Decaying U.S. Radar Equipment in Kangerlussuaq

Decaying U.S. Radar Equipment in Kangerlussuaq

After nine days on the trail, Emily and I wasted no time seeking out what the former US airforce base Kangerlussuaq had to offer in terms of R&R. It turns out not much: the artificial “town” exists solely for its runway––because of the facilities the military left behind after the Cold War, it’s now the central transportation hub for all of Western Greenland. There’s practically nothing else to say for it, however; aside for the airport complex (home to a hotel and cafeteria), the town is basically comprised of some blocky barracks, a small market, and a tiny pizza operation. That’s it.

Of course, our first order of business was getting a room and washing more than a week’s worth of dirt off to see the sun damage underneath. After that, sleeping. And after that, hitting the cafeteria breakfast buffet hard. For the rest of the day we napped, snacked, and watched the unpredictable smorgasbord that is Greenlandic TV (I can’t believe I actually saw Dr. T. and the Women).

Not knowing just how long the hike might take, I allowed for 12 days on the trail, plus two on the other end as a cushion before the plane northwards. Because we had hiked relatively quickly, that meant we had five days to burn in Kangerlussuaq––a town with less than nothing to do. Almost as psychologically trying as the hike itself, the subsequent days were spent reading, writing, people-watching, and exchanging war stories with the trekkers who trickled in after us.

One of the few sites in town

One of the few sites in town

We also sampled everything on offer at the airport cafeteria at least twice, and paid a long visit to Kangerlussuaq’s niche-oriented museum. It’s a treasure trove for anyone interested in Greenlandic plane crashes, the history of SAS airline routes, and Cold War-era radio equipment. Not really my bag, but the curator was charming. He seemed especially impressed that we were younger than 60, and insisted opening a series of “special” exhibits for us. Housed in the old Sondrestrom U.S. Air Force Command, he showed us the general’s old office, which still looked exactly the way it did when he locked up and left for good in the early 1990s. I sensed that the curator had been itching to sit in the executive chair––beneath the mounted musk ox head––for twenty years, but couldn’t quite work up the nerve to do it.

The town viewed from across the river

The town viewed from across the river

By the third day, we decided to do the unthinkable––hike again. Greenland’s largest herds of musk oxen call the grassy valleys around Kangerlussuaq home, and we were told that instead of shelling out for a pricey excursion to see them, we might have luck hiking past an ex-US radar facility, where the animals are said to be partial to licking the moss on the far bank of a small salt lake. Well, no dice. The walk was sort of useful as a time killer and a way to get reacquainted with aching muscles, but the wildlife was sadly elusive. When, on the way back to the airport I began to experience phantom limb syndrome from where my pack had rested on my shoulders, I knew it was time to take a break from the walking for a while.

The only way out of town

The only way out of town

On our last day in Kangerlussuaq, rumors started to fly about a potential Air Greenland strike––the second potentially disruptive transportation strike of the trip. We even saw a plane whose detailing had been defaced to read “Air Gree____d.” Fortunately, we made it out in the end, aboard an otherwise empty twin otter flight to Aasiaat. While taxiing, the flight attendant told me that the cloud cover was so heavy that the pilot had nearly been forced to turn around and head back to Kangerlussuaq. I’m really glad she waited until our arrival to let me know.


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