In a true escape from civilisation, Anita Isalska heads north from Ilulissat in Greenland to see one of the country’s impressive sights.
For almost five hours, our little fishing boat has thundered through the inky waters of Greenland’s Ataa Strait. Icebergs sway as we pass, and waterfalls along the cliffs feed the sea with chilly, grey cascades.
From the boat’s upper deck, I have been watching the last signs of civilisation slowly recede – along with my phone signal. All I can see behind us now is a trail of foam and rocking icebergs. Tinny interruptions from mobile phones have ceased, replaced by a soundtrack of churning water and the wails of auks.
As well as marvelling at the collision of ice and water at the glacier, we’ll be staying almost in its shadow. Remote Glacier Lodge Eqi manages a scattering of wooden huts in Port Victor, a tiny seasonal settlement facing the glacier.
Soon, Eqi is visible from the deck: a gleaming white arc above the water. As our boat approaches, the sea transforms from a glassy indigo swirl into grey sludge, thick with shards of ice. Larger bergs glint from the water every few feet. My ‘iceberg, dead ahead!’ quips are starting to wear thin.
Our captain turns off the boat’s engine and we bob 800m from the icy face of Eqip Sermia. This glacier is highly active, its layers of ice and densely packed snow deforming, cracking and lurching.
Huge pieces of ice are calved into the water multiple times a day. When especially vast chunks peel away from this forbidding mass, they can produce a tidal wave, so it’s no wonder our boat is keeping a safe distance.
By now, our small band of travellers has emerged onto the deck, padded out with fleece jackets and windbreakers, some of them borrowing local sealskin to guard against the wind. All eyes are glued to the glacier, in the hope of witnessing a huge ice calving.
Staying alert to the glacier’s movements is key. If you hear the glacier rumble, the ice has already collapsed, leaving nothing to see except a wisp of frosty vapour curling upwards from the water, marking the spot it fell.
But it isn’t long until we see a large block drop away from the wall. The collision of ice and water triggers waves that tremble out from the glacier face. The fallen pane of ice rocks crazily in the water and irritated seals raise their noses, surprised by the disturbance.
The experience is made more otherworldly by our spectacular isolation. Eqi is only safely reachable from mid-June to mid-September. In winter, temperatures plummet to -20C (or lower) and Glacier Lodge Eqi battens down the hatches: windows are protected by plywood, solar panels are covered up, and electronic equipment is all hauled back to Ilulissat. Staff leave until the spring thaw.
Summer is no picnic either. The sea is so cold that falling in can be fatal. When large swathes of ice fall away from the glacier, the resulting wave can sweep the beach. Staff repeatedly warn us to steer clear of the shoreline and to run uphill if we see a large calving. So it’s with a little trepidation that I step unsteadily across the gangplank to shore.
This small harbour, Port Victor, was the starting point of epic expeditions by namesake explorer Paul Emile Victor in the mid-1930s. Victor’s hut still stands, bound to the rocky substrate with ropes, to prevent this weather-beaten piece of history from blowing away.
Port Victor is crouched at the edge of the world, and it’s a strange place for a city junkie like me to find herself. After glancing mournfully at the ‘no signal’ message glaring from my smartphone, I turn my attention to the setting.
Rows of wooden huts, some topped with solar panels, face the glacier, which glows above surreally turquoise water. Nestled within a shallow valley, the lodge and its one reastaurant and meeting point, Cafe Victor, have some protection from the elements.
Above and around them extend rocky, wind-pummelled hills. Reindeer moss and crowberry bushes clutch the ground. And every time the wind dies down, clouds of mosquitoes appear seemingly out of nowhere.
“I’ve travelled a lot and this is the only place where I really experienced truly untouched nature,” says Linn Espensen, one of the daily managers at Eqi over the summer. “It’s one of the only places where you really feel that you’re existing on nature’s premises.”
To enter the wild, it only takes a few steps along the hiking trails that spider out from Cafe Victor. In this lonely place, and with trail signage as enigmatic as ‘ice cap 4 hours’, writing your intended route in the hiking logbook is essential. “As soon as you leave the camp and our trails, you cannot be sure that anyone has ever walked where you are,” explains Linn.
Dressing for the weather is also crucial. In my peculiar ensemble of hiking boots, a neon blue windbreaker, and a black mosquito headnet swirling around my face, I feel more like a rejected Lady Gaga backup dancer than an outdoor explorer.
Nonetheless I plod towards the moraine, a clutter of rocky fragments discarded by glacial melt, clambering over boulders and granite banks, where clumps of white stitchwort bloom from the cracks. Purple niviarsiaq, Greenland’s national flower, add wisps of colour to this sparse terrain. Striding up to a stony bank, the scenery opens up to give me a lustrous view of the glacier, the water reflecting the sky’s cyan glare.
After two nights at Glacier Lodge Eqi, I’ve eased into a routine: awaking to the roar of the glacier, fuelling up on a hearty Danish-style breakfast, and hiking alone until my cheeks are scarlet from the wind.
Strangely enough, this solitude is hard to give up. When it’s finally time to board a boat back to Ilulissat, it’s with sadness that I notice my phone bleeping back to life. Even for an urbanite like me, the call of the wild holds irresistible power.
Words by Anita Isalska. Featured image by Visit Greenland – Mads Pihl.