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Exploring Greenland’s Forbidden East Coast

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Kayaking the iceberg-choked waters of East Greenland; Photograph by James Dziezynski

From the cockpit of my expedition kayak, I watch in awe as the stadium-sized iceberg 500 feet away starts to roll over. The Arctic air is dead silent as the immaculately polished white ice tilts in slow motion into the inky black sea. Hundreds of feet away from the visible bulk of the capsizing berg, its ghostly blue underside begins to ascend from the depths. It rises slowly, deliberately with menacing confidence. Its raw, exposed surface is a wall of ghastly expressions.

Lost in the moment, I can barely hear the urgent command from our expedition leader to quickly get our kayaks aligned in the direction of the transforming berg. I naively interpret this call to action to get my camera ready. It is only when the powerful liquid swell generated by the displaced ice begins to radiate toward our boats that I realize the seriousness of the moment. As the unbroken wave rolls ever closer, it is impossible to gauge its speed or height–there are simply no contextual clues.

Before I have time make sense of the phenomenon, the enormity of the swell is upon us. It is unlike any wave I have ever experienced in open water. My boat dips down into the leading trough before getting pushed up uncomfortably high into the air. The unnerving sensation of rising ever higher causes me to clench my paddle in a death grip. At the apex of the wave, I look down a vertical wall of water and realize the front half of my boat is in the air. A moment of weightlessness is followed by a rush of adrenaline as I plummet down the far side and brace for the series of lesser swells. The initial wave was estimated at 30 feet.

No kingdom on Earth is as fiercely protected as the inner sanctum of Greenland’s eastern coast. The enormous berg that tested our nerves is merely one of the thousands of broken glacial pieces that form a barely penetrable wall shielding the length of the coast. And by Greenland standards, this berg was small. In 2010, a 100-square-mile chunk of ice broke from off from the Petermann Glacier–an area slightly larger than the entire city of Boston. The constant production of glacial ice clogs entrances to inlets and bays. The few populated outposts that exist rely on an inconsistent window of late summer melt that allows resupply ships to dock. Otherwise, goods must be acquired by air (an expensive and dangerous method) or when the winter chill has frozen the ocean solid, via dogsled.

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Tasiilaq, East Greenland; Photograph by James Dziezynski

The largest town in eastern Greenland is Tasiilaq. Its 2,000 permanent residents are comprised primarily of native Greenlanders, a race descended from the Dorset and Saqqaq cultures mixed with Scandinavian blood. Greenland is politically owned by Denmark and a few dozen Danish nationals reside here as well. Somewhat surprising is the fact the town has actually experienced consistent population growth beginning in the 1990s, due in part to the development of a modest tourism trade. The city itself is a collection of life-sized Monopoly houses, most painted in bright and cheerful colors that offset the drab Arctic palette. Lighthearted children ride bikes and play soccer, stopping to giggle and wave at tourists. Ragged, happy puppies roam the streets, all of them thick-furred Greenland huskies. They are free to romp and pillage until adulthood, when they will be trained as working sled dogs.

Life in East Greenland teeters on the threshold of modernity. The local grocery store is surprisingly well-stocked and a neighboring bookstore offers slow but reliable Internet. In the small protected harbor, hunters show off their recently won quarry: a pair of ringed seals. Captured using shotguns and motorboats, the seals are weighed down by improvised anchors attached to makeshift buoys in the harbor, where they will marinate in the gas and oil infused ocean water until it is time to butcher them for a meal. In another section of town, men set a massive canvas of polar bear skin –legally obtained by native hunters—out to dry on a shabby wooden rack.

In the warmest summer months of August and September, this isolated region lives up to it oft derided “Greenland” namesake. Soft green grasses are decorated with sheets of colorful flowers. Earth’s most unpolluted rivers run clearly; it is easy to see the details within the matrix of pebbles in the riverbed. On the outskirts of town, a peaceful cemetery is adorned with thousands of plastic flowers, none of which seem tacky or out of place at the base of weathered crosses.

Leaving the town by boat, one is instantly thrown into a land of beautiful, quiet desolation. There are six smaller villages in the region, some of them hosting populations of less than 50 people. They exist in small pockets of commercial viability though many are on their way to extinction. Most of these people will relocate to Tasiilaq, contributing to the modest population growth. The wilderness separating these villages is enormous, wild, and seemingly infinite. There is little wildlife in the water or the land. Arctic fox are the largest predators to be found, though stray polar bears will sometimes voyage here from their strongholds in the north. Unpredictable ice formations limit the presence of large marine mammals.

Mountains made from some of the oldest rock on earth rise over 3,000 feet from the sea and continue in an inland chain as far as the eye can see. Dazzling glaciers twist through valleys like magic carpets into infinity, their hides split with fearsome crevasses. Even in nimble expedition kayaks, it is difficult to make landfall due to the scarcity of level beaches.

One of the rare flat valleys we encounter is home to an unexpected scene: the rusted ruins of an American World War II era military base. Greenland was a vital outpost for both the Axis and Allies in WWII because it offered strategic meteorological insights for European campaigns. The storms that swept across eastern Greenland inevitably made their way to mainland Europe and knowing when to orchestrate air raids in relation to weather was of utmost importance. The base that we paddle up to was one of the Blue East stations that continued to function for a short time after the war in response to the new threat of the Cold War. When the base was abruptly abandoned in the 1950s, little was done to clean up the place. As a results, thousands of fuel drums littler the landscape. Dozens of old trucks are in various stages of decomposition, the “Firestone” logos still perfectly legible on their flattened tires. Because the government of Greenland barely operates as a collaborative unit, cleaning up of the base is of no priority.

Our expedition took three weeks to indulge in the isolated wilderness and visit some of the most remote towns on planet Earth. At one of northernmost towns, Tiniteqilaaq, I somehow manage to make a credit card transaction when buying a box of cookies and sunblock. I was even able to take a shower in the public washroom, where a native Greenlander in the stall next to me was scrubbing off the blood and entrails from a recent polar bear kill.

East Greenland is unlike anywhere else on earth. Civilization is slowly swallowing the old ways, yet there is not war, poverty or crime. Religion is acknowledged but not deeply engrained by the people, whose cheerful ways and endlessly positive outlooks are out of step with the grim requirements of discipline and obedience demanded by most faiths. Denmark has granted a high degree of autonomy to Greenland yet has provided energy, housing, water and other modern conveniences. Whether or not the Danes abandon the idea of Greenland all together may have more to do with the discovery of oil, diamond and other natural resources rather than the altruistic notion of supporting native people.

Tourism may ultimately be East Greenland’s ticket to prosperity. Germany in particular has developed a fondness for the place and a flight from Frankfort to Tasiilaq can be done in less than four hours. It is difficult to say what the people think of all this. Beneath their happy expressions and zen-like lifestyles are the instincts of the greatest hunters and survivors our species has ever known. As the world continues to merge into a global community, east Greenland will remain a place out of reach and blissfully resourceful until such a day that the old ways have been abandoned and forgotten. Until then, the people will remain faithfully bonded to this land, a hard-won kinship that has served as a bridge to modernity.