Qeqertarsuaq framed by ice

Qeqertarsuaq framed by ice

It can’t be more than thirty miles from Ilulissat, but tiny Qeqertarsuaq––the only active settlement on Disko Island––is worlds apart in every way. For one thing, the island is relatively new (in geological terms), so the bizarre basalt cliffs and thick, verdant vegetation are markedly different from anything to the west. But the town itself has a completely different feel, too: sleepy, relaxed, relatively indifferent to the visitors who trickle in off the ferry. Large, bright blue icebergs dot the bay, rumbling and calving all through the night. It ended up being more than a nice respite from the bustle of Ilulissat and actually one of my favorite spots in all of Greenland.

Qeqertarsuaq's museum

Qeqertarsuaq's museum

The colonial old town is pretty much limited to the former inspector’s home, which now functions as the town museum. It seems that the bulk of the funding for the museum was made possible by the descendents of Philip Rosendahl, who served as the bailiff for the entire northwestern region of Greenland during the early part of the last century. As a result, much of the first floor is dedicated to him––the walls are covered with photos, and his bailiff’s uniform, complete with gold-braided epaulettes. is proudly displayed in a large glass case. It’s all very comical because you can tell from the photos that Rosendahl was someone who did not like a big fuss to be made about him. It’s possible to pick him out in group shots just by his posture––standing always a bit awkwardly off to the side, slinking down a little, always the man apart. I feel confident he would have been embarrassed by the idea of the exhibit, so the whole thing is sort of amusing. The woman running the museum was kind enough to leave it open while I lingered in the reading room upstairs. There were lots of yellowing community papers and pamphlets that made me sorry not to be able to to read Greenlandic, or even much Danish. Still, it was possible to glean some tidbits after lots of time spent digging.

The driver harnesses the dogs

The driver harnesses the dogs

Disko Island is the only place in Greenland where it’s possible to dogsled during the summer months––high up on the Lyngsmarksbraen, whose ice cap stays frozen year-round. Getting up to the base hut is a steep but really pleasant climb; with few switchbacks, it’s pretty much straight up into the clouds, but once you clear them the sun is bright and glorious.

Once up top, I drank coffee and ice melt on the porch of the hut and waited for the ride to begin. In true Greenlandic fashion, there’s no indication of where or when or what to do. When I heard dogs yipping, I walked over and stood and watched them get harnessed. When the driver was finished, he walked straight past me and yelled up to the hut. Coming back, he seemed confused why I wasn’t already on the sled. I sat down, he fussed with the lines, and all of the sudden we were flying.

A member of the sled team

A member of the sled team

It was great, of course––how could it not be? He clucked and hissed and whistled constantly at the fifteen dogs, nicking their paws with the end of a whip for infractions I couldn’t discern. The dogs kicked through the snow, tails up, constantly changing position. The driver spoke no Danish, let along English, so I couldn’t even begin to ask the million questions I wanted to. After about 45 minutes, we stopped abruptly. The dogs immediately started gulping greedily at the snow, the driver stood up to piss, then sat down again and lit a cigarette. I walked around for a while, snapping pictures of the dogs, many of whom were already napping. After 10 minutes, he tossed his cigarette, I quickly hopped on the sled, and we sped off back to the hut. The way back was almost all downhill, the clouds clearing to reveal the icy bay all spread out below. When we got back, he tied the dogs up and hopped on a snowmobile to travel maybe fifty feet to the hut. It was funny––very Greenlandic, really.

Disko Island's basalt

Disko Island's basalt

The opportunity to dogsled made Qeqertarsuaq unforgettable, but I also really loved the sea cliffs east of town. About an hour’s walk from the center, tracing the coast line, the rolling hills change dramatically, to strange pillars of basalt. Assuming all manner of otherworldly shapes, the cliffs and caves are further enhanced by glacial melt pouring through their porous sides, and wet moss growing around beds of brightly colored wildflowers. The whole maze of rock formations just goes and goes, every turn offering new, incredible views. The whole thing is really beyond description––like the perfect spot for the world’s best game of hide-and-seek.


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