Wild Frontier

Greenland conjures up images of life in the Arctic Circle, of magnificent landscapes carved by ice and sea, of whizzing dog sleds, and of the Northern Lights. There are also spectacular green farms in the south, and multi-coloured houses in villages dotted along the coast.

About 85% of Greenland is covered with ice cap or inland ice – there’s a reason there’s so many different words to describe ‘ice’ in Greenlandic. Some of these ice caps and glaciers are thousands of years old and make up 10% of the world’s freshwater reserves. But this icy landscape isn’t stationary: they flow and move, as can be seen in Ilulissat Icefjord – this gigantic ice wall is one of the world’s most productive glaciers, which constantly creates icebergs.

Photo by: Ella Groodem/Visit Greenland

Along with ice, there is also fire: hot springs occur naturally in Greenland. At Uunartoq, the hot spring is a constant 38°C year round, with a view to icebergs and pointy mountain peaks.

The world’s biggest non-continental island also has the world’s sparsest population – with only 56,000 residents and roughly the same number of annual tourists spread over an area the size of Western Europe, the imposing silence simply adds to the charm of the country.

 

UNIQUE WILDLIFE

Photo by: Tikki Geister/Visit Greenland

While polar bears are the icons of the Arctic, they are also incredibly rare, mostly seen in remote parts of North and East Greenland. However, there are good chances of spotting whales, seals, Greenlandic reindeer as well as mountain hares and arctic foxes. About 50 species of birds, from ptarmigans to Black Guillemots, are also common. Kangerlussuaq has one of the world’s biggest flocks of musk oxen – thousands of them live in the mountains surrounding the town.

There are about 20 species of whales along the coast of Greenland. In South Greenland, fin and minke whales play in the extensive fjord system. Sailing is a form of transportation here, so even a quick jaunt between towns and villages is a whale watching opportunity.

In summer, Disko Bay’s famous sea of ice has more whales than icebergs when humpback, minke, and fin whales all head straight for these northern waters. Meanwhile, the bowhead whale spends its whole winter here. Thousands of humpback whales head to West Greenland’s waters near Paamiut, Maniitsoq, and Aasiaat for a few months, while a special dozen hump- backs make Nuuk Fjord their summer home every year.

Greenland is also the permanent home of beluga whales and narwhals (aka the unicorns of the sea), and for part of the year blue whales and orcas also traverse the same waters. While these whales stick to remote pockets of coastline and are quite rare, Greenland is one of the few places in the world to see them in the wild.

 

DOG SLEDDING

Photo by: Mads Pihl/Visit Greenland

Dog sledding is at once a social, physical, and nature-based experience, and an essential means of transportation in the Arctic. Dog sled drivers are always locals with a distinct understanding of their natural environment and a deep connection with their dogs. These dogs can read the environment; if they sense the ice is too thin, they will stop.

Mastering the art of mushing is vital to prevent sled dogs’ disobedience from turning into a matter of life or death, and in Greenland the learning starts early. Children often have their own small sleds and even a few dogs of their own, and they never mistake the dogs (as working animals) for pets.

There are strict crossbreeding rules when it comes to sled dogs: no other breeds are allowed into sled dog territory, and once a sled dog leaves the area, it cannot return.

Photo by: Mads Pihl/Visit Greenland

Today, dog sledding is one of the most popular winter activities in Greenland;  they last from 20 minutes to several hours, days, and even weeks. The energy level and endurance of sled dogs is unmatched – sled dogs howl and jump at the mere sight of the musher, and the challenge is getting them to slow down, as they will run nonstop.

Best places to ride dogsleds are the northern parts of the Arctic Circle and in East Greenland. The best months are from February to April; in Tasiilaq, you can get a dogsled driving license after taking a two-day training course.

 

GREENLANDIC CULTURE

Photo by: Mads Pihl/Visit Greenland

In a landscape as harsh as Greenland, the pioneering waves of immigrants have adapted to the forces of nature and climate in the Arctic and shaped modern Greenland. The cultural mix is diverse: from the Inuit who migrated here thousands of years ago, to the Vikings and other Europeans who settled in the country, Greenlandic society is a unique blend of Inuit and Danish blood.

Perhaps Greenland’s culture can best be interpreted via its national dish: suaasat, a traditional soup often made from seal, sometimes whale, reindeer, or seabirds.

Photo by: Paul Zizka/Visit Greenland

Another traditional Inuit specialty is mattak, a raw hide of narwhal. These foods represent what is readily available in their environment, and are traditionally hunted.

One of the best places to experience original Greenlandic hunting culture is in the remote northwest corner of Greenland in the Thule region, in the town of Qaanaaq. Hunting, especially of reindeer, remains a revered profession and traditional foods like seal, narwhal, and caribou are consumed frequently. Hunters still wear handmade polar bear skin garments and skin boots for warmth in winter. Dogsled is still the main means of transport, and the locals are some of the last people on earth who harpoon narwhals from kayaks.

Photo by: Tikki Geister/Visit Greenland

Trophy hunting trips are mostly concentrated around the area of Kangerlussuaq where musk oxen and reindeer rule. Hunters make sure nothing goes to waste, as the meat will either go to different institutions in town or locals.

In winter, hunting is aided by dog sled while in summer, it’s via a boat trip up the fiord. Sometimes, smaller game – like hare, fox and ptarmigan – are hunted. The ptarmigan breeds all over Greenland, and are plentiful during a “Ptarmigan year” when the birds kick their breeding into high gear; the bird meat is so versatile, it can even be used to make ptarmigan schnapps.

Photo by: Mads Pihl/Visit Greenland

GETTING THERE

The main gateway to Greenland is Kangerlussuaq – or simply ‘the K-place’ – where there’s an international airport that connects with domestic flights. To get to the capital of Nuuk, the smallest capital in the world, the only ways are by air or boat as there is no road or rail system on the island.

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