On our first day, we hiked around the town of Ilulissat and to the nearby fjord to see the icebergs. The views here are stunning! Our bed & breakfast hosts say we’re lucky to have such nice weather while we’re in Greenland. We had a high temperature of -18 °C (0 °F) by day and -25 °C (-13 °F) at night!
The Ilulissat Icefjord is a narrow channel of water that connects the Atlantic Ocean with the vast sheet of ice covering 80% of Greenland’s interior. The fjord, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2004, begins at the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier. It’s estimated that some of the ice in the glacier is about 250,000 years old, making it a fascinating subject for scientific study. Many discoveries related to climate change can be attributed to this particular glacier.
Since it’s one of the few locations where Greenland’s ice sheet connects to the sea, the ice in this glacier flows faster than any other place outside Antarctica. As a result, huge icebergs regularly calve off the glacier and float downstream, making for an incredible sight.
Every morning, we woke to a different view in Disko Bay just outside our window. Over breakfast, we talked about the changes in the icebergs: some broke up, others drifted closer to town. The beautiful shapes of the icebergs were different every day. Despite the intense cold, we were always eager to hike along the shore to get a closer look at the icebergs.
We can’t get enough of the iceberg and ocean views, so today we explored other hiking trails in the same general area as yesterday. It still wasn’t easy to be outside for so long at -20 °C (-4 °F), but we’re getting better at it.
Even though Ilulissat is the third largest town in Greenland, with about 4600 people, life there can be tough and even somewhat isolated during the winter.
During our time in Ilulissat, the temperature averaged around -20 °C (-4 °F) during the day. It’s hard to describe what that’s like — essentially, any exposed skin quickly becomes painful, and hands go numb after only a few minutes. Since we spent most of our time outdoors during the day, we were careful to bundle up, leaving only our eyes exposed.
Jannik, the owner of our B&B, told us we were lucky with the weather. If we had arrived just a few weeks earlier, we would have experienced -35 °C (-31 °F), and it would have been dangerous for us to be outside for too long. Jannik told us that at -15 °C (5 °F) and below, locals need to keep engine heaters plugged in so that their cars will start. At -35 °C, they need to mix additives into the gasoline to prevent condensation. Houses are built with electrically heated insulation around the water pipes to prevent them from freezing.
The prolonged cold of winter also freezes the seawater around most of Greenland, making it difficult for boats to move around. During the winter, a big cargo ship ordinarily delivers food and supplies to Ilulissat every three weeks, but the ship was unable to break through enough sea ice to reach town while we were there. A few days later, the supermarkets were out of eggs and running low on fresh vegetables. (Ironically, the only widely available vegetable was iceberg lettuce.) According to the weather forecast, there was a chance that the next supply ship wouldn’t be able to make it either, so Jannik started stocking up on food, just in case.
Even when the supply ships are infrequent, Greenlanders have plenty of local sources of food: ice-fishing for halibut, hunting musk ox, or catching seals. Though hunting for dinner must be tough work, it’s hard for us to imagine that anything on that supply ship would taste as good as the musk ox burgers we ate in Ilulissat!
The ice surrounding Ilulissat has shifted enough that boats are now able to force their way through the ice and get out of the harbor. We just got back from a boat excursion into the icefjord, where we were surrounded by gigantic icebergs that recently broke off the glacier. Incredibly beautiful! Greenland is exceeding our expectations!
It didn’t take long for us to realize that Ilulissat is full of dogs. And not just any dogs… they are all Greenlandic dogs, bred for their tolerance of the cold and their ability to pull sleds, like Alaskan and Siberian huskies. We learned that these dogs are an essential part of the fishing industry of Ilulissat. Local fishermen say they get the best halibut by cutting a hole in the ice and fishing them out of the fjord near the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier. But the glacier is a UNESCO protected site, and therefore snowmobiles (and other motor vehicles) are prohibited. Thus, the fishermen rely on dogsleds to reach the glacier and to haul the fish back to town. There are many fishermen in Ilulissat, each with ten or more dogs, so lots of dogs!
We were reminded of just how many dogs there are whenever the church bells rang: all the dogs in town started howling and we could barely hear the bells after that. It was like the town was being invaded by wolves.
We quickly fell in love with Greenlandic dogs. Known for their strength and endurance, they’re also incredibly beautiful. Locals often reminded us not to get too close, though — they are working dogs, not pets, and they aren’t friendly to strangers. In fact, most of the dogs live in dedicated areas on the outskirts of town, rather than among the houses, and dogs older than four months must be chained to limit their aggressive behavior.
Despite the warnings, we noticed that owners are very caring toward their dogs. Jannik and Paa, the owners of the B&B where we stayed, even keep Greenlandic dogs as pets. They used to have 15 dogs and a sled, but as snowmobiles became more commonplace, they decided to sell the dogs and get a snowmobile instead (“I don’t have to feed the snowmobile every day,” says Jannik). At the time, one of their dogs had recently had puppies, and they decided to raise three of those puppies as pets: Champagne, Vodka, and Busy. The three of them allowed us to get the cuddling, petting, and playing out of our system — before we went dogsledding with the working dogs.
Epic dogsledding day! We just returned to town after a full day exploring snow-covered terrain on sleds pulled by teams of eager and strong Greenlandic huskies. Our local guides/mushers were awesome, and we couldn’t have asked for a better day!
We just had an excellent afternoon riding snowmobiles from the coast into the interior of Greenland. These capable machines remind us of our motorcycle… allowing us to go anywhere and really experience the environment, but in this case, traversing ice and snow, and climbing ridiculously steep slopes. No photos — we were too focused on the experience. So much fun!
Today is our last day in Greenland. We went on a scenic flight over Ilulissat and the icebergs in the nearby icefjord. What an incredible experience! This was the perfect end to our vacation.