Expedition to the Top of the World
Remote, mysterious and extreme, the highly indented and ruggedly mountainous coast of Eastern Greenland is one of the most isolated habitations in the world. There are just two towns and seven small settlements with a total population of only 3,500 people along the full length of the 1,600 mile long East Coast. Trapped between the polar sea ice and the Greenlandic icecap, the coast is only accessible by ship for five months during the year.
A few bits of information on Greenland and its history that we picked up in our shipboard lectures: Greenland is the world’s largest island that is not a continent. Eighty percent of its surface is covered by the Greenland ice sheet which is, on average, a mile and a half thick. Greenland is the least densely populated country in the world with a population of just under 60,000 people in a country the size of Europe. 88% of the population is Inuit; the rest are Europeans, primarily Danish. Though geographically part of the North American continent, Greenland has been politically tied to Europe and Denmark for a thousand years, but has recently been granted virtual independence from Denmark.
Eric the Red, with a shipload of Vikings sailing from Iceland, discovered Greenland in the 10th century and then returned to Iceland to spread word about the country they had found. He called it “Greenland” to attract settlers. His marketing ploy worked; some 4,000 Norse eventually settled in Greenland. Despite their reputation as ferocious warriors, the Vikings were essentially farmers, who did a bit of pillaging, plundering and exploring on the side. Sometime around the Year 1000, Erik’s son Leif set out from Greenland and discovered North America. The Viking settlements continued in Greenland for four centuries, and then abruptly vanished.
Our destination in Greenland was Scoresby Sound, the largest fjord complex in the world, extending inland some 140 miles and harboring some the world’s largest glaciers, which launch more icebergs than any other region on the coast, possibly including the iceberg that sank the Titanic. (During the week of our visit, an island of ice more than four times the size of Manhattan broke off from a glacier in northern Greenland and began drifting across the Arctic Ocean.)
We spent our three days in the fjord on deck watching the parade of icebergs floating slowly past, some more than a block long and over 200 feet high. Watching the icebergs, we were reminded of a couple of things that our staff glaciologist had told us. First, only one-eighth of the iceberg is visible above water. Since the visible tips of many of the icebergs were gigantic, then the total size of each of the monster icebergs was unimaginable. Second, since the icebergs were formed from snow that had fallen ten to twenty thousand years ago, we were in the presence of pre-historic ice formations.
We went ashore several times in Scoresby Sound, including a morning at Ittoqqoortomitt, an Inuit village at the entrance to the sound, where we had a chance to wander around the settlement, meet some of the locals and send some postcards. We made another shore excursion to seek out the elusive musk ox of Greenland. We spotted what we thought were musk ox in the distance and took a few photgraphs but, when we looked at the photos back on the ship, they turned out to be musk rocks, and not the shaggy, pre-historic musk ox that we had hoped for.
But the most thrilling moments were our zodiac excursions out among the majestic icebergs. No two icebergs are the same; each one more spectacular than the last. The sculpted shapes of the dazzling icebergs floating by in the mile deep waters of the fjord, with the rugged mountains and blue skies in the background, were a photographer’s delight, although the true magnificence of these unique works of nature can never be totally captured on film.
The final leg of our 2,100 mile sea voyage was from Greenland to Iceland, where we spent our final day exploring two volcanic islands in the Westman Islands just offshore of Reykjavik. We went ashore in Heimaey, the scene of a violent volcanic eruption in 1973, which caused the island to be evacuated and resulted in over half the homes being buried under volcanic ash, earning it the name “The Pompeii of the North”. The other island was Surtsey, which we had first flown over 45 years ago as it emerged, bellowing smoke and lava from the sea. It was like being present at Creation. Access to this pristine island is still restricted to scientists, who are taking advantage of this unique opportunity to study the colonization processes of a new land by plant and animal life.