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Exploring a Remote Pocket of Eastern Greenland

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As I saunter down a dirt path adjacent to howling sled dogs tethered to the Earth by chains, I learn Tasiilaq, Greenland is cut off from the rest of the world from November to February. When the sun rests low in the sky, and a rise and fall of light are all but absent, East Greenland’s wild waterways calm and cement. This deep freeze is what marks the Polar winter when extended families spread across villages can reconnect as temperatures dip and a thick layer of seawater turns to crystals, forming the traversable floating sheets of the frozen Arctic Ocean.

Though only home to just over 3,000 residents, it’s hard to imagine Tasiilaq is the largest town in East Greenland. A lifeline to this seldom-trodden side of the island nation, I arrived in town by way of a 10-minute helicopter ride from Kulusuk, a small island settlement marooned off the tip of southeastern Greenland, accessible by an hour-long commercial flight from Reykjavík.

I’m here in temperate August, just as the cotton flowers are in bloom. Locals—descendants of the Thule, who arrived in the country between 1000 and 1400 AD—swim laps in a glacial stream that snakes through town, a summer watering hole that will soon turn to ice. While migrations to the more densely populated West Greenland have ensued, Tasiilaq’s population is still increasing, as villagers in even more remote areas of East Greenland move for access to supplies and proximity to the East's only airport.

This migration is a trend Natural Habitat Adventures guide Julius Nielsen defies. Of East Greenlandic Inuit descent, Nielsen lived in Tasiilaq for nearly a decade and even spent a year studying in Copenhagen before moving back to his birthplace, the more sequestered, 100-strong village of Tiniteqilaaq, a hamlet dotted with only a few red, yellow, and white wooden cabins.

After a four-hour boat ride north into the Ikasartivaq Fjord, I pass Nielsen’s village before disembarking to my own home for the next several days, Base Camp Greenland. Considered the most remote luxury camp in the world, from mid-July to mid-September, the seasonal outpost is positioned at the mouth of a u-shaped glacial valley on Ammassalik Island, set only a fraction below the Arctic Circle. Hatched by Natural Habitat Adventures in 2015, the camp is a game changer for exploration, opening a world of adventure to distant expanses previously only accessible by lengthy boat rides, pricey helicopter flights, or wintertime sled dog pursuits.

I spend the next several days exploring the area, a wilderness swallowed by peaks only found in Greenland’s remote eastern stretches. I take a day-long zodiac ride to the Johan Petersen Fjord, where I enjoy a packed, gourmet lunch atop a flat, rocky outcrop near the Hahn glacier, mirrored mountain views engulf the entire horizon as humpback whales skim the surface near the Greenland ice sheet.

Other days I kayak through Sermilik Fjord by morning, where prodigious icebergs bob and calve near an island housing Nielsen’s 20 sled dogs. By one screech of his whistle, they rise to attention, ears pointed, scanning for their owner in a land so vast, they can summer on their very own island, running unrestrained, living wild.

I even spend an afternoon at Paulus Larsen’s house, the mayor of Tiniteqilaaq, who recalls a colder time when long-tusked narwhals were abundant. Now, he says, they’re scant. The sound of boats scare them away, and Sermilik Fjord hasn’t frozen in the last decade, evidence of a culture forced to change too fast in a climate slowly warming. Like Nielsen, Larsen subsists on a hunting lifestyle; seal, narwhal, and polar bear account for most of his diet. Larsen knows younger generations are less interested in hunting traditions that once formed the basis of life in East Greenland, but he credits fishing as the future industry of the area. This is an activity that can even be done in winter, his favorite time of year when the land is covered in snow, and the northern lights dance beneath a full moon that never sets.

During my last day at camp, I take a zodiac ride with Nielsen to a derelict sod house near the Helheim glacier. Akin to the functionality of a modern-day winter cabin, the circular stone structures were once seasonally topped with driftwood to form a community-dwelling, virtually the only construct of permanency of the East Greenland Inuit.

“My mom was born 25 miles north of here in a place like this,” says Nielsen, as I find a seat atop a mossy rock. When his mother was a girl, he tells me, the structure would have contained a central soapstone stove with a pot dangling over it, ignited by blubber and used to cook polar bear meat, a protein toxic when consumed raw."

As early as the 1950s, driftwood was as valuable as gold. It was sourced to build kayaks, vessels hunters operated with precision in tumultuous waves. Today, he says, most hunters prefer to use motorized boats, a less strenuous means to zip through iceberg-rich waters.

“These fjords aren’t freezing like they used to,” laments Nielsen, a man who uses his own pack of sled dogs to travel and hunt across the ice sheet during the freeze. “We used to meet more than we do now; the separation from one village to another is a bit more powerful than you would think.” Though Nielsen agrees advance technologies are necessary, he much prefers his lifestyle in Tiniteqilaaq, one that still represents how things were done only decades ago, when you lived and died by the freeze and thaw of the Arctic Ocean.


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