Ilulissat

Ilulissat Ice

Ilulissat ice

“This is it,” raves the Lonely Planet. “This is why you came to Greenland and spent all that money. Ilulissat is one of those places so spectacular that it just makes everything else pale in comparison.” Well, call me contrarian, but there are a half-dozen towns and settlements I’ll look back on more fondly. Home to a UNESCO world heritage site––the truly awesome Ilulissat Kangerlua (icefjord), choked with towering, glistening, impossibly sized bergs from the most prolific glacier outside of Antarctica–and a smothering tourist industry to match it, Ilulissat is a town where you can drop $100 for two nights of camping and a hiking map; where the Air Greenland-owned “World of Greenland” tourist office sells obscenely expensive excursions and boasts display cases full of artisanal crafts carved from polar bear claws and endangered whale species––with disingenuous signs reminding that these things are illegal to export (as if native Greenlanders are their intended customers).

Another view of the fjord

Trying to capture the ice

The ice is gorgeous; the town stinks a little. I’m sincerely glad that there are benches and wooden walkways––not everything should be wild and mosquito-bitten and miles from any town or road. But there is nowhere in Ilulissat to even get impartial information. Every “tourism office” is furiously peddling something, and people seem dizzy if they’re not buying just the right thing. The Lonely Planet is right-–Ilulissat is unmistakably suffused with a sense that “this is it,” but it’s that very quality that makes it frantic, fraught, and a little depressing. I wandered around for days, snapping photos of the ice, using other people’s enormous cameras to snap photos of them in front of the ice, and after a while I realized that part of the problem is that the photos never do it. Every one is so frustrating because it’s impossible to capture the scale or the colors, and every botched attempt makes it necessary to snap two more, to shell out for a helicopter or a boat that will take you even closer to something so massive and indifferent and impossible to comprehend. Finally, I fought the urge and put my camera away.

Rasmussen's birthplace

Rasmussen's birthplace

Here are some things that redeemed Ilulissat for me. Knud Rasmussen was born here (speaking of larger than life) and the old vicarage where he was born now houses a museum. There’s a little curtained-off corner where you can linger and watch his 1933 film Palo’s Wedding, and on the creaky top floor are the original drawings he collected from Polar Inuit during his 5th Thule Expedition––the “Danish Ethnographic Expedition to Arctic America.” These drawings are so marvelous–so modest and small and compositionally elegant. They’re like little pencil-scratched depictions of dogsleds and seal hunters atop an Agnes Martin canvas. I loved them, and how they’re displayed in a creaky old attic. They were a wonderful little escape from town.

One of the Polar Inuit drawings

One of the Polar Inuit drawings

On my way out to the airport––a long trudge with a heavy pack––an old man pulled over his pick-up even before I could stick out my thumb. He was headed to the airport to pick up his sister, visiting from Sisimiut. He was bursting with excitement to see her. He had few teeth and spoke almost no English, but we muddled through together. It couldn’t have been more than 3 or 4 km. of driving, but he slowed way down to get his story out. He was a proud Sisimiut booster, raising his fist triumphantly every time he said the word. I asked him why he’d moved away and couldn’t really make straight his answer––his dogs are here and he can’t leave them. Can you take them back? Yes, but no. Do you hunt with them? Used to, but the ice in the bay isn’t what it used to be. Works at the fish processing plant now, but that’s not what it used to be either. Has lived in Ilulissat for twenty years, but it’s not Sisimiut. “Sisimiut!” he said again with a raised fist and a far-off smile. I could tell that he was slowing down to impart this elegaic message––that nothing is any longer what it used to be. But there he was, on the way to the airport to see his sister, bursting with happiness. The two sentiments kept fighting each other to a draw. It was a really nice ride.

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