The first snow banks come as a shock as does the biting wind. The calendar is April and back home, 24 hours ago, it was a balmy 12C, green spring shoots pushing up. I need the body thermostat to reset into winter mode and fast!
Humps of bare Precambrian shield, wind swept and bare, a treeless environment. I had forgotten about that – no trees here except for low willow bushes, hunkered down at knee level. All this from the plane window…
Another surprise – ‘duty free’ shopping! Welcome to the modern arctic – its getting harder to escape from mass consumerism everywhere in the world especially in the proximity of international airports. But it’s not unpleasant: wood floors speak to an older time when construction was not all concrete.
The outrageous colours of sealskin coats in eye popping orange, iridescent blue, midnight black, and all shades of greens scream out from the white-grey landscape. These are not the baggy sacks so often portrayed in movies but stylish, couture, tailored garments, gorgeously elegant. All lengths of fur hair detail sleeve trims and hood ruffs. Complimentary needlework stitching illustrates the maker’s imagination. I want one! But the price tag (about 11,200 Danish Kroner/ 900 EU/$2250 Canadian) is not my budget – also winters back home are too mild to justify such warm clothes. So, I limit myself to admiring the beautiful results of such skillful sewing and creativity.
It’s a 4.5 hour layover until the Ilulissat flight…so we go on a ‘musk ox tour’. Which enterprising local tour operators have fit in between flights. Boarding a bus like a tundra buggy, with huge balloon like wheels, its 5 ladder like steps up into the heated coach. Ten like minded travelers pile on behind us.
The first wildlife viewing is 2 km along the town road – the driver points out ‘reindeer’, which are what I would identify as ‘caribou’ on Canadian soil. They are wearing their winter white coats, feeding on short tough grasses in the wind shelter of rocky hummocks and pay absolutely no attention to us. The cameras come out and click. In this pre digital age, I’m saving my film for something more spectacular.
Just around the corner of the road, in the distance I can make out the distinctive humps of about 10 shaggy musk ox. Heads down, they graze placidly as the vehicle drives slowly by. The perfect photo opportunity presents another 500m along the road – 3 beasts are very close to the road – slowly , we roll to a stop and quietly pile out the door. The snow squeaks underfoot, its so cold and dry.
A bitter wind whips my hair across my eyes, they water and freeze. Camera out, just as I focus and start to press the shutter, the musk ox bolt, apparently started by the sound of another tourists camera shutter. Annoyed, I shoved my wind chilled hand back into glove and pile back on to the tundra bus. The driver follows a the single track paved road, our necks are craned looking out frosted windows. Stopping again at some chest high willows, we get out but only fox tracks are found – black specks circle over head, ravens inspecting the town dump.
Kangerlussuaq has shrunk in size to 500 people from the once 8,000 inhabitants. The US military pulled out its permanent force here, leaving the legacy of a sizable landing strip. Back at the airport, a one hour delay as the Dash 8 plane from Nuuk is late with ‘technical problems’.
Cloud cover obscures the land below. Tantalizing glimpses of rumpled blue – green ice tongues spilling into frozen ocean have my face pressed against the window. Below, boats appear ant sized, floating among massive ice slabs. At last ! the final 45 minutes of a convoluted flight path - touch down. Ilulissat!