Part II: Sisimiut and the Arctic Umiaq Line
The town of Sisimiut marks the western end of the Arctic Circle Trail. It’s an interesting place and the second largest in Greenland with a population of roughly 5,700. It’s a working town bustling with hunters and fishermen, young mothers pushing babies bundled up in strollers, and general workers. It is one of the only places where it gets cold enough in winter to run dog sleds, but stays warm enough to leave the harbor accessible year-round.
I had a few days before the ferry arrived so I enjoyed Danish pastries from the bakery and poked around some of the trails near town. I was staying in the hostel in town which was full of hikers preparing to set out on the Arctic Circle Trail or those, like myself, who had just completed the trek from Kangerlussuaq. Most evenings were spent exchanging stories and experiences from along the trail.
One foggy morning I headed out to a little spit of land following trails over rocky outcrops and past several rough mounds of sod or piled stones. This particular site has a well protected natural harbor and has been inhabited for over 4,000 years! The Saqqaq culture is believed to be the first people to have settle in Greenland. They lived along the coast from ~2,500AD to ~800AD before disappearing. They were followed by the Dorset group which lived in the area from ~500BC-200AD. The next wave of settlers came from the Thule culture which were the ancestors of all modern Inuit. In the 1700s the Danish arrived and, monopolizing the lucrative whaling industry, colonized the island. To this day Danes make up a large portion of the population in Greenland.
While I was walking along the shore I noticed several dogs running around a tiny rocky island just offshore. After asking a woman in town I learned that dog sledders will sometimes put their dogs out on rocks to toughen them up and to give them some exercise during the summer months. Most dogs are kept on short chains during the off-season and require significant training and work to get back into sledge-pulling shape.
On Monday the Umiaq Arctic Line ferry arrived. There is just one passenger ferry and it runs once a week from Qaqortoq in the far South all the way up to Ilulissat and then back the next week. On board I found my reserved bunk and went up top to watch the rest of the passengers board. It seemed that everyone had turned out to greet incoming friends and family or to bid farewell to those leaving. Greenlandic towns and settlements are so small and the land and elements so rough that no towns are connected via road – everything and everyone must travel via plane, helicopter, boat, or sled. While there was a handful of tourists most of the passengers were families traveling to other settlements or older students traveling to towns with high schools. There was a whole section on deck for baby strollers.
And then we were off, heading Southward! It was a grey foggy morning and soon we lost sight of land. A few hours later we turned back inland and I glanced out one of the windows to see a massive rock face emerging from its cloak of fog. Despite the chill several of us stood on the open top deck where we gaped at the massive mountains in the stunning light. Our first stop was at the settlement of Kangaamiut near the mouth of the Kangerlussuaq fjord. Clinging to a steep rock slope the houses seemed precarious at best. However, the waters here are deep and rich with sea life and humpback whales dove along-side fishing boats tending their nets as the ferry glided past. Later that evening we stopped at Maniitsoq to exchange passengers before continuing onward towards Nuuk.
Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, is the largest city by far with a population of over 17,000 people (almost a third of Greenland’s population). The ferry was scheduled to stop here for several hours and so we were allowed the whole morning to stretch our legs and explore. I walked around visiting the National Museum with the famous Qilakitsoq mummies, noticing the beautiful street art and murals on buildings, getting some lunch at one of the several grocery stores, and finding free wifi (very rare in Greenland) at the library.
Then it was back on the boat and out to sea. It began to rain that afternoon and we quickly lost sight of land amid the fog and swells. After a few hours of this the sound of retching filled the ship – and the chairs and bunks were filled with seasick passengers. On the top deck I enjoyed the cool clean air and watched Northern Fulmars swoop behind us almost like albatross.
We stopped again at the little settlements of Qeqertarsuatsiaat and Paamiut and had a chance to walk around Arsuk. There was a tourist guide on board who lectured on the history and current issues facing Greenland. He was very knowledgeable, answering questions about in English, Danish, Greenlandic, and French. As I mentioned above, it was an interesting mix of working commuter ferry and cruise ship. Most tourists take the ferry from Illilisat to Nuuk, but there were a few of us heading all the way South. Southern Greenland is laced with a plethora of narrow ice-filled fjords, passages, inlets, and islands. As we neared Narsaq we began to see icebergs from calving glaciers farther inland. Seals splashed in the water as the vessel plowed along it’s course, smashing right through small pieces of ice and passing very close to several larger icebergs. I was enthralled by the beautify of the ice in the sea; the white of snow and ice contrasting against the deep, brilliant blue emanating from these massive pieces of frozen water. Pieces that had recently flipped over seemed to glow with a saturated blue. Seal hunters skimmed along the surface between the bergs, rifles at the ready.
We reached the town of Narsaq just as dusk fell. In the dusk I could see a sprinkling of lights across a low area surrounded on three sides by icy sea and butted up against a looming mountain. This is where my voyage ended and I disembarked the ferry to find a place to camp for the night.