The Top of the World

The allure of Greenland proves irresistible to Tricia Pearsall, who returns again and again to this land of immense beauty. Here, dancing night sky meets glacier, and precipices of ice provide a thrill ride like no other.

Hiking to the base of Nalumasortoq in Southern Greenland.

Photos by Tricia Pearsall

“Hold on!” shouts Egon, as he slams his whole body weight onto the sled brakes. 

Clutching the side rails for dear life with my mitten-layered fists, I squeeze my eyes tight as the sled catapults off the glacier snout. We lunge straight down more than 1,000 feet toward the sea ice, and I pray the dogs outrun the gravitational acceleration of the sled so we don’t crash into them. 

Through a squint, I make out a large boulder below coming up fast. “Iu, iu, iu,” Egon screams, and the sled jerks sharply left, dogs tearing up the snow, having the time of their lives. My demure Swiss sled mate Christophe lets go a befittingly brilliant English expletive, and I too think I’ve died and gone to heaven. We just howl like wolves in complete Arctic euphoria. This is the thrill of East Greenland—riding behind a pack of hardworking elegant sled dogs, a chauffeured limousine through the snow in this, some of the most dramatic natural beauty on earth. We race across the harbor, barely avoiding sinking into the slushy sea ice, and up the hill into the village of Tiniteqilaaq.  

Egon Poulsen guides a pack of sled dogs through East Greenland.

This is my third trip to Greenland (Kalaallit Nunaat), the largest island in the world. This time, I go to the east coast, to the tiny hamlet of Tasiilaq on Ammassalik Island for an eight-day dogsledding excursion with Arctic Dream. Under the guidance of Egon and Michael, skilled mushers and local hunters, and their pure bred Greenlandic dogs, our group sets out across the frozen harbor bound for a hut above the Sermilik Fjord, the second longest fjord in Greenland. As we gain height into the mountains, both snow and wind pick up, making visibility impossible. Egon jumps from standing on the sled’s back to sitting on the front, constantly adjusting the tuglines, each tethered to one of nine dogs, employing the fan-hitch dogsledding technique used by Inuit and Greenland hunters. 

Following a frozen streambed, we finally reach the hut just before sunset. Egon and Michael secure the dogs and feed them raw seal meat before preparing our supper of whale steaks. Dogs come first. In order to give the dogs a break in this deep, heavy April snow, we decide to intersperse mushing days with a snowshoe trek along the coast and an outing in Michael’s skiff, breaking ice and dodging blue and black bergs in the fjord. 

I had fallen completely gobsmack-in-love with Greenland a few years earlier. Having read the Arctic exploits of Robert Peary and Matthew Henson, plus a few of the sagas telling the adventures of Erik the Red and his son Leif, and, yes, stories by Jack London, I was riveted by tales pitting the cold beauty of the land against wickedly harsh conditions resulting in survival face-offs between humans and the ice. The tough, “civilized” discoverers always seemed reduced to students in a dangerous experiential classroom where the Inuit alone knew the answers. 

My husband and I flew via Iceland to Narsarsuaq, a U.S. built World War II refueling airstrip located on the southwest coast, where our guide Nivi, an Inuit Greenlander, met us on the tarmac. She walked us along the iceberg-scattered fjord to the dock where we were issued Tasermiut South Greenland Expedition red parkas, then ushered into an RIB—a rigid inflatable boat similar to a Zodiac. Since Greenland has no roads and few cars, this speedboat would be our primary means of travel. Off we sped, 12 of us from eight different countries huddled cheek to jowl along both gunwale tubes, across the Eriksfjord to the village of Qassiarsuk, the original Viking settlement. Our planned route would be reversed, since the Qaleraliq glacier camp, our first scheduled stop, had been recently mutilated by a piteraq—a hurricane-force wind coming off the ice cap.

We assembled in the Leif Eriksson Hostel, aptly named as it sits directly under a bronze statue of the swaggering explorer of North America. Qassiarsuk is assumed to be Brattahlid, home to the infamous Viking dynasty—Erik the Red, his wife Tjodhilde and son Leif. Ousted from Iceland for murder, Erik settled here around 982 A.D., and named the land Greenland to entice other Vikings to join him. 

Leif brought Christianity from Norway, converting his mother who then built a church, the first such in Greenland, but confounding poor pagan Erik. As the saga describes, “After she accepted the faith, Thjodhilde would have no intercourse with Erik, and this was a great trial to his temper.” 

Archaeologists have found the foundations of Tjodhilde’s church, burials and a longhouse, evidence that corroborates the saga’s account. After touring inside the recently reconstructed Viking church and longhouse, we feasted on fresh spotted wolffish, a delectable preview of Greenlandic cuisine to come. Dessert was a brilliant aurora borealis display around midnight, making this first day hard to surpass—but we did.

We headed south for three days, motoring in and out of fjords, hiking up a valley full of Arctic cotton grass and fireweed, bathing in hot springs as icebergs meandered by, bushwhacking through stunted taiga thickets turning autumnal red, followed by a night clustered in the lee of a house with our tents tied together against the wind. 

Jay-Jay, our boat captain, plucked us off a large rock near the house and ferried us up the Tasermiut Fjord past granite spires furtively peeking through low-lying fog, up to the base of the Tasermiut Glacier. This glacier drops 4,600 feet from its plateau to the fjord in less than two miles, turning it into a towering icefall. We explored several deep turquoise blue ice caves carved by meltwater before heading back down the fjord to pitch our tents at the base of a monolithic headwall named Ulamertorsuaq. 

Branded as Greenland’s Yosemite, this complex of granite peaks is a big-wall climber’s paradise. Over the next couple of days we hiked to the moraines of Ulamertorsuaq and Nalumasortoq, a massive slab shaped like an open book where the pages are each 300 feet tall, harvested ground blueberries and crowberries along the path and played hide-and-seek with an arctic fox trying to steal underwear one of our party had left drying on a tent line. I could have remained there for weeks, but Jay-Jay appeared on schedule and whisked us down the fjord to the southernmost town of Nanortalik and on to Qaqortoq, Nivi’s hometown and capital of Southern Greenland. 

Most small communities in Greenland look like Legoland house villages—a sprinkling of pitch-roof wooden boxes painted red, yellow or blue, stacked up hillsides. Larger towns have food markets, a community center for washing clothes, taking baths and conducting municipal affairs, plus a couple of bars and hotels. 

In Nanortalik and Qaqortoq, we dined in hotels, which offered tasty and elegantly served fare of reindeer, whale, narwhal, halibut and salmon. Since camping or hostels may not be everyone’s accommodation of choice, hotels and lodges furnished in chic Scandinavian-designed interiors are comfortable and stylish alternatives—after all, Greenland may be an autonomous country, but it’s still a dependent territory of Denmark. 

At the end of a full day’s boating, threading island passages and steering clear of giant icebergs, we finally crossed the Ikersuaq fjord and motored up to Qaleraliq camp, sitting high on a sand plateau across from the same-named glacier. The piteraq had indeed destroyed the dining tent and a smaller yurt, but we doubled up and shared the surviving, duct-taped large tents. 

Crossing the fjord to the glacier’s middle tongue, we donned crampons, harnesses and helmets for our ice excursion. Up and down we snaked over steep ice fins, cautiously following our guide around cerulean blue crevasses and bottomless caverns, peeking into small cavities revealing turquoise water-filled caves. A thrilling experience indeed, but not as astounding as the action at the glacier’s face in the fjord. Back in the boat, Jay-Jay was able to steer to the glacier’s terminus, a massive 200-foot wall of striated blue ice, host to thousands of sea birds at its base, all screaming, zooming around in a swirling frenzy, feeding on the macroplankton attracted to glacial nutrients released in the water. 

The magic didn’t stop here, however. That evening I kept waking up as the glacier groaned and popped, explosively calving huge iceberg chunks into the fjord. Hearing our group ooh and ahh, I added some layers, grabbed the camera and dashed out of the tent to find the aurora borealis performing an amazing dance of swirling purple, green and gold—Mardi Gras marbling the sky. 

And just when I thought the trip couldn’t get better, we suited up in splash jackets, overalls and waders, squiggled down into tandem sea kayaks, tucked the spray skirt around the hatch and launched into the ice-choked bay near Tasiusaq. For two hours, we paddled around giant bergs, careful not to get too close in case they turned turtle, but close enough to see the 90 percent of their mass that lies below the waterline. I absolutely had to return, and did so the next summer, but sans husband who definitely didn’t understand the allure. 

Soon, I’ll be back in Tasiilaq for a dogsledding trip south to the abandoned village of Ikateq, now used for hunting seals and bear. For me, Greenland exemplifies our changing planet at its rawest and most revealing, all of which can be explored in relative comfort. 

It’s a vast land where the dancing night-sky meets the ice, where primal Earth dwarfs humans and animals, where Mother Nature totally rules and wee mortals creatively struggle to survive and maintain balance. For those efforts, however, we are rewarded with a beauty like none other, the kind that is wild, robust, genuine and immense. 

Sea kayaking around icebergs in Sermilik Bay.

Your Guides to Adventure in Greenland

Arctic Dream 

In the winter, the Tasiilaq-based company offers dogsledding tours ranging from one to eight days, and in the summer offers day-long hiking and boating excursions and a five-day trip hitting Flower Valley in Narsaruaq. Pricing available upon request.

Best of South Greenland 

The eight-day journey led by Guide to Greenland begins in Narsarsuaq and travels to the Greenland Icecap, the hot springs of Uunartoq, the Norse ruins of Narsaqand Qaqortoq and the forest of Qanassiassat. Starts at $1,975 per person. 

Greenland Hotel Adventure 

Tasermiut Expeditions combines the adventure ofSouth Greenland with the comfort of hotels. Itinerary highlights include sea kayaking among icebergs,exploring the ruins of Gardar in the Inuit settlement of Igaliku and ice hiking in Qaleraliq. Starts at$3,300 per person. 

This article originally appeared in our June 2018 issue.

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