Ice. Massive fields of ice everywhere as I gazed out the window of the DC-3 on the flight from Kangerlussuaq to Nuuk, the capital of Greenland. Miles of ice as far as could be seen.
It was all a dazzling white and an eye-blinking bright in the March sunshine, a sea frozen atop never-seen land.
That was what flying over the Greenland Ice Cap was like in 2002, a time when no one worried about it all melting, a time when no one worried about U.S. President Donald Trump’s cockamamie offer to buy Greenland as if it were some discount deal on late-night TV.
I had to fly from Chicago across the Atlantic Ocean to Copenhagen, Denmark, and then back across the water to get there and then switch from a jet to a prop plane for the final 300 miles.
Kangerlussuaq, currently a community of 500-plus, is a vestige of World War II. It was once a United States military air base. Now it has the only runways in the country long enough to accommodate jets.
For a week in Nuuk, I observed the Arctic Winter Games, an Olympics of the North, including teams from Alaska, Quebec, Northern Manitoba, the Yukon Territory, and the Northwest Territories.
Greenland, with its population of about 57,000, roughly equal to Cheyenne’s, is no international sports power.
Although Greenland hosted again in 2016, then this festival was the biggest event in island history since Norseman Erik The Red sailed into town in 982 and attempted to fool people into colonizing by applying an optimistic name.
I already knew the name joke played on the world about how Greenland is really icy and Iceland is really green.
Greenland is treeless, and communities are situated on the coast, connected only by airplane and boat. There are no inter-city roads.
I was more interested in Greenland’s kinship with Alaska, where I lived for 17 years, which proved to be a deep one except for the language and its orientation more towards Europe than North America where it is geographically located.
Mostly inhabited by Inuit peoples whose ancestors drifted eastward from Alaska and Canada, Greenland is the least densely populated area in the world.
Of its 836,330 square miles, three quarters of the world’s largest island is covered (or was covered) by ice.
Leading up to the Arctic Winter Games, Greenland’s officialdom fretted about the $3.2 million budget it was busting and about not having facilities ready for competition. This is a common theme for Summer and Winter Olympic Games, just on a smaller scale. In the end, a 1,500-seat, $650,000 arena opened for business on time.
Sports contested included cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, badminton and, most significantly, the Eskimo-Inuit games, which are connected to the subsistence lifestyle skills needed for hunting caribou or seal.
One event was the kneel jump, gold won by Alaska’s Nicole Johnston, a long-time competitor, champion and coach in these every-two-year games. Johnston’s mother was from Illinois and did not know any Eskimos.
“And then she married one,” said Johnston, who grew up in Nome, is now pushing 50 and is a grandmother living in Anchorage.
Her main focus these days is passing on Native culture to younger generations, lest they forget how easy it is to freeze their ears while hunting, or how much strength is needed to persevere in Arctic cold.
The Old Ways are spoken of often by elders, in Alaska and Greenland.
The remotest of villages are more connected to the rest of the world than ever, and Natives worry about languages dying out and customs evaporating in favor of internet surfing and video-game playing.
Between sporting events, I had time to wander Nuuk’s streets. Then a city of about 14,000, though now pushing 18,000, the community wore its Native heritage on its sleeve.
Signs were not in English. They were starting to fade out in Danish, too. Denmark, which had won possession of Greenland from Norway, granted Greenland home rule in 1979. After winning more self-government rights through legislation in 2008, Greenlandic became the official language in 2009.
In downtown Nuuk, footsteps crunched on fresh snow that went unshoveled, snow flurries fell regularly, and a cold wind blew off the nearby bay.
In a multi-purpose store I could have purchased a reasonably priced (only several thousand dollars) polar bear-skin rug, though I would have been in violation of international law for owning it and also for trying to bring it back to the United States.
Farmer’s markets, weekly craft fairs and the like are common all over the United States. But Nuuk hosted a hunter’s meat market where freshly killed animal hunks were for sale. This would be a big hit in Cody.
The Greenlandic woman who was the island’s representative in Danish parliament acted as my interpreter.
Up for sale were flanks, legs and slabs of ribs harvested from reindeer and seals.
I met a man named Kristian Davidsen, then 66, who shot the reindeer meat displayed on an outdoor table with his rifle that morning. Fresh, indeed.
Men hunted on snow-covered hills across the bay from Nuuk, which is six miles from the Labrador Sea, and promptly delivered the harvest to market. Through the interpreter, Davidsen, who was short and dark-haired and resembled silent movie star Buster Keaton, made it clear this was nothing new for him, but a lifetime occupation.
“I have only lived for hunting,” he said.
Davidsen and others were still butchering the meat. They cut using axes or saws, and their hands were bloody as they trimmed fat and bone.
This was no free-for-all, however. There were regulations governing operations, permits required and bag limits.
A typical reindeer harvested might weigh 165 pounds. It was cheaper than store-bought meat, which was available in Nuuk, but the shrink-wrapped import came from Denmark, very much a costly proposition.
Still, most browsing customers were in their 20s and 30s. Perhaps they did not hunt, but they still desired traditional food.
At the time, Davidsen’s reindeer was selling for 70 Danish kroner a pound with eight kroner equal to a U.S. dollar.
At a far end of the market place, Efrain Hansen, then 67, sold seal chunks, killed with a .22-caliber rifle at distances of up to 600 yards. His fur-lined hat with protruding ear flaps had me wondering if he made it himself, but I didn’t get the chance to ask.
Running a 19-foot aluminum boat to the ringed seal grounds, and supplementing his diet with reindeer and whale meat, kept Hansen stocked with the delicacies he craved.
“I cannot live without Greenlandic food,” he said through an interpreter.
He did add he had recently developed a taste for fresh vegetables from the store.
Like others of his generation, he worried about the future of his culture, even though four sons followed his hunting ways. Although Hansen was ready to head home for the day, he waited. A regular customer with a preference for Greenlandic food was on his way.
My hotel had automatic on-and-off lights as I walked through the door, but there was no restaurant in it. I would have liked to have seen a menu with reindeer meat on it.
For me, the TV menu was pretty sparse, too. There was one English-language channel. I read a lot, finishing all seven books I brought. When I ventured back to the polar-bear rug store, I surveyed the book selection offering a very limited choice in English, which is how I ended up with “Bridget Jones’ Diary.” Was she part Danish?
When he visited Alaska, Ono Fleischer stayed with two young dog mushers I knew. When I was going to Greenland those guys – and another adventurer I knew named Lonnie Dupre – told me I had to meet this guy.
Dupre, a modern-day Arctic explorer from Minnesota who with a partner completed the first human-powered circumnavigation of Greenland by dog sled and paddle in 2001, is one of those guys born too late because most of the great outdoor challenges had been knocked off by others.
On the 6,000-mile circumnavigation, Dupre and friend put up with 100-mph winds imprisoning them in a tent for five days, a sample of what Greenland can throw at people when in a bad mood.
It took from 1997 to 2001 to complete the trip. Dupre over-wintered one year in Qaanaaq, a village of 500.
“They find it interesting a white person can even drive a dog team,” Dupre said.
That’s because the only musher they knew was one of their own – Fleischer.
There are competitive long-distance mushers galore in Alaska, many in Canada, some in New England, and a sprinkling overseas, particularly in Norway.
Fleischer didn’t race, he traveled. He mushed big Greenlandic dogs, bred to work, retracing the steps of Dane Knud Rasmussen, who in the 1920s mushed from Greenland to the Bering Sea.
Dupre met Fleischer during his own odyssey. I met Fleischer when he gave a lecture during the Arctic Winter Games.
At the time, the general manager of the games, Michael Binzer, described Fleisher as a hero in Greenland, “a symbol of one of those who keeps traditions alive.”
Although he applied this description to his dogs, Fleischer may well have been looking into his soul when he said, “Greenlandic dogs come from wolves. They are very clever. They have heart.”
In 2002, Fleischer said he hoped to complete one more great mushing journey over the ice cap. In 2008, he mushed his sled across the country to a village to get married. Intending to return home with his bride the same way, they were stymied by rain ruining the trail.
Greenland really is at ground zero of global climate change.
It is estimated by scientists that this summer some 440 billion tons of ice will melt or calve off the second largest body of ice in the world besides Antarctica.
One day in August it was 52 degrees just below the Arctic Circle and scientists worked without coats or gloves.
The thousand-year-old ice, some of it a mile deep, has been melting or receding in abundance since the early 2000s. Weather experts are still trying to determine what is going on and how bad things will get, saying if the ice cap melts the world’s oceans will rise by three or four feet.
So when President Trump recently threw out the suggestion of buying Greenland, did he envision buying a puddle?
Denmark remains the ultimate Greenlandic authority and indignantly hung out a Not-For-Sale sign, slam-dunking the proposal into the sea.
Trump, being a say-anything sort of guy, probably did not expect to be mocked and ridiculed. He even cancelled a state visit to Denmark because he did not like the government’s response.
The United States has territories, too, among them Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Maybe Trump should have offered to trade one of them to Denmark for Greenland.
Defenders of Trump say he really just wants to edge out China and Russia on mineral deals after the ice sheet evaporates, not to make it the 51st state.
Or maybe all this hullaballoo is because he wants to build a Trump Hotel Nuuk. He’ll leave the lights on for you, but bring a life jacket.