Thursday, September 29, 2011


Green is the "in" color this year, so where else would we go but to Greenland. Greenland, the world's largest island, is about as desolate and isolated as any place can be, but the coast IS green, at least in July. Back in 1946the U.S. offered to buy Greenland for $100 million from Denmark, but the Danes refused to sell. Maybe they thought the best deal is the one you didn't make, but if there was some hidden value, it hasn't been discovered yet. About 85% of the island is a huge glacier, 2 miles thick in some places, draining down into thousands of fjords along the coastline. If all the ice melted, sea levels throughout the world would rise 20 feet, flooding New York and other coastal cities. Fortunately, not much was melting when we visited. According to the locals, the Summer of 2011 has been the coldest in many years.

Geologically, Greenland is part of North America, but politically, it is part of Europe. On this July 30th, we eagerly anticipated cruising through Prinz Christian Sund and watching the great glacier calve off icebergs, but the ship had to cancel this portion of the cruise. It was packed with ice, and the Captain didn't want another Titanic on his watch. Global warming hasn't hit this part of Greenland yet. One passenger remarked that he had taken the cruise 3 times and hasn't been through the Sound yet.

We cruised just outside the ice fields dodging icebergs the size of our ship. Seabirds rested on the ice floes. Spouting whales crossed our path. A Holland-America liner going the other way passed on our starboard (right) side. It was a sunny day with frigid Arctic winds whistling across the deck. It was time for our polar bear party in the ship's pool.

I put on my bathing suit and jumped into the pool with about 30 other hardy souls, which included the ship's entertainers and showgirls. Obviously that made the prospect of freezing to death more tolerable to me. The crew hurled large blocks of ice into the water with us. We were required to stay in the water for 5 minutes. The water was warmer than the air outside, but not much warmer. I had eaten lunch less than 35 minutes before, so my mother would have never allowed me to do this. After the allotted time, I climbed out into the Arctic blasts, and Dianne threw a large towel around me. For a photo session with each swimmer, two crew members dressed as brown(!) polar bears--they didn't have any white costumes. But I earned that coveted certificate for the polar bear club.

The following day we docked outside Q-Town, Qaqortoq, Greenland, which was formerly known as Julianehaab (after the dowager queen of Frederik V of Norway). Qaqortoq is an Inuit word meaning "the white place" which aptly describes it for most of the year. The name actually comes from the white granite found in the area. When Greenland became independent, they changed many place names to reflect the Inuit heritage of most of the people. The whole country has only 55,000 people on an island the size of South America (if you look at a flat world map). Greenland is actually much smaller on a globe, but it's still bigger than Alaska and Texas combined.

We didn't expect much in Qaqortoq, a town of 3,600, the fourth largest city in Greenland. The ship had no excursions available. Brightly colored red, blue and yellow houses were placed in a semi-circle around the harbor like an amphitheater. Most of the few cars in town were taxis. They can't drive very far because there is less than 100 miles of roads in the whole country, and most of that is a few hundred miles North at the capital city, Nuuk. Our ship was too big to dock, so we tendered in to port, about 3/4 of a mile from the ship.

We walked around a little and then went into the visitors' center where they had a few boat tours available. We signed up for a ride on a 30 foot boat with a capacity of 10 passengers. Our cruise director had warned us not to take any local boat tours because they were deemed unsafe and unreliable. But, hey, it was the only game in town! Three of the passengers with us were Greenlandic Danes who spoke good English and told us about life in Greenland.

The captain and assistant were Inuit (Eskimos), and they were dressed in shorts and t-shirts for the Arctic Summer. As the tourists bundled up with hoods and gloves, the crew thought it was warm because the temperature was above freezing, though not much above. Since the boat was small, we could sail close to the icebergs, most of which were larger than the boat. You can break off pure 1000 year old ice to mix in your drink.

We sailed up the fjord for almost an hour amidst the ice floes. Our destination was the ruins of Hvalsey ("whale island"), the Viking settlement which was disbanded in the 1400's because of climate change. It got too cold to farm, and they didn't learn anything from the Eskimo culture which might have helped them to survive. When the Vikings weren't out raping and pillaging, they were setting up small farms and churches. Farming in Greenland was difficult because of the short growing season and poor soil, so even in relatively mild years, their operations were marginal. They harvested hay for the livestock to eat during the long winters.

We landed at Hvalsey which we thought was uninhabited, but we soon encountered sheep roaming through the area. Clumps of their wool got caught in the brambles in many places, and Dianne scooped up handfuls to take home. The few farmers left in Greenland mainly raise sheep for a marginal existence, but they also raise reindeer and a few chickens and horses.

Even with a longer growing season, growing crops would be difficult because of the huge boulders strewn around the countryside, deposited by the glaciers. The Vikings gathered many of them up and built a sturdy church and a few houses with rock and stone walls. The stone houses were covered with roofs made of turf which are now long gone. There are no trees, but many shrubs and much plant life. The meadow was rich with colorful wildflowers. We picked our way through and over the rocks to the top of the hill overlooking the ruins and the rocky beach. The pier where we docked the boat is about 10 feet high, and you have to climb a ladder to go ashore. The reason is that the tides are extremely high.

Our boat drove several more miles through the fjord to visit the Upernaviarsuk Agricultural Station, with an ag school, experimental farm and greenhouse. In this protected area, they grow flowers, vegetables and trees, hoping to establish some farming and allowing the people to be self-sufficient, at least for some commodities. Although they grow bananas in Iceland, Greenland is another story.

As we sped back to port on the boat, we almost crashed into another boat which crossed in front of us. The two Inuit boat captains were shouting obscenities at each other in Greenlandic with the appropriate hand gestures. I don't normally understand Greenlandic, but I understood them very well. These guys are cowboys behind the wheel.

We wandered around Qaqortoq for awhile, visiting Brugseni, the supermarket chain which is the Greenland version of WalMart. We found it to be remarkably well stocked with many American consumer goods as well as local favorites like seal blubber and whale meat which are said to prevent cardiovascular disease. Although Greenland exports mostly fish, the Inuit eat relatively little fish, but prefer the above, as well as potatoes and canned vegetables. Many drink Cult Cola, the "World's Strongest Cola" promoted in the Brugseni flyer. Greenland also brews "ice cap" beer which is brewed with the extra pure water from icebergs--Craft Brewed Greenland Beer. They export much of it to Denmark.

NEXT: Newfoundland and St. Pierre & Miquelon


Sunday, September 25, 2011



We began our journey of this small volcanic island nation on the East coast at the small port of Seydisfjordur, a town of 800 with a deep harbor for large ships. It is surrounded by snow capped mountains and waterfalls. The Americans occupied this town during World War II and had troops and the U.S. Navy stationed here. It is located in a valley formed by the largest glacier in Europe, and backs up to a mountain.

We took a 2 hour bus ride North across 2 mountain ranges to Hafnarholmi (Borganfjordur Eystri--I think that means "Eastern") which is home to a large puffin rookery. If you're not an ornithologist, you can skip this part. Puffins are cute little seabirds with hooked nosed beaks resembling parrots. We were huffin' and puffin' to the top to see the thousands of puffins nesting on the rocky cliffs, along with kittywakes and skuas.

We enjoyed our communion with nature and went to lunch in the small fishing village of Bakkagerdi. We visited an inn where young blonde waitresses served us a typical Icelandic meal of fresh cod which had been caught that very morning. People in Iceland eat fish almost every day. What about Friday? Well there's a lot of sheep here also. The tap water is pure glacial water. We had a large bowl of steamy onion soup. The food was not gourmet, but hearty and tasty.

After lunch we hit the high spots in Bakkagerdi. One was a 1000 year old church called Bakkagerdiskirkja with spartan wooden pews. It seats about 50, but then this is a small village. Down the street is a museum devoted to a famous local artist named Johannes S. Kjarval, a contemporary of Picasso. If you're Icelandic, you've heard of him. The exhibits are all written in Icelandic, which I not only don't speak well, but even if I did, I couldn't spell any of the words. Spelling bees in Iceland can be brutal.

We were blessed with sunny weather, unusual in these parts where it rains almost every day. Today, July 26th, was the hottest day of the year--20 degrees Celsius (about 68F). In fact it proved to be the warmest day of our entire 3 week trip until we arrived in New York. The locals told us that this year was the coldest summer in years. These people WANT global warming. They suffered through a major snowstorm on May 26th.

Our tour guide entertained us with stories of local lore--trolls and fairies. The Icelandic imagination was inspired by the craggy mountain peaks and cliffs overlooking the sea. My knowledge of fairies is confined to the Staten Island one. But over the past 1200 years or so, these folks have been pretty much isolated without radio, TV or the Internet, especially during the long Winter nights. The Icelanders are a hard working and creative people. They have a talent for creating stories of trolls and fairies lurking behind the strange rock formations.

The highway we traveled is comparable to California Highway 1 along the Big Sur. Our tour bus was cruising along the side of a cliff 1000 feet above the sea with no guardrail. This area is 50 miles South of the Arctic Circle, so it never gets dark in the Summer. At midnight, it is dusk, but it is still light enough to read a newspaper. In the Winter, that's another story.

Iceland is volcanic, but this part of the country is geologically the oldest. The volcanoes here are extinct. The geysers and hot springs are mostly in the Western part of the island. There are almost no trees. Trees will grow here if they are imported. We saw tree farms making the effort to reforest the island.

Although we were never told this by our guide, Iceland actually was forested when the early Norse settlers came in the 800's. In creating farms, they inadvertently destroyed the fragile environment by cutting down the forests, causing the volcanic soil to run off. At that point, crop yields went down significantly, but the farmers compensated by raising cattle, sheep and goats. The grazing animals ate the seedlings. The growing season is short, and trees could never get re-established.

We were surprised to learn that golf is extremely popular in Iceland. We passed by a golf course and saw no trees. No sand either. I could be a scratch golfer here.

I visited the local "super market" in Bakkagerdi and was disappointed to find it less well stocked than a normal 7-Eleven. In the cooler, you can buy an ice cream bar for 6 euros, (about $8.50). The same one costs about $1.50 in the U.S. Consumer goods are very expensive in Iceland.

The following day we cruised the sunny Arctic Ocean around the North coast of Iceland. As we crossed the Arctic Circle, we could see the North Pole from our balcony. Actually, the Arctic Circle is 3/4 of the way from the Equator to the North Pole, so the N.P. is still about 3000 miles to the North. In any event, one would expect to see signs or billboards welcoming us to the Arctic or at least a rope across the ocean with floaters on it, but no-o-o. We did receive a certificate from the ship confirming that we crossed the Arctic Circle.


The capital city of Reykjavik lies on the Southwest coast of Iceland. The name Reykjavik comes from the Old Norse language and means "smoky cove or harbor". Almost half the population of the country lives in Reykjavik and its suburbs--about 150,000 people. Geologically, this is the most active part of the country. This is truly the land of fire and ice. Active volcanoes, geysers and hot springs are common. Driving through the countryside, we saw steam pouring out of the ground. We also saw lava and huge rocks strewn around from volcanic eruptions. The land is fertile and green, and many horses were grazing on the rich grass.

Iceland gets most of its electrical power from geothermal sources by drilling into the ground. Tourism is a major industry, as tourists come to swim and bathe in the geothermally heated mineral spas which are all over the place. The volcanic mud is thought to have theraputic qualities to cure skin ailments, and they bottle this stuff and sell it for big bucks. Some of our friends spent the day basking in the waters of the famous Blue Lagoon which has been featured in commercials in the U.S.

This section of Iceland is the really interesting part. At Thingvellir National Park, we walked through the fissure, or rift valley, which separates the North American Plate from the Eurasian Plate. Essentially, we have a giant crack in the Earth's surface which stretches for thousands of miles in the Atlantic Ocean and ends up in the middle of Iceland. Along that crack, we have volcanoes, earthquakes, geysers and everything else.

The fissure has a historical significance. The settlers in Iceland established one of the first legislatures in human history before Y1K. Iceland's Althingi (the "th" sound is a letter unique in the Icelandic language that looks like a cross between a "b" and a "p") is considered the world's oldest living parliament. It was founded in the year 930 when several chieftains felt a need for a general assembly, partly to limit the power of the founding Arnarson family, the most powerful tribe.

The deal was that the Vikings from Norway, led by Ingolfur Arnarson, first settled the island in 874, and within 60 years, the colony had 20,000 people. Their parliament developed as an assembly of 38 tribes, each of whom chose their own chieftain to represent them. They met from time to time, mostly for 2 weeks each Summer, outside at the fissure, standing on the Logberg ("law rock") platform to discuss common concerns, elect leadership and make policy--the same as any modern assembly. They passed laws and set up a judicial system. Fortunately for them at the time, defense was not a problem because Iceland had been essentially uninhabited except for a few Irish monks.

This system went great for about 300 years until the climate got colder, disease and starvation were prevalent, and civil war broke out. Norway and Denmark were called in to make peace, and Iceland became part of Denmark until 1944 when it became independent. Now, the Althingi meets in a nice building in Reykjavik.

Thingvellir National Park was Yellowstone Park before the latter was discovered. The Geysir geothermal area teems with hot springs and, of course, the famous Geysir which is more faithful than Old Faithful in that it erupts about every 5-10 minutes. There were no park rangers keeping us a safe distance away, and tourists crowd around waiting for it to erupt. People standing downwind get soaked with the hot water. I patiently waited about 20 feet upwind of the Geysir to snap a photo of the eruption. Eventually, a large bubble welled up in the hole and then all hell broke loose, and the fountain of water shot 200 feet into the sky.

We ate lunch down the street at the Hotel Geysir where we had a fine lunch of salmon and the Icelandic version of gefilte fish (fish balls). Its a little spicier than Jewish gefilte fish. The salty chicken and carrot soup was very good also. The Gull Beer was flowing freely. The hotel is quite small, but clean and neat. It appears to have been recently remodeled. We didn't see the rooms which are actually cabins separated from the main building, but the main attraction is the geothermal swimming pool and the hot tubs.

The rest of our Golden Circle tour took us to the spectacular Guilfoss Waterfall which is Iceland's Niagara. The Hvita River makes a sharp left turn and plunges into a 60 foot wide, 105 foot deep crevice which continues on for almost 2 miles. Until about the 1960's, the falls were privately owned, and the owners were attempting to get foreign investors to develop the falls to generate electricity. Fortunately for the rest of the world, they couldn't come up with the money and the area was sold to the Icelandic government which now protects it.

Cold winds, rain and sleet cut into our faces as we walked the trail to get a better view of the falls. We could have enjoyed the view all day except for the frigid, blustery July weather, and we couldn't wait to get back on the bus. OK, now we've seen it, let's get the heck outta here!

We got back to Reykjavik where it was a balmy 48 degrees. Although this has been a cool summer, the large ice fields in the interior of the country have been melting, not necessarily because of global warming. Frequent volcanic eruptions cover the ice with ash, causing it to melt.

NEXT: Onward to Greenland: Have You Driven a Fjord Lately?