We descended from the sky at a tangent to the ice covered mountains and found ourselves in a white world. All the colours seemed to have silently withdrawn from sight, leaving nothing but white. A welcome reception was being held on the plane. Our adventure was about to begin, and we were smiling, as yet aware of the extreme conditions we would be facing. The flight from Copenhagen to Greenland had taken six hours. This was one of the most interesting trips of my life, and my mind was whirling with excitement. We were not going to land in any ordinary European city. Completely unfamiliar experiences awaited us. While preparing for the journey in Copenhagen, I had called in at the Greenpeace office for information. They gave me an armful of brochures filled with information. Reading these during the flight, I learnt that Greenland is the largest island in the world; that it lies off the northeast of North America; that there are two international airports, one at Nuuk, the capital city, and the other at Kangerlussuaq; and that it has an area of 2,175,000 square kilometres but a population of only 57,000.
Now the real thing was in sight, the brochures lost their fascination. I put my nose to the window and watched Greenland come nearer as the plane dropped lower. We were flying over a landscape that was white as far as the eye could see. When we landed on the snowy runway at Kangerlussuaq, the flight crew told us that the temperature outside was minus 18 degrees Centigrade, which for Greenland was spring weather. As I disembarked the cold struck me sharply in the face. Kangerlussuaq is a tiny town with a population of one hundred. It has a post office, a bar, and two single-star hotels, one at the airport and one in town. From here those arriving for skiing holidays disperse to their different resorts. I settled into the hotel in the town. I quickly got used to the cold, only my hands and face never seeming to get warm. During a short walk around the town I soon realised that going out without sunglasses was not a good idea. The dazzling white everywhere made my eyes ache. I returned to the hotel to get some sleep. I would be setting out for Ilulissat the next day, and needed to rest.
I was waiting for darkness to fall until I discovered that for that to happen I would have to stay awake for the next six months! What they call darkness is nothing like ours. The light dulls and the sky turns dark blue. That’s all. The following morning we awoke early. Thomas, our German guide, was waiting to taken us to the ice cap. After a two-hour drive that took us over frozen lakes we arrived to find it far colder than at Kangerlussuaq, at minus 32 degrees Centigrade. Here we boarded a four propeller Dash 7 aircraft, the type that is used all over Greenland. A 45 minute flight brought us to Ilulissat, which with a population of 4000 is the islnd’s second largest city. Early the next morning teams of huskies pulling sleds were waiting to taken us to another part of the ice cap. Our guide had provided us with suits made of walrus skin to wear over our winter clothing. I climbed into one of the sleds. Each sled was pulled by between nine and twelve dogs. Then what seemed a mad race began.
For six hours, from 10 in the morning until four in the afternoon the dogs ran, with only a few short breaks to rest, during which the dogs quenched their thirst by eating snow. In the beginning I had constantly taken photographs, but after a while the white infinity combined with the cold left me numbed, and all I could do was pray for the journey to end. When we finally stopped, Thomas told us that we were on a gigantic ice sheet. For people who usually saw ice only in the freezer compartment of the refrigerator, it was impossible to imagine the extent of the ice beneath us. Involuntarily we wondered if it might melt and leave us submerged in freezing water! The ice sheet on which we were standing was approximately 2200 kilometres long and 600 kilometres wide… as large as Turkey in fact. Some of the visitors were watching the local fishermen at work. Each had his own hole in the ice the diameter of a well. The fisherman we were watching began to feed a naylon rope as thick as his little finger into the water.
The coil of rope was 650 metres long, and every three or four metres a huge hook that would barely fit into the palm was attached. To each hook was threaded a piece of the small fish used as bait for large fish like tuna and skate. We spent the night on the sleds beneath a canopy of walrus skin and returned early the next morning. To have seen that white vastness of snow and ice was exciting, but I longed to return to a warm hotel room and a hot bath. That taste of life in the northern wastes had been quite enough.