I am back to Iceland after a week of traversing SW Greenland. Back in the world of easy Internet access for the wayward traveler, with the wonders of Iceland before me, and all I long to do is hop a plane back to Greenland and stay forever.
Yes, Greenland has completely and utterly beguiled me. Sweet-talked my soul in soft whispers and thunderous song. Snared me in a web of hospitality, sweet solitude in the middle of soaring mountains as far as the eye can see, and the humbling of my existence in the face of such awesome creation.
I have found a new cathedral, as sacred to me as the redwoods and lush waterfalls and crashing surf of the West Coast. How to even begin to catch you up on such a life-altering week?
I stayed at two seperate sheep farms, one in Qassiarsuk and one a little further south on the same fjord, called Inneruulalik. Both very different locations; both in a frenzy of the summer grass harvest for winter feed to keep their lifeblood, the sheep, alive through the long, harsh winters. Qassiarsuk is a tiny settlement of about 40 to 50 people, but that is truly a town of note in this sparsely populated country. I am continually amazed at the sheer space and volume of silence I encountered and came to appreciate and even seek. The locals buzzed past on their dusty tractor tracks from farm to farm, on ATVs and trucks, as they went about one of the most critical times in their cyclical calendar. My host family I rarely saw not involved in farm duties. Often the Fredericksen’s son woud wave to me as he manouvered a tractor past me, a grin and on to his next task. But I did not mind the lack of social interaction – to witness their daily lives, if even in brief glimpses, was a privilege.
I stayed in a little guesthouse, gazing out on the fjord, known in the Icelandic Sagas as Eirik’s Fjord. The view from my room was breath-taking – I wanted to pull up a desk to the window and spend the rest of my life writing. Instead, I laced on my hiking boots and explored, armed with my map and compass. Qassiarsuk encompasses some of the most important Norse ruins in history – the first Norse settlement in Greenland, that of infamous Eirik the Red. This scoundrel of history fled Iceland after being outlawed by the local assembly, called a Þing, for killing a neighbor. He spent three years exploring the coastline of Greenland, a land rumored to be NW of Iceland, and which Eirik confirmed. Sailing back to Iceland, he convinced a number of fellow Norse to follow him back and settle Greenland, at a settlement he named Brattahlið.
Today, what you can see of Brattahlið is at first glance nothing more than rocks. But gaze a moment longer and you begin to see the human touch, the square foundations of buildings, the doorways and hearthstones of dwellings. I climbed up on a bluff, sat on the rock foundations of the milking cot, and gazed out over the ruins. At this moment, the Vinland Sagas truly came alive for me. I could see where Eirik’s wife built her small chapel, the first Christian church in Greenland, just a simple little squared horseshoe of grassy lumps, but there! My mind traced back the story of Leif Eriksson bringing back Christianity to Greenland on orders from the Norwegian king, his mother’s fervent devotion, and his father’s adamant refusal to convert, leading Leif’s mother to refuse Eiik the marriage bed for the rest of their lives.
The tall grass, waiting to be harvested by the whirring of machinery, whispered in the wind behind me. Were those the voices of thousand year old ghosts?
The other sheep farm I stayed at, Inneruulalik, involved a short hike up and over a mountain pass, past glimmering jewels of highland lakes and adamant sheep determined I leave them in peace to munch the sweet grass. My hosts, Hendrine and Joorut Lund, opened up my eyes to daily living in this corner of the world. Icebergs took up residence just off the rocky beach, within sight of their house. They truly live a life on the rocky fringes between ice, mountain, and water. In the winter, when all their sheep are holed up in the protection of the barns, the fjord freezes up (usually, but this past winter was another story. By the way, if you happen to believe global warming is a myth, don’t go to Greenland. They live global warming every single day. This reality came up in almost every single conversation I had with anyone Greenlandic.) The iced-up fjord actually becomes a highway across the fjord to the airport town Narsarsuaq and the all-important grocery store and post office. In spring, the lambing begins as the babies are born and the sheep then sent into the mountain fields for summer feeding. In fall, the sheep are rounded back up, some of the lambs slaughtered for meat and others kept through the winter for breeding. All of the 22,000 pounds of lamb meat produced in SW Greenland are sold within Greenland, and I can attest to the reality of how tasty and succulent lamb is. Wow!
I spent my time in Inneruulalik strolling the rocky beach, writing poetry, and gazing at the enormous iceberg that truly looked as if God had sculpted a masterpiece of a profile, a face emerging in the ice. Then Thursday morning as I sat on the deck sipping my coffee in the chilly early morning moodiness of the low clouds obscuring the mountains, a CRACK, then BOOM reverberated across the farm and bounced off the mountain walls. Then WHOOSH of water as the enormous iceberg suddenly splintered into pieces!
I learned later on just how fragile glacier ice is, when cruising the Qooroq ice fjord. Truly, the icebergs are all unique sculptural masterpieces, in brillant shades of white and blue. Amazing and beyond words. Our ship pilot demonstrated with a piece of ice he fished out of the fjord. With a knife, he thrust down in the middle and it splintered in his hand. He explained that as snow falls on the glacier, it pushes down the older snow below, trapping air bubbles as it transforms into ice. This means the ice is actually very fragile. The crackling sound you hear all around you in the ice fjord are the air bubbles escaping as the icebergs melt. And were they melting! Dripping, cascading, even the glaciers! From above, as I flew back to Iceland and we flew over the glaciers and ice cap,I could see the thousands upon thousands of crevasses and lakes of meltwater on the surface of the ice below, as far as the eye could see. Beyond words.
The other Norse ruin I explored was also especially important – Garðar, the episcopal seat of the Christian church in Greenland. Here you can see the clear outlines of a rather large church, an even larger bishop’s residence (the bishop’s place was larger than Eirik the Red’s long house!), and multiple storehouses and barns for storing supplies and tithes. What’s truly fascinating is the blueprint of the church clearly outlined in an intact foundation of grassy-covered stones, with a system of side chapels that includes the confirmed grave of one of the bishops who died in 1209, and even a bell tower. The tithe storehouse still has two intact doorways – a complete thrill to walk beneath them!
The highlight of Greenland (besides meeting my host families on the sheep farms) was the hiking. And did I ever hike! Most intense hiking of my life and mostly solo. I have never felt as capable and self-reliant as I did on these hikes. Some followed clear tractor tracks, but the ones off-trail that involved following the not-always-easy-to-spot red dots painted on rocks were the real tests of my skills. When I lost the red dots, I used my map and still crossed the mountainous landscape just fine. My last hike was up a mountain to the plateau and over this bizarre landscape of springy rock, lichen and moss to a viewpoint high up over the fjords. When the morning clouds parted, there below me was a huge glacier. I was on top of the world.
May I never come down.