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

Friday 3/13/2020 - Snowshoeing at Ice Camp, Northern Lights

It gets light quite early in the morning in Tasiilaq, and we awoke early. We got up at 7 a.m. Our heater was still burning, and after a trip to the chilly outhouse, we took a sponge bath with wet naps, put on all of our layers of pants, shirts, and sweaters, and made our way over to the dining cabin. We didn't bother wearing our coats walking from building to building. It was plenty warm inside, and the sun and lack of wind outside meant that despite the cold temperatures, it didn't fee especially cold in short doses.

Line and Sivert had returned on the snowmobile this morning. It was great to see how the guys greeted her. It is obvious that they all have a teasing brother/sister relationship. She doesn't usually come to the camps, but since everything had been a bit rushed yesterday, she came out to make sure that everything was in order and that all the guests were comfortable. She had even found a larger pair of boots and brought them for me. I tried them on and they were perfect.

For breakfast, we had coffee, brown bread, cheese, slices of reindeer sausage, and smoked reindeer meat (which Egon and Daniel tried to convince us was "ice bear"). It was delicious and hearty, and would give our bodies good fuel to combat the cold.

Some guests in the group reported that their heaters had run out of fuel overnight. The fact that Craig had turned ours down in the middle of the night seems to have conserved fuel. In fact, it would keep running well into the afternoon today.

The guides would line their phones up on the windowsill to get better cell reception. They were fully connected. We learned that we were among the last tourists in East Greenland. Kulusuk has suspended non-essential inbound flights. Line assumed that we will be able to get back out again on the weekly flight out on Wednesday, but as the situation continues to develop, nothing is guaranteed.

I tried putting my phone against the window as well. Although I got a signal, it was too weak for me to actually accomplish anything online. The guys realized this and offered us use of their phones to call home if we needed to. This was quite kind of them, but we had alerted people that we would be off the grid for a while, and had no need to contact anyone. But it was nice to know that it was possible.

Today, the dogs were getting a day of rest. We would be spending a second night at this camp, and could spend the day exploring the area or enjoying the cozy warmth of the cabins.

The group went snowshoeing up to a ridge above the camp. Craig and I decided to opt out. It was a steep trail and we didn't want to slow the group down. We didn't know if it would be too difficult for us, and we didn't want to overdo physical exertion so early on in the trip. Craig had never been on showshoes even before his MS diagnosis, and I had last used them in college. We decided to hang out at the cabin.

It turned out that Egon needed to go to Mikael's nearby cabin to pick up a sleeping bag. He kindly invited Craig to join him on the snow machine. I went outside to see them off.

After they left, I took some photos of the group as they climbed further up the peaks above camp. Daniel was outside as well, and I asked if he would introduce me to his dogs. Since these dogs are not pets, they are not to be approached without their owner's consent. When they are chained up, they can't get away from you. Their only recourse, if they are fearful, is to bite. I asked if I could pet one, and he introduced me to a dog who smelled my hand and allowed me to pet the dense fur on its head.

Daniel started running dogs 4 years ago with a mother dog and her pups. The mother is now 7 years old. He begins training puppies at 7 months. He has two 8-month-old trainees on his team. One of the female dogs is pregnant, and will give birth next month. Litters usually consist of 5-7 puppies, but survival is not easy. Egon recently had a litter of 5 puppies, and only one survived. Groups of ravens attack puppies. They work together like a pack of wolves, and mama dogs can't protect all of the puppies at once.

I asked what the dogs eat. I had expected him to say fish, since I know that is a staple in the diet of Alaskan sled dogs. But these dogs don't eat fish. The mushers feed them seal meat and commercial dog food.

Sled dogs enjoying a day off

I went to our cabin to fetch my journal and book, and returned to the dining cabin. I caught up on writing notes about the last couple days' worth of activity in my journal. I then started to read a crime novel set in Greenland, Seven Graves One Winter by Christoffer Petersen.

I was 14 pages in by the time Egon and Craig returned. Craig told me that the sun had come out and that I should take some photos. He was right; it was beautiful. The late winter sun was a pale orb glowing above the snow.

The guides were playing a spirited game of cards for coins. Mikael was the big winner, and their interactions were quite entertaining. While playing cards, one of the guys saw on Facebook that an ice bear (polar bear) had just been killed in a nearby village. This initiated a conversation about the laws and etiquette around ice bear hunting. Each settlement gets a quota. The first person to spot a bear has claim on it, even if someone else ultimately kills it.

The group returned from their snowshoe hike, reporting that they had very good panoramic views of the fjord, but also that it was a tough climb and that they were overheated from being overdressed. Craig and I thought that we had made the right call by opting out.

For lunch, Line prepared a delicious, hearty, tomato-based soup. We enjoyed this with a big slab of bread and a cup of tea at 1 o'clock, with a piece of chocolate for dessert.

After lunch, the guys took us down to the ice on snowshoes to check a net for fish. This was Craig's first time ever on snowshoes, and my first time in around 25 years. Craig was instantly a big fan. He walks purposefully anyway because of his MS, and having two poles for stability really helped with his balance.

The guys shoveled a layer of snow off the surface of the sea ice, and chipped a hole in the ice next to a wooden marker. The net was suspended between two ice holes, under the surface of the ice. They pulled it up to check if any fish had been caught, but it came up empty.

From our vantagepoint on the sea ice, we could see for the first time that the Ice Camp buildings are literally perched on a rock outcrop on the headlands here.

We trudged back toward camp along the ice. When we arrived, Line suggested that Craig and I do the snowshoe hike by ourselves now. She said that we could take as much time as we needed to and rest along the way. The trail is well defined, camp is visible from most of the trail, and the view was worth it. The guys could generally keep an eye on us from below. With two more hours of daylight and gorgeous weather, she thought we would enjoy it.

The guides had brought a rifle along with them on the morning hike, in case of polar bears. A few years ago, a mother polar bear and two cubs were spotted on the sea ice below camp. Craig and I were both of the opinion that if we happened to get eaten by a polar bear on Friday the 13th at the top of a mountain, then it was our time to go.

We are so happy that Line suggested this; we weren't disappointed. The trail was well packed and the view continued to open up more and more as we ascended and wound around the snaking curves of the mountains. The temptation was always there to keep going; to climb a little further up the trail to see what was around the next bend. Camp receded into the distance, until we couldn't see it at all.

We didn't find the hike strenuous. After hearing everyone from this morning complain of being too warm, we had worn fewer layers of clothes than on the dogsled, so we were quite comfortable.

Craig thinks he has found a new sport! The cold conditions of Greenland (and to a lesser extent, Iceland) really seemed to be agreeing with him. He felt strong and energetic.

After around 30 minutes, we reached a ridge which afforded us a panoramic view of icebergs in Sermilik Fjord. It was so amazing to be alone here. All we could hear was a bird and the occasional dog from back at camp. It was incredibly peaceful and surreal.

Snowshoeing above Ice Camp

The sun was starting to disappear below the mountains. We could tell from looking at the trail that we would have to hike quite a bit further to get to a different vantagepoint, so we decided to head back to camp. Before descending, I wrote our names in the snow with a hiking pole and snapped a photo.

By the time we got back to the camp, Line and Sivert had returned to Tasiilaq for the night. We would not see Line again until we returned to Tasiilaq several days from now. We took off our snowshoes and stored them and the poles in the gear house.

My phone was now down to a 1% charge, but the generator was on. We had lights in the buildings as well as outlets for charging.

After plugging in my phone, we hung out in the dining cabin. I practiced all of the guides' names, and asked Egon how to spell some of them. He was kind enough to write all of their names in my notebook. Egon was surprised that I was reading a novel set in Greenland, and he inspected the book, which contains a glossary of phrases in East and West Greenlandic.

Mikael is a professional hunter, and the guys showed us some photos and video of a Mikael harvesting a minke whale during the summer. Hunting quotas are enforced in Greenland. There is a quota on polar bear per community, but other quotas are individual. An Inuit can harvest 16 minke whales per summer and 16 narwhal per summer.

There is no limit on seals year-round. Mikael is the #1 seal hunter / pelt seller in the area. In fact, Mikael offered to take us on his boat on a seal hunt tomorrow for 500 kroner apiece. I have never been hunting in my life, but I have witnessed the harvesting of animals at our compadres' subsistence homestead in Ecuador. While we tend to think of seals as adorable and want to protect them (Zappa lyrics about clubbing his favorite baby seal come to mind), there really isn't any ethical distinction between them and a chicken or a pig. This is a subsistence animal for the Inuit. We couldn't passup a once-in-a-lifetime chance to go on an Inuit seal hunt in Greenland!

Daniel showed some photos of his family, including taking his young son fishing in the summer. Mikael took the lead in cooking a fish curry dinner using arctic charr. Our heater finally ran out of fuel, so we asked the guys if they could refill it before bedtime.

Everyone gathered for dinner, except for Gideon. Anna said that he was asleep. He was short of breath and was having trouble warming up following the hike earlier today. And he had been incredibly cold on the dogsled yesterday. He insisted that he wasn't sick; his lungs simply weren't used to the cold.

However, with COVID-19 being a real concern, there were protocols which needed to be followed. Anyone experiencing respiratory symptoms either needed to be cleared or quarantined. We thought about the fact that if Gideon was a potential "patient zero," we would all need to be quarantined. As we should be; if we were potentially exposed, we would not want to run the risk of passing it on to others.

Of course not all respiratory illnesses are COVID-19. Line admitted to having had a little cold prior to our arrival. But we couldn't take a chance. The guides consulted with Line and Lars (the owner of Arctic Dream, currently in Denmark), and decided that they would have Gideon talk to a doctor on the phone first thing in the morning. If the doctor thought that there was a possibility that Gideon had coronavirus, they would test him and then deal with the rest of us based on the results. If the doctor was not concerned, we would continue on the trip as planned.

The thought that one or more of us could be unknowingly infected brought to mind John Carpenter's version of The Thing. Isolated arctic environment: check. Helicopters and sled dogs: check. Creeping suspicion towards members of our own group: check.

We were brought back to the present as Mikael and the guys served us a delicious dinner of fish curry with rice. The guys told us that tonight should be a good night for seeing the Northern Lights. This greatly excited us. We had gone on a Northern Lights excursion in Reykjavik last year, but what we saw didn't look like much more than a cloud to the naked eye. We spent hours outside a bus in the cold watching the skies. Here, the lights would come to us, and we could retreat into the warmth of our cabin at any time. (In fact, we would later learn that some of the group watched the lights through their cabin windows while lying in bed!)

People retired to their cabins, while Craig and I sat in the dining cabin with the guys for a while longer. At around 7:30 p.m., I excused myself to visit the outhouse, but as soon as I exited the dining cabin I could see the green of the Northern Lights in the sky above the sea ice. It was much stronger than anything we had seen in Iceland, and I called into the dining cabin to let everyone know that the show had already begun. I ran back to the cabin to get the right camera to photograph the lights: my Sony. Daniel was in the cabin refilling and relighting our stove.

Craig met me in the cabin and we got suited up in our parkas. We then walked down between the dining cabin and its adjacent guest cabin so that we could have an unobstructed view of the northern sky. The lights were much more visible to the naked eye than what we had seen last year. They were fluorescent green bands stretching across the sky. The stars were amazing here could see Orion's bow, which is not to us visible at home. The light had varying degrees of intensity, at times looking like a green sun breaching the horizon. The patterns changed shape, sometimes parallel to the earth, sometimes at a 45 degree angle, and sometimes swirling into more organic shapes. My cell phone and Olympus cameras did nothing to capture the lights, but putting my Sony on handheld starlight mode did the trick.

After half an hour of enjoying the display, we headed back to the cabin. We made a final pit stop at the outhouse and then got settled in for the night.

Since the heater had only been on for less than an hour, and the flame was low, there was still a chill in the room. We got snuggled into our mummy sleeping bags, but couldn't get warm. We wound up turning up the flame to get the cabin to a cozier temperature.
Our cabin at Ice Camp

Our cabin at Ice Camp

Mathias, Daniel, Mikael, Harald, and Egon

Mathias, Daniel, Mikael, Harald, and Egon

The dogs resting at Ice Camp

The dogs resting at Ice Camp

Ice Camp viewed from the sea ice

Ice Camp viewed from the sea ice

Ice Camp viewed from the sea ice

Ice Camp viewed from the sea ice

Snowshoeing above Ice Camp

Snowshoeing above Ice Camp

Snowshoeing above Ice Camp

Snowshoeing above Ice Camp

Snowshoeing above Ice Camp

Snowshoeing above Ice Camp

Northern Lights viewed from Ice Camp

Northern Lights viewed from Ice Camp

See all photos from March 13

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