With each summer I experience a greater aversion to the mid-Atlantic’s heat and humidity. My determination to flee has grown each year.
Europe, trips to Maine or Nantucket, I tried everything.
Then in I felt a more extreme escape was in order: I went to Iceland. And I’ve been back six times thus far. Going to the arctic was the answer I’d been looking for: addressing both my dislike of the summer heat and artistic questions in my work.
This year offered yet another possibility to venture north: North above the Arctic Circle this time, 69 degrees North to be exact. A trip to Ililussat, Greenland and a chance to see the most active glaciers in this hemisphere while they still exist. Before global climate change strips us of these amazing and humbling resources, I wanted to try to push myself to see them the best I could and render them photographically in an artful, perhaps heroic way.
Kangia, the icefjord east of Ililussat, pushes enough freshwater ice out into Disco Bay in an hour to meet New York City’s drinking water needs for an entire year. The glacier itself has retreated drastically over the past 10 years. A glacier to the north that my team visited is retreating at a rate of at least 14 meters a day. This loss of polar ice in addition to the loss of arctic sea ice could have disastrous affects upon our weather at home.
Getting to Greenland was surprisingly easy—a flight to Keflavik out of JFK, an overnight in Reykjavik, and a two-hour hop to Ililussat.
The town itself, the third largest in Greenland, is a dusty little backwater on the edge of civilization. We were blessed with a marvelous and unexpected hotel, with good accommodations, an excellent staff, and quite good food. We were delighted by temperatures in the mid to upper 50s. I could have worn shorts almost everyday!
We made the three-mile walk to Kangia each day. We also took a wonderful boat out into the bay and up to the big ice. We were dwarfed by the bergs, yet our guide explained that the days of the really big ice, 120 meters tall or more (the Statue of Liberty is only 93 meters), were over.
Trying to make sense of the morass of ice in the bay was daunting. It wasn’t until we sailed clear of the pack ice and could see individual bergs that it all began to make some sort of visual sense.
Finding ways to accurately document the ice without making postcards became the main challenge. Resolving technical issues with color and clarity—ice tends to always look soft—was a battle to be fought once I returned home.
We left our base at the hotel after four days in Ililussat and headed northwest to the Eqip Sermia Glacier and Camp Eqi. It is at least a 4.5-hour passage, depending upon the amount of ice on the bay. Then the captain shut down the engines in front of a 200-meter ice face and let the quiet overtake us. Or I should say what we all thought would be quiet. The sounds from the glacier were like rumbling explosions as the pressure both vertically and laterally pushes the ice out the fjord. It was almost as if we’d found The Dutchmen that Washington Irving wrote about playing 10 pins up in the ice.
The thunderous reports were amazing, as if we were sitting across the bay from Aberdeen Proving Grounds when they are busy testing. We were surprisingly close, about a kilometer and a half out, when the glacier calved a large piece of ice. It submerged, came up and rolled several times. The sound was deafening; you could physically feel it bouncing off the walls before the chunk of ice made its way to the open water.
From there we headed to camp, a small set of buildings on a high promontory overlooking the glacier. There was even a shack used by early explorers, still in use by researchers today.
I tried the far climb to the glacier, but the river crossing did me in. I was tired, and I didn’t trust myself to make the leap that the last few stones demanded. I really didn’t want to trash my cameras or myself. Sadly, I had four miles of rugged terrain to backtrack without the payout of the bird’s-eye view across the massive ice field.
Other climbs were better over the next two days of our stay. We especially enjoyed the fifteen to twenty minute trek that felt like climbing up a straight wall, to the lake that supplies the camp with its fresh water.
Dinners of smoked halibut with fennel, carrots and beets, tomato bisque, and grilled musk ox were outstanding. The only downside was the mosquito horde that terrorized us during our stay—our only respite coming from the catabolized winds thankfully coming off the glacier to blow them away.
This isn’t a trip for everyone. There are certainly plenty of basic creature comforts, but no five-star accommodations. This is more a look at nature at its greatest—and, sadly, in its decline. I kept thinking of some of the metaphors in several Wyeth paintings and how they would certainly be applicable here.
A trip to Greenland is realistic look at what is and what will be. It’s tough and strenuous. I know I’ll really have to want to make that climb and to ford that river and take that leap the next time I come to it.