GREENLAND TRAVEL DOCUMENTARY | East Greenland
Greenland Between jagged glaciers and secluded valleys, isolated villages and slowly dancing icebergs, Greenland is the home of giants. Follow us on our journey as we explore the natural wonders of one of the last wild places on earth. This travel documentary was produced in collaboration with Visit Greenland. Located in the North Atlantic, Greenland is the largest island on Earth.
Its vast interior is completely covered by a massive ice sheet and therefore, entirely inhospitable. Every single one of its roughly 56.000 inhabitants lives near the coast - almost all of them in the west. Our journey, however, brought us to the sparsely populated East Greenland - one of the biggest wilderness areas on our planet. In fact, there are only six settlements in the Ammassalik area but thousands of kilometers of pristine coastline. To get there, we boarded a plane in Iceland, and within 1:45 mins, we approached the icy realm that is Kalaallit Nunaat.
Stepping onto Greenlandic soil, we were welcomed by the gravel runway of Kulusuk Airport. Our luggage arrived shortly after, being carried by a forklift. The surrounding scenery was a first indication of the glorious landscapes awaiting us. We hadn’t reached our final destination yet though, as we had one more flight ahead of us.
Soon, we were ready to get airborne, this time in a helicopter. On our way, we flew past the settlement of Kulusuk, which is home to approximately 220 people. Looking into the distance, it became obvious why the airport was built right here, as there is barely any flat ground. Everywhere we looked, towering mountains dominated the view, many of them adorned by snow and glaciers. Only 8 minutes later, we started to approach Tasiilaq, the largest settlement in East Greenland. After saddling our backpacks on the heliport, we were soon picked up and shuttled to our first accommodation.
To make the most of the fabulous weather, we immediately set out to explore the town. With about 2000 inhabitants, Tasiilaq is a sprawling metropolis by East Greenlandic standards. It is both the administrative as well as economic center of the region, and unlike other settlements, has been growing in the last decades.
A characteristic element of the town is the colorful wooden houses. One reason for this, is to add a touch of color during the long hours of winter darkness. On the plus side, because the town sits 106 km south of the Arctic Circle, it experiences bright summers with a lot of daylight.
The surrounding area has been inhabited on and off for 2500 years. However, a permanent settlement was only established in 1894. Nestled within a natural harbor, Tasiilaq is fairly protected from the violent squalls that regularly ravage the North Atlantic.
Additionally, the site is highly picturesque with imposing mountains flanking the opposite side of the fjord. Even though Tasiilaq can rightfully be called a small city, it doesn’t take much longer than a 10 min walk to be surrounded by wilderness. The nearby landscape is dominated by rugged mountains as well as small, snow-fed lakes.
Truly setting the scenery apart, however, are the massive icebergs swimming in the fjord. These colossal chunks broke off from one of the many Greenlandic glaciers, in a process called calving. Their journey is entirely dictated by the tides as well as ocean currents, and so they often drift along the coastline.
In the late evening, we headed to the marina, where we boarded the boat of Rasmus, the owner of Tasiilaq Tours. Swiftly gliding over the mellow water, we approached the opposite shore. Soon after we hopped on land and started walking through the tundra. Our destination was one of the world’s most isolated saunas. The small hut sat directly along the bank of a shallow lake and was framed by staggering peaks. We didn’t waste much time before going in, soon listening to the crackling of the fire.
Meanwhile, outside of our hot refuge, the shadows started to lengthen as afternoon turned to evening. Because almost no wind was blowing, the landscape was enveloped in a deep silence that had an immensely soothing effect on us. Almost all travel in Greenland is by boat as it is the most convenient mode of transport to explore the rugged coastline. Joining a group of guided travelers for the day, we embarked on one of three boats and soon left Tasiilaq behind.
Because it is sheltered from the open ocean, the ride within the fjord was fairly smooth. However, as soon as we left the safety of Kong Oscar Havn, things got much more choppy. Even on a clear day with only a light swell, these small boats violently hop up and down. Thankfully, we soon entered the branched fjord system to the north and things calmed down a bit. Our goal for the day was to ride all the way to a massive glacier that empties into Sermiligaaq Fjord. First, however, we paid a visit to the eponymous village along the fjord’s shore.
Home to less than 200 people, Sermiligaaq is one of the six settlements in the area. Its name means as much as 'beautiful glacier fjord', indicating the sights awaiting us. On a short walk around town, we gained an impression of life in such a remote village. The majority of local inhabitants still follow the traditional lifestyle of hunting and fishing, which, considering its location, is the only way to survive. Shortly after, Sermiligaaq lived up to its name.
The lofty peaks along the shore were crowned by countless snowfields and glaciers, creating an awe-inspiring scenery. But, the biggest ice sheet of all, waited at the end of the fjord. Reaching a height of more than 40 meters, this towering wall of compressed snow was gigantic. At its mouth, Knud Rasmussen Glacier is 2.5 km wide. Stretching for more than 25 km inland, the dimensions of this cold-hearted leviathan are almost unfathomable.
Even harder to comprehend is, how this is all but the remnant of ice ages past, when wintry emperors ruled the north. Holding dominion over large parts of the northern hemisphere, their cruel reign lasted for eons, making life all but impossible. Today Greenland is one of the last strongholds of these frozen giants, but even here, their power is dwindling. To get an impression of the glacier’s height, we cautiously approached the icy rampart. This was not without danger, as tons of ice can suddenly tumble into the fjord. But taking in the sharp teeth of the glacier’s mouth was simply staggering.
Eventually, we left Knud Rasmussen behind, continuing towards our next destination. The fjord we now passed through was as smooth as a mirror, resulting in a wonderful reflection. Additionally, it was the home of an exceptional iceberg. Not far away, we prepared to go on land. What we encountered was nothing else than a symbol of the rampant destruction modern man causes on previously unspoiled nature.
Impressive and devastating at the same time, the former Bluie East Two Air field was run by the US Army from 1942 to 1947. Initially, the plan was to use this site for refueling planes on their way to Europe. However, as elsewhere in East Greenland, it was difficult to build a long enough runway, so the base mostly served as a meteorological station. After the Second World War ended, Ikateq, as it is known locally, completely lost its importance and was soon decommissioned. However, instead of cleaning up, the US Air Force left behind plenty of machinery and around 200,000 empty oil drums. In 2019, a clean-up process was initiated to slowly remedy this ecological disaster.
Some of the barrels will likely be kept to act as a solemn reminder though. Following an eventful day, we had another 2 hours of bumpy boat ride ahead of us. In the meantime, the sun started to tint the surrounding mountains in a beautiful golden light. The next morning, we woke to the patter of rain on our window. Outside, the scenery was completely transformed, with heavy clouds veiling the landscape.
Spending the day around town, we visited the local museum, learning more about Inuit culture. Equally, we went to the local workshop, where artists carve many-shaped sculptures, called Tupilaq. In the past, these were an important element of Inuit shamanism, but today, they are mostly an expression of art. This small garden is quite an unusual sight, because Greenland does not have an agricultural tradition.
The summers are simply too short and the climate too harsh for that very reason, Greenlanders developed to be excellent hunters and gatherers relying on as many locally available plants and berries as possible But pilot projects like this on now experiment with growing more vegetables locally which is both environmentally friendly, and a great addition to the local diet The Tasiilaq garden was started as part of a youth program, allowing young Greenlanders to learn more about carpentry and agriculture. Now, a team jointly waters, weeds and nurtures the different species of plants. While there are certainly roads within Greenlandic settlements To date, there isn't a single road that connects two Greenland towns The longest road here in Tasiilaq for example, is 3 km long And that means that if you want to visit another town you either need to go by plane of helicopter or much more commonly, by boat which is what we are about to do right now Walking around town in full backpacker mode, we went to the harbor once more, where we soon loaded all our gear into a small boat. Saying farewell to Tasiilaq for the next couple of days, we headed around Ammassalik Island towards the settlement of Tiilerilaaq.
Both ocean and sky were of a dull grey, but our spirits remained high. Taking a short pause, we went on land, not quite knowing what to expect. What we came upon, was a Greenlandic Winter House.
Whereas, in the past, Inuit lived nomadically during the summer, they needed to seek shelter from vicious snow storms during winter. To protect themselves from the elements, they built houses with thick walls of stone and turf. These buildings had a long and narrow entrance to keep out the cold. In most cases, several families shared a single house, living together very tightly, until Spring allowed them to move out again.
Back on the boat, the walls of the fjord started to draw closer. Low-hanging clouds entwined the mountains, making for a very moody atmosphere. Some time later, we approached Tiilerilaaq. Unlike Tasiilaq, this settlement does not have any cars and most traffic is on foot. But it didn’t take longer than 5 mins until we arrived at the private hut, where we’d spend the next three nights. Inside, we found all the amenities we needed, including electricity, a heating system and several beds to choose from.
A very important element of any self-guided visit to East Greenland is expectation management For starters: you shouldn't expect any luxury! And as an example: the private hut we are currently staying in here in Tinit, in this remote village does not have running water So we need to collect our freshwater from the local silo Another thing is the weather, which is entirely unpredictable and that means that you will need to bring a lot of flexibility and patience. But one thing is absolutely certain: it will be an unforgettable adventure! Before long, we set out again to explore the area. Exuding the serene charm of a settlement at the end of the world, Tiilerilaaq is the home of less than 100 people.
The all-embracing silence of the scenery is only broken by the occasional howling of the sled dogs or the engine of a passing boat. As elsewhere, the houses are colorful, while at the same time being embedded in an incredible mountainscape. One of the most characteristic traits of Greenlanders is their deeply rooted culture of hunting and gathering their own food. During summer, locals might spend days out on the water, catching as much as possible.
Their lifestyle is almost entirely geared toward hunting seals, gathering berries and fishing. Wandering around town, it therefore is common to spot fish drying on wooden racks. These fish are often conserved for the long winter months, when it is much harder to collect food. Aside from Tiilerilaaq being a tranquil village in the middle of nowhere, there is another good reason to come here. Sitting directly along Sermilik Fjord, the settlement is known for its otherworldly views.
I have rarely experienced a landscape as captivating as this ice fjord Standing right here, I can hear the constant sounds of the ice The cracking noises when it is shifting or the tumbling, when the big chunks of ice are turning in the water and, what is even more, in the distance, there are several glaciers and behind them, the vast Greenlandic ice sheet So, I think that today, we will do one thing and one thing only which is standing right here and beholding this magnificent scenery. What we looked at was nothing less than Greenland’s second-most productive ice fjord. Innumerable icebergs, ranging from small shoals to colossal mountains, created a surreal scenery.
With a length of 85 kilometers, Sermilik is the largest fjord system in southeast Greenland. At its northern end, several fast-moving glaciers collide with seawater, resulting in the calving of a myriad of icebergs. Initially, they may not look all that large, however, the fjord is 10 km wide, meaning that many of these are much bigger than a jumbo jet. In the past, a height of more than 100 meters has been recorded for individual icebergs, with their length far exceeding that.
A great way to put their dimensions into perspective is by comparing them to the size of the local fishing boats. Most of the larger chunks can easily reach an age of 3 years or older, all the while slowly drifting towards the open ocean. What is entirely mind-boggling, is how only a small part of each iceberg swims above the surface, whereas up to 90% of the structure is submerged.
The fact that they float in the first place can be explained by their lower density compared to water. A characteristic trait of Greenlandic icebergs is their irregular shape, making them a great subject for photography. Standing over the fjord for hours on end, we were spellbound by the slow dance of the icebergs. It is hard to imagine how this scenery could possibly be any more beautiful. However, in the evening, the gently setting sun cast a golden light onto the landscape, leaving us truly speechless. At the same time, I felt a surge of creativity, which eventually resulted in the following poem: Adorned with jagged crown, there reigns A mighty queen of old Her splendor does but slowly wane Her grip is firm and cold O‘ Greenland, home of winter’s keep Where frosty giants dwell Bewitching all, with stillness deep That rings through hill and dell A sudden crack, a violent thud Born new at Helheim’s mouth The ice it shatters, breaking up Cold water, bears it south For years uncounted, time has sculpt These frozen castles tall Snow, old friend, had them engulfed Before their boisterous fall A drake of ice in glacier’s form The lord of frigid heights Is sending forth an endless swarm Behemoths, grand and bright Fair army clad in sparkling mail Now stray, then in a throng Unstoppable, alike a gale All bursting into song Kalaallit Nunaat, beloved land We are thy brightest gem But now the open ocean calls And we must leave thy realm Below so vast a wondrous sky This journey takes us far From icefall’s tongue, we march to die Led by both moon and star Amid the northern lights we dance Like children, free of woe ‚Tis but our only chance To seek the sea, we go August parade, yet bound to wither Past misty mountains proud The tide brings tidings: ‚Go now thither, where storms do roar aloud‘ Kalaallit Nunaat, O‘ dearest queen Long hast thou give us home But now the open ocean’s seen And we must leave thy throne All day long, we were lucky enough to marvel at the magnificent scenery of the fjord below.
Now that it is dark, we of course can't see the icebergs anymore but we had a quick glimpse out of the window and lo' and behold: the northern lights are out so I don't think we will go to bed anytime soon! It is often said that naming this vast mostly ice-covered island Greenland was a very clever marketing ploy by famous viking, Erik the Red in an attempt to attract more settlers to two newly-founded settlements along the West Greenlandic coastline. And, ironically, most of these settlers actually came from a place called Iceland. But, in his defense, during the time of the first settlement around the year 1000 Greenland was actually much greener, as the climate was milder But then, over the next five hundred years, it good progressively colder and all these Scandinavian settlements, ceased to exist The only people that survived, where the Inuit whose hunting lifestyle was a much better adaption to the harsh realities of the place we today know as Greenland During the previous days, when we had been looking out over this highway of icebergs, we had often heard a familiar noise. The slow whoosh traveling through the landscape clearly indicated the presence of whales, however, it took until our last morning that we finally spotted one. One reason why it is so hard to see them, is that even large humpback whales, are tiny in comparison to the massive ice floes.
Additionally, in a landscape as vast as this, the sound of their spouts takes a long time to travel, making it hard to pinpoint their location. These whales migrate to the Arctic during summer, where they mostly feed on krill, before returning to warmer climates in winter. Eventually, the time had come to move out of our home away from home. Once we had mastered the challenge of getting into the boat, it wasn’t long until we bade farewell to Tiilerilaaq. Instead of taking the same route back, we went around the other side of Ammassalik Island, riding directly through the ice fjord.
While the sun started to set behind the mountains, we encountered the majestic icebergs from up close marveling at their splendor. At the southern end of the fjord, we quickly stopped at the former settlement of Ikkatteq. Whereas around 80 people lived here in 1958, that number shrank drastically over the following decades, until the village was abandoned in 2005.
The last 14 km until Tasiilaq were mostly on the open ocean, resulting in a very bumpy ride. Hiking in East Greenland means exploring remote wilderness and, of course, there a couple of challenges to be aware of predominantly the chance of encountering a polar bear and that is exactly the reason, why we are today accompanied by a sled dog, and also carrying a rifle simply as a form of protection, in case we should meet one even though the chances are extremely slim Our furry companion was roughly one year old and this was his first time going out with strangers. Walking past the local cemetery, our goal was to head into the Valley of Flowers. This mountain dale lies behind the city and offers a perfect introduction to the raw nature of East Greenland. In fact, with the right preparation and equipment, there are plenty of opportunities to go and explore this untamed wilderness on extended day hikes or thrilling week-long adventures.
For some time, we made decent progress, however, it soon transpired, that our sled dog was in no mood to go hiking. Zero chance to meet a polar bear. This wasn’t necessarily surprising as Greenland sled dogs are anything but pets.
These husky-like dogs are work animals, their main job being the pulling of sleds during winter. Known for their strength and willpower, Greenland sled dogs are both tireless and bold, as well as perfectly adapted to life in the Arctic. To retain the purity of their genetics, no other dog races are allowed to enter East Greenland. This also helps to keep the population free from diseases. Today, there are roughly 15.000 sled dogs in Greenland,
which is only half the number of 20 years ago. One of the reasons is the disappearance of sea ice, reducing their effectiveness when hunting. Whereas they work hard throughout the winter months, they enjoy a well-deserved rest in summer.
Some of them stay close to the villages, while others roam freely on small islands in the fjord. The summer is also the time for puppies, which are heartbreakingly adorable. Within only a few weeks, they grow significantly and soon start to explore their surroundings.
Siblings will often play fight with one another, trying to assert their dominance. This is an important learning for their later life when they need to fight for their position in the pack. At the same time, they definitely love a good scratch.
In the afternoon, I tried out a different mode of transport. Venturing into Tasiilaq Fjord in a kayak was a physically demanding alternative to our usual boat rides. Kayak is one of the few Greenlandic words that has made its way into the English language and there is a very good reason for that, which is that the Kayak was actually invented in Greenland at its core, it is a stealthy hunting vessel that allowed Inuit hunters to get very close to large marine mammals such as seals, dolphins and whales.
And alongside the dog-sled, it is one of the core adaptations that allowed humans to survive in this usually harsh Arctic climate Originally, each kayak was exactly fitted to its individual owner, making no two kayaks the same. This resulted in a perfectly balanced vessel, allowing the Inuit to navigate these waters with ease. One of the most important techniques to survive was the kayak roll. Using only body motion, this allowed a capsized hunter to right his kayak again. My entire focus was spent on not capsizing, however, as I had no intention to test out my kayak roll abilities.
Blessed with another day of sunshine, we also had the opportunity to visit Johan Peterson Fjord. To get there, we headed around the southern end of Ammassalik island, before entering the ice fjord. After some time, we approached the glaciers at the end of the fjord. Unlike Knud Rasmussen, these outlet glaciers flow down from the enormous Greenland Ice sheet. Irrespective of where they origin, the view was staggering. In the last days, we had seen the Greenland ice sheet a couple of times in the distance.
However, so far, we had not set foot on it. Fortunately, we were about to do just that in Nattivit Kangertivat Fjord. Here, the ice sheet flows all the way down to sea level, making for a fairly easy access. Whereas many of the other glaciers had been torn apart by steep crevices, this side of the ice sheet was surprisingly smooth. To put the size of the Greenland ice sheet into perspective, imagine that it would cover 1/5 of the United States, or the entire country of Libya, which is the 17th largest nation on earth.
In a nutshell, from here to Kangerlussuaq on the West Coast, more than 500 km of icy nothingness await anyone attempting one of the world’s toughest challenges the crossing of the Greenland ice sheet. We were fully content with walking a few hundred meters, soaking in the atmosphere of this beautiful but barren landscape. After a while, we returned to the boat, preparing to head back. Before doing that though, we went for a wilderness picnic in a less chilly environment. Riding back to Tasiilaq, things started out smoothly, however, in the distance we could already make out a low-hanging layer of clouds.
Soon after, we were swallowed by the fog and the going started to get much rougher. But, our day had one more surprise in store. The next three days, a heavy storm swept across East Greenland. This meant that we mostly stayed inside, watching the wind and rain from the warmth of our room. Eventually, the sun returned.
Seizing the opportunity, I went on an ice climbing trip with Nicco from Nunatak Adventures. Equipped with crampons we walked across a glacier, until we arrived at a suitable spot. So, remember, we climb with our legs and this will keep us on the wall but our biggest muscle is the legs so we just need to kick with 1, 2, 3, 4 so it is 90° hitting the wall, or rather heel more down like so, let's say this is already in place when I want to go high you can see, that if I would do a big step when I push down, the heel goes so far down, that I would scratch so I would suggest four baby steps like so and then, you leave them leveled so you don't have this situation, shaky legs, camps coming Once I had completed a short practice run, it was time to get roped in. Soon after, I found myself walking down the wall of ice backward. To get up again, I used my newly learned technique of baby steps, making good progress on the wall of ice. In total, I went up and down three times, each turn getting more confident than the last.
Our daily excursion was far from over though. Following a hidden accessway, we entered a spectacular ice cave. This natural gem was discovered by Nicco himself, and it is the only ice cave that can be visited on a tour in all of Greenland. Heading into the underworld, we regularly crossed a melt-water stream flowing beneath the glacier. Walking ever further, the darkness started to creep up on us.
But from time to time, shafts of light pierced the everlasting night. The reason for these extraordinary openings in the cave’s ceiling can be explained by the behavior of water. Always on the search for the path of least resistance, meltwater effortlessly chisels its way through the ice, creating vertical tunnels in the process. One such opening was exceptionally grand, as a little waterfall tumbled through it in the middle of the cave.
Equally fascinating was the variation of color. Some parts of the ice were almost translucent, while others were of a deep blue. It would have been easy to spend hours in the cave, getting lost in the magic of this frozen world, however, eventually we needed to return to the surface. Fortunately, the views of the glacier were at least equally as formidable.
A little while later, it was time to leave this magical place. Celebrating our last evening in Greenland, we sat down to watch the sunset. This view was only surpassed at night, when Lady Aurora gracefully danced below the panoply of the stars. The following morning, our time in Greenland came to an end.
Luckily, we still had one more scenic flight ahead of us. Seeing the rugged mountains in all their grandeur helped us to realize how precious East Greenland is. Entrancing each traveler with its calming ambience, it is destinations like these that provide an antidote to the hectic rush of modern life. During our visit, we barely scratched the surface of Greenland’s natural wonders, but the wild simplicity of its landscapes has left its mark on us. In the very moment that our first visit to Greenland ended, we already started to plan our next.