|This page give information about Greenland and describes some of my travels and experiences there over a 5 month period.
Greenland is an island of incomparable and incomprehensible dimensions. It is the largest landmass on Earth classified as an island and this land is formed
from some of the oldest bedrocks known to exist on the planet. Lying mostly north of the Arctic Circle, Greenland has a generally inhospitable climate. The majority
of the island is covered by an ice sheet which measures to 3,200m thick in the centre of the island and leaves only coastal areas ice-free. The icecap previously
extended into the sea, only retreating to expose the current coastline after the last ice age about 11,700 years ago. Greenland's ice sheet has also, in recent
decades, produced extremely valuable scientific findings from ice core samples, regarding our planet’s climate during the last several hundred thousand years.
The oldest ice under the ice sheet is over 200,000 years old. In many places around the coastline, the ice sheet still reaches the sea. At the more accessible of
these locations, it is possible to witness immense quantities of glacier ice calving into the fjords or sea. The Sermeq Kujalleq glacier near the town of Ilulissat in
Disko Bay, calves approximately 40 cubic kilometres of ice into the Icefjord Kangia each year. The resulting icebergs of all sizes can be seen gracefully floating in
Disko Bay before being carried away by ocean currents and reaching the North Atlantic and farther afield.
Despite having extreme climatic conditions, the resulting incredible cleanness of the air and water make this part of the northern hemisphere one of the richest
environments for marine wildlife. The Davis Strait and Baffin Bay along the western coast of Greenland is a migratory channel for millions of marine animals and
birds too. The waters around Greenland are rich in whale, seal and fish populations. The polar bear, arctic fox, arctic hare, reindeer and musk oxen are the largest
mammals that inhabit the landscape and although you are unlikely to meet a polar bear on the southern half of the island, it is likely that you will see the other land
going mammals on your travels - especially when you get a few kilometers from civilisation. The tundra that you walk over is post glacial with tell tail signs all over
the rocks, and it appears barren, but it too blossoms with arctic plants and incredible quantities of berry and mushroom that have happily settled in this climate.
Greenland is a country to visit if you want solitude. The country has one of the lowest population densities of any inhabited country in the world – less than 0.03
people per square kilometre and, even taking into account that the population of 56.000 are limited to distributing themselves over only 20% of Greenland's area,
then the population density is still less than 1/1800 that of the UK. Nuuk, the largest city and capital, has a population of 16,000 and there are only 13 towns with a
population over 1,000 on Greenland. In the Disko region, the largest town is Ilulissat with almost 5000 inhabitants and the smallest settlement is Kangerluk on the
southern shores of Disko Island with only 30 people. Greenland incidentally is also experiencing the same trend as in many other countries, where the population
tends to centre itself on the larger towns - many teenagers make the move to the larger towns and to Denmark for higher education and a modern lifestyle. This
movement is making it more and more difficult to sustain the smallest settlements as the modern infrastructure becomes to costly per head to maintain.
Below, Icebergs in the open waters of Disko Bay just beyond the Icefjord Kangia, south of the town of Ilulissat.
|The arctic region of Disko lies 200 to 400km north of the Arctic Circle on the
west coast of Greenland. It is defined by Disko Bay at its centre, the southern
part of Disko Island, and the coast of mainland Greenland bordered by the
inland ice and the waters of Disko Bay - a land area varying between only 15km
wide southeast of Qasigiannguit, to 100km wide in the south. On the map left
(reproduced from Wikipedia), I have drawn in this region and also marked the
location of The Arctic Circle Trail for information. The Disko region marked by
the rectangle is covered by five 1:100.000 hiking maps produced by Greenland
Tourism/Compukort. They are (clockwise from Disko Island): Qeqertarsuaq,
Eqi, Ilulissat, Qasigiannguit and Aasiaat. It is important to notice that the
magnetic variation in these parts is large – between 33 and 35 degrees west
in 2012, decreasing by half a degree per year. It is also worth noting that the
maps are without a kilometer-grid and the contour interval is 25m.
Access to the region of Disko is by air with Air Greenland and boat. The towns
of Aasiaat and Ilulissat have almost daily domestic connections by air to the
international airport at Kangerlussauq. Onwards from Aasiaat and Ililissat is
with Diskoline which runs ferry services around the ports in Disko Bay during
the period May to November. During the winter months, Qasigiannguit and
Qeqertarsuaq are serviced by helicopter from Ilulissat.
The Arctic Circle Trail, incidentally, is accessed directly from Kangerlussuaq
and there are domestic flights to the other end at Sisimiut. The trail is covered
by the three maps Kangerlussuaq, Pingu and Sisimiut. The trail is described in
the Cicerone guide by Paddy Dillon. Below, the sign at Kangerlussuaq airport.
|The Arctic Region of Disko
|The Colonisation of Greenland
|Above, Aurora Borealis or the Northern Lights photographed from Qasigiannguit in September and below, Greenlandic sled dogs stretching their legs after a
long summer of inactivity here approaching the frozen waters of Tasersuaq. They have good speed - notice several dogs only have one paw on the snow.
|Despite the harsh geographical and meteorological conditions, Inuit (or Eskimo) people have inhabited parts of Greenland on and off for more than 4400 years -
their habitation in arctic regions coinciding with periods of relative warmth. Some of the earliest settlements were in Disko Bay where the Stone Age Saqqaq culture
of Palaeo-Eskimo people arrived from Canada. This group of Palaeo-Eskimo people belong to the Arctic Small Tool tradition as they only had simple implements
such as knives and harpoons with tips of churt with which to hunt and survive. The Saqqaq people arrived on Greenland around 2400 BC - at the same time as the
Independence 1 culture (named after archaeological finds at Independence Fjord), who inhabited northern Greenland. It should be noted that these people who
migrated into these arctic regions were very bold indeed. They were moving into unknown territory where survival skills required were unknown to them. It is also
important to note that these arctic migrations were made by only small numbers of people. It is not unrealistic to assume that all the sites dating from this period
that have been discovered by archaeologists - from Alaska to Greenland, where occupied by less than 500 people. The Canadian archaeologist Robert McGhee
wrote that these people migrated into "the coldest, darkest and most barren regions ever inhabited by man." He has speculated that during the dark winter months,
these people must have almost hibernated in there dark, unheated dwellings (it was not until the later generation of the Dorset culture that they burned oil from
blubber in soapstone bowls for light and heat). Records suggest that the Saqqaq culture survived in the Disko region for approximately 1500 years and a little
longer at other locations along the coast of Greenland further to the south.
Interestingly there is a gap in the colonisation of Disko after the Saqqaq disappeared and it was not until people of the Dorset culture again inhabited sites around
Disko from 800 BC to the year 0. Following a further 1200 years were Disko was uninhabited, the Thule people settled here. Two Thule sites of particular interest
have been excavated at Sermermiut and Qajaa, both located by the Icefjord Kangia and dating from 1200 AD onwards. Of great interest is the fact that the site at
Sermermiut has been inhabited by all three early cultures - the Saqqaq, Greenlandic Dorset and Thule people. The Thule culture was much more developed than
previous cultures and built houses of peat and stone with roofs made from driftwood, whalebone and skin. They were also more mobile with sledges, kayaks and
larger skin boats called umiaq. It is also apparent that the Thule culture interacted with Norse settlers in the Disko region. The Norse travellers came from Iceland
and settled in southern Greenland in the period from 900 to 1450 AD. In the 1600's, Europeans began sailing the waters off Greenland and whaling became
popular during the following 200 years. It was not until 1721 that the current Danish colonisation began, interacting with the descendants of the Thule culture.
Qasigiannguit and Ilulissat where established in the years 1734 and 1741 respectively. At that time, Thule people still lived at the settlement in Sermermiut and the
Danish missionary Poul Egede who visited the site noted “I found here the largest group of people I have ever seen anywhere in Greenland, with about 20 very
large houses, like a little village. They boasted about this and asked if I had seen so many people at one place elsewhere. I felt immediately from their speech and
manners that they were proud of their number and the good catches they had.” Sermermiut was inhabited until about 1850 - the inhabitants slowly moved to the
new colonies, particularly Ilulissat. Ruins of the settlement can still be seen at Sermermiut.
Read more about the early colonisation of Disko here.
|The area around Qasigiannguit, and the town itself, have a long and interesting history. Indeed, excavations on the islands of Qeqertasussuk, that lie south of
Qasigiannguit in the very corner of Disko Bay, have revealed surprisingly well preserved traces of the oldest culture ever to have inhabited Greenland. As already
mentioned, the Saqqaq culture inhabited the Disko region as early as 2400 years BC. In particular, excavations of middens, which were holes dug for waste, have
revealed such high quality artefacts due to their preservation through thousands of years in layers of permafrost. The excavations on the two islands were
performed by archaeologists attached to the local museum in Qasigiannguit, where artefacts are on display today.
Although the town of Qasigiannguit was not established until June 1734, it is Greenland’s second oldest town after the capital Nuuk. Qasigiannguit was
established by the Danish wholesaler Jacob Severin. Severin was claimant of a trade monopoly given by the Danish king and was acting on an earlier survey of the
bay by Mitzel and Fersleff who had found the bay most suitable for a new colony. Building materials and supplies where shipped with Severin from Denmark and
the first houses where erected. Severin christened the town Christianshaab (anglicised Christian’s Hope) in recognition of King Christian VI. The following years
proved though that the site Severin had selected was in-fact most unsuitable due to springtime flooding and frequent gale force katabatic winds, called
Saqqarsarneq, that were channelled through the site by the surrounding topography. However, it was not until several decades later, that the buildings where
moved to the current location centred around the current museum on the northern shore of the bay, about 15 minutes walk away, directly opposite the first site.
Incidentally, Severin chose the wrong side of the bay as the original survey suggested the northern shore. One of the current museum buildings is Poul Egede’s
original wooden house dating from 1734. This is reputedly Greenland’s oldest surviving wooden building. Poul Egede, born in Norway, was the Danish-Norwegian
Lutheran missionary in the town during the years 1736-40, following in his father’s footsteps in the work of the church among the Kalaallit Nunaat - the Greenlandic
Inuit people, who have descended from the Thule culture. Poul Egede’s father, Hans Egede originally travelled to Greenland from Norway in 1721 in search of lost
Norse settlements in the fear that they may have fallen to the Christian faith. Hans Egede established the town of Godthåb (anglicised Good Hope) – now known
as Nuuk. Hans Egede’s second son, Niels Egede, also spent time in Qasigiannguit and it is possible that the carving of a soldier at the museum depicts him.
For English speakers, one can get close to the pronunciation of Qasigiannguit with “kra-si-ji-anng-uit”. The name comes from the Greenlandic Qasigiaq - the
characteristically and colourfully marked Harbor (or Common) seal (Phoca vitulina) which obviously filled the waters here in more than average numbers when the
town was christened by the first Inuit inhabitants. The translation of Qasigiaq is not to be confused with Spotted Seal (Phoca largha) of Pacific waters. Today the
town has a population of 1250, which increased dramatically after the development of commercial shrimp fishing in the 1950’s. Today the town is quite modern
with two schools, a sports hall, supermarket and a hotel. The pace of development has however been challenged by the lack of an airport. Hence the towns of
Aasiaat and Ilulissat have seen greater expansion and modernisation. Qasigiannguit has withheld a lot of charm and is considerably quieter than these larger
more accessible towns. Qasigiannguit is also known for its friendly welcoming atmosphere, rows of multi-coloured wooden houses, sled dogs and an active
fishing and hunting culture - many people are still subsistence hunters, regularly feeding their family and sled dogs with their catch. The type of prey is seasonal
but mostly cod, trout and salmon, ringed seal, ptarmigan, arctic hare and reindeer. There are approximately 800 sled dogs attached to the town. These dogs 'work'
only in the period December to April when there is sufficient snow and ice for them to pull sledges. Many keep dogs for recreational purposes during the winter
months and for tourism, but most are working dogs that are essential for transport over the tundra and sea ice for hunting when usual transport is not possible. It is
important to note that sled dogs are not domesticated animals and are kept chained outside year round. It is a good idea not to approach them.
Read more about the history of Qasigiannguit here.
|Above, Evening light over Qasigiannguit with the many coloured wooden houses, small boats in the harbour and the wild arctic tundra behind.
Below left, the plaque to commemorate the missionary work of Poul Egede during the early years of Christianshaab - now Qasigiannguit.
|Above, the Diskoline boat arriving from Ilulissat and below, the museum.
|Clockwise from above left, sledges in summer hibernation, a Qasigiannguit house gable with antlers from a reindeer,
an Arctic Redpoll which are abundant in the area and a sled dog curled up to keep warm in the snow.
|Walking Routes around Qasigiannguit
|I am busy getting out on the hills as often as I can and I am putting together descriptions for everything from half-day walks to multi-day treks in the area. It is my
hope that I can develop routes throughout the Disko region - throughout the areas covered by the four maps previously mentioned. There is very little English
language material available to Greenland and it is my plan to rectify this and make the information available here for all to enjoy. Of course, I am always willing to
help others with their mountain walking plans in the region - feel free to get in touch. Below is a PDF file that describes walks near Qasigiannguit - enjoy!
Walks near Qasigiannguit in the south east corner of Disko Bay
|Members of the local reenactment group who live in Qasigiannguit. Here a boy expertly padles a kayak which is built entirely of natural materials, a fishing hook
made from soap stone and the bone from a guillemot's throat, mother and daughter with traditional implements and the whole family with a skin boat or umiaq.
|Common flora of the Disko region are (clockwise from above left) Dwarf Birch - Avaalaqiaq (Betula nana), Crowberry - Paarnaqutit (Empetrum hermaphroditum),
Northern Labrador-tea or Wild Rosemary - Qajaasaaraq (Ledum palustre) and Cowberry - Kimmernat (Vaccinium vitis-idaea).
|Above, camped across the bay from Qasigiannguit and below, classic evidence of previous glaciation - an erratic boulder left perched on small rocks.
|Above, winter arrives early - snow on the ground, the lakes are frozen over and the sun is low in the sky in late October. Below, in November the dog sledding
season get underway as soon at the lakes are frozen allowing the traditional routes to be navigable.
|Above, sledges for the whole family. Above right, drying racks for skins near the old harbour in Qasigiannguit.
Below left, the museum and birthplace of Knud Rasmussen in Ilulissat. Below right, kayak frames on display in the garden of the museum.
|Above, the beautiful Zion church in Ilullissat and below, an October sunset over Disko Bay taken from close to the church above.