Thursday, June 9, 2011

GL - Kulusuk

June 9                   Thursday        Greenland                          Kulusuk                                                                

Too early… any time I have to wake up to my alarm: it’s too early.  That’s true on holiday, that’s true on work days; that’s just simply a law of nature.  I had to wake up at 8 AM, which wouldn't have been so bad had I not gone to sleep at 3 AM… when it’s midnight and still looks like mid-afternoon outside: it’s tough to get yourself to go to bed.  But I had plans… it was time to get up.

This was my first complimentary breakfast, having slept straight through the past two mornings.  Can’t say I was missing much… just your basic fare: some cereal and a plate of sliced salami and veggies.  I made a small open faced sandwich and grabbed some OJ… while I really wanted cereal, my only milk options were strawberry milk, milk that smelled like yogurt (I am repulsed by yogurt), and powdered milk which I had no desire in figuring out how to rehydrate to proper proportion.   

But enough about breakfast… my rental lady gave me a short ride over to the local airport and I hopped a flight to Kulusuk, Greenland.  As luck would have it, Greenland ended up being warmer than Reykjavik… while technically the thermometer was about 3°C to Reykjavik’s 8°C, the complete lack of wind made Kulusuk seem like quite a pleasant stroll… I even ended up back down to just one jacket left unzipped; having begun fully bundled for winter weather.

But first there were icebergs.  The first time I’d ever seen an iceberg was at Jökulsárlón  and that was really more like seeing an iceberg zoo… they were all just sort of chilling out (no pun intended) and not really doing anything interesting.  Er, except for the one that exploded.

The first thing we saw other than blue ocean was a mass of icebergs, all sort of clinging together.  I was astounded at the immensity of it all: I could only assume it was the fractured up offspring of a massive sheet of ice, reaching out as far as the eye could see.  I’d figured there would at least be some strays before the ice flow… like a gradual approach of a couple ice bergs, then a few more, getting ever-denser until hitting the main ice flow.  But nope: they all stuck together.  And it was huge.  And it was amazing.

And then there were the mountains.  Pretty much all Greenland is is mountains.  As soon as they appeared in the distance: the dozen or so of us on the plane all scampered to one side, snapping photos and probably causing our pilot to roll slightly to the left.  The mountains were phenomenal: I’d never seen anything quite like it… a wall of rock thrusting up from the sea, surrounded by a blanket of ice shattered by the forces of nature.  Our aircraft landed between the mountains onto a dirt runway, where we disembarked and all stared slack-jawed at our surroundings.

Our guides consisted of a man and woman, the man appearing to be in his mid- to late- 30’s and the woman appearing to be in her upper 20’s or younger 30’s… but I’m horrible at judging ages.  I immediately thought about how cute the female guide was… until our “third guide” arrived – a young boy of about 8 or so – and I realised that our guides were a couple.  She was a knock-out, but the husband was really cool, too.  They both used to live full-time in Kulusuk before switching to part-time as they began studies back in Iceland, but they still maintain a home in town.  They knew absolutely everything that stood to be known, answering my questions about transportation, governance, waste management, supply logistics, linguistics of the native language, and even the pedigree history of the local dogs.  Seriously: these two were good.

Our group consisted of a very diverse crowd, but all English-speakers.  Our two guides were Icelandic, one guy was from Germany, and we had one each from South Korea, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan.  We picked up two older Dutch ladies  as we walked by the Hotel Kulusuk – a surprisingly modern-looking affair about a kilometer from the airport.

From the airport we had a 3 km walk until reaching town.  It was a cinch, with the road cleared for about 99% of its track between the airport & town.  About a meter of snow surrounded us in all directions & our guide pointed out to a flat area and said “that’s the ocean”.  You wouldn't have known it from all the white had he not said anything.

The airport was built by the USA with Denmark’s permission as part of the NATO defense against the Soviets.  Apart from Alaska, these northernmost reaches were the closest border between the Cold War nemeses, causing the USA to invest in a “wall” of radar installations, necessitating the runways to bring in labor and supplies.  A radar installation off in the distance now served as the airport’s civil radar and also sported radio and mobile service… we’re in a town of about 300 indigenous people and they have better service than I get back home.

Our walking approach gave us amazing views over the town, nestled in among the rocks and along the Atlantic shoreline.  It was certainly bigger than I expected, but that’s not to say this was a sprawling metropolis by any means.  The people are of Inuit heritage, being descended from ancient Mongolians, and live a very simple life of subsistence fishing and hunting.  Apparently the people of Kulusuk were among the most isolated peoples of the modern world, having gone several centuries without foreign contact – right up until Greenland’s east coast was first explored in the 19th century.  Subsequently, the people not only look very Asian and not at all like the Eskimos or other Native American tribes us Americans know so well.  Their language is also apparently very distinct, having had so little influence from the outside world.

The town’s buildings were rustic but pretty, with chipping paint but painted in bright colors.  This was the sort of Nordic town I’d been picturing, with simple wood homes in such bold colors.  Iceland consisted mostly out of sheet metal as timber is rare to come by.  The people of Kulusuk, however, receive timber shipments from Denmark... so, somewhat oddly, they ended up having more Scandinavian-like architecture than the Scandinavians.

The grocery store was a bit bare, with new supplies still being a couple weeks away from arrival.  We had some time to tour about, so I departed to explore the town.  Some of us wandered over to the school, which appeared to be having recess at the moment.  The kids – of a variety of ages; the oldest being a girl of perhaps 12 or 13 – were all jumping rope & seemed pretty used to the presence of tourists.  The adults watching over also smiled and said “hello”.  Most people speak their local language & can also speak in the dialect of Greenland's West Coast, with Danish being a second language and some also possessing a decent command of English.

They weren't the technologically-backward “tribe” I’d somewhat been expecting… rather they all wore modern clothes and pretty much everyone had a mobile phone.  The place even had internet.  Granted, small pipes running along the ground ferried electricity from two diesel generators… and they had to fetch water & use facilities (showers) at a central building; even waste had to be collected to be disposed of at a slightly-distant dumping site.  They lived off the limited fishing & hunting game such as polar bears, walruses, seals, foxes, and other local fauna.  It was a hard life; but they weren't “backward” in the slightest.  Having grown up around the Amish, I could certainly appreciate having a stereotype like this be broken.

We were under the watchful gaze of a sled dog which didn't seem too pleased with us being around the kids.  I continued up a hill to get a view over town, after a few moments descending and climbing up yet another hill… this time crossing over a still snow-covered dirt road.  A bulldozer was on hand gradually working to clear off the snow bit-by-bit, letting the sun take care of the rest… which resulted in massive puddles along a large portion of it.

As I descended this second hill: my leg decided to give out… well not entirely give out; I didn't fall.  But my ankle has not been happy since Akuryeri, where it all of a sudden started hurting as I ascended the church stairs.  No slip or anything then; I think my ankle had just had enough.  Likewise here: my knee just seemed to have had enough.  My rear-end has also been sore after hurting myself back in Skogar… and my constant movement hasn't let it heal too well, making sitting a less-than-pleasant activity.  So my body just wasn't too enthused about descending… good thing this is really the last of  my intense hikes for at least a week or so.

My descent was watched by sled dogs at pretty much every turn, but they weren't nearly as concerned as the dog near the school.  These dogs were all sleeping in the sun with such reverence that even lifting their head to look in my direction seemed a chore for them.  To use the old proverb: I let the sleeping dogs lie.  The dogs were adorable, though – apparently they were the closest modern relative to the dogs that the ancient Inuit used across North America.  Whereas most other dogs were crossbred with European dogs to produce breeds such as huskies (our guide pointed out that “husky” and “Eskimo” are actually the same word; English speakers of yore just butchered the two into seemingly-separate words).  Meanwhile, Kulusuk’s isolation – in addition to preserving so many other unique aspects – also kept the dogs in much their original form.

We rejoined and made our way to a Danish guy’s house.  The Danish man was in his 50’s or 60’s and quite entertaining: a big belly, a thick mustache, and an immense Midwestern accent overpowering his Danish accent.  Think rural Canada sort of accent… the sort of Midwestern accent that’s even more Midwestern than our American Midwestern accent.  He owned one of only two vehicles in the town, not counting the snow-clearing equipment and airport maintenance vehicles up the road.  His wife, a native of Kulusuk, showed us some of the traditional dances whilst wearing the traditional fashion.  The dances included what I’d best described as a celebratory dance, a dance used between two fighting women, a dance used between two fighting men, and a dance used to pick up a mate.  What I gathered from the fighting dances & her description: “fights” back then really were a bit like West Side Story… but today: the alcohol-abusing folk tend to get a bit more physical.  It was a rather touristy affair, but I suppose it was still a worthwhile part of the trip & the couple were incredibly friendly.

That was our last event before returning to the airport, but three of us opted for a bit of a unique trek back.  I joined the guy from Stuttgart and the girl from Hong Kong on a dogsled for a ride across the Atlantic Ocean.  Well, across one of its reaches between the mainland and island of Kulusuk.  The three of us just sort of hoped that the ice was thick enough to hold us, but our guide & the dogsled driver both assured us it was fine, with the guide saying it’s safer than our flight to & from here.  Wasn't sure how to interpret that.  When it comes to knowing ice, I’ll put my faith in these guys… but every little bump or slight tilt had all three of us thinking we were headed in for a really cold swim.

The snow was wet from the warm sun, meaning the dogs were pulling through slush.  On the one hand I felt bad for them pulling such weight, but our driver – in his broken English – assured us that they could easily do much more for far greater distances.  There was no doubt that the dogs loved what they were doing – even if they were clearly exerting quite a bit of effort.  At departure: the dogs who weren't pulling a sled were clearly dismayed; the dogs pulling the sled were anxious to go; and the dogs at the airport leaped and danced in hope that it was their turn for the trip back.  I’m an immense dog lover and have spent my whole life around them: had I sensed that they were in any pain or didn't enjoy what they were doing, I’d have quit at that very moment… but the whole way through they seemed in great spirits.  So yeah, I rode a dogsled across the Atlantic Ocean to get back to the airport.

I slept much of the flight back, but not before once again admiring the departing Greenland landscape & associated icebergs.  Reykjavik was sunny but also windy, making some of us yearn for the surprising warmth of Greenland.  I walked back from the airport (only about a 30 minute walk; not shabby at all) and collapsed onto the floor of my room, turning on my laptop to find an email from the guy out at the Mall, where I bought my camera.  The batteries I’d also requested had arrived.  Which meant I was headed back outside… but at least one trip to the mall later: I’m now loaded with batteries & got a tasty burrito from the food court before taking a taxi back (I was short on bus fare & didn't feel like waiting in the wind again, having missed a bus by seconds on my way out to the Mall & having to wait about 15 minutes).  The rest of the night would be quiet relaxation, letting my leg recover a bit as I fiddled on the internet & read up on tomorrow’s trekking about Stockholm.

As I reflect upon Iceland: a couple random suggestions to the country… first, use wind power: you certainly have no shortage of it.  Might as well complement your other renewable energy sources.  Also: you need more frequent pull-offs along roads.  Consider regularly spacing them along the Ring Road & also provide them were tourists want to pull off: particularly at vistas overlooking mountains, fjords, etc.  They need to be better sign-posted, perhaps framing them with pylons of a different color than the typical yellow roadside markers.  These roads are literally “high”-ways, with areas to pull-off without being unable to get back on the road generally limited to oddly-situated picnic areas as well as unexpected gravel driveways.  Oh, what I would give to be a traffic engineer in Iceland...

No comments:

Post a Comment