Part 1 – Getting to Qaanaaq.
I had never previously visited a place so far north and so remote. A place with six months of darkness and six months of light in its annual cycle. A tiny, remote village with one shop, one flight in and out per week.
Remote, isolated places are fascinating. They push the boundaries of how people can live and demonstrate enviable resilience from some inspiring people. As someone who lives and works in cities, this is almost as far away from the norm as I can get and that was the main draw of Qaanaaq. For people living here, it gets even more remote, with four satellite settlements nearby: there’s Narsaq and Qeqertarsuaq, both now abandoned; Qeqertat, a tiny settlement of just three families; and Siorapaluk, the only civilian settlement in Greenland further north than Qaanaaq, and the most northerly native settlement in the world.
Access to Siorapaluk and Qeqertat is by boat in summer and by dogsled in the winter, when the sea is frozen over. There is an option to pay for a ride on an Air Greenland helicopter if it’s available and can make its way from the airbase at Thule. Life up here is truly remote.
The Qaanaaq area has been populated for thousands of years but the current village is newer, having been relocated to its position from the US airbase at Thule, some 70 miles south. The weather in this region, coupled with the midnight sun, makes for extremely polarised seasons. Pleasant summer days of 24-hour daylight and temperatures of 7C are contrast with months of darkness and -30C (the record low is -58C).
Qaanaaq’s location in Greenland and its facilities has made it a hub for some truly inspiring, spectacular expeditions over the years. A stand out I saw on my visit was an expedition from over 20 years ago from Lake Baikal in Siberia to Qaanaaq, dubbed “the last great expedition on Earth” and one which sounds utterly mesmerising in its extremes.
My visit to Qaanaaq took me from Glasgow to Edinburgh to Copenhagen to Kangerlussuaq to Ilulissat to Qaanaaq, thankfully with stops along the way. The journey back was expected to include an extra leg with a short stop in Upernavik before otherwise retracing my steps but poor weather meant a last-minute change by the airline.
With five days in Qaanaaq I did wonder what would fill my time somewhere so remote. Not in the sense that I need entertained, more wondering who would I meet, what might I end up doing.
The day before my flight I received a call from Air Greenland. There was a flight leaving that afternoon and I could be on it. Having accommodation sorted in Ilulissat and Qaanaaq, I said no, but it did make me wonder why they asked. Flights to Qaanaaq seemed to be once a week so I figured there was some kind of chartered flight, and they wanted to shift all passengers from the next day’s flight on to it to save another journey. I had visions of a very quiet flight or a late cancellation ahead.
At the airport, boarding time came and went. Two Air Iceland flights from Reykjavik came, refilled and left. The flight to Upernavik left. A helicopter flight filled with day trippers to the ice sheet left. And around 20 people remained in the airport.
Announcements came first in Greenlandic, then in Danish, then in English.
“Could all passengers for Qaanaaq please make their way to gate number two.”
Everyone shuffled towards gate two – this is the arrivals gate at Ilulissat airport. We were ushered through the small baggage claim area, into the airport cargo area.
I was gestured towards a platform on the floor. Then a few others joined me. The captain appeared and gave an explanation.
We were being weighed collectively as a passenger group. On any flight an airline wants to be efficient with its fuel. This includes being able to make it to a “plan B” airport in case of emergency, and for this flight our backup airport was back at the start, in Ilulissat. The captain finished with an ominous throwaway comment “we’ll see how many of you we can get on the flight.” No-one seemed to pick up on it.
Back in the main part of the tiny terminal building, that moment came and a member of the Air Greenland staff appeared.
“Due to the weight of the aircraft, we need three people to volunteer to be off-boarded.”
She went back to the office and a few seconds later an announcement came over the speaker system. Three names were called. A Greenlandic couple and a young European woman made their way to the office.
After a few minutes came a very uncomfortable moment. The Air Greenland worker appeared again with the three unlucky passengers looking despondent alongside.
“We need to unload six bags from the plane to allow these three passengers to fly today.”
It is a truly awful moment to see the look on someone’s face when there’s a request to help them and no-one offers. I travel with a tiny backpack and no hold luggage, and couldn’t help, and still felt awful at this point.
Thankfully the situation improved. There was a cargo flight the following day which could deliver baggage, and a family of four offered to offload their checked in bags, as did a Canadian chap travelling to Qaanaaq for work.
Success: we could all board.
The flight itself was a really sociable and entertaining one, nothing like the quiet flight I had expected. And it was fascinating to find out why others were visiting Qaanaaq. There was a scientist heading there for seven weeks to carry out a study on permafrost (I later met his wife, a photographer from Switzerland who was writing a feature on Qaanaaq for a magazine). A Canadian chap now living in Sisimiut heading up to drill for fresh water supplies for the village. A South Korean film crew, led by the only Korean in Greenland, there to film a documentary on Arctic nature. Plus a lovely family from Alta in Norway who were camping for three weeks, and another family – Danish, I think – who were on a family trip.
I ended up in the same accommodation as the Korean film crew, who disappeared for a couple of nights to travel with hunters in search of narwhal as part of their documentary.
The flight is the most scenic I’ve had – even through a filthy air-plane window. From the right-side of the plane, the West Greenland coastline was a mixture of glaciers, icebergs, mountains, the ice cap, occasionally dotted with some tiny, isolated settlements. I love looking out on this landscape thinking that there are places down below where it’s likely no-one has ever set foot.
There was good chat all the way on the two-hour flight. I visited the cockpit, had a chat with the pilots and saw the fantastic view they enjoy during their working day. The Air Greenland food was spot on (it’s an economy flight and had the best economy food I’ve eaten – take note, British Airways).
The arrival in Qaanaaq saw a tiny but mobbed airport, as visitors walked through the crowds(!) of people waiting for the outbound flight. And following the dusty road into the village, the Qaanaaq adventure begins.