"Great Northern Summer Fun"

Great Northern Summer Fun 1999

A Greenland Travelogue

All photos in this document are clickable to obtain a larger photo.

Downtown Kangerlussuaq Kangerlussuaq, Greenland. 1999. Formerly the community known as Sondre Stromfjord, formerly the US Air Force base known as Sondrestrom or Bluie West 8.

4 Hours from Anywhere What do you do when the US Air Force leaves a base behind? Most places just whine about the loss of jobs, and then refuse to keep the airstrip operational because they don't like the sound of airplanes. Kangerlussuaq, on the other hand, has kept everything working. So they now have an international airport, golf course, gymnasium, restaurant, bar, nightclub, and a hotel with 400 guest beds. Pretty impressive for a community of 300 people.

The Midnight Sun I went there on vacation, to watch the sun not set and the ice not melt. Oh, did I mention it's all north of the Arctic Circle? There's a 100-mile long fjord on one side, and a 1000-mile long icecap on the other, all within bicycling distance. And they rent bicycles. Anything for a kroner.

I read stuff about Kangerlussuaq before going. Stuff like this...

Below, I have my minimally-edited travel journal. Here's my agenda:

  1. Ottawa, 25-27 June
  2. Iqaluit, 28 June
  3. Kangerlussuaq, 29 June
  4. Kangerlussuaq, 30 June
  5. Kangerlussuaq, 1 July
  6. Kangerlussuaq, 2 July
  7. Kangerlussuaq, 3 July
  8. Kangerlussuaq, 4 July
  9. Kangerlussuaq, 5 July
  10. Kangerlussuaq, 6 July
  11. The Return Trip, 7 July
  12. The Return Trip, 8 July

Great Northern Summer Fun 1999

In which I return to Ottawa, and finally visit the communities formerly known as Frobisher Bay and Sondre Stromfjord.

I'd have been to Ottawa before this year, if it were any further north or south. I once planned to spend a week in Frobisher Bay, but got scared off by rumors of black flies. (Since then I've been to Labrador. For black flies, Baffin Island didn't compare.) As for Sondre Stromfjord, I mostly know about that from a war game I once designed. The game convinced me that control of Greenland comes down to air fields, and the most important air field in Greenland is Sondre Stromfjord.

It seems the Greenland Home Rule agrees with me. They've kept the airstrip there operating, and done some heavy tourism advertisement on the Web. I ran across these ads when trying to find what the hell "Nuuk" was, when my cursor slipped while setting time zones. What sold me was the air route map, which led to Ottawa and Frobisher Bay.

Ironically, I went to Ottawa on business while setting up the Ottawa part of my vacation. (There's a phone company there, and I'm infamous for visiting phone companies for a buck.) Ironically again, ten minutes before I left for Ottawa on vacation, I was doing "cooperative test" on the phone with... you guessed it, the phone company in Ottawa.

Ottawa and Hull, 25-27 June 1999

Ottawa is the best place I've found to get English pub cuisine on this continent. At least, they do good bangers and mash.

Nuns Canada Day Stage And it has lots of fun museums. And they were having a Franco-Ontarian festival while I was there; people were roaming the street in costume. And they were setting up for Canada Day. Maybe that's why lots of buildings had huge Canadian flags draped over them.

Hull is in Quebec, just across the river from Ottawa. It looks like a war zone, at least on Saturday afternoons. There was nobody on the streets, except for one stranded cyclist with a flat tire. And all the stores and restaurants were closed. It's like they're hunkering down for the Quebec Partition War, for which they'd be on the front line. Lots of houses are declaring allegiance with flags of Canada or Quebec, or (rarely) both at once.

But Hull has the Canadian Museum of Civilization, which has rooms dedicated to Inuit art and to Sir Martin Frobisher, the English discoverer of Baffin Island. Both these things came in handy. (Trivia: Baffin Island was the first official English attempt to found a colony in North America; Roanoke was second, Jamestown third, and Newfoundland doesn't count because it wasn't official.) (Trivia: Inuit art is largely carved from green stone and various animal remnants, typically bone or ivory.)

Unfortunately, Ottawa was in the grip of a weather system that brought humidity and 85-degree temperatures everywhere from Dallas to Goose Bay. Ick.

Iqaluit (Frobisher Bay), 28 June 1999

Uh oh, it's time to update the Silliest Places I've Ever Been list. By my estimate, Iqaluit is the fourth silliest place on Earth, following Tatamagouche (Nova Scotia), Rockland (Maine), and Dallas (Texas).

So, I've updated that list. My entire day's entry is there now.

The important thing, as far as this account goes, is that I bought an Inuit carving which almost got me into trouble later.

Kangerlussuaq (Sondre Stromfjord), 29 June 1999

(inserted the Offline Quuquluq Journal here)

This is a trip that demands a running commentary. Before I left, I was asked to show pictures at one gym, one church, two corporations, and two bars.

Unfortunately, my favorite commentary device is offline, until I can figure out how to charge it using local power supplies. I planned for different voltages, but not different plugs. So, back to the old ways: pen on paper. (My favorite commentary device also doubles as my direction-finding survival gear. The extra battery may come in handy.)

Kangerlussuaq so far qualifies as strange but not silly. (Iqaluit will have to take the Silly Places slot I reserved for this trip.) It's an American colony in Greenland (founded by the U.S. Air Force), but so far it's very European. For instance, I asked the barmaid if people leave tips, and she said, "What is a 'tip'?" But on the other hand, they play American jazz in the restaurant and Creedence Clearwater Revival in the airport bar.

On my arrival in Greenland, I looked for the sign saying "Customs" and instead found the sign saying "Hotel". So I had my carry-on baggage in my hotel room before my check-ins were in the terminal! And no customs check at all!

Greenland so far has some other deviations from the expected:

Oh well, I could get a cabin near the lake, for less than a hotel room. I wonder if they have running water?

Kangerlussuaq, 30 June 1999

Hooray, I'm back online! And I don't have to fight the mosquitos in my room any more!

Last night was incredibly unpleasant. My room was hot. Outside was nice and cool, but noisy. My room was directly across from the local power plant, and directly above a delivery dock. Sure enough, there was a truck unloading there at 6:30 am. I slept on the floor underneath the window cracked open, to get the most of the draft. Luckily, the blankets they gave me were easily thick enough to serve as mattresses. Unfortunately, it was one of those Euro-style rooms, whose designers don't believe in window screens. My room was swarming with mosquitos in the morning.

The midnight manager had suggested I close the windows, or sleep with mosquito repellent on. Not good enough! One mosquito bit me through my fly suit! Definitely it was time to take action to save vacation, or else flee to Baffin Island or Ottawa (which are not places I'd want to spend a whole week).

Bachelor Officer Quarters The morning shift swore there was no guest room on base with mosquito netting. I made them give me a new room in a different building anyway. It seems the morning shift are lyingest bastards, because the new room had screens on the windows. Also power outlets that fit my computer, so now I'm online again. Also bathrobes. Also CBC TV from satellite. Also some leftover books from the base library. Also an authentic 1970s turntable and cassette deck, with Bang & Olafsen speakers. The tape deck even works. Now I know what to do with all those tapes I brought. After going back to sleep.

The difference? The terminal hotel was built by the Danish, when they realized Sondre Stromfjord was a decent commercial airport. The other hotel was built by Americans, as barracks for the air base. I slept in Bachelor Officer Quarters. God Bless America!

One catch about the room: it's part of a three-room suite. For all I know, I could get suitemates at any time. I suppose technically it has a private bath, because it has two bathrooms, one of which has my room number on the door. But I have to go past the other rooms to get there. Hence the bathrobe, I suppose. Oh well, I'm close to the stereo. And maybe I'll reap the benefit of going somewhere that normal people don't want to go, and keep the entire suite to myself. All in all, the room's a keeper. This should be interesting to see on my credit report, though.

View from the Top Good thing, too. I was busy hiking the ridge behind the terminal when the last plane to Baffin Island took off. I got a lovely view of it. Then I sat on the ridge and watched planes for an hour or so. I had about the same luck with mosquitos that I had in my hotel room. Outdoors, I can live with that. Then I introduced myself to some locals by coming down the steep side, making landfall right by the boutique, and ordering a soda. Then to the room for a shower and some music. Now it's Happy Hour, on the credit card which is enjoying roughly a 7:1 exchange ratio, so those 30-kroner beers cost about $4.25 including tip. I can live with that. It's credit card, as much as I can. The 1200 kroners I brought with me is barely enough to buy sandwiches and sodas. Next it's dinner. Then, maybe an after-dinner bike ride. Finally, vacation is living up to its potential.

Speaking of locals, the three I met seemed rather impressed with the show I put on at the slope. The entire northward-facing population of Kangerlussuaq had a chance to see it. And here I imagined them saying, "Look at the stupid foreign guy who can't find the right way off the hill. If we have to rescue him, we'll be charging him a stupidity tax because he's so damn stupid." But I imagined my bones on the hillside, just like two reindeer whose bones I saw. (The locals assured me they weren't caribou.) Dead reindeer are marvelously inspirational. I wish I'd taken pictures.

Kangerlussuaq, 1 July 1999

Awww, Cute Reindeer I got my dead reindeer picture today. The carcass wasn't quite picked clean. Oh well. But I got some good pictures of musk oxen. Also good pictures of Danish tourists taking pictures of musk oxen.

Muskosfotosafari I signed up for the "Muskosfotosafari", then went up by the reservoir, just to find a nice rock to sit on until the safari started. Two musk oxen fell victim to my camera right by the road on the way. Later on, during the safari, the native guide made sure I knew better than to approach musk oxen. I told him I already had my good picture.

I Saw a Rock During the safari, I had to suppress my urge to say "Quick, Ned, thin out their numbers!" (For those who don't watch cartoons, this is a hunter's quote from "South Park".) But whenever anyone saw an ox and I didn't, I did my Charlie Brown impression: "I saw a rock". I even had my Charlie Brown shirt on for the occasion.

The most fun was when the guide drove us on top of the ridges where they keep the weather stations. Absolutely no musk oxen up there, but plenty of nice views. I even saw my first live reindeer. Three and a half dead ones so far.

But the real safari was with mosquitos. We'd trap them in the van with us, then smash them against windows. They were too busy trying to get out to bite us much.

A Nice Place Then, the base museum. It drives home the fact that Americans are one of the three founding races of this community. They have pictures of the three flags (American, Danish, and Greenlandic), going up and down masts, with appropriate ceremony.

Then home for shower, then Happy Hour, then dinner. All very nice, but I'm falling into a rut. I'm thinking, storm the ice cap tomorrow. Then maybe burritos for dinner. I found the "private enterprise" restaurant last night after dinner. It's closed today. Judging from the accent of the proprietor, it wasn't for Canada Day.

Indications are, the ice cap is harder than the average 50-km round trip. For starters, the road is dirt. The dirt roads around here are sandy, and that one is said to be no exception. Also, the road's waterlogged in places right now. Even the massively equipped, Icelandic-modified sports utility vehicles of Kangerlussuaq Tourism are having trouble. Oh well. If the bike even gets 7 km there (as far as the golf course) it'll have earned its keep. I've already learned how to ride with full fly gear, backpack, and hiking stick.

Kangerlussuaq, 2 July 1999

The Last Road I tried to reach the icecap on my own. No such luck. The road died out 7 km from town, about as expected. The remaining 18 km is muddy trail with deep ruts. I went 2 km on said trail and gave up. But I got a good hike up "Sugarloaf". Yes, there's a "Sugarloaf Mountain" here.

Now I'm experiencing Friday night in Greenland. I found the restaurant that serves burritos. And very nice burritos they are. They haven't learned the concept of putting things other than meat in burritos. They could use a little sour cream, but otherwise they're great. And the restaurant plays... you guessed it, Creedence Clearwater Revival. But they don't take credit cards, so I can't go often.

So, back to the room, where CBC North is describing how the brainworm came to the caribou in Newfoundland. They help make 8:00 bedtime sound good.

Kangerlussuaq, 3 July 1999

8:00 bedtime and 7:30 wakeup is cool.

An Incoherent Community An Incoherent Radar High point of today: a ridge overlooking Kellyville, "an incoherent community, population 9". It's an U.S. National Science Foundation incoherent scattering radar station. Afterward I made picnic, on some hills overlooking the local port, which is variously known as Sondrestrom Port and Stromfjordshaven, depending on whom you ask.

Stromfjordshaven The weather remains sunny, negligible humidity, highs in the 70s, lows in the 60s. Too hot for me, but with weather like that, I'm surprised Americans aren't swarming here. Some natives are surprised too, considering how Americans built this place. But I've told them how Americans abandon air bases everywhere, including America.

Roklubben Dinner was musk ox steak, at the "Roklubben", which is a rowing club, not a rock club. They're quite proud of their lakefront view. Indeed it's hard to find lakefront and mountains in the same view where I come from. But they played Frank Sinatra continuously during dinner. The famous Sinatra song "Nuuk, Nuuk" (or maybe it was "New York, New York") came on three times. In response, I whistled the obscure Meat Puppets song "Plateau" loud enough for the next table to notice. The difference between Sinatra and the Meat Puppets is, at least the Meat Puppets once made a song about climbing and Greenland.

Good Ol' American Trash Fire (My culture has much to apologize to Greenland for. Like trash fires, global warming, Frank Sinatra, and Cher, whose latest hit song was on the airport public address system frequently during my visit.)

There actually is a plateau south of town. Black Ridge is at one end, Tacan at the other. The "Jack T. Kelly" Bridge connects it with the airport. The bridge is named after an American who tried to navigate the river, and drowned. Hooray for stupid Americans!

I have to say, this vacation's been good for me. I absent-mindedly took my tightest old jeans off this afternoon... without unbuttoning them. The waiter at dinner complimented me on making time to sit and enjoy the view. On his own vacations, it seems he's too busy roaming around Norway.

Tomorrow I run out of things to do. I've gone all the way up every road already. And the gym and the computer center are both closed. So are the two best restaurants; the hotel staff was unclear on why, but it involves a "big errand". I think I'll just go sit at the end of the runway and watch planes take off. Then maybe I can have Sunday dinner at the "Kangerlussuaq Poelsevogn" ("Sondrestrom Hot Dog Wagon"), which is actually pretty cool. Their big apple juice is the best drink in town.

Then maybe I can whittle down my supplies of imported beverage. It seems I brought twice as much liquor as necessary. But on Monday at 9 am, paid professionals will take me to the icecap. So I'd best be ready.

Kangerlussuaq, 4 July 1999

Waaah, no airplanes today. I could go down to the harbor and watch the ferry from Nuuk come in, but that's too much work. So, lazy day. Breakfast around 9:30, wherein I met some English folk who are going to the icecap with me tomorrow. Then, church service, which took me entirely by surprise. I thought they didn't do that here.

It may have been a special confirmation service. Two boys and four girls were dressed in postcard-quality go-to-meeting clothes, seated in places of honor, and got a lecture from the preacher, who wore a frilly collar and (AFAIK) spoke Greenlandic, not Danish.

That would explain how this congregation has hidden its existence from the makers of the Greenland national atlas, and from the World Wide Web. Kangerlussuaq Tourism's site denies the existence of regular Christian worship here, but one of the lead tourist guides was at the service. So was one of the hotel front desk workers. So was the tattooed guy who works the "burrito" bar. So were swarms of children and mosquitos. Actually, it was a lot like Hell.

Then, I picked a place to sit and read a book. It was at the end of a breakwater of some sort. This delayed the mosquitos about half an hour. But in the end, they came and bit through clothing plus netting.

Then I realized, if I want a place to sit and look at the fjord, I can do it from my room! So here I am. I've got tapes, liquor, peanuts, science fiction, Omniverse the Card Game, and all the trashy American TV I could hope for (albeit with Danish subtitles). Apparently there's a "Young Hercules" spinoff series which is popular in Denmark.

But speaking of Omniverse, it needs some streamlining. It can't be good if I get bored with my own system halfway through.

Kangerlussuaq, 5 July 1999

Conqueror of Ice I finally took the icecap today! Now there's nothing left to live for. B{C>

Inlandisenfotosafari I joined an expedition of two highly equipped 4WD Toyotas. My vehicle leaked steering fluid, and required five refills along the way. The other vehicle had young cute women, but my vehicle had old fat women who speak English, so I suppose I came out ahead. B{D>

Cave of Ice I'd hoped to place my fingers on the ice. But this is highly discouraged. Ice can fall off in big chunks, after all. And where we came to the ice, I'd have had to swim a raging river to do it. [insert Cave of Ice] But I did whip out the GPS and note that the picnic tables nearest the ice are at 67 degrees 5.48 minutes north, 50 degrees 14.45 minutes west, or 13 miles from the Kangerlussuaq airport.

After, I had mixed luck. I can't get a plane to the coast (where I might buy a pony-skin rug), because the big afternoon flight from Copenhagen is cancelled, and there are ripple effects throughout Greenland. Today's Greenlandair flights are cancelled too, because when the planes don't come in from Denmark, why bother? And tomorrow's are booked solid.

At that, I'm lucky. I don't have to travel anywhere until Wednesday. I ran into one European (speaning English, because most Europeans know neither Danish nor Inuit) in Kangerlussuaq Tourism, who didn't know he had more than an hour to go up Black Ridge one last time.

On the other hand, I did get a bike more my size, and I managed to check my e-mail (and thereby save my Usenet account from some financial hiccups). And I visited the gym. No aerobics, but the princely sum of DKK 15 ($2.25) gets you full privileges for one day. I'm not sure I'll make use of it, though. The south side of the fjord needs to feel the presence of my feet tomorrow. And that's certainly exercise enough. For tonight, one of the last two possible Happy Hours, then another trip to the airport restaurant. The duck there was awfully good, even if it was prepared just like the Arctic char, the mutton, and the musk ox.

Oops, the restaurant was booked solid. Stranded Europeans and all that. The evening flight from Copenhagen was cancelled too. But Kangerlussuaq Poelsevogn was kind enough to sell me wieners for dinner. Good enough.

Kangerlussuaq, 6 July 1999

Truly the Damned walk among us. Breakfast was mobbed. I even had suitemates last night. But I never saw them. They came in after I was in bed, honored the "Do Not Disturb" sign, and left while I took my morning shower. SAS has extra flights today, to catch up. And I just sat up on a hill for six hours, read a book, and watched them all come down and up. I still can't say it's quiet, but I will say I can hear for miles.

Musk ox in chili sauce down by the lake for my last dinner here. It's the tenderest meat I can remember. Quick, Ned, thin out their numbers!

The Roklubben was popular for dinner; it was nearly full. One of the hotel clerks was there, as was a team of glacier-crossing Germans.

The Return Trip, 7 July 1999

Checkout and exit from Greenland went smoothly. I even had lots of time to sit at the bar and meet people, like all those Germans who crossed the glaciers, and a Dane who was heading north for eight months of carpentry. He said yes, it's cold, but it's a dry cold.

But Canadian customs was no fun. The check was in Iqaluit, which only gets that single international flight each week, and has trouble handling it. And I had to run the metal detectors on each leg of the flight. And in the general confusion, First Air lost my walking stick. They have no idea where it is; it might have gone to Montreal. Well, they'll just have to find it and send it to Massachusetts, or else owe me up to $700. (Hand-carved walking stick from atop the Bavarian Alps? You bet.) I suppose I'm lucky USAir doesn't get two more chances to lose the stick. (See Footnotes.)

At least the flight into Ottawa was fun. The food was better than most, with free wine and an impressive dessert. And it was provisioned out of Kangerlussuaq. I recognized the tater tots and the special sauce; they were just like all my meals there. And all the labels were in Danish.

Literally every Greenlander who wanted to go to North America that week was on that flight. And most of them knew each other, and most of them were going on a study program to Ottawa, and most of them wore matching Greenland T-shirts, and most of them stood up at one point and sang the Greenlandic equivalent of "Happy Birthday" to one of their number.

In Ottawa, I had a quick dinner at my hotel lounge. I met a guy who mixes Christian disco tapes. The lounge was playing some of his work. Bizarre, to say the least.

On to Texas, starting at about 4 am tomorrow. Oh well.

The Return Trip, 8 July 1999

The US customs had no objection to my bringing kippers in. Apparently they don't violate the "no meat" rule.

The only thing they wanted to inspect was the Inuit carving I bought in Iqaluit. The nice customs lady eventually admitted that, for the price I paid, the white stuff probably wasn't ivory, whose import into the United States is prohibited by law. So I get to keep it, instead of making a gift of it to the American people.

I must say, even downtown Dallas felt like home after this trip. Which is saying quite a lot, since I live in Massachusetts.

The End.


  1. First Air did eventually find my stick. But then they tried to ship it back to me via Air Canada... which once again lost the stick, this time for good. I made First Air give me $50 US for the stick. They didn't complain about the price.

    Ever since then, I've become obsessive about walking sticks, and started making my own. I've resolved to collect one from every state, territory, and province I visit. As of June 2001, my collection included Massachusetts, Maine, Connecticut, Wisconsin, Louisiana, California, Illinois, Iowa, Vermont, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island.