WE WERE On our first hike across Greenland’s pristine tundra, our guide knelt to identify the low, yellow-leaved plants we had trampled. Only a few inches tall, they were tiny willow trees. This is how we have learned that trees survive in the harsh, stormy climate of the Arctic: They stick very close to the ground. Thus began a week-long master class on nature’s survival strategies in a landscape unfolding on extraordinary scales, both large and small. Lesson #1: When hiking in Greenland, don’t hike in the forest. You walk on it.
When planning this trip to the land of steep glaciers, sheer cliffs and Northern Lights, I scathingly joked with friends that I wanted to see Greenland before climate change changes it forever. But to be honest, my goals were less apocalyptic: I wanted to be challenged and immerse myself in untamed nature and avoid over-the-top wilderness destinations like Iceland.
I found everything in Greenland where I could trek on the fringes of the habitable world—and still sleep in a comfortable bed at night. My husband and I booked passage on a small French ship, the MS Polarfront, for a voyage through Scoresby Sound, the world’s longest fjord system, on the less-travelled east coast of the world’s largest island. With just 11 other passengers on board, our 9-day tour cost more than a trip on a larger boat, but it let us avoid the buzz-killing crowds with daily hikes ashore.
We were part of a growing flow of visitors to an unlikely tourist destination. Greenland is 836,300 square miles — more than three times the size of Texas — with a population of 56,000. Ice covers 80% of the landmass. All cities are on the coast and are not connected by roads, so most visitors arrive by boat or plane.
Climate change scientists, who have found that the Arctic has been warming four times faster than the rest of the planet, have put Greenland in the spotlight and put the island on some last-chance tourism itineraries. In 1992 only about 3,500 visitors dared to make the trip. Over the past decade, the government has made a concerted, if cautious, effort to expand tourism as part of an effort to diversify its economy. Visitor numbers have been steadily increasing, particularly among cruise ship passengers, peaking in 2019 with over 100,000 tourists (still a tiny fraction of Iceland’s 2.2 million visitors that year). The growth spurt was cut short by the pandemic, but now visitor numbers are rebounding and tourism officials are expecting a new record in 2022. However, the biggest obstacle to visitor growth remains Greenland’s limited infrastructure. There are few airports; even fewer operate international flights, and none of them fly direct from the US. But Greenland is building new airports and renovating existing ones to expand access over the next few years.
My husband and I were undaunted – even attracted – by the current logistical challenges of exploring Greenland. Natural World Safaris, a London based tour company, helped us find our small boat tour, offered by Waterproof Expeditions. We booked our trip through Natural World Safaris, a UK tour operator. Our group assembled in Reykjavik and took a charter flight to Constable Point, a landing field near Scorseby Sound. There we boarded the polar front, a former weather ship that has found a new incarnation as a comfortable expedition ship. We would spend nights and eat on the ship; During the day we went hiking on land.
I had imagined the Arctic to be barren and potentially monotonous, but each day we tackled dramatically different terrain. The first hike took us through classic tundra. Another day we climbed steep canyons of red rock reminiscent of the American Southwest. Other hikes traversed gentle, ancient gneiss slopes or fragile wetlands.
Some days we explored in Zodiac inflatable boats, zipping around sparkling icebergs that were like a floating sculpture garden. The Zodiac also offered top-notch wildlife viewing. With a good pair of binoculars we spotted bearded seals with their long droopy whiskers lounging on floating ice. Musk oxen were grazing on a steep slope – shaggy, lumbering creatures apparently created by Dr. Seuss were summoned. Eventually we encountered the top of the arctic food chain – seven polar bears, including a mother and her cubs. But we watched them from the safety of the polar front foredeck.
On clear nights we enjoyed the benefits of visiting in September: the Northern Lights were dazzling, even as the southern horizon glowed with the remnants of the sunset. If we had come just a few weeks earlier the nights would have been too short to see the Northern Lights. When we returned to Constable Point for our flight back to Reykjavik, I was amazed at how much my perspective had changed. When we arrived the landscape had seemed cold, intimidating, a little empty. A week later I experienced a transformation best described by Barry Lopez, the master Arctic chronicler. “Like other landscapes that appear barren at first, the arctic tundra can suddenly open up like a flower’s crown when you seek intimacy with it,” he writes in his 1986 book Arctic Dreams. It will soon be easier and maybe cheaper to visit Greenland. But maybe now is the time to go before intimacy becomes harder to achieve.
THE INFO // HOW TO VISIT GREENLAND
Tour operators offering small boat cruises to Greenland from June to September 2023 include Natural World Safaris and Polar Quest (from around $8,000 per person).
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