My journey on Quark Expeditions’ Ultramarine continued with a bit of a change. Upon our departure from Beechy Island, we pretty much left the European exploration focus and embraced nature and Inuit history and culture. With this change I personally experienced, in a significant way, the reason why I “TRAVEL”.
We headed back east, retracing our voyage across Devon Island to head north to near Etah, Greenland (78.00 North, 073.09 West). Two things that were put into perspective is how vast the area, and Greenland specifically, is and that the ever-changing ice conditions are truly ever-changing – almost as if the ice is a living, breathing, thing. It took as the better part of two days to arrive there and our journey was slowed by the southerly flow of ice.
As we sailed, Quark held a mandatory helicopter briefing. Because we were now in Greenland it was time to go airborne. (Canada does not permit helicopter operations without Canadian pilots.) I appreciated that Quark truly takes safety seriously in all aspects of the expedition. It is a very professional, but still caring and soft, approach that I truly appreciate.
Later in the day, the Ultramarine stopped by Philpot’s Island for a zodiac cruise. But as I was in Paddling Group 1, I was able to get out in an inflatable kayak for a beautiful paddle among the ice. As a single traveler I never know who is going to be paired with me – some being magic and other being painful. This time I was paired with an older woman who just never seemed happy and only dines by herself. (Oh, this is going to suck!) But fortunately, I was wrong. I just showed her a bit of kindness – offering to maneuver our kayak so she could get some pretty ice photos – and she wound up being a lovely woman.
It was a beautiful and peaceful paddle through the ice. And I didn’t miss a landing or other activity; something that can happen when it is your turn to paddle.
The surprises of my kayaking didn’t end there. The expedition team had set up a bit of a party with music, hot chocolate (with or without Baileys or Frangelico), on a larger, stable, bit of ice. It was cute and literally getting out on the ice definitely improved spirits.
The next day we found ourselves heading straight into that significant ice…
but fortunately, it was both beautiful and just north of where we wanted to go: Cape Alexander.
We made it!
It was then time to experience the Quark Expedition helicopters (there are two identical ones) for the first time. They have seven seats (three facing forward, three facing backward, and one in the co-pilot seat…which is, by far, the best seat). Regardless of the “every seat has a great view” that view is ultimately dependent on who is sitting next to you and their willingness to share it. Nobody that I spoke to who was in a middle seat found the experience especially enjoyable.
I have noted my concern over the use of helicopters in Antarctica for years due to the unknown impact of sound and energy waves that whales, seals, penguins, etc. have to endure; noting that especially whales are far more sensitive to them than humans. I reserved my opinion about Arctic use due to there being far less wildlife, so this was my opportunity to settle in on one.
It was interesting when the audience was polled at the Recap and Briefing the night before about how many people chose this expedition because of the helicopter. Of the 100 or so in attendance, the number of hands raised wasn’t 10. I am sure others consider it a bonus, and it became somewhat integral to their experiences, but it does make me wonder how much is marketing versus true enhancement of the expedition experience…and if it is worth it.
Quark is incredibly professional and safety-conscious in its helicopter operation. The passengers are briefed, re-briefed, reminded, guided, and handled with care. My satisfaction really kind of ended there. First, the guest sitting in the co-pilot seat was an airline pilot so almost the entire discussion that we heard (only the pilot and co-pilot can communicate, but everyone hears them) was about the helicopter; not where we were going or seeing. Then the pilot brought the helicopter to within range of a small herd of musk ox he had identified on a prior flight; noting that they probably have never seen a helicopter. My ire was silently raised as I believe it was his obligation to avoid the herd rather than repeatedly fly within their eyesight and earshot so that they were not disturbed! And, of course, there were a number of flights after mine.
The flight did give me a brief view of the Greenland Ice Sheet, but other than ticking it off a list, it wasn’t really one that made any true impact because it was so swift in time and limited in scope. But some of the photos show some of the beauty of the area.
That evening was my first of two Tundra to Table dining experiences, called Igapall’.
I was a bit more in the know, but still surprised and impressed, because I have been spending time with the two chefs, Peter and Miki. Peter, sort of the genius behind the culinary creativity, is a soft-spoken person who, incredibly, has poor eyesight and is colorblind. He clearly has an incredible palate, impressive culinary creativity, and a caring charm. Miki is more comfortable speaking English and is an affable character that draws your interest and is a true talent himself. In other words, they are a great team.
Dinner started with a creative cocktail with a vodka and cranberry base followed by a sort of focaccia coupled with brown butter infused with Labrador tea.
Then the show really started with each dish being impressively presented with a short comment on how it relates to Inuit experiences and Greenland.
There are two starters (fish and meat) and a choice of a main (fish or meat). The fish starter was called Iluliaq: Snow Crab served on Glacier Ice with a Snow Crab Bisque that was light, rich, and delicious.
Next was Hunting Season: Cured and Stir-Fried Reindeer with Broccoli Puree, Blackberries, and Flowers. Another hit!
Kujataa – the main course was a choice of lamb or halibut. It was good to have befriended the chefs as I was served both! The lamb was slow-cooked with Greenlandic thyme, king trumpet mushrooms, red currents and baby onions with an incredible Sauce Blanquette made with a reindeer, lamb, and beef reduction along with an herb oil drizzle.
The halibut had a similar preparation, including the sauce – which I didn’t think would work, but oh did it! It was one of the best halibut preparations I have ever had – and I am very critical about my fish!
Dessert was Butter-Fried Greenlandic Cakes with Arctic Labrador tea crème, sweet pickled crown berries, and topped with an artistic Greenlandic thyme sorbet (representing the light snow of the autumn).
It was a delicious, but subtle, step in my better understanding of the Inuit culture and a serious transition in my understanding of subsistence hunting of whales and seals. That would be significantly impacted by our visit to Qaanaaq, Greenland the next morning.
Ending the day was a beautiful red-orange sunset!
Quaanaaq is a small community of about 500 Inuit. What I was to later learn (I wish I had known it before the visit) is that the community originally was located miles away, but when what is essentially an international nuclear explosion listening post was to be built, the Inuit were unceremoniously relocated here.
Despite this history, the people were welcoming and charming. (Quark Expeditions coordinates visits with the locals and pays them a fee…along with donating items such as parkas that guests do not want to bring home. The economic and social partnerships with locals are something many companies do not do, or do well, so there is some resentment…but not for Quark visitors.)
My first stop was at the community center where a sweet older couple in traditional dress performed some Inuit songs.
This was followed by a very talented young Inuit man (a descendant of the explorer Parry) who, after singing an original song, engaged us with a fascinating series of stories about why they hunt whales and seals, as well as how they do it; creating some amazing sounds to assist in painting these pictures.
He also discussed the life and manner of the Greenlandic dogs…which are most definitely not pets, but partners that need each other for hunting and survival. (And when you really see the dogs, you think “wolf” before anything else because they are closely related; brought here about 1,000 years ago from Siberia and kept as a pure breed. The concept of animal abuse for keeping them outside turns more toward animal abuse if they were forced to live inside. Every dog I saw on this journey looked fit, energetic, and ready to go, if not well groomed. Once again, what we have been indoctrinated with isn’t necessarily the most accurate view or applicable here.)
He went into detail about their reverence for nature and the animals they hunt, how and why they do not waste anything, and how important it is not only to their historical/cultural lifestyle but their nutrition.
Stepping back for a moment, until you see how limited and expensive supplies both are in what they are and how few there are (ex. finding anything green to eat is a real challenge), how remote these areas are, and better appreciate the months of being icebound and in darkness, you really can’t understand (appreciate?) that fresh meat is vital to maintaining nutritional needs.
In this significantly barren area, even if the cold, snow, and darkness weren’t issues, there isn’t the land or vegetation to support raising livestock. The Greenland Ice Sheet is literally just on the other side of the rise in each of these communities. And the ground is so thin that sewers generally do not exist, with either above-ground waste piping or just plain plastic bags inside toilets being the norm.
Afterward, I walked through this Inuit community, visited the small (but good) museum, was approached by a puppy that was just adorable…for now,
and then met three older women sitting on a bench. They were so happy, teasing me (though not in English) and mugging it up for a few photos. I bet they are on that bench, in the same seats, every day making people smile.
And then there were the children, who were walking around with their teachers and a piece of paper. They were taking a survey to determine the median age of the Quark visitors. So cute.
Wandering a bit further, on a road near the water, I saw some whale meat drying on a rack, not unlike octopus in the Greek islands. It was interesting, but not a revelation of any sort. That came just a few steps later when I came upon a Beluga whale head and carcass. The same type of whale that I marveled at on Beechy Island.
[I will spare you the photograph. It is important to me, but probably upsetting to most.]
I didn’t feel any anger or sorry as I would have before this journey. No, I felt it was normal and that it was almost a privilege to have seen it as it was a true cultural experience. That was emotional for me.
It was, alas, a transformation. Oh, if we just better understood each other better and took the time to do so.
Related, while the lectures on board have been frequent and excellent, I do wish there were more about the Inuit…especially at the beginning of the expedition. But even creating a thirst for this knowledge is a blessing from this expedition.
Keep in mind that this sort of hunting I can now support because of my understanding, rather than not due to the previously requisite emotions that we are taught from a young age (Flipper, Free Willy, etc.) while having no emotions about cellophane-wrapped cow, pig, and lamb. What I do not support – and find even more repugnant – now a better understanding of the Inuit reverence for these mammals – are the wholesale slaughters in the Faroe Islands and Japan and previously in Antarctica and elsewhere. These are not legitimate cultural or nutritional acts. Don’t get me wrong, when I later saw a commercial fishing vessel with a harpoon on its bow, it did upset me. Alas, this is not a black or white issue…at least in my mind.
Our expedition, getting near the end, involved an almost two-day sail down the coast of Greenland. We were not permitted to stop in the area we were sailing by as it is considered a protected area. And the vastness of this land became even more into focus. I used my time to catch up on work, enjoy some of the lectures (which are streamed into your suite), and take a couple of relaxing naps.
And to take in yet another amazing sunset.
We eventually arrived in Uummannaq Fjord where we had a second helicopter ride before our next community visit. I was even less impressed and felt like we were given the ride because the helicopters are there. Yes, there are people that really enjoy them, but quite a few skipped the opportunity on this rainy day.
But then I arrived at Uummannaq and was truly drawn in. It is both a beautiful and quaint town of 1,500 people and an important fishing community with a large processing plant and a quarry. While those operations are, in part, taking place right in front of you, you hardly notice them. Small colorful houses perched on granite and basalt rock formations are reached by countless wooden staircases giving you the feeling you are in a painting.
There was an opportunity to take a hike for about a mile, but that would have foreclosed me really spending any time in the town (and this was a town more than just a community). During my wander, I saw basic life, common to all of us (kids riding bikes or playing soccer, people shopping in the local store – owned by two relatives of Miki, etc.), a wonderful museum, and among other things, Santa’s Mailbox! It seems in Denmark Uummannaq is known as Santa’s home, so letters are sent there.
Also during my wandering about town I came across a musk ox skull (putting me a bit closer to the ever elusive animal! LOL),
some sled dogs,
an absolutely beautiful lake (the same one I would have seen on a hike),
and a view from a very tall staircase (that I stopped about three-quarters of the way up fearing I might be blown off of it!).
It pays to wander about!
What I also noticed were the limited supplies in the local shop and the vast number of street lights. With a town that is totally dark for two months and more months with very short days, clearly an effort has been made to brighten things up…and hopefully let you see you safely down all those stairs!
The zodiac ride in and disembarking were rough enough that I think some of the other lines doing expeditions would not have attempted the visit the town. As challenging as the trip in was, the return was an adventure. But the experience and care of the Quark expedition team really shined, so it was more entertaining than concerning even for those less stable on their feet. Glad I wore my parka!
I opted for a second Tundra to Table dining experience as Miki and Peter told me the menu would be different and it was. Our fish starter was Kinguppak: Prawns with dried cod, pickled onions, and thyme mayo.
Our meat starter, Kujataa, was Lamb served with a truly delicious herb crème, beetroot, pickled mushrooms, and flowers.
I only had one main course this time, Piniartup Unnukkorsiutaa, The Hunter’s Meal. Yes, you guessed it, yet ever closer to that elusive beast: Musk Ox. It was served with an amazing risotto made with a reindeer, musk ox, and lamb base with “Jeruselem artiskok” baked and pureed. It was fantastic. (Adding some perspective to the idea of hunting whales and seals, the musk ox was wild, so it was hunted.)
It ended with the same dessert as the last time.
Next up is the exploration of Disko Bay and, sadly, the beginning of the end of this expedition.