Iceland & Greenland 3/7/2020 - 3/21/2020

Wednesday 3/11/2020 - Reykjavik to Kulusuk, Greenland

This morning, we woke up at 7 a.m. We didn't even need an alarm; we were waking up early due to the time change. I hadn't slept well. Maybe it was the anticipation and apprehension about the unknown of this upcoming adventure.

We were stressing about what to pack. There is a strict weight limit (10 kg each) on the flights to Greenland, so we could only bring so much with us. Our essential cold weather gear coupled with phone/cameras/batteries/chargers would fill our entire weight allotment. As we would be staying at the same hotel after returning from Greenland, we decided to leave a bag of non-essential items behind in the luggage storage room.

We packed with extreme prejudice. I left my laptop behind; I didn't want to be "that person" with a laptop in the wilderness when we wouldn't even have consistent access to electricity. I left my contact lenses behind (the dry air and admonitions about touching your eyes due to COVID-19 make glasses the obvious choice). Craig ultimately decided to even leave his cane behind! He always uses his cane for balance, but we realized that it wouldn't be of much use when on the icy and snowy dogsled trail. It would just get in the way.

We limited ourselves to one duffel bag and one daypack each. It was quite probable that we would have to go several days without a shower, so we appreciated taking showers this morning.

We went downstairs to eat breakfast. At 10:30, we checked out, and the front desk called us a cab. The Reykjavik City airport is only about 2 km from the hotel, and it cost us $16 for door to door cab service.

The domestic airport is adorable. There are several small terminals, and we went to the one serving IcelandAir Connect. We found seats in a small waiting room. There were only around two dozen seats. The baggage conveyor belt was tiny, and there were only 10 luggage carts. There was also a lunch counter.

We were still stressing about our luggage. We were below the weight limit, but would it still be too much? We looked around the airport as we waited and tried to predict who would be on our dogsledding trip. Everyone had way more luggage than we did, so we hoped that we would be ok.

The ticket counter opened, and we got in line to check in. They told us that our bags would be checked to our final destination of Tasiilaq. This flight took us as far as Kulusuk, Greenland, where we would need to transfer to a helicopter for the short flight to Tasiilaq.

Soon it was time to board the 37-seat propeller plane. We went through security and then waited for a few minutes in a small departure lounge. We walked outside in the wind and climbed the steps to the plane.

We got a great view of Hallgrimskirkja from the air as we took off. There was one flight attendant, and she served coffee, tea, water, and chocolate. Soon we could see pack ice on the ocean between Iceland and Greenland. Some of the windows started to ice up as we passed above some whispy white clouds. I managed to take a nap on the flight; the propellers and motion lulled me to sleep.

As we approached Greenland, the sky cleared. The sun was shining and the views were fantastic. We could see pack ice which had been scarred by pressure ridges or calving icebergs. The ocean, when not frozen, was like a mirror. We passed over the jagged rocky peaks of East Greenlandic islands. They were covered with snow, and we could see glaciers in their valleys. Looking out the window and seeing the propeller blade spinning as we pass over this dramatic landscape reminded me of the transition scene when Indiana Jones flies to Nepal in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

People talk about Paro, Bhutan being one of the most harrowing airports in which to land, but we have to imagine that Kulusuk, Greenland, must give it a run for its money. As we approached the northern part of Kulusuk Island, I pointed out how close we were to the mountain on my side of the plane. Craig drew my attention to the window on the opposite side, where a mountain was even closer! It seemed claustrophobic. One hour and forty minutes after leaving Reykhavik, the plane's wheels touched down on the snow-covered gravel runway. It felt like the start of a brilliant adventure.

Landing in Kulusuk

We arrived at around 11:30 a.m. local time. There was initially some confusion on my part about the time. I hadn't realized that East Greenland is actually 3 hours behind Iceland time zone wise (and only an hour ahead of home). It seemed odd that we had passed three time zones in an hour and forty minutes, but we were up near the pole where the circumference of the earth is smaller. Not to mention the fact that all of Greenland is a single time zone, aligned with the capital, Nuuk, on the west coast.

We de-planed and walked across the tarmac toward the terminal building. This was a long narrow building that more resembled a ship than an airport. It was clad in metal, and the air traffic control tower looked like a wheelhouse. Snow had been plowed up against the walls, and it looked like the kind of place which could withstand some extreme weather.

To that end, we entered the building through a circular arctic entryway. Kulusuk is one of the smallest international airports in the world. International flights come and go from Copenhagen and Reykjavik. There was absolutely no international arrivals immigration or customs check.

We found ourselves in a waiting area where duty-free souvenirs such as Inuit Tupilaq carvings and seal skins were for sale. We followed the other passengers to the next room, which was the domestic departure lounge, such as it was. It seemed totally chaotic to us. There was a door in the front which led out to the tarmac, and another door which led out back. In one corner was a small concession window and a tiny eclectic shop. There was a ticket counter with a baggage conveyor, but there were no employees there at the moment. There were around 50 passengers, and there was not enough seating to accommodate everyone. Some tables and chairs were located just in front of the ticket counter. People had luggage piled on the floor, and you felt like a bull in a china shop trying to move anywhere.

Our destination of Tasiilaq on the east coast of Ammassalik Island is only 14 miles from here, but there is a frozen bay in the way. In winter, helicopter is the only viable means of transport. There is a single helicopter servicing the airport here. In the morning it makes essential flights between settlements in East Greenland. In the afternoon, it shuttles people from Kulusuk to Tasiilaq and back. They take off approximately every half hour from Kulusuk.

Our helicopter was scheduled to take off at 11:50 a.m., and it seemed that we had to check in with Air Greenland, though this was not posted anywhere. It seemed strange to us that only 20 minutes before our flight, there was nobody at the ticket counter. We are so used to the rigid rules and regulations at most airports that we were naturally nervous. Was there something we were supposed to be doing? I had a helicopter voucher but no boarding passes. Do we need boarding passes? Why did nearly everyone else have their luggage with them? Hadn't they told us in Reykjavik that the bags had been checked all the way through?

A man sitting nearby started chatting with us, asking us what brought us to East Greenland. We told him that we were going on a dogsledding trip. "Oh, you must be the next group! I just finished that trip!" He said that it was extremely well organized and managed. He had a great time, saying that the dogsledding portion of the trip starts out gradually, but by the end the dogs run down steep sloped so quickly that you need to hang on for your life.

This was encouraging to hear. There was obviously enough snow for dogsledding to be viable and fun. We still didn't know which of the other helicopter passengers would be on our dogsledding trip. We would not meet our trip leader until we arrived at the Tasiilaq heliport.

Not many passengers were speaking English. We struck up a conversation with Nicole and Bill, American honeymooners from Jersey City. They were dogsledding as well. After some initial confusion because we booked through different agents, we realized that we were indeed on the same trip, though their helicopter flight was after ours. At least Craig and I wouldn't be the last to arrive.

An employee came in from the front door and announced that the next flight was boarding. This was the departure before ours, so we obviously had time to check in and everything. A few minutes later, the employee returned, calling a man's name who had obviously failed to turn up for boarding. He emerged from the rest room and hurried out to the tarmac. Obviously they weren't going to leave without him. This also calmed our anxiety; things were just more low key here.

The helicopter took off as scheduled. A young lady appeared at the Greenland Air desk, wearing a face mask. People started to line up at the counter to check in. A couple from the UK were in front of me in line, and I couldn't help but overhear the husband's jolly commentary. They are apparently frequent visitors to East Greenland, and he was saying that the airport procedures are never consistent from one visit to the next.

When it was our turn to check in, the ticket attendant asked for our checked luggage. We said that we had been told that it had been checked all the way through. She shook her head and pointed to the back door of the airport. The luggage from our plane had been pulled out back on a cart, and we needed to retrieve it before re-checking it. Losing our place in line, we went out the back door. There was a luggage tram on which sat 2 duffel bags: ours. We retrieved them and re-joined the end of the queue. I was feeling so stressed by this perceived injustice for absolutely no reason. We successfully checked in just prior to our scheduled departure time. The helicopter should be returning at any moment.

Soon, however, all of the remaining scheduled flights showed as slightly delayed. Craig was seated next to the couple from the UK and we started to chat with them. They are Doug and Andrea from Scotland. They have been coming to East Greenland since the 1970's. They used to camp and travel on the pack ice with their children, when the kids were as little as 7 months old!

A few years ago, Andrea stayed at home to take care of new puppies while Doug and their son visited East Greenland. She was surprised when they returned home announcing that they were now the proud owners of a house in Tasiilaq! These days they spend approximately 10 weeks in Tasiilaq annually, over the course of two trips. They love riding snow machines in the winter and being part of the local community.

They told us about times when the weather was so bad that folks were stuck in Kulusuk for 3 weeks before it was safe to fly. Today, however, was a beautiful, clear, sunny blue-sky day, and we were all optimistic.

I started to get hungry (it was already approaching dinner time in Iceland), so I went to the concession window. They sold multiple variations on the hot dog, as well as "toast." The latter was basically a pre-packaged frozen grilled ham and cheese sandwich which is heated and served. This sounded good to us, and I waited in line.

Things move at a liesurely pace here. The ticket counter agent was now on break with another employee, and the line gave them preference. As I waited, I checked out all of the disparate items for sale around me. It felt like a flea market where the deeper you looked, the more you uncovered. Offerings included, but were not limited to: winter boots, fragrant candles, fleece jackets, rifle scopes, souvenir magnets, maps, coffee mugs, sunglasses, candy, beach towels, plastic watering cans, belts, novelty license plates, DVD's, tea towels, aprons, potholders, socks, and flashlights.

After I placed my order, it took a while longer to get our two toasts and two Fantas. The snack really hit the spot as our helicopter departure time slipped further and further.

There was a Greenlandic family with 3 boys (two of whom were toddlers wearing adorably puffy snowsuits). The parents kept taking them out the back door of the airport to play in the snow. Others went outside for a cigarette, or just for some fresh air. I went out a couple of times myself. We were dressed in multiple layers of clothing and were quite warm, especially as the afternoon sun rays streamed in through the windows. The view outside was stunning...nothing but snow, with mountains in the distance. The only building visible was a hangar where the heavy equipment for the airport was kept.

Doug and Andrea talked to their Greenlandic friend Justus, a local politician. Word soon was spreading in the airport that the delay was due to the helicopter being used for a search and rescue mission. A local hunter had not returned from a trip last night, and they needed to find him. Obviously, this is a much more important use of the helicopter, and everyone became a bit somber, hoping for the safe recovery of the hunter.

At around 3:15 p.m., all of the helicopter flights for the rest of the day were listed as canceled. Word was that the hunter had not been found, and the pilot had used up all of his flying hours for the day. Nobody official was really announcing anything. Everything was so low key here that all of the locals just picked up their stuff and walked out the back door.

We initially felt a bit panicked. What would this mean? We were supposed to have our orientation in Tasiilaq today, so that we could start our dogsled journey bright and early tomorrow morning. Would we be stuck in this tiny airport overnight? Craig and I had one seat between us; we kept taking turns sitting. Would they be able to squeeze all of these passengers into tomorrow's flight schedule?

Thank goodness for Doug and Andrea. They reassured us that this happens all the time. It's usually weather-related, so this was a bit of a different spin on it, but delays are common here. There is a hotel in Kulusuk. The airline would provide us with a room and food until our flights could be rescheduled. The hotel would pick us all up in a shuttle. Everything would be fine. Think what it was like before they had built the hotel!

We felt a bit like the neurotic doctor in Northern Exposure. We were projecting our uptight East Coast USA fears and anxieties on society here, in remote and sparsely populated East Greenland. Much like the Alaskan community depicted on that show, folks here had everything under control, even though their leadership was subtly communicated. We realized that we just had to trust the process.

It's not that we meant to be anxious about all of this; we usually try not to stress when traveling and just go with the flow. We had gotten stuck in Myanmar when our small flight was canceled at the last minute. But somehow that had been easier to manage, perhaps because we were at the end of the trip, and were still with the entire group and tour leader at that time. Here we felt like we were still on the cusp of something; that we were still on our own before meeting up with the group. We were overthinking things, wondering if there was something that we should be doing. But we decided we should take our cues from the locals, who seemed utterly unbothered by the situation.

We had the option to leave our checked luggage at the airport, or to take it with us. We had so little with us anyway, we couldn't bring ourselves to leave some of it behind. So we re-claimed our luggage and headed out the back door to wait for the shuttle. Standing outside as the sun set, with only one equipment hangar visible in the distance, we felt like we were on another planet. Nature was so vast here, and raw. We had so many layers on that we felt like we were ready for a polar expedition, or a space walk.

We were wearing clothes much heavier than we ever wear at home. Even though we have cold and snowy winters in New England, we don't spend much time outside in the winter. Craig didn't even own a proper winter parka; we had to buy him one specifically for this trip. He is a casual Star Wars fan at best, but he said it felt like we were on Hoth, about to be locked out of the base.

Everyone was in a big rush to get on the shuttle, and we ended up near the end of the line. The first load of people got into the van and it disappeared out of sight down the snowy roadway. We chatted some more with Andrea (Justus and Doug had gone ahead on foot). She showed us some photos from years past on her was the crew trying to plow 8 feet of snow from the runway...see how the snow is higher than the roof of the plow?

As the sun sank low in the sky it got colder, and we put on our hats and gloves. The van returned for a second load of people, and a third. We were among the fourth and final van load. All we could think was that the hotel would fill up before we arrived, and then what? We try not to think negatively, but it was a possibility. Andrea assured us that the hotel is pretty big, because sometimes entire plane loads of people get stuck there for days or even weeks. We hoped for the best.

Kulusuk is a settlement with a population of 247. Its name means chest of a black guillemot (sea bird), in reference to the appearance of a particular nearby mountain peak. The hotel is located halfway between the airport and the settlement. It is a large blue building with white trim, and it looks utterly isolated in the vast white landscape. You can't see the airport from here, and you can't see the settlement.

We arrived at the hotel at 4:20 p.m. Most of passengers who had arrived on earlier shuttles were already checked in. Jacob, the hotel proprietor, looked frazzled. There ared 34 rooms in the hotel, and he only had two rooms left. That was two rooms too few. He asked if there were any couples among the remaining guests. We, along with Nicole and Bill, raised our hands. He explained that the two remaining rooms were doubles, and he would give them to the couples. They would find accommodation for the singletons at hostels in the settlement.

Relief swept over us. He gave us the key to room #108 with a caveat. "I don't normally fill this room..." Uh-oh. Here it comes. What's wrong with the room? No water? No heat? No electricity? "...because the key card doesn't work. But I can give you a master key as long as you don't go breaking into other rooms!" What a relief; that was fine. After all, if anything went missing, you'd basically have the equivalent of a "locked room mystery"'s not like anyone could go anywhere!

Since we still felt like we were largely following the crowd in terms of knowing how to proceed, we were glad not to be separated from the larger group.

The hotel had a central area with the lobby on the ground floor, and the kitchen, bar, and restaurant upstairs. Bottles of hand sanitizer were available at check-in as well as in the bar/restaurant area. On each side of the main hub was a 2-story wing of rooms. We were on the ground floor, to the left. Our room was lovely and cozy, with a striking view of the frozen bay and the snowy peaks of neighboring islands.

We got settled in, then went upstairs to the bar/restaurant. We sat with Nicole, Bill, Andrea, Doug, and Justus. It was happy hour, and Craig enjoyed a Guinness while I had a glass of red wine. We were finally relaxed. We may as well enjoy ourselves; this was part of the adventure. We had nowhere else to go. Jacob was working in tandem with the airlines/airport to make sure that we got back on track as soon as possible.

Doug and Andrea regaled us with stories from their long history of visiting East Greenland. They reminisced with Justus about mutual friends in Tasiilaq. Bill joked that walking down their wing in the hotel gave him Shining vibes.

We were very impressed with the family who had the two toddler boys; the kids behaved so well through their confinement first at the airport and now at the hotel. Their mom, dad, and older brother took turns taking them outside to play in the snow in their puffy snowsuits.

The bar area was small, and as more people gathered, they sat at tables in the dining room. At 6 p.m., a buffet dinner was served. How Jacob and his skeleton crew managed to whip up a delicious dinner for 50 with a couple hours' notice is beyond me, and we were quite grateful. We enjoyed salmon with bearnaise sauce, baked stuffed potatoes, broccoli, breaded shrimp, rice, potato salad, and a mustard-based pasta salad. We sat with Bill and Nicole and really enjoyed getting to know them.

Nicole said that they had contacted their booking agent, who had informed them that all 10 guests on our dogsledding trip were here at the Hotel Kulusuk today, so everyone would arrive in Tasiilaq a day late. It was good to know that we were all in the same boat. We tried to guess which of the other guests were part of the group. Craig and Nicole put their money on a table of six who were speaking German. They were corrrect, though we wouldn't realize it until tomorrow.

Jacob told us that he was in touch with the airport, and the replacement helicopter flights should start early tomorrow afternoon, after the regularly scheduled village flights took place in the morning.

Everyone was pretty exhausted after a day of travel uncertainty, and we retired to our rooms soon after dinner. I was able to get cell service here, so I posted about our current situation in Kulusuk, along with a few photos. I sent an e-mail to our booking agent to make sure that everything was all set and that there was no problem with joining the dogsled tour a day late. We were feeling relaxed and that we would get a good night's sleep. We went to bed at 8:30 p.m.

View of Hallgrimskirkja from the air

View of Hallgrimskirkja from the air

Flying into Greenland

Flying into Greenland

Kulusuk Airport, Greenland

Kulusuk Airport, Greenland

Kulusuk Airport, Greenland

Kulusuk Airport, Greenland

Kulusuk Airport, Greenland

Kulusuk Airport, Greenland

Kulusuk Airport, Greenland

Kulusuk Airport, Greenland

Kulusuk Airport, Greenland

Kulusuk Airport, Greenland

Kulusuk Airport, Greenland

Kulusuk Airport, Greenland

Room #108, Hotel Kulusuk

Room #108, Hotel Kulusuk

View from Room #108, Hotel Kulusuk

View from Room #108, Hotel Kulusuk

Happy hour, Hotel Kulusuk

Happy hour, Hotel Kulusuk

Happy hour, Hotel Kulusuk

Happy hour, Hotel Kulusuk

See all photos from Iceland March 11

See all photos from Greenland March 11

Kulusuk Airport, Greenland

Kulusuk Airport, Greenland

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