Heart of the Arctic – Day 10

Sunday, July 26, 2015
Nuuk, Greenland, 64˚04′ N   52˚04′ W
Overcast, mist, light drizzle,   7˚C



Looking through a shattered window on the aft deck.

Light misty rain, strange not to have sunshine. I went out on the sheltered aft deck, accessible through the lounge, to get my bearings before our staff 7:45 meeting. We were passing low islands as the ship slowly eased into the harbour at Nuuk, the capital of Greenland and formerly known as Godthåb. Nuuk, with its population of 16,000, is home to almost a third of Greenland’s 56,000.


Coming alongside the Atlantis Pier in Nuuk.

We moored at the Atlantis pier. Towers of shipping cargo containers were stacked on the wharf. It made me realize how so many of the products in Greenland is shipped here. After breakfast, bright yellow city buses arrived and parked in a line, ready to take passengers on a tour of the town. I was assigned to bus #6.02-P1140075

The young lady who was our tour guide was terrificly informative, chatting about Nuuk’s history, culture and daily life. She is studying engineering in Copenhagen. As the university in Nuuk is small with less than 200 students, and only five departments of study (theology,  economics, culture, and social history and language), many young people go to study in Denmark, but then often don’t return. All education, university included, is paid for by the government.


It continued grey and misty with bouts of drizzle, as we toured the town. But our yellow tour buses and the coloured houses kept it from being dull.  This coastal city is quite hilly, with newer sections built higher up on the rocky hillsides. The majority of housing is low rise apartment buildings of about seven stories. I was surprised that most buildings and houses have foundations, unlike houses in the Canadian Arctic, which raised up on pillars. Perhaps they don’t have the same issues with permafrost as in Canada.09-P1140091-001

The vegetation is noticeably different too. Not tall trees and shrubs of course, but more grass grows here, and a greater diversity of taller flowers. The gulf stream carries warm water up the coast of Greenland, preventing the harbour at Nuuk from freezing in the winter, and much of southwestern Greenland’s coastal waters are open polynas for most of the winter.07-P1140089

The buses stopped in a residential area of single houses, overlooking the ocean. It was spectactular. The houses were all colourfully painted and well kept. A graveyard was nearby with neat rows of white crosses. Everyone jumped out in the drizzle to take photos of the crosses, flowers and the view. I wonder what the locals thought to have their quiet corner of the world so invaded.

4-P1140182The tour ended outside the Nuuk museum in the old town, down by the coast. The original clapboard houses still stand here, and are similar to maritime houses in Canada. The oldest is Hans Egedes’ house, now used for government functions, built in 1728. Some of the older houses are surrounded by picket fences and have little greenhouses and gardens.

3-P1140179I wandered down to the water’s edge to get a closer look at a bronze statue of Sedna, goddess of the sea, which had been installed on a flat rock near the ocean’s edge. I saw Cathie as I was walking over and she warned me that the rocks were slippery. So, I gingerly climbed down the hill and carefully edged over to a flat rock. I took a step on it and immediately did a triple wheelie before landing flat on my back. It was covered in a green algae slime, much of which was transferred to the back of my orange jacket.

For much of the day I kept getting intermittent whiffs of a pungent seaweedy, fishy odour, and was reminded that it was my jacket that was smelling.


A bronse statue of Sedna, the godess of the sea and a cast of Arctic characters, at the waters edge in Nuuk.

However, not to be deterred from taking a closer look at Sedna, I very cautiously chose my footing.  It was a mash of a number of naked bodies, fish and walrus and other Arctic land and aquatic creatures. Sedna herself was full bosomed and had a fish tail.

I then climbed to the top of the hill behind Sedna where a statue of Hans Egede, the Norwegian Dane missionary02-IMG_5592 who brought Danes and Christianity to Greenland in the early 1700s, overlooks the old town. Despite the dreary grey sky and drizzle, the view was lovely of the rocky coast and buildings.

Then I headed back down to the museum. Latonia had warned me it had a great little book store there. So I perused the book  shelves and bought The Greenland Mummies. I was very careful to buy the English translation. Latonia had purchased the Greenlandic version, but not realized it until she had gotten home. (Actually, turns out the book I purchased was published by McGill-Queen’s Press.)

The museum is excellent and details the history of Greenland with cases of diverse artifacts that more fully illustrate the history. I wandered through the museum to the back where the mummies lie in a darkened room behind a wall of glass


It is very haunting to see these three women and a tiny baby, in their perfectly preserved skin and fur clothing. Though eight mummies were found by two brothers in 1972 and are estimated to have been buried 500 years ago, only four are in the museum to see. They were found up the coast at Qilakitsoq across from Ummannaq. I saw the cave where they were discovered on my September trip.


The women were lying on their backs, but with their knees bent, as if they had been in the fetal position, although their bodies had been sort of stacked at burial. The hands of one woman struck me. They were resing on her chest and were exceptionally thin, but looked perfect with well shaped nails.4-P1140202

The most riveting of all was the little baby boy, lying right in front against a woman who perhaps was his mother. He is perfectly formed but for his empty eye sockets. He is estimated to be about six months old, and likely buried alive with his dead mother. They are uncertain how the women died. But without a mother, the father probably had no way of caring for him. Imagine the tragedy and heartbreak of the man who was forced to bury his wife and little son together. Here’s a bit more about them: http://mummiesofqilakitsoq.weebly.com/


The wooden Lutheran Nuuk Cathedral in old town was built in the mid 1800s.

A bus was doing shuttle runs every half hour from the museum to the ship, so I caught it and went back to the ship for lunch. I wanted to leave my book in my cabin and get my SLR camera for my afternoon walk about the town. After lunch, I returned by bus to the museum and photographed the scenic and historic waterfront. The tide had come in and Sedna, who I had earlier risked my life on the treacherously slippery rocks to see, had become surrounded by water and was unapproachable without a kayak.


A beer add on the sign of building. Man, those Greenlanders look like hard core beer drinkers.

Latonia and I decided to make our way on foot back to the ship. We walked uptown, literally climbing a staircase up the hill from the old town to the new.

We heard that in addition to wifi, lattes were available  at the Cultural Centre. However the café had closed moments before we arrived, so, parched, we wandered around the building and looked at the art on display instead.


One of four traffic lights in Greenland.

It was about a two kilometre walk back to the ship and the streets were virtually empty. We crossed one intersection, which had one of only four traffic lights on the entire island. I took a photo. There are so many unusual things to photograph in a new country or city. I suppose visitors to Ottawa feel the same way.


Back on the pier, the ship was being refueled, and a garbage truck was taking bags from the side of the hull for disposal. 16-P1140134Once we were all back onboard, the Greenland choir arrived and gave a lovely concert in the Natuilus Lounge. Their songs were very hymn like, and beautiful. Afterwards, the audience sang an Inuktitut rendition of Amazing Grace that Aaju had been teaching us for a few days for just this occasion. We had also learned like Frere Jacques in Inuktitut.

After dinner the Canadian Geographic contingent on board hosted trivia night in the Nautilus Lounge. The diversity of evening entertainment has been terrific. We cast off from the Nuuk pier once the ship had been gassed up and headed north up the coast.10-IMG_5649


About Season Osborne

I am a writer with a love of Arctic history. After finding a photo of Capt. Joseph-Elzéar Bernier, who claimed the Arctic for Canada in 1909, I was inspired to write my master’s thesis on Bernier’s contribution to Arctic sovereignty. This ultimately led to extensive research into Canadian and ‘foreign’ expeditions to the North, which morphed into my recent book, In the Shadow of the Pole: An Early History of Arctic Expeditions, 1871-1912.
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