In Ilulissat, a town on the west coast of Greenland, about 150 miles north of the Arctic Circle, it is late March, near the end of winter, when the days are growing long again but the sea ice is still solid enough, I have been assured, to support the weight of a dogsled.
On just such a sled, my guide, Johannes Mathaeussen, and I are about to set out on a four-day adventure across a white, treeless landscape. The sled, little more than a narrow wooden platform on runners, is piled about three stories high with all manner of gear and supplies, including a shotgun whose barrel I keep catching a boot on when for practice I climb atop the pile, where I am to ride, Mathaeussen tells me, “like a cowboy.”
Our 20-dog team, knowing that they are about to be given the word to do what they are bred for, which is to run, are yapping excitedly and straining against the metal ice screw to which their traces are still attached. But Mathaeussen — whose Danish-sounding name is a result of Greenland’s longtime status as a dependency of Denmark, and whose flattened Inuit features are from a bloodline that originated, untold generations ago, somewhere on the high, cold steppes of Mongolia — is for the moment ignoring them.
Staring thoughtfully at the sky in the direction of the coastal hills that we will soon be ascending on our way to the frozen fjord on the other side, he finally says to me, “Snow is maybe coming.”
“How do you know?” I ask, following his gaze but seeing no clouds or any of the other signs that I assume his lifetime of surviving in this desolate land have taught him to read.
“I looked on the Internet.”
His answer gives me pause, but I know it shouldn’t. For thousands of years, Greenlanders, almost all of whom can claim to be some mix of Inuit, have been forced by nature to live such a tenuous existence that they still often append statements of intent or desire with the word immaqa (maybe). And in all those years, the one thing that has allowed them to survive is their ability to adapt.
“If the snow comes, what do we do?” I ask, having researched this adventure well enough to have some fairly vivid images of myself in an Eskimo Pie–like state of permanence.
Flashing me a grin that reveals a missing tooth or two, the 46-year-old Mathaeussen — who for most of his life has been a professional hunter and ice fisherman but who, like many of his contemporaries, has in recent years supplemented his income by taking tourists on dogsled adventures — pulls up the hood of his parka and pretends to be shivering.
The parka highlights, I can’t help but observe on this 15-degrees-Fahrenheit morning, the contrast in our sartorial styles. I am standing here in the clothing the local adventure company that brought us together insisted I rent from them: sealskin pants and parka that are certainly warm enough, especially under the arms, but that make me look and smell like a stuffed animal. Mathaeussen, on the other hand, is wearing layers of moisture-wicking, water-repelling, color-coordinated gear from the likes of Patagonia and the North Face, gear that wouldn’t make him look out of place if he were trying to survive in, say, a Starbucks.
However well Greenlanders, all 56,000 of them, have mastered the art of adaptation, their skill is being tested now more than ever. Because here, on the world’s largest island, just over 80 percent of it covered by an ice sheet averaging 1.6 miles deep, climate change isn’t a theory but an observable fact.
For most travelers, witnessing climate change in Greenland means a summer visit aboard a cruise ship to Sermeq Kujalleq, the Greenlandic name for the Jakobshavn Glacier, a UNESCO World Heritage Site whose prodigious and increasing output of melting ice from the great inland ice sheet has made it a symbol of global warming. (Not to mention that it may have produced the iceberg which sank the Titanic.)
“Ten years ago, we had sea ice for nine months of the year, and now less than half the year,” a Greenlander named Ole Jorgen Hammeken told me a few days ago as I admired the collection of Inuit artifacts on the walls of his home in the western Greenland village of Uummannaq. (Who knew there were so many types of seal-skinning knives?)
Thousands of dogs remain, though, and for visitors there is no more dramatic way to witness climate change and to experience traditional Greenland — if you don’t mind the smell of dog on everything and are willing to camp on the ice (in a sleeping bag rated, one really should insist, to minus 40 degrees) — than by dogsled.
Earlier this morning, I’d had a discussion about sled dogs with Aleqa Hammond, minister of finance and foreign affairs for the home-rule government that Denmark allowed Greenland to establish in 1979, when I saw her on line for the breakfast buffet at Ilulissat’s almost-five-star Hotel Arctic — where I hope she didn’t notice that my survival skills demanded I stuff my pockets with rolls in anticipation of the trail ahead.
I’d mentioned to her that one of the things I hoped to accomplish on my journey was to learn how to drive a dog team. At which Hammond, a straight-talking woman, rolled her eyes and asked, “How far can you run, in the snow, wearing boots?”
Secretly, I’d been somewhat offended. But now, watching Mathaeussen’s team of 20 dogs, which, it has been pointed out to me, are a handful even by Greenlandic standards, I decide that another of Hammond’s attributes might be her wisdom.
Unlike their Alaskan and Canadian counterparts, Greenlandic dogs, which are related to the husky (and, further back, some say, to the wolf), are not usually harnessed two by two but in a fan pattern of equal-length traces. And in the few moments of Mathaeussen’s distraction, his dogs, as incapable as kindergarteners of lining up, have made a rat’s nest of their traces. But with the aid of a few kicks so enthusiastically applied that in some jurisdictions they would result in jail time, he soon has everything sorted out to his liking.
“Sit down, please,” he says to me, and before I can get both my heavy gloves under the lashings I am supposed to hold on to, we are off, one of my arms waving in the air, much too much (for my comfort) like a rodeo rider’s.
In a few minutes, the dogs now all at work, the sled’s runners making a swooshing sound as they cut tracks through the snow, Ilulissat disappears behind a white fold in the landscape. And I am made to realize, with great force, that a dogsled journey — which, around here anyway, requires a trip over white-clad hills before you can get to the sea ice — is not something to be taken lightly.
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After a gut-wrenching struggle to the top of a pass, I arrive feeling as though I had breathed my last breath about a hundred yards back, trail etiquette having required me to help out the dogs by jumping off the sled and loping alongside in my planet-Jupiter-weight boots. My satisfaction at seeing that Mathaeussen is also gasping for air turns to apprehension when, after repositioning the dogs so that they are behind the sled — as though they will be needed to act as a brake—he motions for me to climb back on. Looking over the crest at the icy trail falling steeply away ahead of us, one side bordered by a cliff face and the other by a drop into nothing, I hesitate. “OK?” I ask doubtfully, as in “Are you sure this is safe?”
“Cowboy,” he answers with emphasis, as in, “Come on, be a man.”
So I climb atop all the gear, and down we go, not losing control until almost the bottom, when one of the sled’s runners catches the edge of a lump of ice, I throw my weight in the wrong direction, and we flip over spectacularly. The sled comes down hard on my right foot, causing me to howl so loud that even the dogs seem impressed.
After righting the sled and untangling the dogs, Mathaeussen wanders back to where I am lying facedown in the snow. “OK?” he asks, as in, “I’m not going to have to give back my guide fee, am I?”
I get up, take a few tentative steps, and decide — after briefly considering the consequences of having my story end here — that I will be able to go on.
“OK,” I answer, as in, “I’ll survive” despite a leg I will limp on for the next six weeks.
He again gives me his gap-toothed grin and happily shouts what I will come to recognize as one of a handful of English phrases he knows: “Extreme Greenland!”
Our plan — worked out with the people from the adventure company and contingent, like everything in Greenland, on the weather and the condition of the ice — is to circumnavigate the fjord before heading south toward Sermeq Kujalleq, the glacier. We won’t be traveling east to the inland ice sheet itself because, except for a few scientists and death-wishing cross-country skiers, hardly anyone goes there, not even the Inuit, since it is essentially a flat, lifeless, featureless nothing. Still, even though we are on that 20 percent of the island which at least occasionally uncovers itself in the summer, it too is now pure white wilderness — without towns, without villages, without trees, and, we hope, without signs of melting.
As we ride, me mostly lost in a state of dreamlike contemplation, I find it hard to imagine that any kind of change could ever occur here, or that the rest of the world could care. But then I recall conversations I had with several scientists during a stop in Denmark on my way over. One of the scientists, Henning Thing, of the Danish Polar Center, who was preparing for his 40th year of field research in Greenland, explained to me why, of the world’s two great ice sheets, Antarctica and Greenland, the latter is so much more vulnerable to climate change, thus making it a better indicator of climates past and, possibly, future. Antarctica, said Thing (whose name, I must confess, I can’t see without picturing Thing One and Thing Two, the incurably mischievous characters in the Dr. Seuss children’s classic “The Cat in the Hat”), has ten times Greenland’s volume of ice and is surrounded by an ocean current that isolates it climatically.
“It would take an immense cooker to heat that up,” Thing said. (See what I mean?)
Greenland, on the other hand, is more easily affected by change because of its smaller volume of ice, and because it is influenced by a system of ocean currents that more easily transport heat to and from it.
“So whatever is going to happen will happen quicker in Greenland,” Thing said.
According to some predictions, that might include a melting of the ice that, in a worst-case scenario, could cause sea levels around the world to rise by as much as 23 feet. That, and atmospheric circulation patterns, would have global consequences — from drought to massive coastal flooding.
Sune Olander Rasmussen, an ice core researcher at the University of Copenhagen’s Centre for Ice and Climate, is among those attempting to determine what might trigger such an event. The focus of the team Rasmussen works with is to study climate history by drilling deep into the Greenland ice sheet and extracting core samples that contain an annual record of world climate conditions reaching back more than 125,000 years. What they’ve discovered, he told me, is that climate change can be “a very abrupt business,” with the ice records showing that in the past, dramatic, violent worldwide change has sometimes happened in less than a century, “even in a matter of years.”
As the planet heats up — a phenomenon, it seems, that much but not all of the scientific community believes is a natural cycle being intensified by human activity — it is not the gradual rise in temperature and the attendant gradual change in conditions, such as a slowly rising sea level, that most of us need to worry about. Citizens of the First World can build higher sea walls and more air conditioners and plant different crops — at least for a while. What we do need to worry about, though, is when slow, incremental change reaches a tipping point that brings about a cataclysmic event which might commence, almost literally, with the speed of someone pushing a button or flipping a switch. The result, “a very abrupt business,” could spell disaster for us all.
What scientists don’t yet understand very well are the exact conditions, either natural or contributed to by such man-made interventions as the burning of fossil fuels, that might trigger catastrophic change. Which is why everyone is keeping an eye on Greenland, and why, Rasmussen said, it is not only as a scientist that he worries about the consequences of global warming but “as a father.”
Around noon, I am awakened from my reverie when we stop on the ice for a lunch of coffee from a thermos and sliced bread spread with potted meat that I suspect has traveled farther than I did to get here. The meal is memorable, though, and the reason is the view. Locked in the ice before us is a single towering iceberg, white and pink and blue, which looks so much like a medieval castle — complete with turrets and spires and archways sculpted by the warming sun — that I almost expect to see flags flying from it.
“OK?” asks Mathaeussen, as in “Wasn’t this worth the effort of getting here?”
“Beautiful,” I answer.
Late in the afternoon, we drive the dogs off the ice and jog alongside them up a snowy slope to the cabin where we will spend the night. It is not much of a cabin — more like a shipping container with a door cut in it. But while Mathaeussen feeds the dogs from one of the sacks of dried food we are lugging along with us, I get the Primus stove going and am soon enough once again reminded that I felt colder in Mexico.
Dinner is musk ox, an animal that looks something like a woolly mammoth but is related to the goat — perhaps as a result of some youthful indiscretion during the last Ice Age, when its wanderings took it as far south into North America as Ohio. I tried it a few days earlier, prepared by an award-winning chef, Jeppe Ejvind Nielsen, as part of his five-course tasting menu at Restaurant Nipisa, in Nuuk, the island’s capital and largest city (population 15,000). I found the taste pleasant enough (although not as pleasant as his medallions of reindeer garnished with sage). But I am concerned about how the meal might come out in the hands of Mathaeussen, whose culinary skills do not seem to be on the same level as Nielsen’s.
taking a bowling ball–size chunk of ice, which I can only hope he didn’t chip from where past visitors answered the call of nature, he drops it into a big pot and places it on the stove. When the ice has melted, he adds the musk ox, which he had hacked from a frozen slab with a cleaver and diced into two-inch squares. Next come a few handfuls of rice and half a large plastic bag of vegetables, which, it goes without saying, are frozen.
“Musk ox for 10,” I exclaim, when he hands me a steaming bowl.
As it turns out, his culinary skills are fine enough that I have to revise my estimate downward to “Musk ox for four,” the extra two portions going to the dogs. As it also turns out, though, the dinners that will follow this one — reindeer and halibut, on our two remaining nights — will be prepared in exactly the same way.
The meal over, we roll out our sleeping bags on a plywood platform, first cushioning it with foam pads and reindeer skins. And even though there seems to be a reindeer hoof somewhere up around my nose, I am soon asleep. During the night, I awaken only once, at the sound of some disturbance among the dogs, and only long enough to remember that polar bears are usually found farther north and, with the thinning sea ice, are becoming harder to find anywhere.
This morning is another ride across flat ice. Mathaeussen sits on the front of the sled, puffing away on his pipe for mile after mile, the smoke and ash blowing back at me as if from the stack of a coal-burning locomotive. I don’t mind, though — protected as I am by my goggles and the hood of my sealskin parka pulled down over my forehead — because I have quickly learned to recognize that when the pipe is going, all is right with the world. It is only when Mathaeussen hastily knocks the ashes from its bowl, stuffs it in a pocket, and sits up straighter that I know I need to pay attention.
He puts away the pipe once when the dogs, apparently sensing something about the ice that they don’t like, are hesitant to continue. “Bad,” he says to me — not of the dogs but of the ice — and, relying on their judgment, we head in a new direction. I find little comfort in the knowledge that the massive ice sheet which covers some 80 percent of Greenland is thinning rapidly along the edges, in some areas at a rate of more than three feet per year.
He puts the pipe away, too, when, as we’re riding along a jumble of ice at the edge of a cliff, he spots a movement that brings his hunting instincts to the fore, drags the sled to a halt, and pulls his shotgun from beneath the straps. Sighting on something I don’t see, he fires and a snow-white bird tumbles out of the rocks high above and lands at the foot of the cliff.
Mathaeussen motions for me to go get it. I hesitate, eyeing the ice between me and the bird.
“Cowboy,” he urges.
With misgivings, I head toward the cliff, Mathaeussen’s thumbs-up signal growing ever less reassuring. But I retrieve the bird without incident, and Mathaeussen stuffs it by its legs under one of the straps at the front of the sled.
A few minutes later he sees another bird, and we go through the same process, except this time Mathaeussen hands me the whip and goes after the bird himself. I’m watching him, idly wondering how long I would survive if he fell through a hole in the ice, when out of the corner of my eye I see a flash of brown. I turn just as a dog lunges for the first bird and, with a snap of its powerful jaws, swallows all but one severed, dangling leg, which is still strapped under the lashings.
I take a step forward and raise the whip, and the dog turns to me with bird in his bared teeth and murder in his eyes. “Just kidding,” I say. “Just kidding.” And I lower the whip and slowly back away.
The dog is still watching me when Mathaeussen returns with the second bird. When I explain what happened, he laughs, removes the one remaining leg from the lashings, takes a bite of the raw meat, and hands the bloody remainder to me. I hesitate just long enough to consider how much of a wimp he thinks I am, then take a tentative nibble.
Tonight, we pitch a tent that Mathaeussen dubs the Hotel UNESCO, a name I suspect he has used with success before. Set atop a slight hill, it has a commanding view of what looks like a miles-long madness of convoluted ice — giant blocks and shards twisted in every imaginable shape. What we are looking at is Sermeq Kujalleq, the Jakobshavn Glacier.
At home in New York before my trip, I’d talked with an American scientist, David M. Holland, director of the Center for Atmosphere-Ocean Science at New York University, who had visited the glacier the previous summer. Holland — who has a satellite dish on the balcony of his apartment in Manhattan from which he receives, when the pigeons don’t interfere with the reception, a constant stream of photographs from a camera he mounted above the glacier — was attempting to add a single piece to the thousand-piece puzzle that is climate change. He wanted to know what role sea temperatures might be playing in the rapid movement of the glacier, something previously unknown largely because of the difficulty of reaching the glacier.
I’m not entirely sure what Holland concluded, mostly because the title of his first work that I came across, “A One-Dimensional Elastic-Plastic Sea-Ice Model Solved with an Implicit Eulerian-Lagrangian Method,” discouraged me from reading further. But I do know, looking at the pink and blue glacier in the late-evening light and drawing my own conclusions about the difficulty of negotiating it, that there is no way I will ever set foot on what I now recognize as one giant natural junkyard, no matter what tone of “cowboy” my guide might use.
“Fishermen,” says Mathaeussen, pointing vaguely in the direction of Ilulissat, at nothing I can see.
From the rack, he takes enough halibut for a meal for us, and in its place leaves a plastic grocery bag containing what I can only assume is of equal value in the wilds of Greenland: a pouch of tobacco and a roll of toilet paper. I expect that we will now be on our way, but instead he takes out a nail file and clippers and begins giving the dogs a pedicure. The dogs are lolling around on the ice, as if they are expecting a massage next, when the fishermen return, each with his own sled. They are soon winding in their lines, which, they tell me, mostly using figures drawn in the snow, are a quarter mile long, with maybe 150 baited hooks on them.
I’m offered the opportunity to crank in a line myself, and, just before my knees buckle from the effort, one of the men takes over and fish start coming up through the ice — the first of 50 or 60 20-pound halibut.
“Extreme Greenland!” exclaims Mathaeussen as the soon-frozen fish pile up on the ice.
I lie back on the ice, looking up at the sky, listening to the voice (from what must be somebody’s CD player) of Nat King Cole singing “Little Girl,” and thinking that I cannot imagine a more idyllic experience. It is made even more so, at least for an instant, when a flock of those snow-white birds fly over.
Then blam, blam, blam. Three shotguns fire and three birds are on the ice. To each his own idyll, I guess.
We spend our final night in a cabin similar to the first day’s, except it’s bigger and we share it with two Danish women and their dogsledding guides, all of us wedged against one another on a sleeping platform — in the Inuit tradition, apparently. Although it is a long evening of conversation, mostly in Danish, my only recollection of note is that there is nothing like sleeping in close quarters with women who are of slight acquaintance and quite attractive to make you realize how desperately you need a bath.
In the morning, Mathaeussen and I head back over the mountains to Ilulissat. During the ride, we see no one until, just before we get to the vast snowy field behind the power station, where his dogs and hundreds of others are kept, we pass a young Inuit couple happily walking hand in hand along the trail we’ve just traversed.
I feel I’ve gotten a glimpse of a traditional way of life that may literally be melting away — and am even pleased with my limp, since in the coming weeks it will allow me to bring almost any conversation around to how I was injured in a dogsledding accident. As is true of seemingly every visitor who has seen and been touched by this unique place, I am concerned for it. After all, new signs of climate change are occurring constantly. For example, the largest floating glacier in the Northern Hemisphere, the Peterman Glacier, in northwestern Greenland, appears to be coming apart. In July 2008, satellite photos showed a giant crack in it, seeming to indicate that a massive breakup of the glacier might be imminent.
I have no idea how all of this will affect the way Greenland will look in a hundred years or 20 or the next decade, or what it will mean for the rest of us. Yet when I give Mathaeussen a tip which I feel he well deserves, he is so profuse in his thanks, swearing he will spend it on dog food (although I know there is also a fresh supply of pipe tobacco and probably a little whiskey involved too), that I suspect that as long as tourists are coming to see global warming up close, Greenlanders will continue to adapt just fine.
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