The End of the World Exploring Greenland, the blankest spot on the map--and not a moment too soon
by Edward Readicker-Henderson
(page 3 of 3)
ON THE FOURTH DAY, our boat reaches its northernmost point, the tiny village of Ukkusissat (71 degrees, 3 minutes north), a place my map forgot, in full summer sunshine.
The whole village comes out to watch us watch them. Houses perch on bare rocks; tangles of puppies sleep in the sun. A dog that has gotten loose digs at a seal carcass on the beach.
In winter, people used to be able to drive the 60 miles or so between here and Uummannaq across the frozen ocean, but "the past few years, there hasn't been much sea ice," says teacher Maryanne Pedersen, who has coaxed a village elder into full traditional winter clothing. While the rest of us wear T-shirts and swat mosquitoes, the poor lady looks like she's about to keel over from the heat in her dog and seal skins.
When the ship starts moving again, I face backward, wanting to have the north all to myself. No matter how much I imagined it over the years, I never pictured the true stark beauty of this place: the arc of humpback whales or the goggle eyes of seals surfacing for no more than a blink.
That evening I go for a walk with my friend Sabine, who writes German- language guidebooks to Greenland, to look at the face of Eqip Sermia Glacier. I ask her how this place ended up in her imagination, what has brought her back again and again. "I need the icebergs," she says, while an arctic fox, its summer brown fur starting to molt into winter white, stares from behind a clump of white flowers. "The ocean, the wide-open horizons. I need the light."
I think about a line from Barry Lopez's Arctic Dreams, a book that's been practically a bible to me: "In a simple bow from the waist before the nest of the horned lark, you are able to stake your life, again, in what you dream."
Lacking a lark, I bow to the fox.
IN ITILLEQ, just a few yards above the Arctic Circle and our last stop before returning to Kangerlussuaq, no one is moving. Three dozen houses, green and red and blue, fill a saddle between two small hills. A lone pink house sits off by itself, with a view of gulls and rocks and flat water picking up reflections from the bare rock hills beyond.
The town has no roads, but a single path branches at the well-used soccer field, where the ship's crew and passengers will lose a game against the locals, who field up to 20 players and three balls at a time. (Bank shots off rocks and buildings are apparently quite legal.) The path to the left runs past the house where a musk ox head mummifies on a porch rail. The right fork winds to a graveyard of plastic flowers behind a prim white fence. Above, rocks covered with orange lichen are squeezed by arctic blueberries the color of a landscape halfway to night.
Reindeer skins dry by a small pond, just out of reach of the sled dogs. The dogs are white and thick furred, the size of healthy wolves. Greenlandic law allows no pet dogs north of the Arctic Circle, just these massive beasts that eat only twice a week this time of year, a couple of pounds of raw fish scrap. Even bored and hungry, they never stretch their tethers to snap at the puppies that stop wrestling just long enough to offer their necks to me for a scratch.
On the beach, a seal carcass lies tangled in the wings of whale vertebrae; the tentacles of an octopus are thrown over another seal like the arms of a lover.
Fishermen in Greenland carry not only hooks and line but also three guns: something small for birds, a .22 or a .222 for seals ("You can also use that for reindeer, but you have to be a very good shot," a hunter tells me), and a 30.06 for musk oxen.
Weather teaches improvisation and adaptability, skills the industrial age has largely abandoned in a belief that technology can conquer any obstacle.
But walk through backcountry Greenland, notice the abandoned snow machines, and you understand why locals stick to dog sledges: Dogs don't break down, can find their way home through a storm, and don't need oil. When the time comes, dogs can even pull the jawbone-shaped sledges across a snowless landscape.
The Vikings never figured out improvisation, and it doomed them. But, as they're already doing, the Greenlanders will fish when they can't hunt. And then I have to believe they'll farm. And then they'll figure out something else, because weather and need have taught them to be brilliant improvisers, skinning musk oxen under satellite dishes.
UP ON THE ICE CAP, I pull a pebble from a rivulet of melting water and drop it in my pocket as a present for the woman I love.
Five hundred years ago, the glaciers moved down to the coast and pushed the Norse into the sea. Perhaps without so much as a look back at the way glowing blue icebergs ate all but one end of the spectrum, they set sail for Vinland, a place where they imagined life would be sweet and the temperature always perfect.
Now the massive Greenlandic ice cap is melting. Changes here will be felt across the globe, and, as my fingers numb in the melt stream, I can't help but think we face a simple choice. We can decide to change, to prevent the teetering climate from becoming completely unbalanced, get the carbon out of the air, and keep the temperature stable. Or we can keep warming the planet and find out just how adaptable we and other life forms really are.
I stand and look at nothing but ice, a view the Vikings must have known. But they had an escape route; we have nowhere to sail away to. There's no Vinland for us.
Edward Readicker-Henderson wrote about an adventure in Canada's Vuntut National Park in the March/April 2006 issue ("A Real Refuge") and is currently working on a book about quiet places.