Celebrating the Return of the Sun in Ilulissat, plus 4 Things I (Re)Learned About Greenland Doing It

IMG_4974  Southerly view over the Ilulissat Icefjord toward the sunrise, standing at Seqinniarfik. Photo taken: 13 Jan 2016.

First sunrise in 6 weeks

Yesterday the sun rose above the horizon in Ilulissat for the first time in six weeks. Do you remember where you were or what you were doing on 30 November last year? Probably not; it feels so long ago. Now imagine that you have not set eyes on the sun – the very thing you’re taught not to look directly at – since that day.

Needless to say, there’s a bit of a celebration in Ilulissat to bid the sun welcome back. Schools and offices close early, and everyone trudges in one way or another out to a viewpoint called Seqinniarfik in the UNESCO World Heritage Site to watch the sun come up over the mountains on the south side of the Ilulissat Icefjord, take a small skip across the sky, and go down again a mere 52 minutes later.

I joined the masses out there on the hill and was so happy the share the time surrounded by people. Much like most of my experiences in Greenland, it was an instant renewal of my appreciation for the country and a reminder about these 4 things I’ve come to learn about Greenland over time.

DSCN2786 Starting out toward Seqinniarfik. Check the tiny dots (people) on the top of the hill! And that’s not even the final spot. Photo taken: 13 Jan 2016

 

1) Nothing comes on a silver platter

A nicely-plowed plank boardwalk all the way from the road up to Seqinniarfik could have been a dream, but this is Greenland, where even a well-defined sidewalk in town is sometimes too much to ask.

The route to Seqinniarfik was through sled dog territory and over natural terrain, perfectly easy to clear in summer but slightly challenging in winter conditions. The snow was crunchy sheets that didn’t always hold my weight, sending me sinking into knee-deep snow beneath. The high winds of the last two weeks continued and were so strong at my back it gave me a pressure headache and made me dread having to walk into the force on the way home. I didn’t dare to grab my camera out of my pocket for fear of either dropping it or, much worse, having one of my precious sealskin mittens blow away in the midst of a juggling maneuver.

Of course, I did dare because I just had to take a picture, but after even just a few minutes with gloves off, your fingers start to lose mobility to even press the shutter button. Then you have to make the really difficult choice between ‘getting the shot’ (or taking a selfie, let’s be honest) and feeling like you might lose an index finger. All mittens stayed thankfully in my possession but the minus temperatures rendered both my iPhone and digital camera frozen in place after a mere four or five times coming out of my pocket.

No, it’s not always a piece of cake to get out into the Greenlandic nature in winter, but it sure is worth it once you’re there.

 IMG_4976 Seqinniarfik selfie. At the top. Photo taken: 13 Jan 2016.

 

2) There are no words for how stunning Greenland is

Sometimes you can sit looking at the Greenlandic landscape and you could just cry. I have said this myself, and I have heard tourists say it, too. It is a natural reaction when you have so many impressions and feelings swirling around in your body that can’t get out in a normal way with thoughts or speech. Instead, they jump out themselves in a most physical manner.

This country is breathtaking and incredible. The nature is pure and raw and strong and powerful. In pictures I have seen other places that the world calls beautiful, maybe because they are colorful or peaceful, and I always think to myself, ‘Did those places challenge people’s willpower, make them stronger, and generally put humanity to the test?’ To me, that is beauty.

Greenland is not beautiful despite its extreme conditions. It is beautiful because of them.

 

3) The weakest Greenlander is still stronger than the average person

If someone had a mere single breath in him or her, they made an effort to reach Seqinniarfik, it seemed. It was not only the young school kids skating around in their high top sneakers on the icy rocks and holding their thin jackets overhead like sails in a summer breeze.

Not even poor physical condition could keep some people away from the hill. I saw older people out there walking through the snow at a pace of maybe two kilometers an hour, one foot in front of the other, but determined nonetheless to see the first sunrise in six weeks. I even saw a woman on her motorized scooter at the end of the road waiting, hopefully, for someone to pick her up on snowmobile. One could imagine they have done this every year for their entire lives. One could imagine this was maybe one of the few times they got out into the nature anymore.

 

4) Greenlanders do appreciate their own nature, even on the 25000th day

I have heard tourists speculate sometimes that Greenlanders probably forget how fantastic the landscape is since they see it day in and day out, coupled with their observation that Greenlanders rarely exclaim “Oh my gosh! How pretty!” and “Look at that!” toward things a tourist definitely would point out.

On the contrary, living close to and appreciating the nature is an innate element of Greenlandic culture. Regardless of whether one is in the biggest city in the country or in the smallest settlement, the nature is always there and always central to life. Greenlanders can be a people of few yet profound words, hence the lack the exclamations, and my own friend explained this very phenomenon in exactly this style.

She said, “Why ruin the moment with words about something that is already obvious?”

Touché.

DSCN2789 View over Ilulissat. Photo taken: 13 Jan 2016.

Polar darkness in Greenland

DSCN2686 Photo taken on 7 January 2016 at 12:40 PM

Come to my world for a minute. I’m in Ilulissat, Greenland at 69*N, some 297 km / 185 mi north of the Arctic Circle.

At this time of year, early January, Ilulissat is at the tail end of the polar darkness period. From the end of November until the beginning of January, the sun does not rise above the horizon.

The unknowing ‘southerner’ might think polar darkness is a formidable and scary period to be avoided at all costs. They might think that no sun = no light, or 24/7 nighttime. But in fact, this is not true, at least not in Ilulissat. (If we were talking about Qaanaaq, up at 77*N, it would be a different story.) The good news is that if you are a tourist who enjoys real experiences, can be a bit independent, and can accept just a few hours of light at the middle of the day – you could absolutely visit Ilulissat in winter!

During the polar darkness period in Ilulissat, there is actually quite a diverse range of different lights. Meteorologists have fancy words for them like night, astrological twilight, nautical twilight, and civil twilight.

The picture above is taken at the brightest part of the day, in the middle of the civil twilight time frame. Today, 7 January, that happens to be from 9:51 AM to 3:11 PM. This will extend for a few minutes each day until Tuesday, 13 January, when the sun officially rises above the horizon again. First for a transient 50 minutes and then gaining 10 to 15 minutes more sunlight each day.

By the end of the month, there will already be 5 hours of sunlight. By the middle of March (the height of the spring tourism season), there will be 12 hours of sunlight. And by the end of May, the sun will be up 24 hours a day – until the end of July!

Want to hear more? Read about the very first time I experienced polar darkness back in November 2013.

And follow me at @polarphile on Instagram and stay tuned here for more in-the-moment photos as I document the tail end of the polar darkness period in Ilulissat, the return of the sun, and the path full steam ahead into the light.

PHOTO GALLERY: Polar Darkness in Greenland

I ventured north to Ilulissat (69*N, or 297 km/185 mi above the Arctic Circle) in late November in search of the Greenlandic environment most people probably think exists year-round – namely, lots of snow, bone-chilling temperatures, and 24-hour darkness. It was not exactly as I expected, but regardless, what I found was a MOST enchanting winter wonderland!

Photo taken at 12:00 noon on 2 December 2013IMG_6302

Photo taken at 12:15 PM on 2 December 2013IMG_6306

Do you think you know the smell of Ice and Snow? Well, you have not lived until you try it in Ilulissat in wintertime! The combination of the mammoth icebergs in Ilulissat Ice Fjord and Disko Bay with the gossamer snowfall that floats effortlessly in the air is just intoxicating! It is also a feast for your other senses. The blanket of powdery snow on the ground is a bright complement to the colorful houses, and it makes an unmistakable crunch beneath your boots! Blow into a handful and watch how it glitters in the air like weightless diamonds. And your taste buds will thank you if you just go ahead and take a bite!

The temperature was between -8*C and 0*C (18-32*F) during the day, but with the deceivingly low humidity in Greenland, it never feels as cold as the mercury would have you fear! Let’s just say that my body has felt colder in Kangerlussuaq in March than in Ilulissat in November. However, when the wind blows – you do feel that!

The low-hanging sun was soft and quiet and romantic for a few hours a day – between approximately 11:30 AM and 2:00 PM. Its fleeting presence definitely gives a natural feeling that something is coming to an end, that it is time to slow a bit and hibernate a bit. In summertime, my body reacted very strongly to the long days. I always felt completely energized, and 3-4 hours of sleep was plenty for me to feel refreshed. So I fully expected the opposite reaction to the long nights – that I would struggle to stay away at 5:00 PM. But it was not the case!

Photo taken at 11:40 AM on 28 November 2013P1020668

Experiencing the darkness was truly my main target for this trip. Having experienced the electrifying Midnight Sun for a few weeks in summertime, now I wished to see the other side of the astronomical coin. My rookie expectation was that if the sun did not cross the horizon, then the sky would be dark. So on 1 December, I expected 24-hour darkness that would not end until mid-January.

It turns out “polar darkness” is a bit of a misnomer, at least in Ilulissat. Even when the sun does not cross the horizon, its presence is still noticeable enough to consider it light out for a few hours a day. During my trip (25 November – 2 December 2013), it was dark between approximately 3:30 PM and 10:00 AM. For example, the pictures above are taken after the last day with sunrise, at the lightest part of the day. The picture below is also taken after the last day with sunrise. Give it another 40 minutes, and the sky will be completely dark.

If you want to follow the ebb and flow of light above the Arctic Circle from the comfort of your own home, check out the IceCam, a 24-hour time-lapse camera located in Ilulissat.

Photo taken at 3:50 PM on 2 December 2013IMG_6322

In order to experience true 24-hour darkness, one must travel another 438 km/272 mi north to Upernavik (72*N, or 695 km/432 mi above the Arctic Circle). I have never been this far north, so my interest is certainly piqued! (The farthest north I have been is Uummannaq – 70*N, or 459 km/285 mi above the Arctic Circle).

By contrast, go to the capital city, Nuuk (64*N, or 266 km/165 mi below the Arctic Circle) and the sun will rise above the horizon every day of the year, though there will still be many hours of darkness. While I was in Nuuk (21-25 November 2013 & 2 December 2013) it was dark between approximately 5:00 PM and 9:00 AM. Here are some shots from Nuuk.

Photo taken at 8:00 AM on 22 November 2013IMG_6212

Photo taken at 9:30 AM on 3 December 2013IMG_6367

Photo taken at 10:30 AM on 3 December 2013P1020677

Photo taken at 11:00 AM on 3 December 2013P1020683