With an area of near 2 million square kilometres, Greenland is the largest non-continental island in the world but has a population of just 56,500. It’s not all ice… Tiny wild flowers and stunted trees cover the tundra regions of Greenland – a place of surprising colour and characterful wildlife while tiny towns thrive with culture and life.
Nuuk [Danish – Godthåb] at 64°11’0”N, 51°45’0”W, is Greenland’s political and economic centre and the northernmost of any capital. People have inhabited the area for thousands of years, from the Saqqaq people (Paleo-Eskimos) in 2200 BC, to the Dorset people, Vikings in the 10th century, and shortly after, Inuit and Norsemen. The city proper was founded as the fort of Godt-Haab in 1728, with the arrival of the Dano-Norwegian Lutheran missionary, Hans Egede.
The area around Nuuk, had a very troubled time under the control of the missionaries – Europeans brought disease and a clash of cultures caused the Greenlanders to loose much of their cultural identity. It wasn’t until the Second World War that a reawakening to the Greenlandic national identity occurred. This combined with a boom in the city in the 1950s, with investment from Denmark to modernize Greenland. In 1979 the Greenland Home Rule government renamed the city Nuuk. Inussuk, sculpture by Niels Motfeldt, stands in the harbor of Old Nuuk and marks the start of self-governance from Denmark on June 21 2009.
The fastest growing town in Greenland, Nuuk’s population has doubled since 1977, and increased by a third since 1990 – arrivals are attracted by its good employment opportunities and high wages. Half of Greenland’s immigrants live in Nuuk, and the town has the highest proportion of Danes of any town in Greenland.
ABOVE: The old Harbour, Nuuk. Arnakuagsak (‘Sassuma Arna’ West Greenlandic; ‘Sedna’ in Canadian) was a goddess in Inuit mythology, responsible for ensuring hunters were able to catch enough food and stay healthy and strong. HANS EGEDE HOUSE Built in 1728, the oldest house in Greenland still stands by the harbour in ‘Old Nuuk’. The former residence of the missionary and founder of Greenland, today it serves as a place for government entertainment.
ABOVE: Nuuk is a city that’s been called beautiful, ugly, raw yet real. Surrounded by looming mountain peaks and extensive fjords. It playfully calls itself ‘Nuuk York’. Half of Nuuk – particularly around the harbour section known as ‘old Nuuk’ retains it traditional character, with colourful wooden houses, while in the newer quarter of the city, apartment blocks are springing up, and modern architecture and design are becoming part of the landscape. In 2012, Nuuk opened its first shopping centre with about 20 shops and cafes and a cinema. Street art also came to the centre, in the form of Australian artist Guido van Heltan and Icelander Stefán Óli Baldursson. The team identified walls in the inner city area – crumbling apartment blocks – and decorated them with giant works of art. Most eye-catching is Guido’s, the face of a hunter thought to be called Katuat or Poonojorteq. It was drawn from a photograph taken in Tasiilaq in East Greenland in 1906 by W. Thalbitzer. In front of the work, children play in a BMX bike park.
KANGERLUUSUAQ – ‘the Big Fjord’
300 km north of Nuuk, at the end of a long fjord, is the tiny settlement of Kangerlussuaq. Known in Danish as Søndre Strømfjord, this unassuming place is the busiest commercial airport in all of Greenland. Its origin dates back to World War II. When Denmark fell to Germany in World War II, US forces assumed protection of Greenland, building several bases along the West coast. Bluie West-8 was opened on 7th October 1941.
Denmark briefly took control of the base in the 1950s, but with concerns about the Cold War threat, the US reopened the base under the name Sondrestrom Air Base. It was a Distant Early Warning Line (DEW line) station until the fall of the Soviet Union, and it wasn’t until 1992 that US Air Force personnel finally left the base.
Today the settlement is home to around 650 people, many of whom work at the base or with the tourists that pass through. There are a number of small hotels and restaurants and a small golf club, where people can play in an almost ‘lunar’ setting. Kangerlussuaq is a mecca for car manufacturers who push their vehicles to extremes on the cold dirt plateaus. For adventurous travellers, Kangerlussuaq is the gateway to inner Greenland, where tundra is readily accessible and just miles from the ice sheet.
ABOVE: THE ROAD TO THE ICE. From the centre of Kangerlussuaq, Greenland’s longest road winds its gravelled, bumpy way 25 miles (40 km) to the terminus of the ice cap. Here the landscape takes on an almost lunar quality, where the movement of the ice carries and deposits rock and debris, known as ‘moraine’, that has been scoured and carved from the ground below. Greenland’s ice cap is the second largest on the planet, covering 80% of Greenland’s area central to its character. Land that is ice-free is only be found around the coastal fringes, where it is either bare rock, or colourful tundra – the home of Greenland’s most diverse terrestrial life. Kangerluusuaq hosts the Northernmost Golf course in the world – an 18 hole course with plywood club house.
ILULISSAT is a town associated with icebergs, as it neighbours the magnificent Jacobshaven Ice fjord. But there is more to Ilulissat than ice. This colourful little town is packed with tradition and culture dating back 4,000 years.
ABOVE: Ilulissat Harbour, in late August, is chocked full of ice. It is at the Southern reaches of the winter sea ice, but as the spring melt begins and the ice starts to retreat, the bay is filled with hundreds of humpback whales. They come for the bounty of food that is apparent in the area, and something that draws human too out on the water. In winter, locals drive dog teams across the ice to hunt through ice holes, while in summer they navigate their bouts out of the ice-chocked harbour and drop lines on halibut and cod. Whales too are also harvested from the harbour here – whale boats with harpoons can be seen along the dockside getting a fresh brush of paint.
ABOVE: In winter, dog teaming is hugely popular. Ilulissat claims to have almost as many canine inhabitants as people (3,500 dogs to some 4,500 humans). Dog teams are used predominantly for dog sledding over sea ice in winter – the only way to get around when the sea ice freezes in. The Greenlandic sled dog is an ancient breed, thought to descend from the Saqqaq people of 4,000 years ago. They usually work in teams of 10-12, with a lead dog setting the pace for the sled.