West Greenland - autumn 2017

What comes to your mind, if somebody is saying "Greenland"?

Icebergs, sledge dogs, the ice cap, Vikings?

I must admit, most of the stereotypes are very true, you will find lots of fantastic icebergs and sledge dogs, but definitly no Vikings! If you are lucky you will also have a look over the vast expanse of ice called ice cap (probably only during the flight across Greenland on the way to the west coast).

But there is much more to discover! Arctic tundra, wonderful glacial geomorphology (also called landscape for the non-geo-scientists among us), the arctic way of life and if you are lucky arctic wildlife. The northern part of western Greenland beyond the polar circle is well travelled only around Ilulissat with the adjecent UNESCO world heritage site Ilulissat Icefjord. All other areas are undeveloped (for tourism) and do not see many visitors not during summer and even less during winter.

I wanted to visit a broad range of landscapes and landforms, different types of glaciers and some villages/small towns, which are not as touristic as Ilulissat. After long planning and an even longer phase of booking the many flights, boat trips, boat charters and guided ice tours I endend with following itinerary:

  • Ilulissat and its Icefjord
  • Uummannaq Fjordsystem with its small town of the same name and smaller villages
  • Eqi glacier for calfing glaciers and unspoilt arctic tundra right next to the ice cap
  • Rodebay as another example for a small village
  • Russell Glacier near Kangerlussuaq as an example of a glacier ending on land (not calfing as Eqi/Kangia)
  • the ice cap itself near Kangerlussuaq

Travelling in western Greenland

Travelling around in western greenland is not as easy as you might think. There are no roads, full stop! Wherever you want to go, you will depend on regular flights with planes or helicopters, scheduled boat trips for tourists and individual boat charters. And all of this is not cheap. Travelling cheap in Greenland is limited and difficult. You can do magnificent trekking up there, but your range is very limited. If you want to see a bit more of this part of Greenland you have to bite the bullet and choose boat, plane and helicopter!

Whatever you choose you will encounter a world very different to ours in central europe!

Ilulissat - the center of the touristic universe - 69° 12min 59sec N, 51° 6min 0sec W

Ilulissat Icefjord fed by the mighty Kangia glacier is unique and its UNESCO world heritage status is well deserved. It is just awesome.

More and more people flock to Ilulissat to see icebergs and the endless stream of ice in the fjord, they come by plane and by cruiseship, often staying just a few hours seldom more than one or two days. Ilulissat town therefore is the central hub for all activities in western greenland beyond the polar circle. During the high season all rooms are booked and most scheduled boat trips are full. The capacities are limited and you need some luck to find accomodation and boats on short notice. But again, it is worth every penny you invest. Sitting in the arctic tundra to watch the huge masses of ice coming and going is so unique, you will be never tired of it. Quite often whales will deliver the sound track to the sights!

Ilulissat itself is a touristy town of about 4500 people with all facilities you need as a traveller and local hunter. Supermarkets and travel agencies are lining the high street, cafes and restaurants are taking care of hungry locals and visitors and the harbour is not only welcoming cruise ships but is home to dozens of fishing boats of all sizes.
It is a good mix and Ilulissat is still a town of hunters and fishermen. In the dog areas spread at the outskirts of the town about 2.500 sledge dogs are waiting eagerly for winter. You will hear and smell it.....

Rodebay, 1hour north of Ilulissat - of course by boat....

Rodebay is just about one hour by chartered boat or six hours walking north of Ilulissat. And it is as different as villages can be. Just about 30 people are living there, locals from Ilulissat sometimes sail to Rodebay to get some peace from the buzzling streets of Ilulissat. We decided to spend a night together with a local guide to experience the way of life in rural Greenland. But to be honest, there was not much life there and exactly this is the difference. A fisherman coming into the harbour, a local visiting the shop, somebody mending fishing nets, some children, water is fetched from the central water supply and of course locals feeding their dogs, which are not confined to dog areas. That is the life you will experience, very peacefull!

Eqi Glacier - 5-7 hours north of Ilulissat by boat

Eqi is the name of a famous glacier and it gave its name to the Eqi Lodge, a couple of quite comfortable huts in the middle of the arctic nowhere. There is no village or hunting camp. It is just the arctic and the few visitors staying over night. As there are no daytrips, which stay long enough to go ashore, the whole area belongs to the few visitors staying, quite unique.

Eqi is famous for its regular calfing and it really happens every couple of minutes. The only noises you will hear are the cracking sound of collapsing seracs, blocks of ice crashing into the sea and the wind. Maybe a raven will cry, that is all. For most of us a very strange experience. As famous as the view of the glacial front is, even better was the arctic tundra which can be explored on hiking trails. Using these hikes exploring the tundra is much easier than without path, as the terrain is often rough and sometimes swampy. If you have enough time you can climb up to the ice cap, something we wanted to do, but due to heavy rain and low clouds we decided against. There was enough to see close to the camp.

Uummannaq town and fjord system - 70°40min 29 sec N 52°07min 35sec W

In Uummannaq, which is located on a small island with the same name, you start to understand at least a very little bit how life and the economy works in rural Greenland. There is no life without the sea, all life comes from the sea and a bit from the tundra.
Uummannaq is the central town of the area and has about 1200 inhabitants. But it has supermarkets, schools including boarding opportunity for the kids, a museum, a well frequented caffe, a home for elderly citizens. All the same being on island it is by far the biggest town around, because is is an island and has therefore unique access to the sea, basically it is surrounded by the sea and during winter the fjord vanishes under a thick layer of ice anyway.

As a consequence you have to take a helicopter to go there and not many foreign visitors do it, there is not even a hotel as it was converted to be used as boarding for the kids from the outer villages in the fjord system. Only  a small guesthouse and an appartment caters for visitors.

You might think, that Uummannaq is a sleepy place, nothing could be more wrong as that. It is full of country life, fishermen are coming and going, families arrive by boat for shopping or visiting relatives, the cafe is always full and has an outdoor seating area where greenlanders enjoy their coffee and of course soft ice (the locals seem to be addicted to soft ice?!). Youngsters in sneakers and the latest fashion from the major outdoor clothing brands stroll through the streets with Bose headsets and dyed hair.

Seeing this I do not understand how an economy based on halibut, seals, whales and reindeer can support this way of life, but it seems to work. We enjoyed getting such a glimps of rural life as exotic as it is.

Uummannaq is built on the steep slopes of a mountain, very often on bare rock. It is the town of wooden stairs. Most houses can be accessed only by using a maze of stairs, some are public, some are private. Again a very different approch to urban planning!

The Uummannaq Fjord System

Ilulissat might have the mighty Kangia glacier with its Icefjord, but Uummannaq has its fjords, I mean real fjords with walls nearly 1000m vertical up from the shore, small villages perched on low islands, dozens of glaciers supporting an endless procession of icebergs.

No boat no nothing. You are stuck on the island unless you charter a boat. If you do it you can explore the fjords and the villages. During winter a boat is useless you change to dog sleds or snowmobiles, Uummannaq is no longer an island and the fjords are frozen. It must be very intersting, maybe I should put it on my list.....

The fjord system plays a sad story in the exploration of the polar regions too. Not far from Uummannaq town Alfred Wegener used one of the glaciers as access route to the ice cap for his last and fatal expedition. It was a bit far for a day trip, but I was tempted....

But now lets see some pics!

The Ice Cap and the Russell Glacier

Russell Glacier and the nearby ice cap was our last stop and I was already a bit worn out, when we landed in Kangerlussuaq, a dusty town which owes its exitence to the cold war and the airport of the Arctic Command. But as it turned out it was still not the place to chill out after all the long days in Greenland!

I wanted to see a glacier, which does not end in the sea and there are not many places to do this without huge logistical effort. Russell Glacier was recommended, I checked some pictures and booked two nights camping in a rented tent next to the ice front and one night on the ice sheet itself.

It was like living in a textbook of glacial geomorphology. All the landforms we know in northern Germany or the Alps can be watched being created! Dunes, blow out areas, ice marginal valleys, sandurs the whole glacial series, absolutely stunning for somebody who once was specialized in glacial and periglacial geomorphology.

As you can see we had a room with a view and lots of fresh air, the only neigbours where a couple of Musk Oxens on the opposite side of the valley. Our dining room however was half an hour away as there was no running water in our one room lodge!

When we packed up on the last morning the wind already picked up and we needed all hands to safely stow away the tent and the equipment. And then we waited next to a dusty wind blown track to be picked up for the hike into the ice to stay one night on the ice cap. The truck appeared, we hopped in and we drove another 35 min until the track ended at a mighty moraine. I did not know much about what was going on, as we had no briefing in Kangerlussuaq. The expedition sledges where loaded, crampons fixed to the boots and the hike started. To be honest I did not expect to have to drag a sledge across the moraine (!) and the ice sheet, I just expected to carry my personal equipment in my rucksack. Anyway it was kind of fun. And the wind was blowing and blowing getting stronger and stronger!

After finding the camp we had to pitch the tents in a 80km/h storm, as only the big tent was already standing. It had been very good tents and we used 20cm long ice srcews to pin it down, we needed all of them and they could withstand the storm without problems, but it was a very noisy night.
During late afternoon the wind settled a bit and we explored the surroundings until it started to blow again. We took refuge in the big tent for dinner and it started to snow while we got to sleep in our small tents. And the storm did not stop until after breakfast the next morning.

Down in Kangerlussuaq they had a severe storm and in the fjord the gales exceeded 200 km/h. It was better in our little camp!

Anyway as the morning was a bit more calm we could again explore the ice cap, very fascinating and higly recommended, but maybe you omit the storm..... I do not want to miss the experience, it is something very different to be on an endless icecap. Due to the bad weather the photography was not as successful as I hoped for, but there must be reasons to come back!

Back in Kangerlussuaq the Greenland experience was suddenly over. The next mornig we flew via Nuuk back to Iceland. It was one of the travels which I will never forget! I shot more than 18.000 frames (shooting icebergs from boats is a bit like wildlife photography, first shoot think later.....) and have lots of good material to bring to the market.

What else is to say?

First I have to say thank you to all the people who helped to make this project possible!

  • Karoline in Ilulissat and Rodebay
  • our skipper Paaluk in Uummannaq
  • Stephen and Kristian in Kangerlussuaq

In a bit more than three weeks I will head to Subantarctica to guide my workshop there. I still have to prepare some material and the time is flowing......

If you got interested in Greenland, we are offering a workshop there next year. It is a similar itinerary (not Kangerlussuaq and Rodebay). It is a fascinating world up there and it wants to be discovered!

Check out my workshop pages, if you are interested!

Link to my workshop pages

Thats all for the moment, stay tuned as I try to write up the Iceland part of this trip before I head to the south!


Munich September 2017