The Wild Westfjords of Iceland

September 2, 2017:

Overnight we sailed from Reykjavik up to the northwest of Iceland to an area known as the Westfjordlands. We are docked this morning in the town of Isafjordur, which is the administrative capital of this area. Towering mountains ring the glacial bay, and it is just a beautiful vista in all directions!

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In Isafjordur harbor

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Map of the west fjord lands area of Iceland

Jim and I started the day off with a short walk into town, and were immediately charmed by all the old houses immaculately restored in the town center. This is a very sparsely populated areaof Iceland, but its beauty draws visitors from all over Iceland and further afield. Many families still maintain “summer houses” on the grounds of their old family farms, and return annually to visit in the (relatively) warmer months of summer. However, by this time of year, most people have locked up for the winter and returned to the cities.

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Old town Isafjordjur

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To get to our first stop, Skrúdar, we must first drive through a long (5km.) tunnel bored right through the middle of a mountain separating this fjord valley from the next. The tunnel, Vestfjarôagöng, was completed in 1996, and is a crazy feat of engineering. For one thing, there is an intersection midway through the tunnel to access yet another fjord going off at about a 90 degree angle to our direction of travel. Further, the tunnel decreases to a single lane after the intersection, with multiple pull outs along the side. Apparently, the engineers figured that with such sparse traffic, they could save money by only building one lane. However, because the pull outs could not be excavated by the boring machine, they had to be manually excavated by miners, which caused the total cost of that section of the tunnel to exceed the cost of building two lanes. Ruh roh!  This may have been the most exciting experience of the day!

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Entrance to the crazy tunnel

Next we came upon Skrúdar, which was built in 1909 by a local pastor, Reverend Sigtryggur Guölaugsson, as a means of teaching local residents about healthful plants and fruits they could add to their diets.  It must have worked because he lived to the ripe old age of 97! Truthfully, this is a rather unremarkable botanic garden, even if it is the oldest one in Iceland.  Its location at the head of another glacial bay was a beautiful stop, though.

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Countryside around the botanical garden
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The botanical garden at Skrúdar
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Gateway made of the jawbones of a blue whale

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Our next and final stop was in the town of Flateyri. This tiny town lies at the tip of another fjord, and was once the shark fishing center of Iceland. Why, you might ask, fish for shark when there are so many other plentiful and popular fisheries in Iceland?! The answer is that one of the most iconic (and disgusting) national foods is a marinated (read: “rotten”) shark snack called Kæstur hákarl. Jim and I managed to avoid this “delicacy”, but some of the other members of our cruise were not so fortunate.

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Main street, Flateyri

Therefore, it was with some trepidation that we learned that we were to enjoy a coffee and snack at a tiny cafe in Flateyri. Fortunately, the most challenging menu item was some cold-smoked salmon, which I was able to avoid, but Jim said was quite good.  When faced with the cuisine of Iceland, which features other disgusting national traditions such as eating whale, I am grateful to be on a cruise ship where I can easily avoid such “temptations”!

The town of Flateyri has only about 210 people living there today. As we drove into town, which lies on a peninsula, you could see a huge V-shaped berm on the hillside above the town. The reason for this berm is that avalanches are a frequent fact of life everywhere in Iceland where steep volcanic slopes tower above the cities. Sadly, the town of Flayer was devastated as an avalanche in 1996 killed 20 (about 10% of the population) and destroyed most of the homes in the downtown area.

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Flateyri harbor
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Notice the green V-shaped berm up the hillside behind the church. All the homes in town behind the church down to the church were destroyed by the avalanche. This avalanche barrier has prevented two separate avalanches from wreaking the same devastation.

After we ate our snack, we visited the local church, where one of the youngsters in town sang us some traditional Icelandic songs. The group favorite was a lullaby about a mother who throws her baby into a waterfall, and is still sung to Icelandic babies today.  On that cheerful note, we boarded the bus and drove back to Isafjordur.

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Tonight, we will cross the Arctic Circle on our cruise to our next stop in the northeast of Iceland in another fjord called Akureyri. Our onboard naturalist defines the Arctic Circle as “The southern limit of the area where for one day or more each summer, the sun does not set or rise”, i.e., all land within the Arctic Circle experiences at least one day of midnight sun each year.” Jim and I are very excited as there is a chance we will be able to see the Northern Lights from this vantage point. Stay tuned!

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Sailing out of Isafjordur harbor

Raving About Reykjavik!

Sept. 1, 2017:

This morning marks the official end of the first part of our cruise. So many of our cruise mates are leaving the ship, and new passengers are coming aboard. It also means we have to change cabins, albeit just to a cabin next door. Suffice it to say it was because we failed to book the second leg of this journey at the same time we booked the first. Enough said.

OK, Peeps! Hold on to your hats because Our Lady of the Aggressive Schedule has hijacked the itinerary again today!  We left the ship as soon as we docked and made for the Europe Car rental kiosk conveniently located right on the cruise quay. Car keys in hand, we made for the central city, which is walkable from the ship (probably about a mile), but we are on a short schedule today (largely due to Our Lady of the Aggressive Schedule setting our itinerary). First stop: old town Reykjavik. We had about an hour and a half in the old town before we had to hit the road for the Blue Lagoon; our prime objective for the day.

But first, a small sampling of Icelandic history and culture!

Iceland was first inhabited  by Ingólfar Arneson in 847 AD. Written history generally agrees that the area was first settled by Viking explorers and their slaves in the late 9th century (about 874), although there is archeological evidence that Gaelic monks settled the area at some time earlier in the 9th century. The seaside edges of the country were rapidly developed, mainly by Norwegians, after that.

Interestingly, Iceland was one of the very first countries to establish a representational form of government, known as Icelandic Commonwealth (or Old Commonwealth), and it held its first parliament (called the Althing) in 930. The Althing met annually until about 1262 at Lögberg, which is the site of the Althing in Thingvellir National Park. Today, the Althingi is the seat of Icelandic Parliament in Reyjkavik.

The history of Iceland is well known today because it was one of the first countries to record its country’s history in written books known as the Icelandic Sagas.

In 1262, following a period of internal strife known as the “Age of the Sturlungs”, which weakened Iceland, it became subjugated to Norway. In that year, it was brought under Norwegian Crown, under the “Old Covenant”. In 1319, Norway and Sweden United, and then in Denmark subjugated both in 1376. IN 1397, the Kalmar Union was formed under the leadership of Queen Margret of Denmark, and all four countries were united until 1523. Following that, Iceland fell under Danish rule, which remained the case for several centuries.

During this time, Iceland suffered as one of poorest countries in Europe, and frequent pandemics killed off large percentages of its population. Perhaps the worst natural calamity occurred in 1783, when the Lakagígar volcano erupted, which thoroughly disrupted life in Iceland and killed off virtually all agriculture. One in three Icelanders died as a result of this eruption and the poisonous air afterwards. The volcano is also credited with completely disrupting natural weather cycles and causing a cold period, further limiting crop production for several years. In the 19th century, 20% of the population emigrates to Canada to escape the cold which caused devastating crop losses.

Finally, in 1918, Iceland entered into a 25 year agreement with Denmark which recognizes Iceland as a sovereign state in personal union with Denmark, but it was disrupted by the outbreak of WWII.

In WWII, Iceland assumed control over its foreign affairs, and was “neutral” after Nazis invaded Denmark. In 1940, was occupied by British troops; after 1941, occupied by U.S. troops. In 1943 when the Danish Icelandic Union Agreement expired, there was a vote on future relations with Denmark, and the people voted to become an independent nation, which happened in 1944.

In 1994, Iceland joined the European Economic Area, but maintains its own currency; the Icelandic Kronúr. In 2001, the banks of Iceland were deregulated, and Iceland became (temporarily) one of the most prosperous countries in the world. Iceland moved towards an economy based on investment banking and financial services. However, the economic crash of 2008 caused the failure of all three major Icelandic banks, and economic depression and political unrest followed. Today, the economy is stabilizing and growing, although there was another temporary setback when the prime minister was forced to resign following the disclosure of his and his family’s offshore economic holdings following the publication of the “Panama Papers” a couple of years ago. Today, Iceland appears to be a very prosperous country once again, and construction cranes dot the skyline.

We drove into old town Reykjavik along the lovely seaside promenade, and past several interesting buildings and sculptures, and parked our car near the Settlers museum, in the beautiful embassy area. Jim and I wandered around in this area for about an hour and a half. I would have really liked to have had time to tour the settlement museum, but it was not open before we had to hit the road to drive to the Blue Lagoon, which is about 35 km from Reykjavik.

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Harpa, the Reykjavik Concert Hall and Conference Center built in glass hexagonal to resemble the basalt stones at Kirkjubaejarklaustur
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Dómkirkjan, Lutheran Cathedral
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Tungatan, “embassy row”

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Icelandic grocery store; trolls welcome
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old city center
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Tjörnen park area

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The Blue Lagoon has become such a popular destination that you must go online first to order your tickets which assures you a set entry time. To give you an idea how hard it is to get the tickets, I ordered ours online about six weeks before we would be arriving here, and the only options for entry times were at 8 a.m. or 12 p.m. Since the ship was not scheduled to land in Reykjavik until 8, we had to settle for the 12:00 tickets, which totally messed up our day from a logistical standpoint. However, it was still a great day.

The drive to the area where the Blue Lagoon is located is takes you through some amazing topography which looks like it is a recently exploded volcanic eruption. In this area of Iceland, you do not see the remaining icecaps, but today, there is a cold wind blowing across this bleak terrain. The Blue Lagoon is south and west of Reykjavik, and is very near the international airport. Actually, if you had a car and about two hours before you had to be at the airport, you could do this site as a detour on your way to your flight or immediately after you landed, assuming you had the forethought to order your tickets enough in advance.

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Upon arrival, you are given a locker bracelet, which also operates as your charging device while in the baths. There is an extra charge for towels, robes and any other services. In short, this has got to be the best tourist trap in existence, since you are totally at the mercy of the site operator.   Jim and I quickly changed and made our way out to the lagoon. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves, except to say that we really appreciated the 90 degree waters after crossing the very cold deck from the changing rooms.

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While you can spend all day at the Lagoon, and there are rooms for massages and facials, a couple of steam rooms, a restaurant and the like, Our Lady was a demanding mistress today, so we set off in the complete opposite direction up to the northeast of Reykjavik. Our ultimate destination was Thingvellir National Park, which offers two important features in addition to being just a lovely park for hiking and camping.

 

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We were pleased to see the topography changed gradually to a more grassy and agricultural landscape, dotted with sheep and the famous Icelandic horses as we drove to the north. One thing Jim and I decided today is that we are only seeing a fraction of the beauty Iceland has to offer with our three planned stops here, and we will have to return in the near future to explore more thoroughly!

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The first thing which drew us to Thingvellir park is that this is one of the few places on earth where you can actually see tectonic plates grinding together. In this case, it is a rift valley where the plates are ripping apart, actually pushing western Iceland towards Greenland at a rate of a few centimeters a year. As you arrive in the park, you walk down a crazy stone path that literally dives between these plates, and the park service obviously has some challenges just keeping a working pathway with all the geologic activity!

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The other cool thing is that this is the site of where all 36 of the island’s Viking chieftains held their first Althing (general Assembly) in 930 AD. This annual parliament was held here for centuries, and attended by all of the 60,000 citizens of Iceland to declare laws and settle disputes. In the year 1,000, it was the place where Iceland decided to eschew pagan beliefs and adopt Christianity (albeit under threat of invasion from Norway).  There is still a Lutheran church onsite with a pulpit which dates back to 1683.

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Thingvallavatn, the largest inland lake in Iceland

Sadly, that was all we had time to explore, and so we made a mad dash back to Reykjavik to begin part 2 of the cruise. We’re looking forward to meeting some new shipmates, but we are left with a huge list of things to explore just in the Reykjavik area alone: The “golden circle” drive to Gullfoss waterfall and Geyser national park, Sellfoss waterfall, glacier tracking, the Inside the Volcano tour, a drive to Kirkjubaejarklaustur to see the basaltic columns, a sail down to Jökulsárlón lagoon where the icebergs rest, and Látrabjarg bird cliffs! Whew! Maybe we’d better make it two weeks!

Our Princely Passage Through Prinz Kristian Sund

August 30, 2017:

Jim and I arose with the dawn on this, our last day in Greenland. And what a grand day it was!  We bundled up to survive the cold wind off the glaciers, and rushed up on deck. At 7 this morning, we began our 7 hour passage through Prinz Kristian Sund (Prince Christian Sound), named for the late Prince, and later King of Denmark.

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As Wikipedia says: “The Prince Christian Sound connects the Labrador Sea with the Irminger Sea. It is around 100 km (60 miles) long and it is narrow, sometimes only 500 m (1500 ft) wide. There is only one settlement along this sound, Aappilattoq.

The long fjord system is mostly surrounded by steep mountains reaching over 1200 m height. Many glaciers going straight into its waters calving icebergs.”

Once again, we have been blessed with a glorious day for this passage. In fact, until last night, we were not even sure we were going to be able to do this part of our trip, as all the calving glaciers can create so much sea ice and glaciers that the passage can become unsafe, which happened to another ship just three weeks ago.  While there is a possibility of seeing marine life, and animals on the surrounding slopes, the real show of the day is the topography itself. The steep walls of the main fjords and those that branch off from them are crowned with numerous glaciers, both hanging, and some reaching the sea. The water itself is a mix of saltwater overlaid with fresh water laying on top from the melting glaciers. Jim and I watched awestruck as we glided through this incredible fjord.

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Jim and I have been fortunate enough to see both the Alaskan glaciers in the Bay of Glaciers and the Patagonian glaciers in Chile and Argentina. However, this is really a contender for the most awe-inspiring glacier cruise! To cap matters, the whole 100 kilometer channel is incredibly remote, with much of the passage blocked by ice most of the year. The only settlement of any size is the tiny town of Aappilattoq, which we passed about two hours into the transit. Waving goodbye to Aappilattoq, we allowed ourselves to go downstairs for breakfast. It was such a beautiful day, we actually ate outside with a prime view of the glaciers behind us.

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Tiny Aappilattoq

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In addition to the incredible views of the glaciers, there were also countless icebergs, and a constant wash of “sea brash” (the smaller iceberg pieces that litter the surface of the water. At one point, we all became very excited because we thought we saw a large seal sunning itself on an iceberg. However, it was just a bit of dirty ice caused by the terminal moraine at as the iceberg relentlessly ground itself down to the water and calved from its glacier. Darn! However, in my opinion, by far and away the best feature we saw was a glimpse into the massive Greenland ice sheet.Prinz Kristian Sund-213

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“Seal” fake out
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Exiting Prinz Kristian Sund

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Finally, about 1:30, we exited fjord, and sailed out into the Irminger Sea.  Our naturalist aboard, Dr. Michael Scott, had told us that this stretch to Iceland is some of the best whale watching area in the world, so we didn’t want to miss a minute.  Jim and I took a break about 1:45 for a belated lunch. While we were eating on the stern veranda, sure enough, at least 25 whales passed by, spouting off like a calliope, but no photos as they were too far away (and my camera equipment was having a well-deserved nap).

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Southern tip of the Greenland ice cap

 

Qaqortoq. Yes, It’s a Place.

August 29, 2017:

Although still chilly this morning, it is not the bone-chilling cold of yesterday as we pull into the harbor of Qaqortoq, on the southwestern coast of Greenland. This town is very small, but not as small as Paamiut. Fortunately, the sun is shining, as we have a hike planned along a lake, which lies just outside of town. The walk through town is charming and everyone seems to have flung open their doors to greet us (or maybe just the sunshine). We expected another cold day today, but we were shedding layers before we even started our walk/hike.

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We’re pretty much at the far southwestern tip of Greenland, which was originally populated by the Saqqaq people about 4300 years ago. There are some records of habitation dating from the Dorset peoples of NE Canada about 2300 years ago. However, recorded history dates back to the first Norse settlements established in the late 10th Century A.D., especially around the Hvalsey settlement, which is about 19 kilometers (12 miles) to the NE of Qaqortoq. However, for whatever reasons, those settlements died out in the 15th Century, and the current habitation dates only to 1774, when a Danish-Norwegian trader named Anders Olsen established a trading post here, originally called Julianehåb (Juliane’s Hope) after the Danish queen. Fast forward to the present day when we find Greenland a semi-autonomous state, still largely dependent on Denmark for trading and funding. The main industries are fishing and seal-hunting, and Denmark purchases about 60% of the economic output of this isolated town of just of over 3,000 people. Sadly, like in Paamiut, it appears most of the tourist souvenirs appear to be sealskin products. Sad!

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With that, we were happy to proceed to our walk in the outskirts of town! The hills ringing the town appear to be a combination of granitic and basaltic stones, on which lichens and mosses appear to be struggling to survive. There are no trees here, but, upon closer inspection, you notice a whole alpine-like ecosystem covering the hills. There are tiny streams everywhere, and furzes and heathers cover the rocky ground, punctuated by tiny wildflowers and wild berries including Icelandic blueberries and cow berries. The hills are open to anyone who desires to gather them and they are all ripening now. Because the day is so still and calm, the lake surface is like a mirror, which makes for some great photography! Jim and I walked about six miles in total along the rocky lakeside path, winding up back in town. We sampled one local beer at the local tavern, and then headed back for the ship.

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Arctic vegetation

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Gathering Arctic Blueberries

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Qaqortoq-73Qaqortoq-80Once again, we are blessed with a beautiful sail away. It’s even warm enough that Jim strips down a shorts and flip flops, even though we can see little icebergs bobbing in the bay.

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But, first, a lovely parting gift from Qaqortoq … as Jim and I were having a cocktail standing at the balcony of our cabin, a juvenile humpback whale surfaced right below us, and spouted off. What a fun send off!Qaqortoq-86

Juvenile Humpback surfacing right under our balcony

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Bye bye, icebergs!

Tomorrow, we are looking forward to a day-long transit of Prinz Kristian Sound; a deep fjord system that bisects the lower tip of Greenland from its southernmost Cape Farewell archipelago.

“Madam: There’s an Iceberg in My Sea”

August 28, 2017:

 

Yes, that’s the view that greeted us when we threw open the shades this morning as we sailed into the glacial bay in which the harbor of Paamiut is located. We appear to have lost our sunshine in Nuuk, and it’s a foggy, overcast morning here in Paamiut. Whereas Nuuk is the major city in Greenland, Paamiut is tiny; consisting of only about 1,500 inhabitants. In fact, there are only about 50 vehicles here!

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We bundled up well, because it’s only 38 degrees outside, and there’s a light wind blowing, which intensifies the cold. Then we took the tender into the town for a short walking tour to get to know Paamiut. This tiny town was established in 1742, as a trading post by a Danish trader named Jacob Severin. The town was originally named Frederikshåb (Frederick’s Hope) after Crown Prince Frederick (later King Frederick V) of Norway. The town prospered mostly on fur and whale products. In the 1950s, it boomed following the cod fishing boom, and in the 1960s, the town was consolidated and a number of larger apartment blocks were built to lure people living around the town to come into the center to help in the cod fishing industry. However, when the cod fishery almost died out in the early 1990s, so did the town.

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Regional Administrative Office
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Nursery School
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Main Street, Paamiut

We were met at the docks by a local guide. She walked us around, and proudly pointed out all the buildings of importance in the town. One thing you notice right away is how many schools and activity centers there are for the youth. Our assumption is that they must be pretty heavily subsidized by the Danish government because there just isn’t that much industry of any kind here, and tourism is merely an afterthought. However, like in Nuut, all the buildings are painted bright cheery colors.

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Fredenskirche with its memorial graveyard

 

 

There is one building, in particular, of which the villagers are really proud. It is the local church, Fredenskirche, built in 1909 in the Norwegian Hansel and Gretel style. Looking at it, you could see where model for gingerbread houses comes from! The graveyard in the churchyard and a monument across the street memorialize fishermen lost at sea. There is also a replica of a traditional Greenlandic sod house. Also, exactly one supermarket, one grocery store, a café, one gift shop, and a couple of bars. Residents all seem to carry cell phones, but the ship has had no Internet since yesterday (sporadically), and there is nowhere in town to get WiFi. Having concluded our tour, we were happy to head back to the ship and thaw. Hopefully, there will be more warmth and sun tomorrow as we head south about 150 miles to Qaqortoq.

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Replica traditional Greenlandic sod house

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Tiny interior of same

Look! Look! It’s Nuuk!

August 27, 2017:

After two days at sea, with rough, foggy and cold weather, we pulled into Nuuk, Greenland this morning to gorgeous clear skies and a balmy 42 degrees. I spent most of the last two days editing puffin pictures from St. Johns, which I wasn’t able to upload over the last two days at sea, but we were both glad to see the sun again!

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Our excursion today takes us into the fjords surrounding Nuuk, the Greenlandic capital. We’re about 150 miles south of the Arctic Circle on the southwest coast of Greenland. This area was first colonized by Eric the Red, the Icelandic Viking. He brought with him 14 boats of Icelandic and Norwegian settlers, who primarily settled to take advantage of the incredible fishing off the Great Banks. He named the island “Greenland”, because as opposed to Iceland, there were actually areas along the coasts of this Arctic island which actually thawed long enough to become partially green (at least for a few days a year). This may have been the first recorded example of real estate puffery known to man because everyone who has visited this region will tell you that Iceland is way more green than Greenland!

Jim and I caught the first tender to the shore a short way from where our ship is moored in a glacial bay some ways inland from the actual coast. We were met at the dock by a small, but powerful, speed boat captained by a native Greenlander named Eric. Most of the people here show the mixed heritage of their Scandinavian and Inuit backgrounds, and both the captain and his first mate, Lena, also show the strong influence of their Inuit roots.

The approach to Nuuk is lovely, with the rising sun shining on postcard perfect houses painted in vibrant colors! The whole coastal area of Greenland was carved by the glaciers, some of which still meet the coastline. Many of those glaciers still calve icebergs into the bay, and the coast is carved into watery “arms” where the glaciers passed. We are searching for both whales and icebergs as we head out to cruise in this fjorded wonderland.

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Nuuk-37Almost right away, we see out first iceberg; a baby by Antarctic standards. This is a beautiful day for a harbor cruise, and the water is almost glass-like. However, what we all most want to see are whales; most likely humpbacks, at this time of year. We keep our eyes peeled, and I go outside periodically to snap photos as we fly across the fjords.

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Sadly, it was not to be! Although there are 8-10 whales usually in the fjords surrounding Nuuk, it is a huge area encompassing miles. Eric tells us that finding them is like finding a needle in a haystack. On our way back to the ship, we stop briefly at a waterfall created by glacial melt, and Lena hops to the land to harvest some wild Greenlandic greens. We all taste what passes for salad in Greenland, and then head back to town.Nuuk-78

It’s Sunday here in Nuuk, so not much is open. Nonetheless, Jim and I walk up the slopes into to town and we climb the hill up to the monument of Hans Egede, one of the early missionaries to this area. From there, we walked to what passes for the “mall” in town, and tried to find passable Internet to upload yesterday’s post. As you can no doubt tell from the belated post, we were not successful! Oh, Well! I used the opportunity to do a little shopping. We stocked up on some carved soapstone gifts for our relatives in Sweden, and I purchased a new warmer cap made from woven musk ox fur. Items made from seal fur were everywhere since they are not endangered animals, but I couldn’t bring myself to purchase them.

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Hans Egede Monument

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Then, it was back to the boat! Jim and I enjoyed a gorgeous sail away from Nuuk harbor up on the bow deck high on the 12th floor of the ship. We searched vainly to see any whales in the harbor as we sailed away, but it was not to be. After searching for nearly an hour, and freezing to death, we retreated back to the cabin to get ready for dinner. Tonight, newly made shipboard friends, Rob and Sarah, will join us for a specialty Indian dinner prepared just for us in the main dining room. Tomorrow, we land in Paamiut, Greenland.

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