Dad and I Hitchhike in Greenland

Huh. Greenland is in the news a lot lately, for reasons that would only seem normal in some horrifically overblown satire.

My dad sent me two articles yesterday that quoted residents of tiny Kulusuk, Greenland, a village on the eastern coast of the country.

 

Most people in this world have never set foot in Greenland (including the orange sociopath who wants to buy it. With what, the money from the for-profit concentration camps?). But my dad and I have, somehow.

gl4It feels like a dream. Those halcyon days of 2008. My dad and I took a graduation trip to Scandinavia in July. We’re big fans of universal healthcare and the Maelstrom ride at Epcot (RIP), so we figured we’d feel right at home.

We flew Icelandair to Reykjavik—a big comfy plane, I remember—and in the seat pocket was a brochure advertising day trips to different destinations, including Greenland. My dad and I had talked about how Greenland would be close enough to visit while we were in Iceland, but in a very vague and alien way, like how you know you’ll be closer to the sun when you visit Hawaii but you don’t really think about it until you have a sunburn the shade of a flaming pink hibiscus, and even then, you’re not going to visit.

Greenland was like that. We knew it would be nearby, but didn’t have the first idea of how to get there, or any clue what we would find if we did.

But now, I held Greenland in my hands. And it was a picture of a smiling elderly woman in a kayak in the middle of beautiful blue water lit by the sun. Greenland looked warm, inviting, and reasonably priced.

Later, my dad would joke that the brochure should’ve had a little asterisk that said, “Sun not included.”

We booked the excursion after a few days of traveling around Iceland, during which the sun never set, I taught my dad the correct pronunciation of “Bjork,” and narrowly stopped him from buying a gargantuan wool sweater that a) he would never wear, b) would take up a good 80% of his suitcase and c) COST $800 IN AMERICAN MONEY.

I was very keen on steering Dad towards light, easily transportable souvenirs, like hats and figurines of elves, because I’m the one who had to carry his suitcase all over Scandinavia.

You see, my dad had a hernia. He’d been cleared for the trip and was having surgery as soon as we got home, but he wasn’t allowed to lift anything heavy or walk for too long. Fortunately, Iceland is full of cute shops and cafés with plenty of places to sit down and relax and have some delicious skyr, so we were doing great.

My dad asked the woman at the front desk of our hotel what the weather would be like in Greenland. She said it would be the same as Iceland, crisp but sunny and in the high 50s.

This was a lie.

Of course, if we had done any research at all (we didn’t have decent smartphones yet! So long ago!), we would’ve been able to better prepare ourselves, but instead we went to the one Thai restaurant in Iceland and imagined what Greenland would be like.

I assumed that where we’d be going would have a national park vibe—lots of picnic tables and slightly terrifying bathrooms but lovely vistas and well-marked places of interest. Definitely a vending machine or two, probably a little café with sandwiches and chips and maybe a fruit cup. I pictured a single stoplight that was always blinking.

Dad, on the other hand, pictured multiple stoplights, full service restaurants and gift shops. My dad loves a good gift shop.

We walked to the city airport from our hotel. I wore a hoodie, my purse and a wool hat that I’d purchased as a souvenir, while Dad had a windbreaker and not one, but two hats—one for fashion, one for function. We both wore jeans and regular sneakers that were best suited for walking on pavement that has no moisture on it whatsoever.

My dad had a hernia.

We packed a plastic bag with muffins from the hotel’s breakfast spread, just in case we needed a snack on the flight or the café in Greenland was running low.

Naturally, we ate all the muffins while waiting to board the flight. It was eight in the morning, and we weren’t getting back to Iceland until six or seven in the evening.

“It’ll be okay,” said Dad, brushing muffin crumbs off his windbreaker.

DSCN1263We were flying Iceland’s internal airline, Flugfelag, which will be my alias if I ever go into hiding. Our ride was a twin engine propellor with fifty-six seats. Not a lot of wiggle room. I had never flown in a propellor plane before, and mostly associated them with “Things that James Bond or Indiana Jones have jumped/been thrown out of.”

And the plane’s name? The Fokker 50. Thank you and good night.

We met our excursion guide, Captain Karl, who was Danish. We were the only Americans on our excursion—everyone else was Japanese or Chinese. The rest of the flight had been booked by a Russian tour group, and they looked ready to go, with massive parkas and winter boots.

Our flight attendant was too tall for our plane. She was at least six feet tall (and wearing heels!) with long blonde hair and giant blue eyes full of fear. Her shoulders hit every overhead bin whenever she wobbled down the aisle. She had to stoop down to give the safety announcement so she wouldn’t bang her head on the ceiling.

During the safety announcement, Dad nudged me and said, “In the event of a water landing, you have fifteen seconds to live.”

The flight was only ninety minutes, but the last thirty were turbulent with steep rollercoaster drops and ghostly footprints of glaciers that grew as we descended.

We glided over pitch black water and grayish green ice floes, and then landed . . . on something that felt less like a runway and more like driving through a puddle.

“Dad, there’s mud on the window,” I said, trying to understand what I was seeing. Mud doesn’t hit airplane windows, not unless the baggage handlers are having a mud fight.

“What?” said Dad, as mud and gravel splattered against our first view of Greenland from the ground.

“It’s a dirt runway.”

Dad said, “Oh, that’s different,” but told me later that he was thinking, “This is a more remote place than I thought.”

The runway was dirt because a cement runway would freeze and break apart. Oh, and because of the weather, flights only ran (to this airport at least, in 2008) between May and September.

We climbed down the plane’s stairs and were immediately hit with a blast of freezing air. It was sleeting, a mix of ice and rain that couldn’t make up its mind, but with the wind it was just substantial enough to pierce your skin.

And we had a hoodie and a windbreaker, respectively.

The Russians were all putting on their parkas.

“Uh-oh,” said Dad.

Kulusuk’s airport is one of Greenland’s minor airports, about the size of an elementary school library, but they had a gift shop that sold winter coats. What luck! Dad beckoned me to try one on.

“Nice and warm—and they look pretty sharp!”

“Dad, did you see the price tags on these?”

“No, but they can’t be that bad.”

“They’re 7,000 Danish krone.”

“I’m good with that!”

“Dad, these coats are one thousand dollars each.”

“. . . Never mind,” said Dad.

Freezing would be bad, but cheaper—and easier to explain to my mom.

Captain Karl gathered us around and said that it would be a forty-five minute walk to the village of Kulusuk. That . . . wasn’t going to work for us. We explained to Captain Karl that my dad had a hernia and rather than rightfully berate us for going to Greenland with a hernia that could rupture at any second, Captain Karl yelled something to a guy in Danish and the guy yelled something back.

“Hans will take you,” said Captain Karl. “He’s outside.”

“Does he work here?” asked Dad.

“No, he just . . . hangs around.”

DSCN1267We met Hans at his truck and he was more than happy to have company on the drive to the village. The dirt road took us past walls of snow and along cliff edges with no guardrails to spoil our view of the glaciers below. The truck had no seatbelts, so I basically did a full somersault in the back every time we took a hairpin curve.

This truck could have been built by a movie production designer who was really gunning for an Oscar. I could actually see the dirt suspended in the air and smell the rust that covered every exposed surface. A thousand cigarette butts were artfully strewn around, and the battery light blinked a dull red, like it had been ignored for a very long time and was in no rush to alert anyone.

Dad got the front seat, and he was eager to ask Hans about life in Greenland. Hans was Danish but his wife was a native Greenlander Inuit. He had lived there a long time, but couldn’t remember exactly how long.

 

The landscape ahead of us was grey, bleak, and unending. And it was July.

“How short do the days get in the winter?” asked Dad.

Hans said, “Oh, the days don’t get short at all! In January we get five and a half hours of daylight. That’s not short.”

He took a curve around a snowbank at least thirty feet high, and I did a cartwheel in the backseat.

Hans added, with aching sincerity, “If I had to live somewhere where it was dark all the time, I’d get really depressed.”

Upside down in the backseat, I thought, “Holy shit.”

Five and a half hours of daylight means eighteen and a half hours of darkness.

Past the snowbank, the clouds parted enough for us to see a glimpse of a graveyard, and crayon-colored huts in the distance.

This was Kulusuk, sixty miles south of the Arctic Circle.

Hans dropped us off at the supermarket, which was maybe a quarter the size of the average American drugstore. Still, they had everything you could possibly need—medicine, fishing gear, diapers, meat, rifles, clothes, even gumballs.

DSCN1280Most people in Greenland still hunt and fish to survive. There was some fruit on the shelves, but it was all long past fresh and very expensive.

We waited for Captain Karl and the rest of the group to arrive. The few people who trickled in and out of the store looked startled at the sight of strangers just standing around, poorly dressed, but then just went on with their shopping. We met another Danish tour guide who lived in the village, and the local police officer. My dad, a former cop himself, was eager to talk to him, but he only spoke the Inuit language. The Danish guide explained that he didn’t have a badge, or training, or really many duties—he got the job because he liked driving the police cart.

DSCN1295In 2008, Kulusuk had 310 people. Now it’s around 280.

Captain Karl collected us—he had a very reserved Danish manner but I’m pretty sure he was both relieved and shocked that we had survived the ride—and we joined the group down the road in a large red building that served as a community center. Just a short walk in the freezing rain and pounding wind was enough to soak us to the bone.

We watched a presentation led by an older Inuit woman in traditional clothing—she was Hans’ wife. Their very cute granddaughter demonstrated songs and dances while the woman told stories in Inuit—which Hans translated into Danish, so the guide for the Russian excursion could translate into Russian. Dad and I were out of luck, but the Russians seemed to enjoy it.

It was still a good show, though. The little girl posed for pictures with the tourists afterwards.

I wonder where she is now. What she thinks of all that is happening in her country. What she remembers about dancing for tour groups and posing for pictures.

DSCN1323

Our next stop was a small grey hut—finally, a gift shop. The owner of the gift shop was a woman from Iceland who was married to a Danish hunting guide, so she spent half the year in Greenland and half the year in Iceland.

Dad told her, “You should spend half the year in Hawaii!”

 

We picked up some keychains and postcards, but then I saw a glimmer in my dad’s eye—he’d spotted some expensive outerwear. It was a grey winter jacket with a Kulusuk patch on the sleeve. My dad can’t resist a good patch.

“I would look so cool,” he said. “First person on our block to have a Kulusuk coat, that’s for sure!”

“This costs $1,800 in American money,” I said.

“But look at the patch.”

“Where would you wear this? You barely go outside in the winter.”

“I’ll wear it going back and forth to the mailbox!”

“You can’t pay eighteen hundred dollars for something you’ll wear for thirty seconds a day,” I said. “Mom will murder you.”

Dad grudgingly admitted defeat.

Next on the itinerary was a kayak demonstration—but the winds were 40 miles per hour, and the seas were too rough, so the demonstration was canceled. It was raining even harder now, so we were directed to a small church. We sat in a pew at the back and watched the Russians, huddled in their parkas, whip out open-face sandwiches and tiny bottles of vodka.

“Talk about being prepared for cold weather!” said Dad.

Captain Karl briefed us on our return to the airport. Next to the supermarket, there was a dock, with a metal ladder about ten feet long, that we would climb down to a flotilla of small boats that would take us to the airport in groups of three or four.

gl3I am kicking myself eleven years later for not taking a picture of this ladder, but my dad and I have breathlessly described it so many times that I can still see it perfectly.

This metal chain ladder was not connected to anything other than the very top of the dock. It wasn’t the kind of ladder that painters use—with a fixed structure that supports the rungs—but the kind of ladder you’d see on a treehouse, with metal chain loops between the rungs. So as you’re climbing down, you’re holding onto a slim metal chain that is moving with you—and the 40 mph winds—as opposed to steadying you as you descend.

The sea was so rough that if you lingered for longer than a few seconds on this ladder, you were going to get slammed with a wave of freezing water. You know, on top of the freezing rain that was dunking you from the sky.

So it goes without saying that everything in this scenario was soaked—the ladder, our shoes, and our hands. I hadn’t been able to feel my fingers and toes for about six hours at this point. There was no way I would be able to grasp and hold onto the ladder safely, and gripping with my mud-soaked, treadless sneakers that were made for power-walking around an air-conditioned mall? Not going to happen.

We watched the first group descend the ladder, clinging on for dear life. Once they managed to throw themselves into the boat, it took off, spraying them with freezing water all the way back to the airport.

“Did you see the fear in that Chinese lady’s eyes?” said my dad later. “I think she wanted us to notify her next of kin. I was just imagining what would happen if my hernia burst.”

Oh yeah. That hernia.

Dad and I quickly assessed the situation, as another group launched themselves at the mercy of the ladder.

The best case scenario would be to fall in the water and freeze to death in fifteen seconds.  Worst case scenario would be falling off the ladder, hitting the boat and breaking a limb or your back and then hitting the water and freezing to death in fifteen seconds.

And the last thing you would hear would be the laughter of the glaciers, mocking you for thinking you could conquer Greenland, which even the Vikings abandoned because it was too cold.

DSCN1330But the worst worst case scenario, for us, would be if Dad’s hernia burst (causing him to fall off the ladder, hit the boat, fall into the water and freeze to death in fifteen seconds).

“If my hernia bursts, they can’t rush me to Kulusuk General Hospital,” said Dad.

Kulusuk’s medical services, at least at that time, were provided by a single resident nurse. There were no highways to other towns—people traveled into the interior by snowmobile.

As Dad said later, “Maybe I could’ve been transported to another town by a Russian tourist, drinking vodka and driving a snowmobile for the first time. My only hope was they would rush me to the gift shop.”

I said, “We aren’t going on this ladder.”

We approached Captain Karl, who was really very patient with us considering the number of unprepared demanding Americans he must deal with on the regular, and he sent us over to a Danish guy, who took us to a garage near the grocery store, where he asked an Inuit guy with a pickup truck to take us to the airport.

Once again, we got in a stranger’s truck with no seatbelts—but we would’ve happily ridden in the truck’s bed clinging to the bumper just to avoid that ladder.

However, there were only two seats. So yours truly, an adult, had to sit on my dad’s lap for the entire ride. But I didn’t want to risk sitting on the hernia, so I sat kind of halfway on his knee and then held myself up as best I could by gripping the doorframe, with my head squashed against the window, so I wouldn’t bump my dad’s hernia.

The route back to the airport was just as wild as before, with icy hairpin turns and ditch-sized potholes, all of which our driver took with one hand on the wheel, because the other hand was holding his cell phone. He was talking to someone in Inuit the entire ride—probably telling them, “You won’t believe the idiots I have with me. Yes, they’re Americans.”

That long stretch of road along a sheer drop-off into the ocean was really exciting, and I hit my head on the window careening around the turns maybe six or seven times. I probably lost a few piano lessons, nothing I’ll miss.

We made it to the airport, but the weather was getting worse. We met up with the rest of our group, who only knew us as the weird Americans who kept disappearing, and Captain Karl, who was worried that our plane wouldn’t be able to take off. There was another tour running that day, where after their time in Kulusuk, people were taking Russian helicopters to another town with a hotel.

Dad and I watched people board this Soviet-era helicopter that was struggling to stay upright in the freezing wind, and gulped. The years and the elements had not been kind to these helicopters.

“They look like someone sent them through a reverse car wash,” said Dad.

Years later, while watching Chernobyl, my dad recognized the helicopters that were flying in the clean-up crews.

“That’s the helicopter we saw in Greenland!” he said. “Am I glad we didn’t have to fly in one of those!”

Thankfully, our plane was able to take off. Our statuesque flight attendant knelt down to welcome us back. Captain Karl gave us lovely “Certificates of Achievement” with our names on them. He spelled my name as Elisabeth, which made me love it even more—I have it framed in a place of honor, next to a painting my dad made of the picture at the very top of this post.

As we sat down and buckled our seatbelts, Dad pulled a plastic bag out from under his windbreaker.

“You’ve had the muffin bag the entire time?”

“I shoved it under my shirt,” he said. “For warmth.”

On one of the hottest days this summer, locals in the tiny village of Kulusuk, Greenland, heard what sounded like an explosion. It turned out to be a soccer field’s worth of ice breaking off a glacier more than five miles away. Greenland lost 12.5 billion tons of ice to melting on August 2, the largest single-day loss in recorded history. NASA oceanographer Josh Willis: “Greenland has impacts all around the planet. There is enough ice in Greenland to raise the sea levels by 7.5 meters, that’s about 25 feet, that would be devastating to coastlines all around the planet. We are all connected by the same ocean.” —CNN

The climate crisis is causing unprecedented levels of stress and anxiety to people in Greenland who are struggling to reconcile the traumatic impact of global heating with their traditional way of life.The first ever national survey examining the human impact of the climate emergency shows that more than 90% of islanders interviewed fully accept that the climate crisis is happening, with a further 76% claiming to have personally experienced global heating in their daily lives, from coping with dangerous sea ice journeys to having sled dogs euthanized for economic reasons tied to shorter winters. — The Guardian

As a result of these climactic troubles, many Greenlanders are experiencing solostalgia, a term coined to describe the psychic pain of climate change, a feeling of missing home even without leaving, as home, the Earth, is changing. Courtney Howard, the board president of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, told the Guardian that Arctic people are now showing symptoms of anxiety, “ecological grief,” and even post-traumatic stress related to the effects of climate change. “The impact of climate change on mental health is a looming public health crisis,” she said. —Quartz

We knew eleven years ago that the climate was changing and that Greenland was melting. It’s 800,000 square miles and 80% is covered by an ice sheet that all of Greenlandic society and every city in the world that’s on a coastline depend on for survival, and it’s melting. My dad and I knew that before we went there, and we didn’t even know enough to bring decent shoes.

Dad just texted me, “I keep wondering what Kulusuk looks like now. This is pretty scary—has to be a wake up call.”

My dad is an eternal optimist, which allows him to do things like travel across the world with a hernia, but we’re long past a wake up call.

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