Archive for September 10, 2014

Qaqortoc, Greenland

     I woke up in what seemed the middle of the night but was actually about 5:00 AM on August 10.  I decided to peek out from between the curtains to see how bad the fog looked. It had been consistently bad the previous evening and the fog horn was blowing well into the night. To my surprise there was no fog at all.  Instead there was a beautiful Greenlandic sunrise in progress.

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     We anchored outside of the small harbor at Qaqortoc about three hours later. With a population a little over 3,000 this is the largest town in southern Greenland.  People have inhabited this island for some 4,000 years but Qaqortoq was founded in the late 18th century by the Danes who called it Julianehaab after their queen. It is not far from the spot where Erik the Red established the first Norse settlement in the 10th century. As best I can tell, the town’s name seems to be pronounced “kay-ker-TAWK.”  I think it is the first time I have ever seen a word with 3 q’s and no u’s.

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     We had already explored an Inuit town in Greenland (Nanortalik) and since there are no roads out of Qaqortok there were no land excursions available. So we signed up for a boat tour arranged by a fellow passenger that was to take us to the Twin Glacier on the mainland of Greenland where it is possible to approach close enough to actually touch a piece of the Greenland ice sheet. Yesterday we cruised through Prins Christian Sund & saw icebergs from the ship’s decks above; today we would be right down in the water with them. So we tendered into the harbor where we found our tour guide and the two boats for our trip.

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     The man who was originally supposed to be our guide was out of town leading a group hunting reindeer with crossbows (really), so his wife Metta acted as our guide. She approached me as we emerged from the tender looking lost & asked if we were the group going to the ice cap. She was wearing a sort of snugli in which was her infant son Olaf. Quite the undertaking, we thought, in those conditions. Metta is originally from Denmark.  She told us that when Olaf was on the way she was told that she could only stay in Qaqortoq to give birth if there was no chance of any complications.  Because they were not able to rule that out she had to spend her last few weeks in Nuuk where apparently there is a better equipped hospital. That’s a pretty good indication of how isolated this town is, only accessible from other towns by helicopter and, in summer, by boat. Metta told us that she and her husband are planning to move to a much smaller village which will benefit his hunting business.

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     There were about 20 passengers in our boat, which was the larger and faster of the two. There were seats inside with good windows but you could also walk outside to see things better. As we made our way out of town and around toward the passage leading toward the glacier we passed large icebergs and mountain views in the early morning sun.

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     Now came one of the highlights of the day, if not of the whole cruise.  The Inuit men running the boat spotted a whale spouting near the shore & turned the boat that way to get us a closer look.  Usually when you see a whale in the ocean you only see a little of its back and maybe its tail as it dives (you have seen my pathetic pictures of this), but this humpback whale was rolling around on the surface blowing its spout for quite a while. It seemed almost like he was performing for us. Then with a flip of his tail he dived under the water and was gone. Spectacular!

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     As we headed on toward the glacier the water became more and more crowded with icebergs in all shapes & sizes. Here is also a picture of the other boat in our expedition, which was somewhat smaller than ours. As you can see, there was a lot of skill involved in maneuvering the boats through the floating ice.

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     finally we reached the Twin Glacier.  As its name implies there used to be two glaciers here but only one is left. In fact, Metta told us that (I think I have this right) over the last 20 or 30 years the ice has retreated a couple of miles!  We were glad to see it before its completely gone. We pulled up at a floating dock beside a huge stone outcrop from the glacier where a makeshift stairs had been built.  Stepping onto the floating dock from the boat was tricky because it was not entirely stable & you had to walk along the edge of the boat before reaching the jumping off point. And the  steep steps were not an entirely easy climb. Mary decided to wait at the top of the stairs because her knees were hurting & the terrain over the rocks was quite rough. But yours truly pushed ahead. Across from the dock was a waterfall at the base of a cliff & you could see the ice cap from there over the rocks.

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We walked across the very uneven rocks, climbing here & descending there. We had hoped to be able to walk all the way up to the edge of the glacier where you could get up close & personal with the ice, but because the ship was leaving early (4:00) there wasn’t time to go the whole way.  If only the ship had been leaving at 5:00 instead we would have had time to do that! So that was disappointing, but the view was great & we really got pretty close to the glacier.

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    There were several varieties of small wildflowers that were somehow eking out a living in this barren & cold rock. Life is very resilient!

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Time was up way too quickly & we were herded back to the boat. From the rock we could see the distant entrance to the bay where, Metta told us, the front of the glacier was 2 or 3 decades ago.

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     So we began the long boat trip back to Qaqortoc.  It was now early afternoon & the ice seemed to be a lot thicker than it had been earlier so the boat had to go very slowly.  It was good to be careful since the last thing we wanted was a Titanic moment, but we were starting to get a little anxious about making the last tender to Veendam at 3:30.  I doubt that they would have departed leaving 30 passengers in Qaqortoc, but they are not obliged to wait for a private excursion that is late returning & this remote spot would be a particularly bad place to be stranded.

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     But eventually the water cleared enough for our boat to pick up speed & we made it back to Qaqortoc in plenty of time. And guess what we saw along the way? Right, more icebergs! As I have mentioned before the floating ice comes in all shapes & sizes, from as big as an apartment building to small enough to fit in your glass of water. Here is another sampling.

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     So in the end, despite our concern, we made it back to Qaqortoc with enough time to spare to enable us to walk around the central part of the town. Qaqortoc has the oldest public fountain in Greenland (there are only two) built in 1932, which is topped by whales spouting through their blowholes. There is an unusual amount of outdoor art for such a small town, thanks in large part to a project from the early 1990’s called “Stone & Man” in which a number of artists were invited to carve sculptures into rock faces and boulders. Then there is the town itself, displaying a riot of primary colors on its buildings and homes. Since Greenland has no trees from which to get wood for building houses, the buildings here are imported prefabricated from Scandinavia.

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     As we left for the Veendam we saw several kids having a great time jumping off the pier into the icy cold water. Its hard to imagine doing that (let alone enjoying it as much as they were), but it’s August so this is as good as it gets for swimming around here. After boarding the ship we took a final look at colorful Qaqortoc & headed out to sea, passing (you guessed it) yet more mountains & icebergs, one of which had a large window in it.  A fitting farewell to Greenland.

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