North of Disko Bay is where you really break free of the travelers––not to mention amenities like restaurants and places to sleep (to be fair, there is one of each in Uummannaq, though I’d soon be doing without either). The town is still a ferry terminal, however, so for the few hours that the boat is in harbor, people mill about taking pictures. No sooner does it pull out than the locals stare at you like maybe you missed it. The only other way to get there is by helicopter, which is how I made the trip. Too small for a runway, the island survives on these 10-minute helio-hops from nearby Qaarsuut. It’s a gorgeous ride if you don’t mind tucking your legs behind the bags of mail and other cargo.
I had two days in the town and I spent the first exploring the sweetly picturesque old center. The most appealing historical district I encountered all trip, the various buildings––a beautiful granite church, a squat yellow-washed blubber house, a well-preserved vicarage, and three traditional turf houses––are artfully arranged around the harbor, and because the only market and restaurant are nearby, it remains the focal point of foot traffic. The museum is one of Greenland’s finest and the turf huts are manned by an octogenarian volunteer who wouldn’t let me leave until he’d dutifully pantomimed the complicated creation of a pair of traditional kamiks (sealskin boots). He clapped me on the back many times, laughing at how tall I was and how low the turf hut ceilings are.
A quick note about the turf houses: nearly everyone in Greenland lived in them until the forced consolidation/public housing boom of the 1950s. They look pretty rough from the outside, but every one I’ve been in––almost a dozen––has been unfailingly clean, bright, and sweet-smelling, like the citrusy moss that grows everywhere here. Every time I go inside one I expect it to be dank and dark, and every time I’m pleasantly surprised. They’re really quite cozy.
I probably shouldn’t have gotten this far without mentioning Uummannaq’s most distinctive feature. The sheer 1200m. mountain at the island’s far end ends up being the backdrop for every view of (and from) town. Made of colorfully banded gneiss, the peak is pretty unusual compared to others I saw in Greenland––it looks better suited to the Andes. Nevertheless it’s really beautiful, and the light constantly toys with its colors. I met a climber from Zurich intent on summiting it––he’d already been partway up to test the rock and drop off some gear. Personally, I was more than happy to circle the base and gaze up at the thing, which I did on my second day. The sun was impossibly bright, and my shadow eerily stark against the rocks while I walked. I kept feeling like there was someone next to me.
I left town on a Saturday, and whether it was because of some unknown holiday or simply post-payday festivities, everyone in town seemed to be out drinking. Bottles were clinking in Pilersuisuoq bags, and the same people who greeted me a day before with blank stares were now waving me over to chat. To a person, everyone seemed smitten with their town, promising me that it never rained and that they would never consider moving anywhere else. By the time it was necessary to head to the helioport, I had a pretty warm feeling about Uummannaq––I was headed much farther north, where it was rumored to be much colder, and I had some regrets about abandoning that glorious sun.