ILULISSAT, Greenland — It’s so cold, they closed the igloos. The icebergs are shivering. Two of my toes are slightly frostbitten. Yesterday my life seriously flashed before my eyes on a dogsled ride through the mountains.
But what a trip. What a place.
Exhilarating, that’s the word.
Close your eyes and hear the sounds of Ilulissat (e-LU-li-sat). The creak of the sleds rushing across the crisp snow. The crackle of the ice breaking up against the wooden prow of tiny fishing boats in Disko Bay. The ravens — odd birds to see way up here above the Arctic Circle — flapping their black wings atop the icebergs like dots of licorice on vanilla ice cream.
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From the moment you leave Reykjavik, Iceland, in a rugged propeller plane for a three-hour ride to Ilulissat to the moment you pack up your frozen little body and leave, you are in another world.
And if you are willing to come to Greenland in winter (I went in late February) it’s affordable and uncrowded.
Almost all tourists to Greenland come from Denmark, followed by small numbers of Germans, Swedes and a tiny number from the U.S. Just 429 Americans stayed overnight in Ilulissat last year.
Why so few? First, it’s hard to get here from the U.S.
Second, humble Greenland gets overlooked in favor of trendy Antarctica.
Third, people tend to think of Greenland as one big, empty, melting block of ice. Wrong. Greenland is part of the Danish Kingdom and is bigger than Alaska. Most of its 57,000 people live in isolated towns along the rocky shoreline near the miles-deep ice cap. They have cars. They have schools. They have dogs. They have a life.
Ilulissat, Greenland’s most lyrical town, has just 4,606 people and 2,300 sled dogs. Most people here are Inuit or Danish, a melding of people that yields a unique and sturdy culture of fishing, shrimping, tourism and doggy paw prints.
What makes this place a star and a United Nations World Heritage site is the Sermeq Kujalleq (or Jakobshavn, in Danish) Glacier, the most active glacier outside Antarctica. Towering icebergs dot Disko Bay as the glacier sends tons of ice down the Ilulissat Icefjord into the bay each day. You don’t have to be on a boat to see the icebergs, either. You can see them from your hotel room window. Or your table at lunch over a plate of fresh halibut. Or while walking in town near the Lutheran church.
This tiny town’s zillion-dollar views are so stunning that a few years ago, some huge cruise ships included Ilulissat on their summer port stops, overwhelming the town.
“Five years ago, 63 cruises stopped here. It was too much,” says Silverio Scivoli, owner of Tourist Nature, which runs local tours. “We were not set up for that. Now we get just five, and the biggest one has 800 people.”
Beyond the icebergs
Besides the famed icebergs of Ilulissat, you’ll notice:
•No trees. This is a land is bedrock and ice. In summer, you’ll see wildflowers, sedges and small bushes.
•Lots of cars and taxis — but not a single road out of town.
•Traffic warning signs for sled crossings. Monument and a museum honoring Knud Rasmussen, a Danish-Inuit native son and famed polar explorer.
•An Arctic cemetery near the airport, where everything is white, even the crosses
•Lots of sealskin. With seal hunting banned in the United States since 1971 (except for Alaska native people), this is unfamiliar to most Americans. Greenland allows traditional subsistence seal hunting. The warm parka and leggings you’re given for dogsled rides are sealskin. The seats at the airport are upholstered with sealskin. The hotel has sealskin lobby decorations. Shops sell sealskin purses and hats. The U.S. prohibits their import, so don’t buy sealskin souvenirs.