Down to the Green Southwest: Ch 9 of Go Greenland

September 30, 2021
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THE next day, the thirtieth of April, I headed back to Nuuk Airport to catch a local flight down to southwest Greenland. As you can see from the video, the summer tourist season had still not yet arrived!

The name I was most familiar with down south was Narsarsuaq, though that only turned to be only the name of the airport.

Narsarsuaq is about an hour’s flight south from Nuuk by local propellor planes, and is also on the west coast.

While the Inuit came from the frozen north, it was the southwestern area that was colonised by the Vikings who gave the island its otherwise misleading name of Greenland. For although it is only a small part of the whole island, the southwest is quite green in summer. There are even patches of forest in the southwest. The rest of Greenland is quite bare.

The southwest also has some farms, mainly focused on rearing sheep. Sheep farming is in some ways the last resort of the farmer in cold climates. As in the Shetlands and the Falklands and Norway, the South Island High Country of New Zealand and Wyoming, so, likewise, in the southwest of Greenland they run sheep.

The airport at Narsarsuaq was constructed by the Americans during World War II. During the war the small settlement was home to 4,000 people and included a hospital for wounded personnel. It was a strategically important location giving easy access to Europe. The Thule Air Base is another American military base that is still occupied and used in the very northwest of Greenland.

In 1959 the USA signed an agreement with Denmark to share the airport at Narsarsuaq, and both Icelandicair and Scandinavian Airline systems began flights to and from the airport. Icelandicair had the intention of creating a Narsarsuaq — Copenhagen route but because of the economy and lack of interest the route was never made available. Eruptions from nearby volcanoes in the area also didn’t help the airport.

When I flew from Nuuk into Narsarsuaq it was really scenic, an eagle–eye view of the massive Tunulliarfik Fjord around Narsarsuaq. The flight I got was about lunchtime and as we approached the airport in the small plane, I was mesmerized by the deep green ocean with hundreds if not thousands of tiny icebergs floating along. I would liken it to flying over rural New Zealand’s green fields dotted with white sheep — kind of.

In 2010 the Greenland census reported that Qaqortok had a bit over 3,000 permanent residents. For anywhere outside Nuuk, that is a lot by Greenland standards. “Permanent” means sticking out the winter: and it’s that that separates the players from the stayers in Greenland. Nobody wants to be anywhere too remote when the big freeze-up comes. For instance, the permanent population of the Northeast Greenland National Park is precisely zero. Even the South Pole has more year-round inhabitants than that.

I wanted to visit this part of Greenland because not only did it have strong ties with local Inuit, but also, Erik the Red’s settlement was near here. Erik the Red was the Viking explorer who founded the first European settlement in Greenland — the founding father. There was a museum to Erik the Red in the nearby town of Narsaq (permanent population 158); which I also confused with Narsarsuaq at first but is some distance away from the airport.

Directly across the waters of a narrow fjord from Narsaq is Qassiarsuq, where there is a sheep farm that tourists can visit, a statue of Leif Erikson and even a small plantation forest. There is also some natural forest in south-western Greenland, but it is some distance away and in a fairly remote area. It seems that there was more natural forest once, but the Vikings chopped quite a lot of it down and in view of the marginal conditions in this part of the world, the natural forest hasn’t easily regrown.

There are some quite famous church ruins here as well. The ruined, mediaeval Hvalsey Fjord Church near Qaqortok is believed to be the very first Christian church in Greenland.

This south-western corner of Greenland is sometimes jokingly referred to as the Greenland Riviera. It’s also referred to as Erik the Red’s land, mainly because this was the part of Greenland that Erik encouraged his fellow-Vikings to settle, forsaking the icier parts.

During the Viking era and the Middle Ages, the vagaries of currents and climate meant that the area was a little warmer than it would be over the next few centuries, until recently once more, which also meant that it could support a prosperous farming lifestyle. When the climate grew colder toward the end of the Middle Ages, the Vikings packed up and left. The last known record of their presence was recorded very early in the 1400s. After that the wind just whistled past the Hvalsey Fjord Church, century after century: quite sad, really. It’s good that people have come back.

It was in Narsaq that I saw firsthand traditional Greenlandic culture for myself. Meat eating is a way of life in the Arctic — and there’s no need for freezers either. Many Greenlandic Inuit store their meat under their houses in a basement-type space. I was told most meat is boiled, used in stews and soups. Anything they can catch is turned into an interesting main meal. Killer whale (orca), seabirds, wild duck, seals, polar bears: everything is used and turned into something most Westerners wouldn’t even be brave enough to eat.

I was told about kiviak, a wintertime Inuit special. Little auk sea birds are stuffed inside a sealskin — beaks, feet, feathers and all — and then left to ferment for several months. The result looks like blackened roadkill. To be honest I was not brave enough to try it.

Most of these exotic fermented foods, so I’m told, end up smelling like a really stinky cheese or fermented tofu, which also smells like a really stinky cheese. As with stinky cheese, which at least doesn’t look like roadkill, this is an acquired taste; you either love it or you hate it.

Apart from the risk of having the whole lot simply go rotten, the main danger with things like kiviak is botulism, which is normally kept at bay by encouraging an acidic fermentation process of the kind that also helps to create yogurt and sauerkraut. People have died from having kiviak improperly prepared, due to the loss of the traditional knowledge of how to get it right. And that’s something else to think about.

There is only one beekeeping establishment in all of Greenland, at Narsarsuaq. They have something of a corner on the supply of honey in the country!

I just found it so interesting that this was such an environmentally conscious land — I mean, yes, they are big meat eaters and, no, they don’t eat baby seals. But they do eat and hunt whales and larger marine life because the by-products are all useful — the fat, the oil, the blubber, the skins — everything is useful!

That got me interested in the policies on hunting in Greenland and if there were any. The Greenlandic people are very well aware of overfishing and climate changes that affect the animal and sea life around the country.

Traditionally, the Greenlanders used polar bear skins in clothing, and they still consume its meat today. The polar bear is used in the official coat of arms of Greenland, symbolising its strength and importance to the people. The polar bears live in the very north of Greenland and along the western coasts; you can travel up there on tours during the summer to see them, although the polar bear is still considered a rare sight. The current law is that polar bears can be hunted but only under special circumstances. And, as tradition says, the whole animal and all its by-products must, as far as possible, be used and not wasted (surprisingly enough, the liver is poisonous).

The Soviet Union was the first to ban hunting of polar bears in 1956, Canada followed in 1968, and Norway in 1973. The USA, Soviet Union, Canada, Denmark (in charge of Greenland) and Norway (in charge of Svalbard/Spitzbergen) jointly concluded an Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears in 1973, which allows people to only hunt by traditional means and for traditional reasons. Iceland didn’t sign this treaty, as polar bears are not native to Iceland and on the odd occasion that one turns up and starts roaming around on the comparatively thickly populated island, the Icelanders usually feel that shooting it is the only sensible thing to do. On the other hand, no-one is allowed to kill a polar bear if it is at sea in Icelandic waters.

With the melting of the ice at a rapid pace, the polar bears have started moving toward the south in Greenland, which has meant some animals have had to be killed, Iceland-style, because of the threat to humans. It is not unheard of, although frustrating to the locals, that sled dogs have also been attacked and eaten by polar bears in search of food.

Since 1972 the World Wildlife Fund has had support and educational programs in place across the Arctic to try and protect not only the populations of the polar bear but their habitats as well. One worrying factor has been the amount of pesticide residues found in the bloodstream of many of the Arctic polar bears. It is because of issues like this, as well as earlier ‘sport’-hunting before the 1973 agreement, that polar bears have been listed as vulnerable, with some areas showing a definite decline in already-modest numbers.

I came across some information about the harvesting of Polar Bears in Russia for the fur trade in the 1700s, with some estimates of 300 bears per year. It got me interested and I made a note to keep a look out for information on the species in other countries I visited.

It was strange to me that these animals that Westerners held in such high regard were also the main food staples of the people. In that sense it was a culture shock!

The people still seem to be able to maintain their own unique cultures and social customs. The Inuit and the Danish cultures are distinct of course, and yet the two have blended over time to create another individual Greenlandic culture. I saw variations of this culture in the different regions. Narsaq was different to Nuuk and different again in Ilulissat. I expected it would be different even further north. Greenland is the largest island in the world and yet also one of the most sparsely populated, as is most of the Arctic. The entire population of Greenland is well under 60,000. I found it amazing to travel to all these so-called main cities to find but a mere smattering of people living there.

At Narsarsuaq, I found that there was a botanical garden! I wouldn’t have thought there could be such a thing as an Arctic botanical garden before I came to Greenland: but there was. It’s called the Greenlandic Arboretum, and it’s a place where locals are cultivating a collection of plants from the whole of the Arctic, not just Greenland.

I decided that while I was in Narsaq I would book into a hotel, and I found that the accommodation was more limited here than in Nuuk. I decided to book one night at a time in case my plans changed — and I was glad that I did. For, I was still working and needed a reliable internet connection. I was trying to secure a house purchase in Queenstown, New Zealand, which ended up being quite an ordeal! The lawyer I had decided that because I was overseas, he would try and charge me for things he hadn’t done like obtaining reports and titles, which I actually ended up sorting out myself from Greenland. Note to self — never again.

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