Bearly touching Ellesmere Island

Coming in at number 10 on the Top 10 Biggest Islands in the World list is Ellesmere Island. Not only is its size superlative, but it also is the most northly island in the world after Greenland and a few specks off its northern coast. As you might expect this far north, the land is mostly barren of vegetation but who needs veggies when you are a carnivore?

We visited Makinson Inlet on the southeast corner of Ellesmere and saw more polar bears there than anywhere else on our trip. They patrolled the beaches, looking for washed-up carrion or the chance to leap on one of the many beluga whales we also saw swimming tantalizingly close to shore (video).

One bear tore at the remaining fragments of a whale carcass on the beach (video), while bears lower-down the pecking order watched from a distance for their turn, including a mother and cub.

The only drawback of all that bear activity was that we couldn’t find a safe place to land on the island, lest we become the next dish on the bear buffet. In the end, we were able to hop ashore for about 30 seconds while our guide scanned the hills for bears. It felt like a special privilege to set foot at all on a place where humans weren’t in charge.

Wild Baffin Island

Imagine that the great geological monuments of the American West such as Yosemite and Zion National Parks were rising from emerald-green water and you will have some idea of what the east coast of Baffin Island looks like. Baffin Island is about 300 miles east of Greenland, in the Canadian territory of Nunavut. It looks small on a map next to its World’s Biggest Island award-winning neighbor, but is still a very respectable thousand miles long. And while we thought we had seen the pinnacle of dramatic landscapes in The Faroes and then Greenland, Baffin gives them both a run for their money in the Best Dramatic Scenery category.

We visited two uninhabited fjords on the east coast of Baffin Island, Buchan Gulf and Sam Ford Fjord (try saying that three times fast). Steep cliffs rose thousands of feet on either side. The rocks are three billion years old, some of the oldest on earth, and have been contorted over the ages with interesting shapes, textures and colors. Glaciers provided the icing on the cake, feeding giant waterfalls that looked like trickles from a distance. It was almost impossible to judge the scale of the unfamiliar landscape. On the few patches of land free of glaciers and flat enough to support plant life, there were miniature forests of colorful arctic plants. With the short growing season and scouring winter winds, plants adapt by sticking together and close to the ground. Willow trees can be hundreds of years old but only a few inches tall. Their leaves were just starting to turn color as autumn approached in late August.

The fjords of Baffin are also swimming with wildlife. The narwhal with its unicorn-like tusk is often described as “legendary” or maybe “elusive” but they were our frequent companions. Narwhals normally keep their horns underwater even when surfacing so they didn’t look much different than other kinds of marine mammals, but they were still thrilling to see, like a celebrity.

Swimming polar bears are a fixture of tear-jerking stories about global warming but bears who live near Baffin are used to ice-free summers. It is normal to see them cruising the fjords looking for a snack of washed-up whale or whatever else they can find. Their paddle-like paws are well adapted to swimming. Since they still have enough ice in the winter for their annual seal feast, the polar bears in the area are doing well. At least for now.

And here is a video of waterfalls tumbling down from a melting glacier, hopefully giving a little sense of the giant scale of the place.

Village life on Baffin Island

We visited two towns on Baffin Island: Clyde River and Pond Inlet. The Inuit people who populate the Canadian arctic didn’t traditionally live in towns, instead moving between small camps following the seasons and the natural resources. It was only in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s that the Canadian government began establishing towns, driven by a desire to assert sovereignty over the arctic and sometimes-misguided efforts to assimilate the inhabitants. Inuit were encouraged to settle down with a promise of amenities like schools but the line between “encouraged” and “coerced” wasn’t always clear.

In contrast to the colorful Greenlandic towns, the prefab houses in the Canadian arctic are mostly painted in pale tones, further muted by a layer of dust kicked up by ATVs buzzing around the unpaved roads. The generous financial subsidies that Denmark lavishes on Greenland are clearly not provided by Canada to its arctic citizens. Not only is the infrastructure more primitive but food in the grocery stores was exorbitantly priced except for a few subsidized staples. A single can of soda was $5.

In each Canadian arctic town we visited, residents volunteered to be tour guides, usually by signing up on a sheet hung on the bulletin board of the grocery store. None were pros and each offered a unique perspective on their home towns. Our guide in Clyde River was a retired teaching assistant. She was a woman of very few words, which might not be an obvious plus for a tour guide, but she had a welcoming personality and would unexpectedly open up to unselfconsciously tell us very personal stories in response to what we thought were innocuous questions. We heard matter-of-factly about her time in jail for drunkenness, her husband’s unsuccessful battle against cancer, and her father’s pet polar bear who would accompany him as a hunting partner. But even that initially sweet story had a grim ending when her father had to kill and eat his beloved companion during a harsh winter famine.

Inuit across the arctic from Russia to Greenland speak related languages that are usually intelligible to the neighboring region but become increasingly distinct with distance. The dialect used in Nunavut is called Inuktitut and written with this cool syllabic writing system that was introduced in the 1800’s. The other Inuit dialects are written with our boring old roman letters.

We weren’t sure how literally we should believe the story (especially since it ended with ghostly polar bear cubs showing up at her father’s death bed) but it was a good illustration of the close and complicated relationship that the Inuit have with their animal neighbors. They still rely on hunting for most of their food and/but have a longstanding ethos about respecting the animals. Killing an animal for sport or letting any of it go to waste would be taboo. The traditional foods of seal, narwhal and polar bear are all important parts of their modern culture and daily lives. They are still the only reliable and affordable food source in the arctic. We couldn’t imagine eating any of those charismatic animals. Yet we did. These “country foods” are so integral to what it means to be Inuit, as is the sharing of food, that we couldn’t pass up a tasting held for us at a local community center. The narwhal was prepared with a little bit of skin and blubber on each bite, as simultaneously chewy and silky as you might imagine with subtle taste like an extremely rich sushi. Both the seal and polar bear were more traditionally meaty with hints of liver. Laurel enjoyed the tastes and textures more than Brian but felt a queasy loss of innocence afterwards.

Cutting narwhal meat with an “ulu” — a traditional knife that is also symbol of Inuit culture.

The two high school girls who were our volunteer guides in Pond Inlet couldn’t have been more different from our taciturn Clyde River guide. Like small town teenagers anywhere in North America (and maybe the world) they were alternatively giggly, chatty, gossipy and bored (with small town life and occasionally with us, whipping out their video games). Their main concern was to keep us from getting hit by a speeding ATV on the road, which happened to a “rude French tourist” they were guiding earlier in the year. The attraction in Pond Inlet they were most proud of was not the work of the famous local stone carvers but the “most northerly Tim Horton’s”, an iconic Canadian snack and coffee shop. Their excitement was heightened even more when we offered to buy them their favorite frozen coffee drink, the Iced Capp. It was all they could talk about as we walked up the hill toward the restaurant, which turned out to be a counter tucked into the corner of a grocery store. Sadly, the Iced Capp machine was out of order, so they could only get a brightly colored fruitless fruit slushy. They bore their disappointment with barely a shrug, resigned to the difficulties of arctic life.

Our Pond Inlet guides seem to have recovered from their disappointment over the Iced Capp.

On our way out of Pond Inlet, we met a pod of orcas who were feasting on an invisible underwater bounty. The orcas in the region are a larger variety than we have back home because they take on bigger prey, usually other whales and dolphins. They looked to be a very healthy family with several babies. We learned to track submerged whales by looking for the crowd of seabirds overhead who are hoping for leftovers.

Urban, Suburban and Icebergin’

After Qaqortoq, we visited three more towns in Greenland. They all shared the same distinctive appearance: brightly colored houses perched on rocky hills surrounding a protected bay. We found them all charming and hadn’t seen anything quite like them elsewhere in the world. Nuuk is the capital of Greenland and the largest town, with about 18,000 residents. It had a proper downtown area with some less colorful high-rises and a pedestrian shopping street a few blocks long. The stores were large and well stocked, perhaps buoyed by being in a economy. Nuuk was also home to a few trendy restaurants and art galleries. A surprising amount of amenities for a town that size in that location.

This sculpture depicts the legend of the Mother of the Sea who punishes Inuit hunters who break taboos by entangling all the local animals in her hair. A shaman must then travel to the bottom of the ocean to comb her hair and release the animals and find out which rules were broken.

While ogling the stores, we saw a group of 20 or so young people carrying signs, wearing pointed hats, chanting slogans. We assumed it was some kind of protest but couldn’t be sure. Then a few blocks away there was another group, dressed differently and with a different chant. Rival gangs? A day of rage? A traditional Inuit cultural festival? We eventually found out they were students from the vocational college on a team-building scavenger hunt. An explanation that was a bit disappointingly mundane but perhaps more telling about daily life here.

In every town we visited, the houses and shops were all packed together. The suburbs were for the dogs, literally. Dog sleds are still a part of everyday life in Greenland, especially in the more northerly towns like Sisimiut and Ilulissat which we visited after Nuuk. Dogs are kept on the outskirts of the towns, in acres of fenced kennels. We were warned not to approach the adult dogs who are all business. A warning would not have been necessary after we saw the dogs tear apart hunks of seal meat that their owners tossed in for lunch. There were however a few free-ranging and curious puppies who were safe to pat.

And here are our non-dog urban pictures from Sisimiut and Ilulissat.

Ilulissat was a cute town but the real draw is that it sits at the opening of a long fjord. At the other end of the fjord is the most active glacier in the northern hemisphere, calving off 20 billion tons of icebergs every year. The icebergs march down the long fjord and then out to sea. It is believed that the iceberg that struck the Titanic came from here. Some of the icebergs are so massive that they have floated as far as Africa before melting. The icebergs are visible from town as they pass but for the best view we took a boat tour among the giant ice sculptures, though they were often shown up by a pod of humpback whales who crashed the party. (Here’s a little whale video.) We also hiked down a long boardwalk to a spot where the fjord gets a bit shallower. There the largest icebergs become grounded, causing a traffic jam of ice until the larger ones melt or are pushed out by force of the ice behind them.

Greenland really is

Well, not so much the east coast. By a quirk of ocean and atmospheric currents, the east coast of Greenland (facing Europe) is barren and rocky, though quite impressive with countless glaciers marching down the craggy mountains toward the fjords. The glaciers deposit icebergs into the water, each one a one-of-a-kind abstract sculpture. For most of the year, sea ice prevents ships from reaching the coast. The few inhabitants are cut-off for months from the outside world. Our ship didn’t get a chance to land there but we enjoyed the view and naming the icebergs like a Rorschach test.

The harsh weather from the east is blocked by the mountains and icecap of Greenland which act like a wind-break to protect the calmer and warmer west coast. We had a chance to experience some of those winds as they were funneled though a gap between islets at the southern tip of the main island. It was challenging to keep our cameras steady to photograph the beautiful scenery with 80mph gusts slapping our hands (and occasionally a painful slap to the face by a wind-whipped coat collar). Perhaps it wasn’t wise to be out in the weather but it was fun to experience such strong winds in a relatively safe environment.

Just around the corner from the southern tip but tucked safely away on the west coast is Qaqortoq. It is the fourth largest town in Greenland with a population of about 3000 (we will visit numbers 1, 2 and 3 shortly). The first thing you notice about Qaqortoq and other Greenlandic towns are the colors — all the buildings are painted in a crazy quilt of bright colors, like someone spilled a bag of Skittles on the steep hills rising up from the sea. When towns were established in the 18th century by the Danish colonizers, the buildings were color coded. The doctor’s house as yellow, shops were red and blue was for workshops. Today it is a free-for-all, though hospitals are still usually yellow out of habit or homage. We also finally saw the famous green of Greenland, with many grass and flowers mixed among the houses and rocky outcrops.

Despite the remote and dramatic location, the feel is of a Scandinavian town with all the modern conveniences. The supermarkets are piled high with fresh produce and everything else you can imagine. The harbors of southwestern Greenland are ice-free all year round and are kept well supplied with frequent cargo ships from Denmark. The roads are nicely paved, though with only 90 miles of roads in the entire island you can’t get very far. None of the towns are connected to each other by road and the harbor is full of small boats, the primary means of getting around.

We never mastered the Greenlandic language.

We had a brief city tour of Qaqortoq with a very unlikely guide: a middle aged woman born and bred in the American south who moved to Greenland after marrying a Greenlander. The two met in an online chat group in the 90’s and became friends over the years. Eight years ago they met in person for the first time when he visited Florida. After a whirlwind romance, she was engaged and moving to Greenland. As a tour guide, her facts were a little confused but her wide-eyed enthusiasm for Greenland was heartening and infectious.

Our guide Katy showing one of the many new art installations around town.

Qaqortoq was also the center of the largest Viking settlement in Greenland (though technically we should say “Norse” rather than “Viking” once they settled down and were no longer a warrior culture). The Norse settled Greenland in the 10th century and mysteriously vanished around the 15th century. A number of theories have been floated about what happened to the Greenland Norse, from disease to climate change to war with the Inuit who were settling southwestern Greenland at about the same time. But none of these theories are supported by archeological or written evidence. It is possible they just trickled back to Iceland or Scandinavia without drama. The last written evidence of the Norse in Greenland was of a marriage in the Hvalsey church, near Qaqortoq. The ruins of the stone church are fairly intact and we visited the site. Tall grass dotted with tiny blueberry bushes just inches high (yum!) cover the rocky slopes around the church.

Iceland: land of fire and ice…and tourists

On our first day on the mainland of Iceland, we visited two of the biggest tourist areas on the island: the downtown pedestrian core of the capital Reykjavik and a park outside of town that is the original site of the Althing, the Icelandic parliament. Our first impression of the island was: wow, people are right, Iceland is seriously over-touristed! In both places, we were forced to shuffle along behind a sea of other tourists from all over the world, like we were in an arctic Disneyland. On day two, we experienced a completely different Iceland, one with endless empty roads and quiet neighborhoods. As the cliché in every tourism brochure from every place in the world says: “a land of contrasts.”

Despite the crowds, Thingvellir (the site of the original Althing) was quite interesting and beautiful. The Althing is the longest continuously functioning parliament in the world but moved from this original site in the 1700’s and today no visible signs of it remain. Instead, you see a geography lesson writ large. A giant crack in the earth runs through the site, the spreading gap between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. Interpretive signs say that the site was chosen as a meeting place because of its central location and abundant resources but surely the imposing topography was an attraction as well. Grassy plains and lakes surround the cliffs of the tectonic canyon, which itself is filled with lush grass where it isn’t paved over for the thousands of tourists disgorged from the tour buses parked in the acres of overflowing parking lots (plural).

The center of Reykjavik is a tourist circus of souvenir shops and cafes. I suspect the locals avoid it when possible during the summer, as we do the Pike Place Market in Seattle. And somehow they manage to have traffic jams in the most sparsely populated country in Europe (unless you count our next destination, Greenland). Bookending the main tourist street are two architecturally impressive public buildings. On one end is the Hallgrímskirkja church, whose tall stone tower echoes the country’s mountains. It is on top of a hill and a helpful landmark visible from everywhere in the city. Inside, the music from a giant pipe organ echoed around the circulating tourists. At the other end of town on the waterfront is the very modern Harpa Concert Hall. We only saw the outside and the lobby but its soaring honeycomb of glass was made us wish we had time to see more.

In Reykjavik we met up with our friends Dave and Amy who were old-hands at Iceland and they planned our escape from the tourist throngs. It turns out that even a short way out of town (unless you are heading to the “Golden Circle” of the most celebrated tourist sites) the traffic dissolves and you can see a less hectic side of Iceland, with quaint villages and uncrowded natural wonders. We were the only people at one road-side steaming/boiling mud pond and enjoyed other volcanic attractions and a giant waterfall with a very manageable number of other sightseers.

Back in Reykjavik outside the tourist quarter, we enjoyed a blog-worthy meal at a nouvelle-Icelandic restaurant that overlooked a city park. And what trip to Reykjavik would be complete without a visit to the Icelandic Phallological Museum in a slightly gritty neighborhood (by tidy Icelandic standards) on the outskirts of downtown. It is a gruesome personal collection of dried, pickled or otherwise preserved penises from every species of mammal native to Iceland. On second thought, maybe a trip to Iceland would have been complete without it.

A hot spot in the Atlantic: The Westman Islands

There are pluses and minuses to living in one of the most volcanically active places in the world, the Westman Islands just off the southern coast of Iceland. On the plus side, the locals had a front row seat to the eruption of the unpronounceable Eyjafjallajökull volcano in 2010. Luckily the wind was blowing away from town so the only inconvenience was that it shutdown air travel over much of Europe for several weeks. They also were able to watch Surtsey, one of the most significant new islands formed in recorded history, rise from the sea in 1963. On the down side, in 1973 a volcanic crack unexpectedly opened up just outside of town that forced the sudden evacuation of the entire population of 5,000 and the loss of 400 homes to the flowing lava and rain of pumice stones. But even that had a plus: a square mile of new waterfront property!

Where the town and lava flow meet

The people returned after two years of exile and we arrived for our visit on a beautiful sunny day 44 years later. A new museum sits where the town meets the lava flow. It was built around a house that was covered in pumice during the eruption and recently excavated, its preserved contents from 1973 still in place, like a modern Pompeii.

Some of the recent lava is still barren of life but most of 5-square-mile Heimaey island (the largest island among the group) is lush, green and sheepy, with dramatic cliffs reminiscent of the Faroes. Our mission on Heimaey was to see the puffin colony, the largest in the Atlantic. Puffins nest in deep burrows dug into the grassy cliffs on the opposite side of the island from the town. The island tour we were on had 30 minutes scheduled for the puffins but we decided to let the tour leave without us and we spent a couple extra hours there. The puffins did not disappoint, even though we couldn’t get too close to their steep nesting sites. They buzzed around like frantic giant hummingbirds, heading out to sea and coming back with mouthfuls of eels to feed their babies hidden in the burrows. It was lovely to sit quietly on top of the cliff after our tour group left, watching their comings and goings.

For those of you who can’t get enuff of the puffs, we have many more photos below and a few videos:

We planned to take a taxi back to town but the three taxis on the island were all booked so we decided to walk. Not making much visible progress across the windswept grasslands in 20 minutes, Laurel shook a thumb at a passing car and we hitched a ride. We happened to get a very good driver, in fact he’s the island’s driving instructor! He was also the high school Sociology and Psychology teacher, which shows quite a diverse curriculum for a remote school with only a couple hundred students. His perfect English was honed as a high school exchange student in Manhattan…Kansas.

The town itself is tidy but fairly spartan, as you might expect from an out of the way fishing port that was largely rebuilt in the 1970’s. We enjoyed popping into a few small shops and a cafe run by a jaded French expat but we didn’t spend much time in town. More exciting city life hopefully awaits at our next stop, Reykjavik.

P.S. About the name, the Westman Islands (or Vestmannaeyjar as they say in Icelandic). “West-men” is what the Vikings called people from Ireland, which is west of the Vikings’ home base in Scandinavia. The Vikings had some settlements in Ireland but also enjoyed plundering and taking slaves from there. During the early settlement of Iceland in the 800’s, a group of Irish slaves in Iceland revolted and fled to these islands… where they were later found and all slaughtered. So the name basically means “the place where we killed a bunch of Irish people.” If you’ve ever read any of the ancient Icelandic Viking sagas, they pretty much all end with a bloodbath. And begin with one. And have a few in the middle.

The Faroe Islands: grass underfoot and overhead

Depending on the weather and your mood on the day you arrive in the Faroe Islands, you might describe them as “windswept, treeless and gloomy” or “lush, dramatic and charming.” We definitely fell into the later camp.

See if you can spot Laurel waving on the cliff in a white jacket.

The Faroe Islands are between Scotland and Iceland and home to 50,000 hardy souls descend from the Vikings who settled the islands in the 9th century. The grassy islands are kept treeless by the relentless scouring of hurricane-force winter gales and the munching of 80,000 of the fluffiest sheep you can imagine, grazing nonchalantly on the precarious slopes. While breezy, the weather was mostly sunny and warm for our three day stay. When someone in our tour van asked to have the air conditioning turned on, our guide said it was the first time in her 30 years of guiding that she had that request in the normally chilly islands. Despite her perfect English (like all the locals we met), she struggled to remember the word for air conditioning.

Although the islands have well-maintained roads and several impressive mountain-piercing and sub-sea tunnels, we were glad that someone else was doing the driving. The roads are often one lane (sometimes even through tunnels) and frequently wind along the edges of cliffs. To add a little more challenge, dense fog can blow in suddenly. We only experienced that once during our charmed visit but the thought of driving on a one lane (but two way!) cliff-hugging road in a white-out is probably more adventure than our white knuckles could handle.

When you can turn your eyes and camera away from the vivid green fjords, the visual highlight is the sod-roofed houses. Some are historic old buildings but the sod roofs are also part of their modern architecture. Many of the houses and small businesses are topped with beautiful long grass. This is a sign of how proud the locals are of their traditions, which is tied to the bristling defense of their independence from the parent country Denmark. The Faroe Islands have won considerable autonomy since WWII after a period when Denmark pushed hard to assimilate the Faroese in the Danish culture. Though from the same original stock as the Danes, over the centuries the Faroese have evolved their own tongue-twisting language and culture. For you video fans, here is a roof rippling in the wind.

Though they honor their traditions, it is a thoroughly modern country. The capital of Torshavn has trendy restaurants and stylish shops. The infrastructure is top-rate, probably in better shape than Seattle despite the harsh environment. But it is sized for a small population. Several hotel construction projects are going on downtown, signaling a future surge in the level of tourism which will strain the existing resources. The locals are already complaining about how “crowded” the most picturesque villages and hikes have become. By this they mean maybe a dozen tourists’ cars, which is pretty pristine by normal measures but at times we did feel like the tourists (us included) were overrunning the petite villages. It is will be increasingly difficult to maintain a balance between the growth in tourism and the desire of both the locals and the tourists to see the unspoiled beauty of the islands.