A very extended weekend vacation in Ilulissat

My GBF Steve has a birthday in February, like me, and we agreed to buy each other vacations to Greenland as birthday gifts. Air Iceland was beginning winter-season flights to Ilulissat for the first time this February, so a package deal had never been cheaper, or a better idea.

Steve and I landed in Ilulissat. Little did we know we wouldn’t see that plane again for 8 days…

We flew three hours across three time zones and landed on the West Coast of Greenland. At 69°N, we were well into the arctic, the northern most limits of human inhabitation, and -25°C with a little added wind chill brought temperatures down to the limits of my bodily functions. No matter how well we dressed, we would still shiver and cramp up, making peeing a more often necessity. The moisture in our nostrils would freeze within seconds of being outside, but breathing through your mouth just created a lot of frozen steam around your face. My scarf crisped up around my chin, and Steve had a frozen beard and moustache.

Ilulissat harbour

We were staying three nights in a self-catering apartment, which was basically just a basic hotel room with a sink, fridge, stove top, and some strange half-microwave-half-oven that we managed to bake biscuits in. Ilulissat had more grocery stores per capita than I´ve ever seen, with extended opening hours, even on Sundays when the entire village seemed to be sleeping. There was, sadly, a shortage of tomatoes, and fresh products like butter and milk were rare finds. Oddly enough, so was fish, even though we were in an active halibut fishing port, since I guess most of it is processed for export.

dogsledding with Greenlandic huskies

We accomplished all of our big tourist to do´s in the first three days. We visited the town, browsed some of the gift shops and sampled the night life (Steve, slightly more successfully than I). We spent a whole day dogsledding along the ice fjord, where an injured dog got to hitch a ride on the sled with us and Steve held him as tight as he could; more so for the warmth of cuddling than the musher´s request to not let him get away. They smelled like fishy poop, which would get splattered under our sled as they ran, and I was so fascinated by their ability to poo while running full speed that I always watched and cringed at the nauseating smell.

these look out points kept getting better and better

What was meant to be our last day in Greenland was spent hiking to some look out points over the UNESCO heritage site, the mouth of the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier that´s been designated a protected area for outstanding beauty. The ice-fjord, filled with sea ice, snow, ice bergs and birds was incredibly beautiful, breathtaking not only because of the ice-cold wind blowing off the fjord. We realized the next morning, on a shorter hike for one last look before our 12 noon departure, that our flight had been cancelled, and spent the day exploring further up the fjord.

Icebergs from the Kangia, the Ilulissat icefjord

I often made the joke that no-one gets stuck in Greenland for only one day, but at least three, and Steve and I were thrilled for the first couple of days of repeated cancellations. We had been moved into a four-star hotel, with three and a half meals per day plus drinks on Air Iceland´s tab. We made friends with the other stranded travelers, and the ones with bigger wallets took a sight-seeing helicopter flight to the mouth of the icefjord.

going out on the sea, which we barely saw under the seaice

On the third day, when I really thought we would leave, Air Iceland didn´t even schedule a flight, but rebooked us on the fourth day. We were still grinning, now with two full days of adventures to be had in Arctic paradise. There was a yoga class at our hotel, and some of the passengers organised an art exhibition to hear local artists speak about their work and sell some drawings. We tried to get on a sailing boat but the harbour kept freezing over and trips were getting cancelled and backlogged, so we organized with our Greenlandic fisherman captain to go out on his trawler for a little ice breaking. By the fifth day, we had already started making plans for snowmobiling, but there was finally a plane on its way to Ilulissat. Now the weather was good in Reykjavik, Ilulissat, and at the emergency landing airport in Nuuk, which had separately all been reasons for previous cancellations. We kept checking in for our flights, picking window seats to have the best views, but every confirmed flight would slip away around breakfast time and the hotel would extend our stay another night. Our theme song became a rendition of Eagle´s hotel California – “you can check out anytime you like, but you can’t ever leave.”

finally getting ready for take-off

Ironically enough, the weather in Keflavik was so stormy that big plane, long-haul flights got cancelled, even as we were landing in Reykjavik, so the flight I thought I was missing to Denver never even left. Now, I was stuck in Reykjavik, with a lot more stranded passengers than our group of twenty in Greenland that had eventually become like family, at home in our own hotel. I wasn´t sure how one could have so many flight cancellations in one week (it´s definitely my personal record), but I also wasn´t sure where I´d rather be stuck – at home or on the road?

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Huskies and Snowhotels in Northern Norway

the Snowhotel´s restaurant, in an adjacent cabin

the Snowhotel´s restaurant, in an adjacent cabin

The Arctic is kind of this imaginary place, one that most people have fantasized about with some romantic ideas of a far-away, white, northerly place. Unlike Antarctica, its not really one place, but pieces of Scandinavia, Russia, Alaska, Canada and Greenland. Instead of being a place in itself, you tend to dream of some icy, person-less, non-place with a few snow-covered pine trees or glacier-topped mountains. Or maybe its a sea filled with icebergs and polar bears. But you always imagine it to look like the middle of nowhere, yet somewhere bright and white that you can still visualize. However, at 70°N in Norway, there´s actually a lot of people and Norwegian places, but ones that you cant really see in January since its perpetually dark. The sun wasnt going to rise until January 15, but its a misconception that its always night, since the skies do lighten up just barely enough for you to make out the treetops and snowcovered hills around you.

Somehow I still dont feel like I really saw Tromso or Kirkenes, since it was never bright enough to take a decent photo outside or get a lasting impression of my surroundings. I never really figured out when it was brightest, because it was always pitch black again before I knew it, and I started to have sun-ray withdrawls in the -10°C winter wonderland. It was too cold to really stay out exploring for long, but I loved the feeling of walking on dry, crunchy snow… until you hit a patch covering black ice and nearly broke your tailbone. My nose was always the first to freeze, but I didn´t break my tailbone, so it was all good in the Norwegian arctic.

the guard dog of the husky compount

the guard dog of the husky compound

Me and Mike Reiter spent 3 days near the tri-border area of Norway, Finland and Russia, the only place in the world where 3 time zones meet. We went dog-sledding with some huskies along the Norwegian-Russian border, and that basically meant we were given a sled, some rope, and 6 dogs to just go at it. I felt like they didn´t prepare us well enough, or teach us how to do it, but you basically just had to hang on and stay on. The crazy thing about dog-sledding is that the dogs will always continue pulling you forward, even if they need to take a dump – they run with their front two legs and let the other dogs drag their squatted back feet while they let out some stinky little brown lumps that slide under your sled milliseconds later. Our sled followed the guide sled, so the only thing we had to learn how to do was stop the sled – there´s an anchor we could push down into the snow with one foot, causing enough resistance into the snow that the dogs couldnt keep pulling us forward. As soon as you lift your foot, you´re off again, at an alarmingly fast speed, propelled by the fast and sudden jerk of 6 dogs scrambling forward. They’ll howl if you hold them back too long, and jump up and down in their harnesses to display their impatience. We displayed our sheer happiness and overwhelming joy by singing Aladdin´s ‘A Whole New World´at the top of our lungs as the sled slid through the dark and snowy plains. Maybe Russia heard us.

cuddling a husky with two-coloured eyes

cuddling a husky with two-coloured eyes

The other dogs in the yard will also howl as we ride away, wishing they could come along for the ride. They love the work they do, and also the touchy attention they get from being chosen as a sled-dog. When we visited the others in their pens, they were so affectionate, and some would even beg for the attention by faking injuries. One dog pretended her front-right foot was sore, then we walked over to check on her, she switched the limp to her back-left foot, before giving up on her games and jumping around all happily at our arrival.

the ice bar

the ice bar

In Kirkenes, me and Mike stayed at the Snowhotel, which is made out of “snice,” a mixture of snow and ice. Its kept at a temperature of -4°C, and contains 20 private rooms, with 2-5 beds in each and a personal theme carved into the wall. The rooms are designated randomly, and we lucked out with the polar bear room. We spent most of the cold night frolicking under the polar bears, and around the ice-statues and the ice-bar, taking way too many photos and even catching a glimpse of the northern lights. By the time we checked out, we had already made plans for our next arctic-rendez-vous to be at the ice hotel in Sweden, and we´ll definitely be dog-sledding every time we find some huskies, rope and a sled.

Photo Credits (C) Mike Reiter