KULUSUK, Greenland Our first flight to the world's largest island was canceled because of bad weather. That was our first clue that you meet Greenland on its own terms.
Ten of us had toured Iceland; only two of us were adventurous enough or crazy enough to go on to Greenland. We had an extra day in our itinerary, which meant we would still have two days in Greenland, so we didn't worry.
As it turned out, getting back was the bigger challenge. On the day we were scheduled to return, the plane had a mechanical problem. After loading up and trying to take off twice, we got the word: no go. A new part would have to be flown in the next day.
But the next morning, the clouds settled in again. We heard the plane fly over, circle and fly away. Because the airport at Kulusuk is situated between two very steep mountains, a certain level of visibility is necessary for planes to land. It wasn't there.
The next day, the sun came out, the plane came in and we were all able to leave. We had been well taken care of during our two extra days, fed and housed at the hotel. (It was hardest on the day-tripper people, who had come without any luggage. But an instant camaraderie sprang up among the group, and there were no meltdowns.)
We had to adjust our return flight from Iceland back to the United States, which meant flying standby and ultimately an upgrade to business class. (No complaints there!) We were inconvenienced but never in danger, and on that plane home we began to realize how lucky we really were to have stayed longer and seen more.
Greenland got its name from Eric the Red, who used it to convince Viking settlers to move there in the year 985. To give him some credit, climatologists say that at that time, Greenland was in a milder climatic period. Although they could not grow grains, they were able to harvest potatoes and a few vegetables.
The Vikings were not the first nor the last settlers of Greenland. Archaeological evidence shows signs of civilization as early as 4,500 years ago peoples that probably moved across from what is now Canada. They were gone by the time Eric the Red arrived, but new groups apparently came in the 13th or 14th century.
In 1369, Norway and Greenland with it came under Danish rule, where Greenland has remained. Today the population is largely Inuit.
Even with four days, we barely scratched the surface of this complex and uncompromising land. But, like Eric the Red of old, we did make a few discoveries of our own.
It's not the end of the world, but you can almost see it from there. Before the 1970s, Greenland was a closed country. Visitors needed a permit, and often a scientific quest, to get to the island.
Tourism is now second only to fishing as the leading industry. Even so, only 6,000 to 10,000 visitors come each year, and the majority are day-trippers.
The Kulusuk Hotel was built in 1998 for two major reasons, said Patrick Abramsen, who works as assistant hotel manager, tour guide, airport shopkeeper and whatever-needs-to-be-done doer. The hotel gives people who want to a place to stay, and people who have to a place to stay. If it was any consolation, he told us, strandings are fairly rare in the summer but can last as long as two weeks in the winter.
During the high season, an average of 25-30 people come each day from Reykjavik. (Iceland tours only go to the east side of Greenland; to get to the west side you have to go through Denmark.)
They get a lot of Americans, said Patrick (everyone's on a first-name basis), some Danes and other Europeans. But, in recent years the majority of their tourists have come from Taiwan; for some reason, Greenland is very popular there.
Day-trippers are treated to a tour of the village, a musical show featuring Inuit costumes and customs, lunch at the hotel and free time to wander about. People who stay longer can do boat tours, 4x4 tours, hiking and helicopter trips to the glaciers. In winter, there are also dogsled tours all weather permitting, of course.
Our weather didn't permit the helicopter tour to the glacier, but we did four-wheel-drive and boat tours (in the rain), walks and an iceberg cruise (when the rain stopped). When the clouds lifted, we got to see fresh snow on the mountains, something, our Inuit guide said, that almost never happens in July. And when the sun came out, we were dazzled by the reflections of ice and mountains in the lagoon.
First impressions don't always last: Our first view of the island was as we flew over it en route to Iceland. It looked like nothing more than the icy blob it is. More than half of the island, which is bigger than Great Britain, Germany, France and Italy combined, is north of the Arctic Circle. About 85 percent of it is covered with a layer of ice more than 10,000 feet thick. Only 1 percent of the land can be used for agriculture, mainly for small herds of sheep, cattle and goats.
As we flew into Kulusuk, we began to see the details: mountains, rocky terrain and finally even houses. The two villages of Kulusuk and Tasiilaq are actually built on islands, so they are not connected by land.
From the air, especially, they look a lot like the little Christmas villages that people tuck around mounds of cotton snow. The brightly painted houses are scattered about the hillside in similar fashion.
Kulusuk is small, with only about 200 people and is about a mile's walk from the hotel and airport. There's a grocery store, one souvenir shop and a sign that says "Polar Bear Crossing." (It's a joke; there are bears on the island, but rarely in town.)
Ammassalik Island is a 10-minute helicopter ride from Kulusuk. Tasiilaq, the town (sometimes also called Ammassalik), has about 1,800 people and is situated on an almost circular fjord, filled with ice chunks and boats, with houses scattered on the mountainside. The Ammassalik Hotel is perched high on the hill, providing a view of both town and harbor.
The octagonal church is one of the older buildings in the town. There's a library and a few shops and government buildings. The only "factory" is a bonecarver's shop where traditional tupilak carvings are made. In Inuit culture, these were once a type of bad-luck charm. They were carved from bones of various animals and sewn into a skin lined with peat. Spells were conjured; and the figure placed in the kayak of the intended victim. If it worked, the first person had only to sit back and wait for the charm to kill its victim. However, it was apparently a tricky business, and if not handled just right, or if the second person had stronger powers than the first, the tupilak turned against the person who made it.
Tupilaks are grotesque little figures, no longer used for bad magic, but still popular as carvings. The strange, contorted shapes might still cast spells. Like the country, they get more charming the longer you look.
It's not easy being green: Greenland remains one of the most isolated and barren places on the planet. Its stark landscape is similar to Antarctica in many ways except there is vegetation here, including a small patch of green grass and moss growing in a high mountain valley. Per, our Inuit guide, had taken us up the mountain to see the old satellite station that was once part of the Cold War's early-warning DEW line. We made him stop in the pouring rain for pictures so we could prove that we had, indeed, seen green.
But there are no trees, no bushes. If plants face such challenges, so do the people.
Electricity, satellite television, telephones and the Internet have brought the trappings of modern civilization. But in many ways, the Inuits are still a hunting and gathering society, no longer nomads but still living largely off the land.
Ninety percent of the population lives on the other side of Greenland. On this side, there are only the two towns and seven settlements with a total population of about 3,500. The only vehicles are those used in the tourist trade. Local folks travel by boat in the summer and dogsled in the winter; Greenland sled dogs are a separate breed. In all of Greenland, there is only one road that connects one city to another, Per told us.
Supplies are brought in by ship from Denmark, and only come in the summer. While we were there in July, the first ship of the year had just arrived. A cannon shot alerts people in the settlements who don't want to wait for supplies to filter down that they can come to town.
In Kulusuk, many of the houses still don't have running water. There's a service center in the middle of town, where people can get water for cooking and can take a bath.
It must be a hard life, but many of those who live it seem to love it.
The sound of silence: Patrick grew up in Greenland. He can't imagine a better place to be. "I go to Denmark, and I long for the nature, for the silence back here. There's the call of nature, a sense of absolute freedom here that is best described as the sound of silence."
It's easy to fall in love with the place, he said. "Ninety percent of the foreigners who come here to work end up staying."
Quentin, a guide who works mainly with the day-trippers, is one of them. He's from France and spent a year as an exchange student at the University of Iceland, which included a week in Greenland. He liked it so much, he asked his anthropology teacher in Greenland to hire him for the summer. Now he lives in Kulusuk. There is no other place on Earth like it, he says.
For one thing, there's the ice. At home we think of ice as something that covers the road in the winter and fills glasses in the summer. Here ice comes in myriad shapes and colors and is a presence year round. There is pack ice that freezes as the weather gets colder. There is ocean ice that comes down from the north. There is the ice that calves off from the glaciers.
"I've seen colors in the sky and in the ice that you just can't describe," said Patrick. "The ice is constantly changing. Everywhere you look, you see something new."
The rocks, too, are fascinating. These are the oldest rocks on Earth. "Australia and Greenland have a competition as to who has the oldest rocks," said Patrick. "Currently, Greenland is in the lead." Interesting, that places so far apart are both so old, while Iceland, which is next door, is one of the youngest places on Earth.
The culture is also unique. The west side of the island has become more Westernized, "but here on the east side, the old, old culture is very strong. People still live in accordance with the land. We're still living in an ice age. But it's one of the few places left where you can see Greenland as it was and is."
Summer and winter are two totally different experiences, Patrick told us. "All in all, you have to see both if you want to truly know Greenland." Summer has 24 hours of light and often has extraordinary sunsets. In winter, you get the northern lights to make up for the limited daylight.