Qaanaaq, sitting in the high north of Greenland almost at the top of the world, is the perfect destination for travelers who want to experience extreme Greenland.
This town is almost as remote as it can get for a tourist in Greenland. It can already be quite a big deal for someone to make the decision to come to Greenland, but for those curious enough to see just how far north they can go, Qaanaaq becomes the challenge.
This town is almost as remote as it can get for a tourist in Greenland.
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Despite being so far north, Qaanaaq is perfectly accessible all year round – but it can be a different world in different seasons. I have been living in Greenland for four years now. Recently I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to make two trips to Qaanaaq – one in wintertime and one in summertime.
During the wintertime, the sea in front of the town of Qaanaaq is frozen solid up to dozens of kilometers away. Since there is no regular passenger ship to Qaanaaq, people normally reach the town by propeller plane, run by Air Greenland. As you can imagine with the long distance to Qaanaaq, flying there can be complicated, and you often have to transfer a few times.
On my wintertime trip to Qaanaaq, things did not go entirely to plan. Due to bad weather, first in Ilulissat, and then the next day in Upernavik (where connections to Qaanaaq are sometimes caught), and then in Qaanaaq itself, my trip was delayed for 3 days in total. Unfortunately, there is nothing we can do when the weather is bad. In Greenland, the weather decides everything. We can only wait until it is possible to travel again. After my arrival in Qaanaaq, a dog sledding trip was scheduled but, of course, it was also delayed because of the weather.
The weather forecast informed me that the weather would clear up from the afternoon of the day we had planned the dog sledding trip. Therefore, I asked one of the mushers who was managing the trip if it would be okay to start our trip that afternoon. He said that it would be better to postpone until the next day, and guess what? He was totally right. The snow didn’t stop all day so it was good to follow the musher’s opinion. Mushers’ ability to forecast the weather often surpasses the online weather forecast.
The next day, in the late afternoon, we could finally start our dog sledding trip. It was still cloudy but we had faith in the mushers, who said that the weather would get better later in the day.
Greenlandic sled dogs are different from the dogs with which you or I are familiar. They are not raised as pets and, therefore, live outside the house at all times, even when there is a storm. Although the dogs are normally chained when they are not working, you should not get close to them unless allowed to by their owner. Puppy sled dogs are free from chains.
When the musher started to gather the dogs to prepare the sled, the dogs looked just as excited as me. It seemed as though they had been waiting for this moment forever. All they needed was the order from the musher as to which direction they should run in. While the musher connected the dogs to the sled, his wife had to make the dogs calm down using the whip.
The whip never hit the dogs but was used only to control them. And finally we were ready to take off!
Facing the town of Qaanaaq there is a spectacular mountain range. At first, I thought that these mountains looked quite close to town, but I soon realised that in this flat and endless landscape, objects are much further away than they appear to the naked eye. I did not expect that it would take 8 hours to get to the shelter which was located by the foot of one of the mountains.
The next day, we were supposed to continue dog sledding to the edge of the ice where the sea starts again; however, due to an unexpected weather change, we had to stay in the shelter all day and wait for the right moment to travel again. In the severe blizzard, the sled dogs stayed outside. Not for the first time during this trip, I had the feeling that these animals are truly wild.
During the summertime, I visited Qaanaaq again. This time, the sea ice in front of the town had melted. Now, it was time to travel by boat and kayak rather than sled.
One of the activities I had planned during my summertime stay in Qaanaaq was accompanying a local narwhal hunt. It can be shocking for tourists to hear that locals hunt animals like narwhal in Greenland. But in a location like Qaanaaq which sits in the high Arctic, there are very few options for food sources. Nothing can grow and the pastoral animals that we usually use for food cannot survive there.
Additionally, locals cannot rely on food delivered by boat or helicopter – a cargo ship comes only twice a year, and the weather often makes it impossible to access the town by air for days at a time.
These factors mean that local communities in isolated settlements like Qaanaaq actually rely on hunting local animals for survival. The practice is regulated, though, and there are strict quotas in place regarding the hunting of narwhal in Greenland, ensuring that the narwhal population is sustained despite local hunting practices.
Obtaining meat locally is also more sustainable and much better for the environment, as it means that less meat has to be imported from overseas – a practice which produces a lot of carbon emissions.
Hunting in Greenland is very much a spiritual practice, and hunters believe that Mother Nature always has the final say on whether or not each hunt will be successful. They believe that only those animals who are ready to give up their lives for the wellbeing of humans will be caught.
Hunters in Qaanaaq have maintained their traditional way of hunting using traditional kayaks and harpoons. Unfortunately, the number of hunters who can use these traditional ways of hunting is decreasing.
One of our guides, Aleqatsiaq, who is in his mid 30s, called the local hunters in their 50s to 60s the ‘last generation of real hunters in Qaanaaq’.
The hunters loaded their kayaks onto the boat and soon caught some black guillemots, a black and white bird which is called ‘appa’ in Greenlandic. We cooked the freshly caught appa on the boat. The appa was plucked and boiled in a pot using Greenlandic ice, together with rice and pasta. The taste of the appa soup was great. I often remember that taste vividly, and am reminded that whatever you eat in nature, if it is freshly sourced, the taste is unforgettable.
As with all kinds of hunting, to be successful in hunting narwhal, hunters need a little help from Mother Nature. When going out for narwhal hunting, hunters need to be careful even of their breathing. Narwhal are very sensitive animals – they are sensitive to smell and can even notice the shadow of a hunter’s kayak.
After 27 hours of being on the boat, we were still unsuccessful in catching a narwhal. At one point, the hunters were close enough to harpoon a narwhal; however, it did not work perfectly and the narwhal managed to flee. I still clearly remember the unique sounds the narwhal made. We did not manage to catch a narwhal this time. However, floating calmly on the quiet ocean, I was very happy to have had the opportunity to see live narwhals – an experience very few people enjoy in their lifetime.
I am not a particularly active person and don’t hike or climb regularly. However, I do love walking and looking down from viewpoints. In Qaanaaq, there is a small hill behind town where you can get a view of the whole town, including the sea extending hundreds of kilometers ahead. Every morning, the scenery from my accommodation was surreally beautiful.
But from the hill behind town, looking over the frozen sea in the distance while the 24-hour sunlight burned overhead, I felt truly blessed.
If you walk towards the south side of the town (the opposite way to the airport), you will find an interesting combination. There is a soccer field and a cemetery, lying right next to each other. Cemeteries in Greenland are rarely seen as something scary. White crosses are decorated with colorful flowers, and this looks very beautiful, especially in the wintertime when it is contrasted with the white snow. Right next to the cemetery, children play soccer.
This would never happen in my country, Korea – parents might not allow children to play soccer right next to the cemetery. But Greenland makes everything different and beautiful.
After one month travelling in the North, I finally came back to Nuuk, where I live. The city looked very different to when I left it. The snow on the streets had melted away and a dark blue color occupied the night sky – meaning that the northern lights would be gone for a while. Summer was coming.