Monday, September 30, 2019


Midnight sunlight on icebergs, windows, and water
My friend and fellow children’s book author Caroline Hatton and her husband Bill visited Greenland in July 2019. She took all but one of the photos in this post.

Three whales as seen from the trail
While staying in the town of Ilulissat, almost half-way up the west coast of Greenland, we saw whales every single day: from the midnight-sun tour boat, from the hiking trails along the shore, and even from our breakfast table inside the hotel dining room. They were feeding, their backs and tails sporadically breaking the surface of the icy water among the icebergs.
On one hike, at one point a rocky hill blocked our view of the water, yet we heard a whale blow, loud as a locomotive releasing steam. When the water came into view, we discovered that the whale was some thousand yards (a kilometer) out in the water. Perhaps the far wall of icebergs the size of continents reflected the sound toward us.

Ilulissat as seen from a tour boat. When Greenland was a Danish colony, buildings were color-coded: hospitals were yellow, factories blue, radio communication sites green, and churches and shops red. The colors applied to the workers’ homes. Newer buildings can be any color.
It was on our midnight-sun boat tour that I took my favorite photos, compared to those I snapped while hiking, walking around town, visiting the museum, and eating.

This Zodiac got closer to these two humpback whales than our larger boat, but its passengers don’t appear to have cameras.
A dozen whales were at the rendezvous, the closest of all the whales we saw.

A mountain-size iceberg as seen from a tour boat
Admiring and photographing the mountain-size icebergs up close (but not too close, lest they flip and wash us off the face of the earth), pastel blue and yellow and peach in the soft golden light, made me feel like I had gone through a secret passage into an enchanted art gallery.

Left to right: Disko Island, Disko Bay, long white Ilulissat Icefjord, Greenland Ice Sheet. Courtesy of NASA.
The town of Ilulissat is well inside Disko Bay, a bay so big you can see it on a globe the size of a grapefruit. The icebergs in the bay come out of a nearby fjord 40 km (25 mi) long, the Ilulissat Icefjord (Ilulissat Kangerlua in Greenlandic). They are calved by the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier (or Jakobshavn Glacier, its Danish name, on some maps), on the edge of the Greenland Ice Sheet from which it flows.
As seen from a hiking trail: the icefjord, full of ice, all the way to the other shore, almost 5 miles (8 km) away.
This glacier is one of the most active in the world, fast-moving (40 m or over 130 ft/day) and producing the largest volume of icebergs outside of Antarctica. But the biggest ones don’t float out to sea. Instead, they get stuck on the shallow bottom at the mouth of the fjord, causing a giant pile-up and keeping the whole fjord choked with ice. It’s a natural wonder and a UNESCO World Heritage Area.
As seen from a hiking trail: apartment buildings and sled dogs on long chains at the inland edge of Ilulissat. There are more dogs than people and more mosquitoes than dogs.
Hiking without a guide was easy because we had a trail map provided by our tour operator.

Can you see the yellow trail marker?
The map’s yellow, red, or blue trails were clearly marked with rocks or wooden posts painted with the corresponding color.
For dinner at the Arctic Hotel, lavish buffets offered Greenlandic specialties, especially seafood. The Inuit, especially in the far north, have long survived on marine mammals because there was little else to eat. But of all the seafoods, I tried only baked Arctic char, which looked and tasted delicious like a supersized trout with pink or beige flesh, “depending on how much shrimp it ate,” said one chef.

Whale skin (and a mussel)
Like elsewhere in Greenland, the menu didn’t specify which species of whale was being served. Dark red whale meat was sliced paper-thin. Whale skin appeared by itself or in a stew.
I never saw seal meat. As for the whole silvery dried fish the size of my smallest finger, I tried but failed to saw it in half with a knife. So I chewed on its tail end a while without inflicting much damage to it. That’s why I don’t count it as a seafood I tried. Gnawing at it would be a good way to pass the time in winter, and not gain weight.

The chef also served Greenlandic musk ox, lamb, and farmed reindeer roasts. And I thanked him for the variety of vegetarian salads.

Breakfast, like elsewhere in Greenland, was a buffet of fresh fruits, cereals and milk, yogurts, cheeses, gorgeous yummy dark seeded breads, cold meats such as herbed ham, salami, and liverwurst, eggs, bacon, sausages, different cold fishes such as Greenlandic pickled halibut or smoked salmon, and more.  However, my breakfast favorite was… looking for whales from my table.

For lunch everywhere in Greenland, biting bug clouds chased me indoor where I enjoyed cheese (Danish) and Wasa (Swedish) or Tuc (French) crackers (from the local supermarket) in my hotel room, or freshly cooked, hot sandwiches at family-owned caf├ęs.

When the time came to go home, we flew from Ilulissat to Reykjavik, Iceland, then to California. Flying over the Greenland Ice Sheet allowed me to see pale turquoise blue surface meltwater, as dashes on wrinkly ice like elephant skin, and squiggles like attempts to draw a river, but mostly in scattered rings like on a Nordic designer textile, each pattern another natural work of art but also an ominous reminder of global warming.


Read about a new, current map of Greenland and its back side about “Understanding the Arctic.”

Read“Greenland’s Dog”, another guest post by Caroline Hatton.