World's Largest Island - Greenland, August 2022

Oceans and Seas » Arctic
August 26th 2022
Published: August 26th 2022
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I’m excited, finally getting to visit the world’s largest island with the least densely populated region on earth. Hard to believe only approximately 56,000 warm bodies live on a hunk of rock 3 times the size of Texas! The majority of its residents are Inuit, whose ancestors migrated from Alaska through northern Canada, gradually settling across the island by the 13thcentury. Most reside along the southwest coast, the area I’ll be exploring.

A Little Bit of History:

According to Icelandic Sagas Erik the Red, who had been banished from Iceland allegedly for manslaughter, settled what is now Greenland in 982. Upon returning to Iceland around 985, he praised the merits of this newly discovered land and by 986, he had organized an expedition which resulted in the development of present-day Nuuk and Qarqortoq. Greenland became Danish territory in 1814 and in 1979 was granted home rule, giving local government far more power – however the Danish government still retains control of citizenship, monetary policy, and foreign affairs, including defense.

Sailing west, we approached our destination by entering Prince Christian Sound – a relatively narrow waterway separating mainland Greenland and islands in the Cape Farewell Archipelago. It’s named in honor of the prince (later king) Christian VIII of Denmark and is considered Greenland’s most scenic inland passage. Approximately 66 miles long, it occasionally narrows to 1,600’ in many places, and has only one settlement (Aappilattoq, an Inuit town with about 100 residents) along the Sound. Adventurer John Cabot described this as a river of melted snow. This incredible fjord system is mainly surrounded by steep mountains most of the peaks reaching over 3,900’ and one tops out at 7,280’. A number of glaciers grace the mountain crevices and go straight into the waters where they calve icebergs on a frequent basis. Hundreds of icebergs of every shape and size were present as we made our way through this magical waterway. Strong tidal currents limit the formation of ice, but it’s accessible only by ship during summer months, when warmer temperatures reduce the chance of ice blockages around the entrance. It’s a dangerous place for ships to transit and it requires very slow speeds to avoid these floating monsters – do we have fifty shades of the Titanic here? Weather couldn’t have been more fantastic with brilliant sunshine, cloudless blue skies, temps hovering around the low 50’s and stunning vistas in all directions for miles on end.

Nanortalik - my first sight of mainland Greenland is arrival in Nanortalik (means “place of polar bears”), the 11th largest city in the nation (who knew they even had that many?), with a population around 1,300 – and so I’m told – fueled on fresh air, strong coffee, and diverse personalities. “Sighting” the town would be an exaggeration – the entire region was socked in with dense fog – impossible to see further than 10’ ahead. This barrier to disembarkation continued until after lunchtime, when the captain decided to cancel this port of call stating that logistics of transferring almost 2,000 passengers ashore via tender, would be virtually impossible with less than 5 hours of land time left. The afternoon proved to be as fabulous weatherwise as yesterday had been, but it was simply too little too late – we were already sailing on to the next Greenland port of call.

A Little Bit of History:

Because of its location, this area was one of the first parts of Greenland settled by the Vikings and one of the last settled by the Inuit. The town was founded in 1770 as Nennortalik and in 1797, a permanent trading depot was set up in Nanortalik by traders from Julianehab. Due to poor harbor facilities, the town was moved three miles northward in 1830, where it remains today. Of the old town, only some scattered ruins remain.

Tourists are very welcome here as Nanortalik has little productive trade. There are no factories and no large-scale fishing activities, as sea ice prevents fishing for several months a year. Revenue is derived from crab fishing, seal, and seabird hunting, with tourism fast catching up. Decades ago, a graphite mine operated some 15 miles outside of town but was abandoned in 1925. For sightseeing excursions in the area, the most common way to get around is by boat or helicopter (all year) or on foot (summer), and with a snowmobile, skis, or snowshoes (winter).

Fun Fact – three quarters of the island is covered by the only permanent ice sheet outside of Antarctica.

Qarqortoq– think they may be like the letter “q?” It claims to be the biggest town in southern Greenland, but I would venture a guess my definition of biggest is a lot different than theirs! But then again, considering the total sparse population of this giant island, 3,000 just might fit the description.

Arriving into the harbor (dodging icebergs) we anchored offshore and were greeted with rain, heavy overcast and a temperature hovering in the high 30’s – calling it cold would be a vast understatement. I can only hope for better conditions before boarding the tender and being feet-down on terra firma.

Cradled between rolling steep hills dotted with brightly colored houses, this big town is a melting pot of art, culture, Viking history and outdoor adventure. Featuring sculptures by some of Greenland and Scandinavia’s most famous artists, Qarqortoq’s compact colonial heart is centered around the country’s oldest, and only, fountain (completed in 1932) and is the perfect place to enjoy cultural demonstrations and join the locals in watching daily life unfold. To view the Greenland ice sheet is to listen to unbroken silence, imagine the ghosts of the Viking-built Hvalsey Church ruin, and for you hot springs lovers, jump into the restorative waters of the Uunartoq hot spring located in the farming belt.

Due to the remoteness of this place, it certainly isn’t easy to get to except by helicopter or boat, however, a new airport is due to open here in 2023 which will allow a broad range of flights in and out of the city. There appears to be quite a range of accommodation available, from a 4-star hotel with conference facilities, to self-contained apartments, to multi-bed dormitories with shared facilities. All of this is within walking distance of the city center. It is also possible to stay on nearby sheep farms and enjoy the hospitality of several of Greenland’s farmers (no, I don’t think you are required to sleep with the woolly mutts!)

A Little Bit of History:

The area around Qarqortoq has been continuously inhabited since prehistoric times, beginning with the Saqqaq culture roughly 4,300 years old. While this culture’s sites are generally the most prominent in Greenland, around Qarqortoq its presence is much less notable, with only sporadic sites and items such as chipped stone drills and carving knives. The next culture to arrive was the Dorset people around 2,800 years ago and several rectangular peat dwelling structures can be found around the wider Qarqortoq area.

Written records of South Greenland history begin with the arrival of the Norse in the late 10th century and the one culture which made the most impact here. They adopted trade with the Southern Inuit and were for a time, the major supplier of ivory to northern Europe. The Norse era lasted for almost 500 years, ending in the mid-15th century, with the last written record of their presence being a wedding in the Hvalseyjarfjord Church in 1408. A couple of centuries later the Thule people arrived and were contemporaneous with the Vikings. There exists little evidence of early contact between the two. The Thule culture was characterized by a subsistence existence and there are few, if any, dwellings of considerable structure to be found here. Items, however, are relatively numerous.

As is true of all populated places in Greenland, Qarqortoq is not connected to any other place via roads. Fairly well trodden hiking trails lead north and west from the town, but for any motorized transportation, all-terrain vehicles are required. During the winter months, snowmobiles become the transport of choice. Humpback, Minke, and Fin whales make their home here between July and September.

Qarqortoq has quite an extensive historic area near the port, with many well-preserved buildings still in use. The Qarqortoq Museum is housed in the oldest of these, and features exhibitions about the different cultures to have lived in Greenland, traditional kayaks, and other hunting equipment – and let’s not forget some of the best tupilaks carved by local artists, Aron and Cecilie Kleist.

Fun Fact: Did you know this island has its own shark? The Greenland shark is one of the largest living species of shark and is half blind. Average length is 21’ long and weighs around 2,200lbs!

Located approximately a 5-minute walk away from the harbor on the east side of town, the Great Greenland factory is a shopper’s paradise. This tannery is renowned for the production of fine quality animal skins and coats. English is widely spoken among the employees, but the facility is not wheelchair accessible. Photography is not allowed inside the facility unfortunately.

The ancient hunting culture of the Inuits is still an important livelihood in Greenland and is the backbone of Greenlandic culture. Tanning (the conservation of hides) is an old trade that has been practiced for thousands of years. At Great Greenland, many of the steps in the tanning process are automated, but the process still requires some manual work and handling. The purpose of the process is to conserve the hide while preserving its natural look and feel. Great Greenland is the only tannery in the country. Most of the fabulous furs are exported, but some are sewn into fashionable clothing at the factory. Taking a tour here, includes a visit to the fashion design studios and the impressive fur storage rooms, with huge piles of sealskins and polar bear furs. A visit here is much more than just viewing a tannery. A local guide will explain the ways and means of seal hunting and the working conditions of today’s hunters. The factory also permits private individuals to bring their polar bear, muskox, and reindeer skins in for professional tanning.

Greenland has a national dish called “Suaasat”, a soup consisting of boiled seal meat, rice and onions. If I see that on the dinner menu tonight, I’m going vegan! Not a surprise that this region has some of the greatest and freshest seafood in the world. Thanks to the icy cold waters around the island, salmon, arctic char, mussels and shrimp are in abundance. Popular lunch and snack foods such as smoked whale meat served with potatoes and onions; and dried cod and whale blubber are available for purchase. No doubt you must be born and raised here to appreciate these culinary delights! Just pass the bag of Cheetos……..

Weather was closing in fast – thick fog was descending the mountain slopes and the rain began – time to make my way back to the ship and get some hot soup. Did I mention it’s cold here? With icebergs the size of 18-wheelers right in front of me, I don’t need to check the thermometer on the wall. I really don’t want to know what the mercury says – numbers aren’t going to reduce the chill in my bones, so what’s the point?

Additional photos below
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29th August 2022
Prince Christian Sound #4


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