With a loud crack and a rumble, the iceberg offshore splits in half, the sound exploding through the Arctic summer night. In the otherwise perfect silence, it reminds us how isolated we are at Natural Habitat Adventure’s remote Base Camp Greenland, a few miles south of the Arctic Circle.
Three times the size of Texas, Greenland is enormous, divided in half by the two-mile thick, 2.5 million-year-old Greenland Ice Cap, which covers 80 percent of the island.
The capital, Nuuk, and most of the population are located on the western side. We are based on the eastern side, virtually uninhabited except for a handful of small, subsistence-based Inuit communities, cut off from the rest of the world for eight months a year. The only way to reach this remote, isolated wilderness in the summer is by boat or helicopter.
The journey is arduous. Our 75-minute flight from Reykjavik, Iceland lands on a gravel runway at Kulusuk in Eastern Greenland. From here, a 10-minute helicopter ride over jagged peaks and vast fjords filled with icebergs takes us to Ammassalik Island and the picturesque town of Tasiilaq, with its brightly painted wooden houses hugging King Oscar’s Fjord.
Base Camp is on the northern side of Ammassalik Island, reachable only by a small red and white wooden boat, wending its way through fjords filled with ice beneath soaring 5,000-foot unnamed peaks.
After a journey of about four hours, we reach a sheltered bay off Sermilik Fjord near the Inuit hamlet of Tinit (short for Tiniteqilaaq). Few places in the world are as remote and pristine as this.
As our boat rounds a point, Eric, one of our two guides for this expedition, calls us to the side. “If you look just beyond that blue iceberg over there, you can see Base Camp.”
He is pointing to a rocky glacial valley surrounded on either side by mountains, still pockmarked with snow, even though it’s August. It’s several minutes before we’re able to pick out the tent cabins (affectionately known as “tabins”) that will be our home for the next several days.
In keeping with Natural Habitat’s philosophy of protecting the environment, the eco-camp’s footprint is minimal. The camp is set up for two months in the summer to house about 15 guests and taken down at the end of the season. All garbage is taken out by boat. Only a storage shed remains onsite.
The “tabins” are unexpectedly luxurious, more African safari camp than Arctic base camp. Each is named after a famous explorer. We are housed in “Drake,” after Sir Francis, the famous British seaman.
Built of heavy-duty vinyl on raised platforms with a private porch overlooking the bay, they are cozy and warm against the Arctic chill. A kerosene heater at the back provides warmth. Down duvets cover the twin beds on either side. In the evening, the staff slips a hot water bottle between the sheets to ensure a toasty night.
An array of amenities sits nearby, including a pair of Croc rubber shoes for each guest to wear around camp instead of hiking boots. Biodegradable soap and shampoo are provided to minimize damage to the environment.
Each tent is equipped with an en-suite bathroom containing a sink (cold water only) and a dry flush toilet. Hot showers are available in the nearby gender-segregated bathhouse tent.
A large mess tent with a lounge provides the communal gathering place. This is where we meet, attend lectures and eat our meals prepared by the camp chef and his assistant. Considering that we are “on the edge of the world,” the food is impressive and includes such local delicacies as freshly caught Arctic char.
The first order of business after we have settled into our “tabin” is to collect our equipment. We’re issued Arctic survival suits, as well as life jackets and knee-high neoprene boots.
Unexpectedly, mosquito nets are included to wear over our heads. The reason becomes very clear when squadrons of enormous predatory insects follow us everywhere. They’re particularly fond of the mess tent where they attack ankles, even through layers of clothing. It’s a minor annoyance in an otherwise magical world.
There are no man-made sounds. Instead, your ears quickly become attuned to new sounds – the crackle, snap, boom of icebergs breaking apart, echoing through the chilly air; the splashing of waves against the shore; and the raucous cry of guillemots and gulls. Otherwise, we are cocooned in profound silence.
Adventures in Greenland
Here, we are in uncharted territory where even the most carefully planned excursions can have unexpected surprises. Our guides, Eric and Melissa, are professional to a fault, imposing strict discipline to ensure that we prepare for whatever we might encounter in this extreme environment – including the possibility of polar bears. Fortunately, everything goes smoothly.
Using sea kayaks, we explore the bays around camp. Once we are comfortable with the equipment, a longer trip into the fjord provides close encounters with icebergs and even an inquisitive seal. Nearby, a pod of whales feeds peacefully in the bay, their spouts visible up to a mile away.
Using two inflatable Zodiac boats, we travel through Sermilik Fjord where Greenland’s most “active” glacier, the Helheim, fills the passage with icebergs, some as big as buildings. Our Inuit guide, Julius, shepherds us across the waterway, carefully threading a path between the behemoths of fantastical ice, where hidden dangers lurk under the surface. The expression “tip of the iceberg” takes on a new meaning as the crystal clear waters reveal turquoise-blue mountains that disappear under the surface.
Notwithstanding their beauty, icebergs (which come in a variety of shapes and colors) are completely unpredictable and must be kept at a distance to avoid the collapsing mountains of ice swamping the Zodiacs with tidal waves. It takes an experienced navigator to know where it’s safe to go.
On one excursion, the thickness of the ice forces a change of plans. Julius cannot find a safe way through the icebergs to reach the opposite side of Sermilik Fjord, where we hope to explore the Johan Petersen Fjord at the edge of the Greenland Ice Cap.
Instead, we land on a rocky beach beneath a soaring peak to hike up to a small waterfall surrounded by tiny, purple arctic flowers. The layers of rocks (about 1-2 million years old) look as if they have been squeezed and pushed by the cycle of freezing and thawing that takes place there.
Other hikes take us to the remains of ancient Inuit hunting camps, the turf houses still largely intact even though they were abandoned years ago.
We also visit Tinit. The village consists of a few wooden houses with racks outside to dry fish. Wooden sleds sit on the roof, kept there so that they aren’t buried when needed.
The Inuit are very friendly, even inviting us in for coffee. Thanks to Julius, we learn about Inuit culture that still survives by fishing and hunting, even as the people begin to adapt to contemporary 21st century life. They believe that within the next 10 years, the Inuit won’t be able to hunt anymore. “We hope that tourism will replace the income we make from hunting,” Julius says, “but at the same time, we must balance this against the beauty of our traditions so that our way of life is not destroyed.” The unknown factor is the impact that climate change and the rapidly melting Greenland Ice Cap will have on these fragile communities.
Base Camp Greenland gives us a unique opportunity to experience a little-known part of the world and provides us with valuable insights into the lives of the Inuit. We’re forced to confront our own insignificance in the face of nature. We leave humbled by the experience, but with a much better understanding of the reality of life in the Arctic.
If You Go
Natural Habitat Adventure is the only company that offers this unique travel opportunity. Natural Habitat partners with the World Wildlife Fund, donating a portion of all profits to support conservation efforts worldwide.