The Treasures of the Snow

The Icefjord I’m about to talk about.

We didn’t spend a whole lot of time in Aasiaat.  To begin with, it wasn’t nearly as charming as Sisimiut, and we had a few stops to make in Disko Bay before settling the boat into Ilulissat for a two-week stopover.  Then of course Rudy and Renan, the camera guys, were keen on getting some iceberg photos, while Mark wanted to check out some places of historical interest, where Polar Sun’s trail would cross and join that of arctic expeditions long past.

Iceberg as we left Aasiaat.

In an Old Testament book whose name I can’t remember, God famously asks Job: “Hast thou entered into the treasures of the snow?”  It was a safe question, since Job probably hadn’t been to Disko Bay to see all the snow treasured up by the Greenland ice cap, then squeezed into the bay like so much lumpy toothpaste out a nozzle known locally as “The Icefjord.”  That ice then spreads out, and unimaginably huge lumps of it wander aimlessly out into the bay, and are scattered there as far as the eye can see.

“There’s ice as far as the eye can see,” I reported needlessly as we steamed northward from Aasiaat.  We thought we’d have to weave about between the pieces, but soon learned that on closer approach, two ice mountains that had seemed small and close together from afar were a mile or more apart, and it wasn’t worthwhile altering course until a berg was actually evidently in our path.  And we saw some good bergs that day: shutters clicked, drones whirred; awe was achieved.

Our first stop was at the Whalefish Islands, were the remains of an abandoned settlement give the whole place an immeasurable loneliness.  The boggy landscape is scattered with rusting cast-iron stoves and the staves of wrecked dories, stranded among the sagging remains of cottages and watched over by the distinctly Lutheran crosses of a hilltop graveyard.

The only living things in sight other than us were fierce throngs of mosquitoes, big, black, hungry ones who attacked with the recklessness of creatures that know their time is short.  We were glad enough to flee their ruthless onslaught and put back to sea after just a couple hours ashore, shoving off for Godhavn, on the southern shore of Disko Island.

There was a good deal of large ice clustered around Godhavn, as though the bergs had all lumbered together for a potluck, but the harbor itself was clear.  To our disappointment, the promised wreck of the Fox, one of the many relief ships sent off to look for Franklin’s lost expedition, was a bit anticlimax.  We were told that you could see it at low tide, and expected an exotic SCUBA dive in thirty feet of icy green water.  Instead, a bit of boiler and some lumps of rust showed above weedy water too shallow to dive on.  We contented ourselves with diving and photographing a nearby iceberg instead—at least, Rudy and Renan did—lacking any sort of wetsuit, and not being a fan of cold water, I opted to stay aboard and make curry.

Approaching Ilulissat the next day, after finding the most spectacular iceberg to photograph, and turn around and photograph again, and sail past for more pictures, and launch the dinghy for more

—where was I?  Oh yes, approaching Ilulissat, we found it guarded by a five-mile-wide band of ice, the product of the icefjord, stretching north and south as far as the eye could reach.  It was composed of floating ice of all sizes, from vast cliffy mountains to tiny little cubes of brash ice.  Entering it with caution, we soon found that with some winding about a path through could be found, if you didn’t mind nudging aside the smallest bits.  As the sun lowered to its nadir above the horizon, the light became magical, and the ice labyrinth we were passing through glowed as though enchanted.  Spellbound, we wove along until, with one last waggle of our wake, the narrow harbor entrance opened up ahead.

We had been expecting a tight and crowded harbor, but this exceeded all imagination.  Not only were boats rafted up three-deep against every bulkhead, but there were clusters of boats rafted to moorings, and the impossibly long floating piers stretching into the harbor were jammed with skiffs.  Grabbing the first spot we saw, before venturing too far inside where there might be no room to turn or go back, we became the fourth sailboat in a stack jutting out from the end of a big fish wharf.

Ashore, after crawling over and around the inside boats of the raftup, we found a charming town devoted mostly to fishing and tourism.  While there were plenty of normal holiday tourists, you couldn’t throw a brick without beaning two or three documentary film crews and a stray photographer or two.  Some were heading further north among the sea ice; some were headed inland to the ice cap; some were stranded by the shockingly unreliable airline service in these parts, waiting to get even further north.

It’s a pleasant throng, on the whole, and the two weeks I’m spending boat-sitting in Ilulissat are far more friendly and less dull than I had thought they would be.  There’s still some rainy days to keep me under hatches, but I hope I’m using those well to keep up on the blog (you’re welcome), and to prepare the boat for the next phase of the journey across Baffin Bay and into the Northwest Passage.  On sunny days, I try to hike another of the many trails that lead out to the icefjord, and contemplate in wonder, for a little while, the treasures of the snow.

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