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Greenland By Plane, Boat and Dog Sledge by Lea Lane

The first thing you need to know about Greenland is that there are no roads - at least not outside the towns. So if you find yourself on the world's largest island, hankering for a road trip, you'll have to enlarge your idea of "vehicle" to include small planes, fishing boats and dog sleds. Lea Lane takes you on a whirlwind tour.


Dogsledging is a way of life and important means of transport for those that dwell in Greenland, since there are no connecting roads between towns.

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As my friends wryly note, I'm now bipolar. In February, when I was in Antarctica, I came near to 70 degrees latitude south. In April, eager to explore the polar-opposite region, I traveled to Greenland and found myself at 70 degrees latitude north, 250 kilometers above the Arctic Circle.

I got there by airplane, flying on Air Greenland via Copenhagan (you can fly from Iceland in the summer months) to the coastal air hub of Kangerlussuaq, on the west coast of the island. Here you can drive right up to the southern edge of an ice cap that is 14 times the size of England; a remnant of the Ice Age, it contains 10 percent of the world's total reserves of fresh water. But instead I boarded a cherry-red Dash 7 turboprop airliner and headed for Nuuk, Greenland's capital city, population 15,000.

Though Greenland, a territory of Denmark, is the largest island on earth, it claims only about 56,000 citizens. Most are of native Inuit or Danish heritage, and they are sprinkled about in tiny hamlets along the coasts. Roads are rare outside the settled areas, so if you're looking for pristine, this is it.

I taxied from the little Nuuk airport straight to lunch at Café Esmerelda, where I got an informal introduction to the exceptional Greenlandic staples of cold-water cod and shrimp. From there I joined a group walking around the capital. The highlight was the open-air market, where whale meat and seal meat are staples, both legally hunted and carefully regulated. I sampled raw whale blubber: chewy, with a not unpleasant flavor of hazelnuts touched by the sea. Veggies are few here, and raw seal liver has traditionally made up for the vitamin deficiencies, but I decided to forgo that taste sensation.

Sights are spread around central Nuuk, and offer a pleasant afternoon self-tour: the 1846 cathedral; the capital building, with its muraled chambers; the National Museum and the colonial harbor, which includes Santa's Mailbox, a fun place to snail-mail a postcard to your kids. The Cultural Center (Katuaq) is especially impressive; with a thriving art scene, theater, workshops and café, it's a light-filled, Danish-designed space for all.

I spent that first night at the comfortable Hotel Hans Egede, where I dined on musk ox medallions at their stylish restaurant A Hereford Beefstouw.

Ilulissat, Greenland's third largest town, is a two-hour flight up the coast. During the flight I couldn't stop musing about global warming as I gazed down at the thousands of icebergs below: white polka dots on blue velvet, shed from glaciers and formed from compacted snow that fell perhaps 15,000 years ago.

Ilulissat's 5,000 residents live in Lego-like, multicolor houses perched against the ice-flecked waters. Almost as many working dogs sleep in special outdoor areas, ready to get going. Dog sledding - called "sledging" in Greenland - is the best (and most fun!) way to explore Greenland's towns and terrain during most of the year.

I sledged for hours behind a fan of 15 racing Greenlandic dogs, with an Inuit driver steering and - frequently - braking as we coursed over the glistening snowfields in and around nearby Aallaniarfik. Reclining on a blanket, I clasped a rope and often closed my eyes as we sped along rolling hills. The tour company World of Greenland picked me up at my hotel, suited me in sealskin, gave me a brief orientation (basically, "Hold on!"), and dropped me back at the hotel at day's end. It was the thrill ride of my life.

The Ilulissat icefjord is a UNESCO World Heritage site. At the head of the fjord, the fastest moving glacier in the world also produces the most ice - 20 million tons a day. Alarmingly, since 1840 the glacier has retreated 40 kilometers -15 kilometers in the last five years alone, the equivalent of about 10 meters a day.

You can hike to the edge of the fjord, or hop onto a fishing boat for hire in the picturesque harbor, to sail into Disko Bay. There you will wend your way among endless frozen chunks of sculptured ice shed from the glacier. We floated past breathtaking icebergs as big as islands. Openings in some of them seemed to tempt our little red fishing boat to sail through (we didn't), and we crunched over ice the size of cars. Aqua water outlined the bulky mass below the surface (seven-eighths is submerged), and small, clear bits - frozen rain trapped maybe thousands of years ago and now freed - floated around us like crystals. Some of this ice will slowly drift more than 2,500 miles south before finally melting back into the sea.

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Our boat stopped at Oqaatusut, a tiny, isolated, still-inhabited whaling outpost. I walked gingerly from the boat onto frozen Rodebay Harbor. We checked out a dozen or so old settlement buildings and patted a few Greenlandic dogs before lunching on smoked whale meat and brown bread at the charming restaurant H8.

Food and lodging in Ilulissat is just fine. My hotel was the Hotel Arctic; meals there included Greenlandic barbecue and Greenlandic coffee drinks (one popular, fiery concoction is called "Northern Lights"). Lunch was at the Hotel Icefiord, which has a microbrewery and a great view of Disko Bay. Dinner at Hotel Hvide Falk was an excellent buffet sampler, with some of the best fish and seafood I've ever tasted.

I'm no climate expert, but I did talk to fishermen who claim that water temperatures around Greenland have recently warmed two or three degrees, changing the fishing patterns drastically, and Ilulissat Harbor now rarely freezes over. The town is now the world's center for global-warming study, and three warehouses here will soon become Kangia Ice Fjord station, where scientists and researchers will undertake a systematic study of climate change to tell us more definitively about melt, gases and emissions, and prospects for the future.

Meanwhile, Greenland offers exhilarating experiences and comfort, rare quietude and beauty, along with the sobering realities of a warming world. As a witness to the fragile ice shelves, ice caps, glaciers and icebergs near our poles, you can't help becoming humbled - and more vigilant. For more information go to Michelle Nelson from Greenland Tourism contributed to this article.

Lea Lane

(Links updated 7/22/2020)


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