems I had nearly no time to get used to the environment, to handle the cameras with (thick) gloves, to understand the behaviour of my equipment in such an environment and to take pictures of a "formal" race without having seen one before, not knowing the rules and so on. Paaluk explained a lot, but it still was quite a challenge... As it was only one race it was hit or miss and it was only one big loop as well. You see the dogs at start and at finish that's it. And they are quick....

To make it short, to experience such a race in such an environment was alone worth the effort! Even if I missed lots of good shots, because I did not know enough about it, anyway, it was a unique experience. The specators arrived from all corners of the fjordland by snowmobile, dragging sleds with family behind them. It was not only a race but in a way a come together and a big happening! I guess I will try to come back in the future, but mybe to an event with more races than just one....

As you might have noticed, these traditional sleds do not have breaks and if the dogs run they run and run and run.... To stop them a team member is waiting right after the finish line with lots of fresh meat. As it seems hunger is stronger than the wish to run......

The winners are greeted and lifted up sitting on their sleds and of course the greenlandic flag has to be waved!

And this was the result:

  1. Anton Street
  2. Thomas Thygesen
  3. Hans II Petersen
  4. Svend-Peter Petersen
  5. Abraham Løvstrøm

The race was over and we had to go back to Uummannaq.

Travelling in the fjordland during winter is easier and quicker than in summer, if the sea ice is thick enough. In summer you have to hire a boat and your speed is 10-20km/h depending on your boat. In winter there are safe tracks for snow mobiles between the villages and the speed is 45-55km/h. Your range is much bigger and you can stop for pictures whereever you want. But you probably heard of wind chill. During this day we had between -25C and -35C, but on the snow mobile going 55km/h -30C would feel like -65C. Good clothing and very thick boots are essential.

Uummannaq

Photography in and around Uummannaq is fun. Being buildt on the steep rocky slopes of Uummannaq Mountain makes it perfect for photography. In winter there is not as much life on the streets as in summer, but it displays an unique arctic atmosphere. The frozen fjords, the red cliffs , the glaciers on Nussuaq peninsula and the many icebergs ad wonderful backgrounds.

During summer the streets are quite busy, the local cafe, amusement arcade, icecream parlor and restaurant (all in one....) has a nice outdoor seating area, which is always full of locals, facing the busy harbour. In winter nobody stays outside longer than necessary, the restaurant serves only chips with polser and the harbour belongs to the sled dogs.

Fishing, Dogs and Snowmobiles

No boat no commercial fishing? All wrong! As soon as the ice on the fjords is thick enough the fishermen go out on the ice using either their dog teams or snowmobiles to lower their long lines into the fjords by small holes, which are kept open by a spade like tool.

The frozen fjords around Uummannaq and the smaller villages are dotted with these fishing places. Coming and going from the town or the villages to and from the fishing holes never stops. There is life on the ice at the good fishing grounds during winter!

Dogs belong to the way of life! Ships and boats in summer, dogs and snowmobiles in winter, that is the equation. During summer most dogs are kept in special dog areas outside of the villages. During winter the teams move to the ice on the harbour or the sea ice close to the shore.

Most of the teams work hard to earn their living, but they are cute as well! The Greenland Dog is very different to the stereotype of Sled Dog, which is defined by Huskies or Malamutes from Alaska. No other race may be kept in the rural areas of Greenland. In former times the Greenlanders let the dogs roam free from time to time to allow the influx of genes from the wild wolves living in Greenland. These times are over, but you still see the extraordenary resemblance!

The Landscape

The landscape in the fjords has a special atmosphere and was my main focus during the planning stage of the trip. Strange enough I did not take half as much landscape shots than I planned. This is partly due to weather (we had some very murky days...), but during the days in Uummanaq other things started to be as interesting as landscape (as you might have noticed by now).

Landscape in the fjordland is not only about the huge icebergs, it is also about cliffs, different forms of sea ice, wind blown snow drifts, cracks and snow patterns! I could haves stayed another week to cover all the ideas I developed during these days.

There are again some reasons to came back! Sunrise between icebergs, northern lights on the ice, more cliffs and so on. But even if transport is easier than in summer, it still takes time and luck.....

But it is highly rewarding!

But finally it was time to leave Uummannaq towards Nuuk! I had to get up quite early to get the helicopter, but it was already bright enough to spot the places on the ice I have visited. This time I got a middle seat behind the pilots, a very different view. Have fun!

Nuuk - the Capital

Nuuk may be small (app 18.000 inhabitants), in Germany it would still be called village. But coming from Uummannaq, Ikerasak or Kangerlussuaq it feels like the captial. I was taking a taxi from the airport to my hotel and I thought: very strange, people are walking their dogs on a leash, and even stranger, I saw cross-country ski tracks with lots of people exercising (it was a Sunday).

Greenland in total has app 56.000 inhabitants, about 30% live in Nuuk.

Nuuk is a surprisingly urban and modern city. After the pictoresque small towns in the coutryside I enjoyed the change to contemporary functional architecture. It may be sometimes a bit nondescript and the older blocks would need some paint (or more), but overall I found Nuuk much better than expected.

I definitly did not regret to include Nuuk in my itinery!

Of course Nuuk has an old town as well, which is half National Museum/Administration half living quarter. Quite nice and atmospheric.

I did stay only 2 nights in Nuuk, which was fine for this time, but a bit more time would have been nice. The city is bigger than you might think and I also stayed there during a weekend. Therefore there was not so much life on the streets in the city center. On Sunday I even had some troubles to find a place for a good coffee as everythings was opening only at 9:30 or 10:00! Yes it was a bit sleepy for a capital on Sunday morning...

Finally the whole trip was coming to an end. It was very exciting and a special experience!

And Greenland offered me a final and very typical spectacle on my last night! A solar storm was blowing and sent farewell greetings over southern Greenland!

I am not a northern lights hunter, but I have seen many northern lights during the last years, never however combined with the last red glow from sunset.... Quite amazing

The next morning I took a taxi to the airport, flew again to lovely Kangerlussuaq and further back to Copenhagen (only 2 hours late). The next morning SAS brought me back to Munich. A great trip!

What else is to say?

You can meet us on following foto festivals or travel fairs, everybody is welcome to have a short or long chat, 
I have also updated my workshop pages and our program for the next year is now online. I switch to german now.....

Jedem wird es aufgefallen sein, wie fasziniert ich von Grönland im Winter war!

Daher werden wir eine Fotoreise nach Grönland im Winter auflegen. Da wir momentan noch an den anderen Reisen arbeiten (und auch noch einige durchführen werden) haben wir natürlich noch keine Details. Bei Interesse bitte trotzdem unbedingt  mit uns Kontakt aufnehmen, da wir jetzt noch Feedback gut einarbeiten können. Es ist auch klar, dass diese Fotoreise etwas extremer aber auch viel spannender ist als andere Reisen. Aber ein derartig intensives Erlebnis und faszinierende Fotogelegenheiten gibt es selten.....

Hier gibt es eine grobe Beschreibung der Fotoreise ins winterliche Grönland.

Und hier gehts zum Kontakt....

Wir haben die Fotoreise auf die Orkney- und Shetlandinseln wieder aufgelegt. Dieser Reise bietet fotografisch ein riesiges Spektrum, Landschaftsfotografie an wilden Küsten, Reisefotografie und kulturhistorische Sehenswürdigkeiten von Weltrang und als Sahnehhäubchen Tierfotografie in den Klippen der Shetlands mit Papageitauchern und Basstölpeln.

Diese Kombination in einer Reise anbieten zu können ist ziemlich einzigartig. Bitte weiterleiten an alle die Ihr kennt, die eine derartige Reise einmal machen möchten.

What else?

And now it is time for vacation........

 

Munich May 2018