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Greenland's Floating Masterpiece

                                             By  DOMINICK and SUSAN MERLE

 

 

 

     Why can’t we stop taking so many photos of ice? 

 

     Neither can Andre, the official photographer of our expedition who’s been travelling in this neck of the world for decades.

 

      Or Charlotte, often  referred to as “The Ice Queen” who knows more about frozen water than Johnny Walker and Jack Daniels put together.

 

       “Oh my! Mon Dieu!” Andre shouted between clicks.

 

       “This is a true bumper crop,” said Charlotte.  “Like nothing I have ever seen before.”

 

       We are sailing the Arctic Ocean off the western coast of Greenland gazing---almost hypnotically---at what seems to be hundreds of icebergs of all sizes, shapes and colors floating by, proudly, as in a spectacular parade.

 

         Now, viewing icebergs is no big deal up here.  But it is extremely rare to see so many of them in one area for as far as the eye can see.

 

         “They look like the Allied fleet heading to Normandy on D-Day in WW II,” I said.

 

         “Oh no,” Charlotte responded.  “They are gentle, more like milky clouds floating on the sea.”

 

          After a few more lame comparisons---for the sight was clearly indescribable---we considered the dazzling colors, a  blend of ice white at the core with borders of blue and aqua reflecting into the waters.

 

           And then, the unique shapes and sizes, some seemingly as large as our ship, others tiny as tugboats.

 

          Actually, it was a twist of nature that brought us to this part of the ocean and this magnificent ice parade.

 

            Our expedition ship, the MS Ocean Endeavor, was specifically designed to explore Polar regions.  But itineraries are very flexible in the Arctic because of swift weather changes. 

 

          We had been scheduled to cross the Davis Strait to the Canadian Arctic,  when a combination of fog and ice set in and kept us just off the Greenland coast for another day.

 

          So, because of a stroke of bad weather, what a special day it became for my wife and I, Andre, Charlotte and the 175 other ship passengers on our Adventure Canada expedition.

 

           We began our journey a few days earlier aboard a charter plane from Toronto, landing in the tiny hamlet of Kangerlussuag, Greenland, population about 500.  It felt and looked like we had arrived on another planet.

 

             While Greenland is the largest island in the world, an enormous triangle of land some 1800 miles long and 700 miles across, 95 percent is covered with a blanket of ice almost 2 miles thick!  Most of its estimated 56,000 inhabitants live in scattered villages on the west coast.

 

              The colorful houses---red, blue, purple, green---look as if they dropped from the sky, landing every-which-way.  The longest road in the country, a bumpy one, is less than 10 miles.  If you want to go any further, you hitch up your dog sled, paddle a kayak or simply take your chances and drive across the ice.

 

               Fishing and hunting are not mere sports, but a way of life and survival.  While Greenland is subsidized by its mother country of Denmark, where many of the first settlers came from, all packaged and canned food are imported and extremely expensive, often two to three times the prices in North America. For example, a head of lettuce, about $6.

 

                Consequently, seal, whale, reindeer, muskox and just about anything else on land or sea are staples at the Greenland dinner table.  We sampled a little of each during our stops along the western coast; most of it was chewy and none of it tasted like the proverbial “just like chicken.”

 

                 Despite the high price of living, we found the Greenlanders genuinely friendly and content with their harsh lifestyle.  They’d quickly pose for our cameras, and often just as quickly pull out their own digitals and ask us to do the same.

 

                   It was at the town of Ilulissat where the fog and ice prevented our crossing over to Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic,  but gave us the good fortune of witnessing that awesome display of icebergs.  Perhaps it wasn’t just happenstance; the name Ilulissat translates literally into “iceberg.”

 

                   We heard the superlatives “awesome” and “amazing” quite often from the expedition staff during our 12-day Adventure Canada cruise.  The 20-some experts aboard seemed almost like missionaries for the wild Arctic.  But while it was repetitious, it didn’t sound like pure hype, but more like pure excitement.

 

                   Many of them wore different hats---lecturing one day, piloting the inflatable Zodiacs the next  and often armed with  shotguns once we crossed over to the Canadian arctic  where polar bears are the undisputed kings of the food chain.

 

                    Our first stop on the Canadian side was Mittimatilik (Pond Inlet) on the east coast of Baffin Island, a bustling community by Arctic standards, a one-horse town  just about anywhere else.  However, it is surrounded by one of the most beautiful landscapes in the Arctic.

 

                      Mittimatilik is also the home base for many rare marine mammals, including the almost legendary narwhal, often described as the “unicorn of the sea.”  The huge narwhals, part of the whale family, catch cod and halibut with their spear-like unicorn tusks and rarely come to surface.

 

                       “I’ve taken at least 25 expeditions up here and have never seen one,” said Dave, our mammal expert on board.

 

                          The cod-halibut menu sets well with the narwhals, for their lifespan often exceeds 120 years.  However, they can rarely survive one year in captivity. (So much for civilization.)

 

                            After viewing a cultural show in Mittimatilik, we made a few more stops in the sprawling Nunavut territory which, at about 2-million kilometers, represents one-fifth of Canada.  Yet, despite its size, its population would not even fill a typical football stadium.

 

                             Nunavut has been inhabited by the indigenous Inuit people for about 4,000 years.  They are world famous for their artwork and carvings and live in remote villages only accessible by plane or boat.  Life here is even more difficult than on the coast of Greenland.

 

                              Although Nunavut is a Canadian territory, the Inuit retain direct title to 350,000 square kilometers, an area equal to the size of New Mexico.

 

                              Now, we sail to our final adventure, Devon Island, the largest uninhabited island on earth comprising over 50,000 square kilometers.  NASA has been conducting research for possible colonization of Mars on Devon Island for the past 20 years.  And for good reason, for Devon Island seems not of this world.

 

                              However, we are in search of polar bears, the undisputed stars of our Arctic adventure. 

 

                             But oddly enough, whenever bears were sighted by our advance shotgun-toting scouts, we weren’t allowed on shore for our own safety, but could only view the beasts from the ship with binoculars.  We saw several fully grown polar bears swimming and walking along the shore line.

 

                             We also saw a number of seals pop their heads out of the sea like periscopes, also keeping a safe distance from the bears, which have a strong preference for seal meat.

 

                              After sailing 1,800 nautical miles, our Arctic safari was now complete.  While we didn’t see a whale, or a muskox, and definitely no norwhals; polar bears, seals, a couple of arctic hares and a few reindeer were on our viewing and (sometimes) dining menu.

 

                                In any event, Greenland’s “awesome, amazing, colossal, incredible, hypnotic” iceberg parade (my superlatives, not theirs), would have been an extremely tough act to follow.

 

 

                                 (Dominick and Susan Merle are Montreal-based travel photojournalists based in Montreal.  Dominick is co-founder of the International Food, Wine & Travel Writers Assn.  Email: dmerle@videotron.ca).

 

IF YOU GO:

 

Pack layered clothing, strictly casual, and good hiking shoes.  This is no tuxedo- dinner- with- the- captain cruise.  Boots for Zodiac cruises and wet landings are provided by Adventure Canada.

 

Binoculars and a camera with a zoom of about 200 will work fine.

 

The cruise and land hikes are geared for all ages and physical ability, from vigorous to tenderfoot.

 

It is a truly flexible tour.  Itineraries often change due to weather or wild animal danger.

 

Zodiac rides can be splashy; rain pants would help.

 

For further info on Adventure Canada’s Arctic cruises, try info@adventurecanada.com.

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