Greenland winter 2020 - adventures beyond the polar circle

Greenland during winter - a very special, unique destination and a memorable trip

Greenland is not new to me and I will never be tired of it. And Greenland and its people did not disapoint me this winter, on the contrary. It was a remarkable trip with a very special and hopefully really unique ending!

So far I never used maps in my blog, most destinations are well known and sometimes it does not matter so much whether a place is a bit more west, east or north. However Greenland is a big white place not only because of its ice sheet but also as most people could not name one city on this huge island. Even the capital Nuuk is not a household name. Thanks to google earth I created some maps......

A normal projection centered at the north pole looks a bit odd to us, but shows the size of Greenland much better espcially, if you compare it with Scandinavia or Alaska. This map also shows that much of Greenland is ice, very often reaching the open water of Fjords or the northern oceans. Therefore there are no roads, no dust roads, no trains. If you want to go from a to b you have very few options - plane or boat.
Air Greenland, the national carrier, has a good domestic network which is served by twin engine aircrafts or helicopters.

Boats or ships are maybe an option during summer, there is a regular ferry service for some parts of the country, numerous expedition (and by now not so really expedition) cruises plow the greenlandic waters, but during winter huge parts of the coastline are blocked by sea ice, of course especially in the north. During my first visit in the north of Greenland I immediately realized that there is one repeating pattern in all towns and villages - the huge fuel tanks (which are a not really atmospheric however typical element in photographs of villages....).

Northern Greenland has to be self-sufficent for several months, sometimes even half a year. No supply ship will reach the shores, neither for fuel nor for food! Over the time the stores run out of fresh food like eggs, fruits or vegetables and the people rely on frozen, dry or processed food. Air Greenland often allocates pax-seats for freight! If you visit northern greenland during such a period be aware of this and appreciate, if somebody is offering you fresh fruit......

And as pictures are saying more than words I included a snapshot of the ice extent dating 26th of March 2020 (thanks to University of Boulder) and the solid sea ice in the Baffin Bay near Kullorsuaq.

The Itinery

We covered quite a bit of the west coast of Greenland, as you know by now, by plane and helicopter. Arrival was in Kangerlussuaq by plane from Copenhagen. We tried several times to organize a bespoke trip to the ice sheet and the place we camped during fall a couple of years ago, but in vain. Either they asked for outrages money, or they did not reply at all or replied once and forgot to follow up. That was very strange as there really is a track for 4x4 into the hinterland and all we wanted is a suitable truck with a driver! Disappointing! Therefore no Russell Glacier this year!

Ilulissat, the touristic hub in Greenland, became our base to relax (and wash) after the two major excursions into the far north and it is a fantastic destination on its own. Uummanaq located in the fjordsystem of the same name was the first excursion. I know and love this place during summer and winter and was looking forward to coming back.

Upernavik was the stepping stone to Kullorsuaq in the remote Melville Bay. My first plan was to go only to Upernavik, but I learned that the sea ice around Upernavik may block ships, but is not stable any longer for excursions by snowmobile or dogsled. Nicolaj, my host and contact in Upernavik, recommended to visit Kullorsuaq and so we did!

The Arrival

Kangerlussuaq is known for its dry and very cold climate. It was very cold, very dry and very sunny. After the mild winter in europe it was a change and very promising for the next days. As explained we just waited for the connecting flight to Ilulissat and I was really happy to have weather like this. 2 years ago I got stuck on my way to Ilulissat, even had to return from a failed landing attempt at Ilulissat airport. Then, a snowstorm struck Ilullisat. But this year we have been lucky and boarded the twin engine plane took of and landed without any problem.

From all my travels to remote destinations I learned a lesson and stick to a basic rule. Keep spare days for flight problems. That was the other reason to have always some days in Ilulissat between the excursions to the north, we even bought flexible tickets to allow a maximum of flexibility.

The atmosphere on the runway in Kangerlussuaq was very atmospheric and a good start for my photography....

Ilulissat, its icefjord and the Disko Bay

During winter Ilulissat and its surroundings can be a heaven for a photographer - or very disappointing! As in 2018 I got both and even got a bonus I never watched before! It all depends whether there is good sea ice on Disko Bay. During summer the Bay is full of icebergs of all sizes. The huge glacier Sermeq Kujalleq is spilling a vast amount of ice into the Disko Bay. But in winter this supply is stopping as any movement of a glacier comes to a near standstill in the colder months. An empty bay with grey water on a dull day that is the worst case. There are always massive icebergs at the mouth of the Kangia-Fjord, but thats it.

For the last decades the sea ice covering Disko Bay was never strong enough to reach Disko Island, climate change is there and you feel it during winter in northern greenland as well. Walking on the sea ice is not recommended any longer unless you consult a local expert familiar with the ice and the sea currents!

Ilulissat as a town is quiet and peaceful during winter, you have all the amenities you need to enjoy a stay, some companies are offering snowmobile or dogsled excursion into the hinterland. The bustling tourism of the summer months and the role as administrative center of a huge part of north-west Greenland has changed the town and its look is quite modern and definitly not as rural as you might expect.

The vanishing of the sea ice

One event of a typical arctic year is the breaking of the ice in spring. I always was curious about this process, but never thought I would ever watch it! In Uummannaq I asked Paaluk, our local guide, about the process and I never imagined that just a couple of days later I could watch the process in Disko Bay. We came back from Uummannaq late afternoon and the ice was still there. A bit more than 30 hours later all was gone! An it worked as Paaluk explained it to us. A bit later we had a similar experience in Upernavik.

The pictures above are nearly from the same vantage point, not exactly as the wind was to strong to walk out to the same spot I used for the sunset pic.

It is not so much temperature, which is the main ingredient to break sea ice, but it is the wind. We had still been in the deep of winter and temperatures in Ilullisat had been around -17 to -22 C, real thawing is far away.... You need strong inshore winds and a bit of open water, maybe strong tides help as well, to produce swell and currents to break the layer of ice. The more the sea ice is broken into pieces the more movement will be and real waves can develop. In our case the strong inshore winds prevailed for a day and spring tide was just two days ago.

The next step was the grinding of the ice floes into smaller and smaller pieces. The smaller the pieces the more wave action the more grinding happend. A vicious circle for the sea ice! As soon as the waves took over the sea ice the water column started to mix and warmer water from the deeper parts of the water column warmed the top layer to above freezing point - and the ice was gone. And all happened in a couple of hours and we watched it from the window of our living room. Amazing experience!

During spring, according to Paaluk, the open water approaches from the Baffin Bay. As soon as you have inshore wind the process kicks in and large fractures appear in the sea ice closer to the shore or in the fjords. If the wind changes to the standard easterly offshore breezes (or stronger) huge ice floes drift out into the open waters of the Baffin Bay. The cracks or fracture lines are often already predefined during winter due to the current and tidal system of a fjord. Fascinating!

For me as a photographer it was a dull and stormy day with little opportunities, but the geographer inside was very happy. The next day however was clear with little wind and I had a changed Kangia icefjord! Moreover something happened and changed in Ilulissat harbour......

Open waters - frenzy in Ilulissat harbour

I love the harbours of Greenland, its the access to the ressources the population needs to survive. When Greenland was populated many centuries ago, the people arrived by small boats from Alaska/Canada. Sea means food.

Times changed but the ressources of the sea are still a major part of the economy and even in small villages of a couple of dozen houses you find a fish processing factory, right at the harbour. Fishing happens in all scales, big trawlers, small long liners and ice fishing with long lines.

Every winter Ilulissat harbour will freeze, most boats are stuck in or on the ice. The Disko Bay seems to have nowadays quite often small stretches of open water, big enough for commercial fishing, if the harbour is not blocked by the sea ice. Before the ice vanished only the big trawlers made it out of the harbour and they opened up a small waterway for a while until the sea ice closed it again. Smaller boats followed the bigger ones in little convoys to use the chance to go out fishing as well.

As soon as the fishermen realized that Disko Bay and mybe even the Davis Strait or the Baffin Bay will be open for fishing most of the smaller boats tried to get ready to go out. A lot of activities started to clear the waterway from ice floes, to crack the ice to free the boats, to tow boats from the ice into the waterway, refueling, chatting and so on. A day before the small boat harbour was peaceful and suddenly it was packed with action!

Another strategy we observed in Ilulissat and in Upernavik to keep on fishing by boats is to use "ice harbours" at the edge of stable sea ice. The catch had to be carried by sled to the factories.

More about fishing, this time ice fishing, later when we will have arrived in Uummannaq.

Ilulissat Icefjord or Kangia - a UNESCO world heritage site

During summer Kangia Icefjord is awesome (check out my summer blog1, blog2) cruises to the large icebergs are highly recommended and that is known throughout the world. You share that experience with many other people. It is not Venice, but do not expect solitude. If there are big cruiseships in Disko Bay it may be even crowded, at least during the day and do not expect to find a boat during these busy days. All spaces are booked by the cruise ships or by the big hotels and agencies!

During winter you are one of the view visitors daring to visit Greenland and may have the icefjord nearly for your eyes only.

As I mentioned, unfortunately there are much less icebergs in the fjord, at least during my two visits in winter. However sunsets/sunrises during winter with a frozen icefjord and Disko Bay are outstanding. The red and yellow light is reflected by the sea ice, wonderful! As the sun sets behind the icebergs at the mouth of the fjord (there are always huge icebergs at this location, as they get stuck at the seafloor!) you have a unique atmosphere, often with sea fog hovering above stretches of open water. Very atmospheric!

It is a bit less photogenic, if there is no sea ice around, still very special, but I prefer winter shots with sea ice. I recommend to book additional activites like a visit to Rodebay in such situations. Rodebay is a lovely place, very rural. I never was there during winter, as this year we run out of time (more about that later...), but I know it from visits during summer and it must be great during winter as well.

Are there boat trips to the icefjord during winter? Yes, ice and weather permitting! I never managed to be on a boat trip, either it was to much ice, or I was busy ashore, or there was no sea ice at all. I will try next time again. If it is the right mixture of open water, sea ice and good light it must be awesome!

Ilulissat is the perfect place to start your Greeland winter experience. You have tour operaters, english and danish is widely spoken, lots of places to eat and to enjoy a good coffee. Some tour operaters rent out warm winter equipment, which is also a plus, Ilulissat may not be as cold as Kangerlussuaq, but -20 C is the average you might expect during March!

Accomodation is easy to find during winter (during summer it is a different story!). If you do not need a hotel, Jannik's B&B and Appartments is highly recommended! I always stay there and never was disappointed.

But now it is time to move on to Uummannaq, still my favourite place in Greenland!

Uummannaq

Uummannaq is, I think, the biggest town in Greenland north of Ilulissat. It is in a beautiful setting on an island in the fjord system of the same name. A plane and helicopter connects Ilulissat with Uummanaq a couple of times a week, however not daily. As you have to change from plane to helicopter you have to invest quite a bit of your time in Greenland to reach Uummannaq and you must consider to have some spare days as well, as fog, or stormy weather may disrupt the flight schedule! But be assured it is more than worth the effort!

Uummannaq feels like a real greenlandic town, a big difference to Ilulissat. By now there is accomodation and guiding for tourists available, but do not expect any real restaurant.... As it is located on a rugged island, movement is restricted during summer and you need always a boat, but during winter the fjords have solid sea ice, mostly from February to end of April/beginning of May, and walking is easy (more about security later)

The Fjordland is awesome, mountains with near vertical cliffs and rock walls of close to 1000m. Huge glaciers spill ice into the fjords and compared to Ilulissat you have them during winter all over the place not only at the mouth of a fjord. Of course the amount of icebergs its sizes and forms differ every year, but you will have plenty!

Uummannaq feels very authentic, tourism has increased a bit during the last years, but it is always just a couple of people.

Uummannaq town

I never get tired of walking around in Uummannaq! The harbour is photogenic with lots of life, the layout of the town at the foothills of Uummannaq mountain opens up new vistas at every corner and the mountain makes a superb background.

Life on the (sea) ice

As long as the sea ice is stable, the frozen fjords are roads, mushing tracks, snowmobile roads, hunting grounds and fishing spots, but also a place for recreation activties (fishing, skiing, walking, dogsledding). And playground for photographers.....

Commercial fishing, mostly longlines with up to 1000 hooks, takes place at many fishing holes around Uummannaq and its neighbouring villages. The fishing grounds are rich, but it is hard work. Watching fishermen doing their daily work in temperatures between -20 and -30 C amazes me every time. Hard work. Some use snowmobiles some traditional dogsleds, some reel in the line by hand, some use small engines. This year I noticed for the first time the construction and use of small heated huts, mounted on sleds. Times are changing.

Visiting friends and family in the next villages is easy, take a sled, a snowmobile, a car or a taxi. And yes there are something like roads on the ice, no traffic signs, but the people know which track should be used. If a track is closed due to danger or activity (as we experienced with the training track for dogsledding) the information is probably spread by word of mouth.

Dogs have to work and the dogsled is not a tool for recreation. The teams are tied to their lines close to the shore and are there day and night, sun or storm. Dogsleds are still a way of life, even if snowmobiles are very common and often used. Never touch or cuddle a dog. They are not used to it and you never now what happens, even if the dogs are not aggressive.  A local would not even think of touching dogs, which are not used to him!

Watching dogsleds on the ice is a common sight!

Sleddogs are harnessed in a fan hitch not the file or gang hitch which most people will know from Scandinavia or Alaska. Something which amazed me, was how easy the teams are distracted. I always tried to keep distance, but even 25m away was sometimes a bit to close and the mushers complained. Very different to the dog teams I know from races or my own dogsledding in Sweden. I do not know whether it is training or the nature of the dogs, no idea! The only explanation I heard, was that the greenlandic dogs are still hunting dogs and therefore show more interest in what is going on in the vicinity.

The Fjordland and its Icebergs

The fjords around Uummannaq are of outstanding beauty, if you have the right light, you will never be bored as a photographer. During summer you need a boat to explore the fjords, in winter my prefered means of transport is snowmobile, this year I tried a car as well, which is fine for certain purposes.

Icebergs are marvellous, but also dangerous! Even in winter they can collapse or turn over. The bigger the iceberg the more distance is needed. Never go out without a local! The ice is thinning close to an iceberg as well. The beauty is dangerous! Take long lenses! Smaller icebergs maybe even grounded, are safe!

If you got interested in visiting Uummannaq either contact me and join one of our tours (german speaking only) or write to Paaluk, my guide and skipper of many times, highly recommended.

But eventually it was time for us to say good bye to Uummannaq and venture even further north!

By the way, icebergs work in b&w as well...

Kullorsuaq - Melville Bay - into the far north of Greenland

My first plan was to reach Upernavik and I did not think of going further north. I had no contact and the farther away from Ilulissat the more difficult the logistics including language would be, Thule/Qaanaaq might be a little exception to the rule. Flights are more likely to be late or cancelled and are maybe once or two times per week only.

All the same we ended up in Kullorsuaq one of the villages with a very traditional lifestyle in the sparsely populated area north of Upernavik. The ice shield ends very often right at the sea, without any outlet glaciers, there is hardly any icefree area on the island of Greenland. Settlements are more or less only on outlaying islands.

Life is still based on hunting and fishing!

Life is lived and planned day by day and it is not necessary or advisable to plan and announce a visit many weeks before. That was the recommendation of Nicolaj, our contact and host in Upernavik. We just booked the flight, which is a bit longer than 1 hour by helicopter.

We arrived late afternoon in Upernavik and Nicolaj called his prefered host in Kullorsuaq, that we would come tomorrow noon for 5 days. Danish is not widely spoken, only Greenlandic in the local dialect. So we arrived after an amazing flight without any ready made plans. Jens our host expected us, at the helipad and somehow everything worked. Language was of course an obstacle. Our Greenlandic is restricted to 2 or 3 words, a bit danish did not help much as well. In the worst case we would have had to go to the local school teacher, but from time to time somebody showed up with basic english or danish skill. Good enough to make arrangements for the next days.

If you want to see a copilot refueling, fly to Kullorsuaq...

Lifestyle is traditional, indeed. No cars, no streets, no roads and lots of dogs, but also snowmobiles, a very well stocked shop and a well sized school. All you need. Kullorsuaq is like many other villages build into a slope, no sunlight is spoiled!

You realize at once, that you are in a hunting society. Skins and furs are ubiquitous. Many sealskins and some polar bear skins have been around. Polar bear hunting is allowed in compliance with strict regulations and quotas for indigenous people only. And the locals are proud of their hunting sucess, a good hunt ensures the survival of a family without having to spend money in the shop. It has nothing to do with recreational or trophy hunting, it is just a matter of daily life.

But otherwise the village is not so different to the smaller villages I know from the Uummannaq area! It is just more traditional and, I am quite sure, less depending on the "outer world". People hang out to meet in a Kaffemik, go shopping in the one and only shop, are fetching water and fuel, watch TV, spend time in the internet.

Hunting

There are different methods to hunt seals, we participated in one, the netting of seals. Netting may sound strange, but netting is during the dark winter months the only way to hunt seals, no light - no spotting. As soon as the light comes back and the fast ice is still safe, hunting at breathing holes gains importance, later in the year hunting from boats or from the ice edge is the prefered method. At least in Uummannaq area breathing holes hunting grounds are off limits to snowmobiles, dogs only! I did not ask, but it is probably similar farther in the north.

One afteroon our host Lars checked together with us one of his nets for seals and he was lucky. The net is stretched under the sea ice at locations where air is trapped by icebergs. As it seems lots of experience is needed to find the right spot. After setting the net, it is checked from time to time.

In the evening we had fresh seal, just boiled, no side dish. It tasted quite nice, I really liked it. Only the smell of the boiling itself was a bit strange and hovered in our clothing for a while...

By the way, Paaluk has shown us netting spots near Uummannaq as well, efficient methods are used all over the island not only in the far north.

However there was one thing we had to get used to. Water supply and waste water management is different. Nearly no house has running water! Water has to be fetched by jerrycans. Only heated pipes would survive the winter. We did not have a tap in our house, strange but logical. As toilet the arctic version of a pitch toilet is common, not only fresh water pipes will freeze! The toilet is lined with a bag made of thick plastic, which is changed regularly and disposed. Well organized. You find this concept all over Greenland, not only in the far north! As far as we have understood there are communal showers for the locals, but as mentioned earlier, communication was not easy.....

Dogs Country

We always used sleddogs to explore the sea ice around Kullorsuaq, as a photographer using dogsleds is heaven and hell. The dogledding itself is very photogenic, the speed is of course slower, you observe more details and you can snap really good pictures while you are dogsledding. Your range however is much more limited and some interesting spots are just out of reach. A combination would be the right way to do it.....

The whole process of harnessing and preparing the sled is quick and unpretentious, it is just work, which is essential for sustaining the society by fishing and hunting. That did not change with the introduction of snowmobiles. Everything happens very fast and to cover the process with a camera was quite demanding.

Dogs are no actors! They acted hardly ever as the director expected......

Greenlandic sledges do not have breaks or any tools like a hook to fix the sledge in the snow, very different to what we have learned in Sweden. When the sledge is ready, the musher walks up to the dogs, shows them the direction and off it goes! The musher starts to run as well, a bit slower as the dogs and just jumps on the sled. Again very different.

Greelandic sledges are very wide, this makes perfectly sense as soon as you realize that frozen sea ice cannot be compared to the ice surface of a lake. It is full of ridges, bumps, obstacles of any kind, a narrow build would just result in many tippings.

The load floor or seating area is tied to the skids of the sled, which makes it nearly impossible to break such a sled. The runners of the skids however are made now of durable plastics. I heard once that in the very old days the locals used water and small fishes to prepare the runners surface of a skid. I do not know whether this is true or a fairy tail?!

Even if the dogs are not bred to be cute, I add some portraits to show the many colors and physique of a greenlandic dog (of course they are cute as well...)!

Eventually our time was over and we had to fly back to the big city of Upernavik, not yet knowing what Corona had in mind for us in the afternoon.

Check in was in the local shop, our house was at the top of the hill. Befitting its rank our luggage was brought down to the shop, which is close to the shoreline, by sled. The helipad however was up the hill again. This time a not so stylish vehicle was used!

The flight back to Upernavik was nothing short than awesome. Best weather possible and incredible landscape (but scratched plastic window....). At about midday we landed in Upernavik where Nicolaj picked us up at the airport.

Upernavik

Upernavik is a pretty town, again on an island, right at the edge of the Baffin Bay. We planned to stay there two nights only, longer would have meant 4 or 5 days due to the flight schedule back to Ilulissat, to much for this year.

Upernavik is the place for sea kayaking in north Greenland (of course during summer)! The island of Upernavik breakes the waves of the Baffin Bay and between the Upernavik and the main island of Greenland you have a maze of islands and skerries, glaciers and icebergs. If you are into sea kayaking and are looking for a special experience think of Upernavik. Equipment can be rented and there are guided multi day excursions as well.

Contact Nicolaj, our host, he is an avid kayaker, and as a guide knows everything about it! We stayed at his small hotel Cafe de Upernavik, strongly recommended as well!

The Corona side of our Trip

I cannot tell you much more about Upernavik and I do not have many more pics. Our time in Upernavik and Greenland was over very sudden and very quick!

After landing from Kullorsuaq we checked in at Nicolajs hotel, had a shower and strolled around in the pretty town. Later the afternoon we had been back at the hotel and I checked my mail. I found a message from Jannik, our host in Ilulissat, that Air Greenland will end all its service, domestic and international, on Friday night, now we had Thuesday early evening. We did not have many options and we decided to fly back to Ilulissat the very next day. If all works out well, we could make it to the next to last flight to Europe! I booked all the necessary flights from Upernavik to Ilulissat to Kangerlussuaq to Copenhagen to Munich and for goods sake seats had been available. I did not try to change bookings. I booked everything new and cancelled the existing flights hoping for a later refund.

But if we have storm, fog, engine problems or whatever we would be stuck for the next weeks somewhere in Greenland. If this happened a bit earlier, we propably still would be in Kullorsuaq!

The next day we had again perfect weather, boarded the plane and off we went to Ilulissat, where we had left part of our equipment, clean clothes and everything we did not need up in the north.

Right over Disko Bay the weather changed and a storm with crosswinds appeared out of nothing. Two failed landing attemps and 50 min later the pilot decided to fly to Kangerlussuaq. Good for us bad for our poor red bag in Ilulissat. We made it out of the country, our bag is still in Greenland. Jannik takes care of it and will send it back as soon as a service is available, many thanks for that!

That storm did not settle until noon the next day. The big plane to Europe waited until all connecting flights showed up, but we would have been on the tenterhooks, if we would not have made it the evening before to Kangerlussuaq.

We arrived about midnight in Copenhagen, could check in at the airport hotel and spend a relaxed night in Europe. The Lufthansa flight to Munich was cancelled again but we got rebooked on a SAS flight a bit later the same day. Lucky again.

The airports of CPH and MUC were spooky......

During this trip lots of tasks had been left unfinished! Many ideas how to cover the Greenland Winter popped up in my mind, but the sudden end changed everything. We are back in Germany now, in good health, and are adopting to a changed lifestyle until the lockdown is over.

This was a memorable trip, with lots of new insights in greenlandic life during winter, lots of very interesting photo opportunities and lots of files on my disc. To travel to Greenland during winter is a great experience not to be missed and do not be afraid of the cold, we survived, the locals survive and you would manage as well!

The final word in german, next workshops

Die Arktis ist im Sommer und Winter ein besonderes Erlebnis!

Unsere nächste Reise nach Grönland ist Sommer 2021, mit den Schwerpunkten Ilulissat, Uummannaq und Eqi. Die Eisberge und Gletscher Grönlands warten auf uns!

Ebenfalls in 2021 (Spätwinter) findet die nächste Wintertour statt, dieses mal nach Spitzbergen.

Als Wintertour in den Westen Grönlands ist März 2022 in Vorbereitung, Schwerpunkt ist das Uummannaq Fjordsystem. Bei Interesse unbedingt eine unverbindliche Nachricht schicken, dann können wir besser planen! Dadurch dass momentan keine Messen stattfinden, sind wir auf mail und telefonische Kontakte angewiesen!

Unsere Fotoreisen und Foto-Workshops

Ein Klick auf die Reise bringt Sie zu einer Beschreibung der Reise. Dabei steht weniger der Reiseverlauf sondern was wie und wo fotografiert wird im Vordergrund. Der eigentliche Reiseverlauf und die Konditionen werden über links zu Auf Kurs! Inselreisen erreicht. Man kann sich natürlich auch gleich den ganzen Katalog holen! Corona Update: Wir haben wegen Corona unser Programm angepasst. Die Termine und Inhalte stehen jetzt für 2021/2022 und teilweise für 2023 fest, leicht Anpassungen kann es trotzdem noch geben.

Thats it for the moment! Stay tuned and healthy!

Munich April 2020