Upernavik, End of the Line

I was nervous about Upernavik. It’s extremely far north, though it’s amazing how much more of Greenland lies beyond it. Upernavik is also very small––it’s an island with a circumference of just a few miles––and planes fly in and out only sporadically. I landed on a Saturday, and there was no option to leave before Thursday. I hoped that I would like the place and I did, very much. It’s what I think of, now, when I think of Greenland.

Here are some things I did in Upernavik:

The cold, foggy hill where I pitched my tent

The cold, foggy hill where I pitched my tent

I walked around in a heavy fog, looking for the hotel-restaurant my guidebook promised. I learned that it had shuttered, and that there wasn’t anywhere to eat, sleep, or warm up any longer. I pitched my tent on a very high hill, near a giant satellite dish. I cooked elaborate meals on my camping stove and drank whiskey to keep warm. I wore all of my clothes to bed every night. It was always a relief to rediscover feeling in my fingers and toes in the morning.

I took to pestering the quiet man managing the museum in the director’s absence. After a lot of bothering, he finally let me into the old cooperage to shower and shave. The building had been recently renovated to function as a studio for artists. The last artists to live there were two women from North Carolina. They left their long hair in the shower drain and two inches of cold standing water in the stall. I cleaned the drain and took my shower. It was my first in over a week, and one of the best I’ve ever taken. I went to thank the man afterward, but he’d already closed up for the day. I think he was trying to avoid telling me that I couldn’t sleep there.

spoils of the hunt

Spoils of the hunt

I descended the rickety staircase between my tent and the town about a thousand times, always pausing to admire the sawed-off head and hooves of a musk ox, drying on a rock.

View From N72º48’18.2”

View from N72º48’18.2”

I walked the perimeter of the island twice, once clockwise and once counterclockwise. I saw the remains of an old turf hut, barely visible in the grass. On my first trip, I spent a while trying to find the northernmost spot on the island, thinking it was probably the northernmost place I’d ever get. The next day, I saw an aerial photograph of the island, and realized that I’d missed a small spit of rock that jutted out even farther. So, I repeated the trip a second time, in the rain, to reclaim my victory: N72º48’18.2”

I met a Danish doctor who was staying in Upernavik for a month-long residency. He worked mostly out of the hospital, but sometimes did overnights to the smaller settlements, scattered up and down Baffin Bay. At one settlement, of sixteen homes, they pushed two desks together at the school, and put paper down over top, as a place to see patients. Afterward they gave him two kinds of seal meat: one regular and one that confused him as to whether it was “seal lung” or “seal young.”

Navarana Freuchen's grave

Navarana Freuchen's grave

I found the grave of Peter Freuchen’s wife, Navarana, who died on the fifth Thule expedition. The ground in Upernavik is frozen most of the year, so the graves are raised and covered in rocks. The smell of death is faint but detectable.

A view of the pitch

A view of the pitch

I watched many hours of an annual soccer tournament between Upernavik and the surrounding settlements. I ate aebleskiver and clapped for both sides. The crowds were enthusiastic––lots of shouting and airhorns––but the biggest cheers were reserved for the icebergs in the bay, which would calve loudly, every now and again. Sometimes the ball would fly errantly into the bay, and then all the kids would rush down and throw rocks at it in a vain attempt to coax it in. In general, the games were a lot of fun––I was impressed by the skill and physicality of the teams, particularly after learning that, in many of the settlements, there isn’t anywhere flat enough to practice, and they have to wait until the harbor freezes to get a real workout.

I spent hours hand-copying the wall labels at the museum, which detailed the complex dividing principles involved in traditional hunting.

I finished War and Peace.

The old church (1839)

The old church (1839)

I found the most beautiful building in Greenland, a church built in 1839. Inside, there were chandeliers made from brass salvaged from a 1921 shipwreck. There were countless dead flies on the floor and windowsills. They looked oddly lovely against the gleaming white walls.

I met a lab tech from the hospital who was trying to get a kayak rental business off the ground. It took him months to get permission to build––he complained of rampant nepotism––but he got it, and now he’s struggling to get a structure up before winter. I tried to talk him into taking me out kayaking, but the timing and the weather never worked. He was understandably more intent on shoveling his basement out before the ground froze. I helped him move some rocks, and talked to him while digging. He had a terrifically dry sense of humor, and was at once very cynical about Greenland, but also committed to making a life there. I wrote down some of the things he told me in a little notebook. After getting back, someone showed me an article about Upernavik in Outside magazine, in which he says all of the same things, almost verbatim. I laughed at that. I hope he got his basement finished.

I saw the Kingigtorssuaq runestone. It’s much smaller than I expected. It was found atop a cairn on an island north of Upernavik. It’s been dated to 1250-1350 A.D. and represents the northernmost artifact left behind by the Vikings. How it got there is something of a mystery.

Chartering the boat

Chartering the boat

I found out that the Danish doctor and some nurses from the hospital had chartered a small motorboat to travel to the inland ice, and I talked them into letting me pay-in to come along. We sped through the fjords and I sat in the bow and looked up at the giant, intricately carved icebergs while the doctor and the nurses laughed and chattered in Danish. We stopped off at a settlement, where a small group of smiling kids showed us how they liked to hop between bags of gravel for fun. The town wasn’t much more than a few houses, a school with funny wooden cutouts of seal and narwhal on one of the walls. There was also a hand-painted sign memorializing Michael Jackson. I walked aimlessly around, thinking about how I was farther from home than I’ve ever been before––hours by motorboat to Upernavik, two days and three flights just to get to Nuuk, a few more days before the next available hop to Reykjavik, another night before crossing the Atlantic home…

Far from home. Mostly.

Far from home. Mostly.

… But, in the end that’s what I did. It seemed like everyone in Upernavik knew someone who was either arriving or departing on my flight; they streamed up the hill from town to say teary hellos and teary goodbyes. I was the only one who didn’t know anybody. And then the Danish doctor arrived to see a friend of his off, so I got to wish someone well after all.

That’s a wrap, I guess. Thanks so much for reading.

45 Comments

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