I traveled to western Greenland with friends back in July. Since Greenland is such a wild and remote place, I thought I’d write a retrospective article to relate my experience, along with plenty of pictures. The main purpose of the trip was to photograph the icebergs in Disko Bay, but I learned much about the Greenlandic people along the way. This blog entry is longer than my usual, only because I thought it worthwhile to pass on my impressions of an island that remains largely unknown.
I enjoy traveling afar with photographer friends several times a year. So, when it came time to plan our 2018 photo trips, I suggested Greenland as a unique destination. Although we knew little about Greenland at the time (except for the occasional photo), we all enthusiastically agreed to proceed with the Arctic adventure.
Greenland is not one of those places where you casually book a flight and improvise after arrival. It’s a wild place that not only needs advance planning but also serious logistics on the ground. After looking at our options, it quickly became clear that the best alternative was to join a photography group. We ended up booking with Daniel Kordan, an outstanding Russian photographer known for adventure travel and spectacular landscape photos.
Before leaving, our single-biggest concern was the weather. Having been to Iceland several times, we were familiar with the extreme weather in this part of the world. And since the bulk of our photography would be from a 20-person sailboat in the Arctic waters of Disko Bay, we had no idea what to expect.
Off We Go
The trip was scheduled for the latter part of July — summer being the best time of year to photograph the huge icebergs in Disko Bay. We would stay in the town of Ilulissat (which means “Icebergs” in the Inuit language). Ilulissat has a population of around 4,500 people, making it the 3rd largest town in Greenland. The village neighbors the Ilulissat Icefjord, a UNESCO World Heritage Site full of enormous icebergs fallen from Kangia — the most productive glacier in the northern hemisphere.
We were already reminded of the finicky Greenland weather while on the turbo-prop plane between Reykjavik and Ilulissat. The shuttle flight normally lasts 3 hours and 15 minutes, passing over central Greenland to reach the west coast. But after flying for a few hours, the pilot announced that we may not be able to land in Greenland after all due to fog. Apparently, fog is a constant threat in summer. And just a few hours earlier, I had spoken with a woman at the Reykjavik airport who told me that she’d been ‘stuck’ in Greenland for an extra six days due to incessant fog. We now wondered if we’d ever reach our destination.
After circling for what seemed like eternity, we were relieved to hear the pilot announce that an opening in the fog was providing a window to land. The pilot dipped the plane at a steep pitch and made what seemed like a mad descent toward Ilulissat.
Town of Ilulissat
Ilulissat is an Inuit town that you can easily traverse on foot. While there are some paved streets in town, there are no roads to connect it to other towns. Greenland is largely made up of isolated villages accessible only by helicopter or sea. And when ice fills the bays in winter, many villages are no longer accessible by sea.
Our comfortable hotel in Ilulissat sat on a hill overlooking Disko Bay with its abundant icebergs. Shortly after arrival, we learned that weather conditions in the area had been poor all summer, with heavy rain impeding photography throughout the prior week. But it seems that luck was on our side. The skies soon cleared after we arrived and we enjoyed favorable weather during most of our stay in Greenland.
Our leader, Daniel Kordan, chartered two sailboats from St Petersburg, Russia. One boat was equipped with yellow sails while the other sported vivid red sails. Both sailboats were equipped with steel hulls to sustain the unavoidable collisions with ice, piloted by young Russian crews experienced in these Arctic waters.
We had a choice of boarding either sailboat, but most of us chose to board the yellow sailboat so as to include the vibrant sails of the red boat in our photos. The red sails served as excellent contrast against the white ice and also provided a sense of scale. Consequently, that red boat can be seen in many of my photos.
July is the period of the “midnight sun”, so we would board our sailboat at 9pm and return in the early hours of morning between 3-5am. In July, the sun never really sets here. It touches down near the horizon after midnight and instantly begins to climb again. So, we photographed at night and caught up on sleep in the daytime.
Every night, we would sail around Disko Bay in search of photogenic icebergs, when the sun was still low in the sky and the light was at its best. The sailboat crews were well attuned to our needs, positioning the boats for the best angles, compositions, and light. At times, navigating the crowded ice field was a serious challenge for the crew. One crew member would stand high on deck watching for icebergs, while directing the pilot to one side or the other. I was next to a Russian man on deck when I asked him what the crew members were yelling to each other in Russian. In broken English, his reply was, “it may be best you not know”.
The icebergs in Disko Bay range in size from tiny to enormous. During the trip, we witnessed iceberg calvings (ice chunks that break off the edge) and iceberg rollovers (icebergs that flip on their backs). Both natural phenomena are accompanied by noise reminiscent of a passing freight train. Since the icebergs can be close to land, large calvings can also cause tsunamis. A warning sign near a cove in Ilulissat reminded us of this danger.
Some icebergs are blue or blue-green. The ice from older glaciers is more compressed, with little internal air or reflective surfaces. When sunlight hits an old iceberg, the light is absorbed rather than reflected, resulting in refracted light that looks blueish. You can see blue (and therefore older) icebergs in some of my photos.
On the Boat
I found photographing from a sailboat challenging. Not only was the boat always moving, but the icebergs were shifting as well, sometimes at a good clip. As a photographer who has always depended on a solid tripod for his work, this was an entirely different experience. There was no room on deck for tripods, and the passing scenery rendered them useless anyway. So, we all shuffled along the edge of the boat to find compositions, often waiting for passing foreground, while using camera settings that minimized the unavoidable effect of motion.
For me, safety was an ongoing concern. The boat had a thin cable but no real guardrail to prevent falling into the frigid Arctic waters. And it often tilted to one side or the other as it negotiated turns, so a steady posture was essential to avoid a potential fall off the boat. And none of us wore life preservers. They were only used when we tendered to shore in the zodiac boats, otherwise the safety vests remained in storage.
So, there we were, dressed in 3-4 layers of winter clothing to cope with the cold temperatures, stooping along the edge of a sailboat with little protection. But the overall experience was spectacular. The night passed quickly as we sailed around the bay, constantly amazed at the scenery, and often rewarded with great light. We also heard whale blows regularly, and even followed in the wake of a few whales.
We left port earlier than usual (before 9pm) on two occasions to visit small villages on the west coast. Ilimanaq is a tiny village of around 84 inhabitants, south of Ilulissat. Crossing a bay littered with icebergs of all shapes and sizes became quite a challenge for the crew, requiring hours of careful twists and turns to reach the village.
On another day, we sailed to Oqaatsut, a village north of Ilulissat with less than 50 inhabitants. Our leader had made arrangements for a female model and her young son to demonstrate traditional Greenlandic clothing, so the pair joined us on the boat as we photographed into the wee hours of morning. It seems that teenagers everywhere are the same because the young Inuit boy, named Minik, admitted that he’d been up most of the previous night playing video games with friends.
The only means of transportation in winter here is by dog sled. Every household has a pack of huskies. The villages include almost as many dogs as people. One of the jokes we heard is that it’s impossible to sleep in a Greenlandic town because the whole night is filled with sounds of dog howls, barks, growls, and yelps.
The houses in Greenland are painted in vibrant colors using wooden building kits imported from Scandinavia (few trees here). I thought the colors were meant to stand out against the long and bleak winters, but there’s also a more practical reason. In the bigger villages, the colors are an indication of the building function. For example, a hospital building is yellow, a police station is black, and a fish factory is blue. As you get close to the houses, it become obvious that the condition of most houses signals poverty. Fishing is the only industry here.
We had dinner in both Ilimanag and Oqaatut, sampling the local foods and specialties. Given the bleak landscape of the island (mostly rock and ice), it’s not surprising that their diet consists mostly of fish and meat, with little fruit and vegetables. Summer comprises the months of July and August, with snow resuming in September, so the growing season is nearly non-existent. I can say that the food we ate was certainly interesting and…different. We sampled both dried and cooked whale (still hunted), seal blubber (we witnessed fishermen butchering seal on the rocks), fresh halibut, and a variety of strange dried fish that I appreciated sampling only once. So, in addition to photography, our trip also became one of cultural exploration.
I will always remember that WOW moment when we came upon our first big iceberg at sunset. The water was calm with a beautiful reflection, the shapely iceberg was pristine white, and the soft light on the ice was spectacular. Then the boat with the vibrant red sails made a deliberate pass in front of the iceberg to complete the memorable scene. Those are the moments I will remember best from this trip.
I will also remember the people. I was only one of two Americans (the other was my friend, Ed). The rest were from Russia, Germany, Hong Kong, Italy, and England (our other friend, Jerry), to mention a few. My roommate was a Russian doctor, and we all got along. There were no political judgments, no cultural slights nor religious debates. Just a sense of camaraderie on the part of different folks sharing similar interests.
For me, this was a once-in-a-lifetime trip. I generally return multiple times to capture the essence of a place, but this was different. The beautiful icebergs, the favorable weather, and the unique sailboat experience have satisfied my wishes and filled my iceberg portfolio for some time to come. I may have moved on but I will never forget.