Iceland & Greenland 3/7/2020 - 3/21/2020
Tuesday 3/17/2020 - Ice Fishing in Tasiilaq, Aurora BorealisAfter a good night's sleep, we put on our boots to walk over to the main house for breakfast. Again, we didn't bother with our coats when making the short trip. The morning light was beautiful; the sun was a pale orb in the sky. We could see the colorful buildings of town against a blanket of white snow and the pale blue sky. The neighbor's laundry was hanging on the clothesline, frozen, with snow and ice clinging to the stiff fabric. The sun cast a shadow of the clothesline post on the side of the red house, resembling a cross.
As we opened the door to the house, the heavenly scent of coffee washed over us. What a greeting! We enjoyed a cup of coffee, and Line served us a delicious hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, toast, yogurt, dried fruit, and oatmeal.
After breakfast, we went back to our room and suited up for a day of ice fishing. We met Nicole and Bill outside just before 10:30, and Line picked us up to take us to meet Mathias.
After buying the Tupilaq yesterday, we needed some additional Danish kroner to make sure that we had enough to pay for ice fishing today and also for gratuities. We still hadn't seen Harald or Sivert yet, but if we weren't able to see them in person, Line could always pass along our tips to them.
Line stopped at the Pilersuisoq grocery store so that I could use the ATM. I felt very self-conscious going inside, because, as foreigners, we represented a possible COVID-19 threat. I normally would have had a big smile on my face and would have said hello to anyone I passed. But I didn't make eye contact today. As much as I would have loved to explore the grocery store that sells so much more than groceries (guns, ski pants, etc.), I wanted to minimize people's exposure to me. I went straight to the ATM, left my gloves on so that I didn't physically touch the machine, and got my money.
Once I was done at the ATM, Line drove us down to the dogyard on the edge of the sea ice. We waited here for Mathias. It was a perfectly gorgeous day. The sun was out and there was no wind. It was so bright that we had to wear our goggles.
We chatted with Line and took in the gorgeous scenery. A family gathered on the ice and started walking to the ice fishing grounds. The mother pulled a sled, and the kids kicked a soccer ball to one another.
At around 11:15, Mathias arrived with the dog team. If Craig and I hadn't been going, they would have just walked out onto the ice from the guest house, which would have taken about an hour. But everyone was really attuned to Craig's physical limitations (and the fact that his walking cane was in Reykjavik), so they insisted on providing the dogsled. Everyone was so accommodating and it really made a difference for us!
Line wished us well and headed back to the office. We got settled on the dogsled. Craig sat against the uprights of the sled, with me and Nicole in the middle, and Bill in the front. Since we would be traveling across the flat surface of the ice, the dogs are able to pull a heavier load. It was difficult to see anything, as we were heading directly into the sun.
We saw some familiar figures as we sped across the ice. The others in our group had wandered out onto the ice from the shore near the guest house. Roger got some photos of us.
We saw two young women walking across the ice from town. We intercepted courses with them and recognized one of them as Sanne, Mathias' girlfriend. The other was her sister. They were also on their way to the area where the fish were biting.
After about half an hour on the dogsled, we arrived at the fishing grounds. Because of the location of the dog lot, it meant that we covered more distance than we would have if we had simply walked an hour from the guest house. But we had done so in half the time, and without the exertion of walking a long distance on the ice. Mathias adjusted the dogs' harnesses so that one leg was tucked in, to prevent them from running away while we were occupied with fishing. After a little bit of infighting, the dogs settled in for a nap in the sunshine.
Ice fishing was the perfect activity for social distancing. Many community members were out fishing today, but the vast expanse of flat ice meant that everyone could be a safe distance from one another.
We hadn't quite known what to expect in terms of our participation today, since this was an ad hoc activity. We assumed that Mathias would fish and we would observe. Maybe we would get a chance to hold the line or something. But this was not the case. Mathias and Sanne worked together to poke a hole through the foot-thick ice for each of us, and put out 200 meters of line apiece. They then handed us the line and instructed us to tug it. There is no bait; just a hook and shiny lures. The fish will either bite it, or they can become gill-hooked.
The weather was absolutely beautiful, reaching a high of 15 degrees Fahrenheit (the warmest it got during our time in Greenland). The sun was blazing and there was no wind. I wore my glove liners with nothing over them. I didn't wear my hood or my balaclava. Our bodies drank in the vitamin D, and we seriously wondered if we would get a sunburn on our exposed faces.
The family whom we had seen at the edge of town was fishing nearby. As the parents tended to the lines, the kids entertained themselves by launching a little toy in a slingshot and racing to retrieve it.
There was a community atmosphere here, and it extended to include us as well. Nicole was the first of our group to catch a fish, and applause erupted across the ice fishing grounds as Mathias pulled her fish to the surface. This alone is quite a feat since it involves hand coiling 200 meters of line! Nicole held her fish up for a photo, and Mathias dispatched it and deposited it onto the surface of the ice. One of the local men approached and looked at the fish. He gave Nicole the thumbs-up and said "Big one!" enthusiastically.
Bill, being the fisherman, was quite proud of his new bride, while at the same time trying to conceal his slight disappointment at not having made the first catch himself. Their good-natured rivalry fueled him. Not to be outdone, he soon evened the score with a catch of his own. It took a long time for him and Mathias to bring it to the surface. It was difficult to wrap our brains around the fact that the fish we were after were the equivalent of 2 football fields beneath the ice!
Nicole then caught a second fish! She definitely had the touch today. Her technique was unique; she put her whole body into it and each pull of the line was like a dance move. After her second success, we were all emulating her technique, including the locals.
Before we knew it, nearly three hours had elapsed and it was time to head back to town. Craig and I weren't the least bit surprised that we came up empty-handed. We were just glad that Nicole and Bill had each caught something. They were the ones who had initiated this excursion. We were thrilled just to be abe to participate and observe.
Mathias tried to give Bill and Nicole their fish. They insisted that Mathias keep them; that had been the plan all along. Line would be making us lamb chops for dinner tonight, so why not give the fish to Mathias and Sanne, as an extra thank you for taking us out today? Mathias hooked the dogs back up and we headed back to town.
We arrived at the dog lot half an hour later, as the sun descended and cast long shadows. Mathias called Line so that she could come pick us up, and then headed home. None of the four of us really had our bearings in town. We knew the general direction of the guest house, but were afraid to walk too far for fear of missing our rendezvous with Line. But it started to get cold standing in one place as the sun dipped behind the mountains. So we took our best guess and started slowly walking on the main roads. By the time we were in front of the elementary school, Line arrived to pick us up.
Line took the opportunity to drive us past some of the points of interest in town. As we passed the port area, she explained that supply ships are only able to enter Tasiilaq during the three summer months. It is more affordable to order goods to be delivered by sea than air, so when the first supply ship arrives after a nine month absence, it is a really big deal in town, celebrated by lighting off fireworks. Two ships per month in the summer deliver enough supplies that they are stored in a massive warehouse to get the community through the winter.
Line pointed out the Ammassalik Museum, which is housed in the town's first church (1908). This museum would have given us additional insight and context into East Greenland Inuit culture. It contains the oldest known surviving Tupilaq, which dates back to 1893. It was a shame we wouldn't get to visit, but we aleady want to return to East Greenland some day once this pandemic has passed. We were lucky enough to get to actually experience aspects of modern day Inuit culture (dogsledding, seal hunting, ice fishing), and that is truly priceless.
We returned to the guest house and chatted with Line while she prepared dinner. Line had told Sivert that we wanted to say goodbye to him, so he stopped in. We wanted to give him a gratuity since he had provided such essential support service to the group during the trip, and we appreciated it.
By now it was well known that Greenland was closed to outsiders due to COVID-19, and that we would be on the last plane out tomorrow. But Sivert told Line that there would be further restrictions for Greenlandic residents starting on Friday. People would no longer be able to enter other settlements by any maeans (dogsled, boat, snow machine, or foot). Wherever you were as of Friday, you would stay. This meant that Mikael would need to get his boat from Tinit ahead of time so that it was available to him for hunting. Line was sad to hear this, as it meant that many of the guys would be going back to their home settlements and she would be lonely in Tasiilaq until the situation changes.
Soon after Sivert left, Line was surprised by another visitor. A local man arrived with some handicrafts for sale. Line had not expected someone to risk exposure to outsiders given the current state of COVID-19, but he was obviously hoping to make a sale before the tourist season came to an abrupt and indefinite halt.
I was extremely satisfied with the Tupilaq I had purchsed from Sven yesterday, so I was not in the market for addition al souvenirs. But as others in our group gathered in the dining iin preparation for dinner, they were interested. He showed them a couple of Tupilaqs as well as some "Inuit sunglasses" (a slab of bone with slits cut for eyes to protect from snow blindness). He also had some figurines which are traditionally exchanged by courting couples. We all tried to peer pressure the newlyweds into buying those, but they ultimately decided on a carved stone figure.
We chatted with the group, singing Nicole's praises for her ice fishing prowess. She was quite humble about it, saying that it was luck rather than skill. No matter what it was, she caught two fish and we caught zero, so she was doing something right!
The rest of the group seemed a bit disappointed by their day's activities. They had wandered through town, enjoying the beautiful weather and taking photos. They felt like conspicuous outsiders, as nobody they encountered would engage with them. Line assured everyone that this is due to the current pandemic. Usually, the locals are friendly and outgoing to visitors, but now everyone is afraid and therefore and keeping to themselves. They did not go out of their way to engage with people taking photos on the street. However, as previously mentioned, the locals who were ice fishing did in fact interact with us, from a distance. There was a sense of camaraderie formed by shared experience. Line said that the locals love it when visitors participate in the local culture, and perhaps that explains why they let their guard down with us on the ice today.
We realized that Line had some beer and wine in the fridge that we could purchase. Craig bought two beers, and Nicole kindly poured me a glass of white wine from the bottle she had purchased. Dinner was once again exquisite: lamb chops in a light tomato based sauce, mashed potatoes, seasoned brussels sprouts, and a salad of green beans, apple, and bacon. For dessert, we had amazing parfaits consisting of lemon mousse, local blackberries (crowberries), and whipped cream. Absolutely delicious!
After dinner, Line explained the schedule for getting us to the heliport in the morning, said goodnight, and left to return to her house. The rest of us chatted at the table and finished our drinks, enjoying the camaraderie of our final evening together. It had been a wonderful trip, and we were hesitant to return to the uncertainties of the COVID-infested real world.
A few minutes later, Line returned. She said that she had seen strong Northern Lights dancing on her drive home, and she was compelled to return to tell us to go outside and watch them. What a perfect way to cap off the final night of the trip! We all rushed off to our rooms to get dressed and grab our cameras.
To our delight, Harald had just arrived to say goodbye to us. We hadn't seen him since we left the dogsled yesterday, and we wanted to thank him and give him a gratuity. He was an amazing guide. He knew about Craig's MS and was insistent that Craig not get out of the sled, even on steep slopes. There was only one time on the entire journey that we both had to get out of the sled to go up a particularly steep hill, but that was a very short distance. Harald took great care of us. He's rather shy, but always has a smile. We trust him implicitly and we appreciate that he shared his culture with us.
Line had considered driving us somewhere to get a good view of the Northern Lights, but she realized that by walking to the next house and taking a right up the hill, we could get a gorgeous view very close to home. Line wanted to accompany Craig for the short walk, insisting on linking arms with him to help him walk in the snow. Like Harald, she also had been great about Craig's MS. In the background, she was always subtly making arrangements for him to comfortably participate in activities without making a spectacle of it. It is not surprising that she used to work as a nurse. She has the perfect personality for it.
As we arrived at our viewing spot, a light started to flash at the house between us and our guest house. Soon a hatch opened and a round white weather balloon was released. It climbed upward, with what looked like a glow stick attached to the string. Apparently this happens around 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. daily. We watched the balloon rise into the night sky until it was out of view. This helped to add to the feeling that we were in a polar scientific outpost somewhere.
Line asked Craig if he would be ok walking back to the guest house when we were done. He thanked her and said that he would be fine; I could help to stabilize him. We wished her goodnight and thanked her profusely for making the trip to tell us about the Northern Lights. She headed home, and we all enjoyed the show.
Unlike others in the group, I did not have the ideal equipment to photograph the Northern Lights. I had two point-and-shoot cameras and an iPhone. I have found that of these three, my Sony performs the best. Its "hand-held starlight" mode captures light well, while minimizing blur. It's not perfect, but I need to balance performance with practicality. The purpose of my photography is to supplement my prose, and I need to take photos on the fly while also experiencing the trip. I simply don't have the bandwidth when traveling to try to set up the perfect shot every time, nor is it practical for me to drag a large camera with multiple lenses around the world with me. Others in the group who are far better photographers than I set up their tripods and got some lovely shots with their digital SLR's. Roger and Hak-Ye put together a time-lapse video from their footage and have posted it to YouTube. I have also included it at the bottom of this page. Thank you, Roger and Hak-Ye!
This was our best Northern Light experience yet. The auroras were bright and were dancing around...first horizontally, then vertically, then in a swoosh pattern. Most of the light was green, but there were also hints of purple. And this vantagepoint was stunning. Tasiilaq unfolded below us like a storybook village blanketed in snow. Golden light from the windows of the brightly colored houses spilled out onto the snowbanks. Rather than detracting from the Northern Lights, the lights of town complemented them. We could also see so many stars from here. Even Orion's bow was clearly visible.
Before coming to Greenland, Craig and I had refused to get our hopes up for the Northern Lights. They are extremely weather-dependent, and this time of the year is the tail end of the season. We went on an excursion when we were in Reykjavik last year, but the Northern Lights were very dim that night. To the naked eye, they looked like no more than the silhouette of a cloud. We were delighted to have seen a much stronger display at Ice Camp on Friday, and to have an even better light display on our final night was more than we could have asked for. It was such a fantastic way to end our adventure in Greenland.
We watched the sky for about 45 minutes before returning to the guest house. I was impatient to post a photo of the Northern Lights, but I had no way to get the photos from my SD card onto my phone. So a cell phone photo of my camera screen would have to do.
It was now time to pack for our journey back to Reykjavik tomorrow. We had done well with minimal luggage. We had even managed to have extra clothing with us. We had been a bit worried about having what we needed. It's so hard to picture the conditions before you arrive in a place for the first time. But the packing guidelines that the tour had provided had been spot on. We don't generally buy a lot of specialty clothing and equipment for traveling; we can usually make due with what we have. We had a lot of non-cotton layers which we could use on this trip.
But since we don't spend a lot of time outdoors in the winter, we did need to to buy some outerwear. We needed to buy proper insulated parkas and snow pants. We bought ski gloves and merino wool liners to supplement our wool mittens. We have never worn snow goggles in our lives; we usually make due with sunglasses. But when we saw them listed in the packing list, we decided to buy some. We fell in love with our $16 goggles during this trip; they were a necessity! The Hot Hands hand warmers were also must. We had never used these before, but they were perfect to keep our fingers and toes warm. They last for 18 hours, so when we would reach our destination after dogsledding, they were still hot. We would often use them to warm our sleeping bags or our pockets. We would lay them on the floor and place our chilly feet on top of them. Also, Craig is now a fan off the buff, having worn one for the first time and leaving it on for the duration of the trip...to keep his head warm and also cover his hair when showers weren't available. We have no regrets about our gear or the way that we managed it, well, except for the fact that we should have brought slippers to keep our feet dry from snow tracked indoors.
After getting our bags packed, we drafted off to sleep for our last night in Greenland.
Morning sun over Tasiilaq
Morning in Tasiilaq
Dogsledding with Mathias to the ice fishing grounds (photo courtesy of Roger Eggenberger)
Dogsledding with Mathias
Sanne ice fishing
Craig ice fishing
Steph ice fishing
Time-Lapse Aurora Borealis Video, courtesy of Roger Eggenberger