I arrived in Qaanaaq after a memorable journey from Ilulissat to a beautiful afternoon of sunshine and blue sky. The village is a short journey along the dirt track from the airport with hills to the left and an iceberg-filled bay backed with mountains on the right. The flight over the surrounding area had shown just how remote Qaanaaq is.
After settling into the accommodation, I went for a wander. The 24-hour daylight takes a bit of getting used to. Generally I’d head out to make the most of what daylight was left but when it’s bright all day long, there’s no need to restrict what you do to the usual daytime. Want to go for a hike in the middle of the night, then why not?
I walked east out of the village, following the dirt track which stops at the cemetery and the football field. There were sled dogs howling on the swampy ground nearby, and on the beach front a group of hunters who looked like they were stationed at the spot for a while.
The feeling of isolation here is hard to describe. Facing north, for hundreds of miles to the pole and beyond to the upper parts of Siberia, there is nothing. No people, no settlements. East and West of Qaanaaq there are the tiny villages of Qeqertat and Siorapaluk. And there’s one flight in and out of Qaanaaq each week. That’s your lot.
Three times a year a cargo ship from Denmark visits. It hadn’t managed to get close to shore recently due to the ice and ended up turning back, leaving the village supermarket void of fresh food. Only a few bags of dried pasta and aisles of household items remained. It meant, for most people, if you wanted to eat then you relied on what the hunters caught, and if you didn’t eat that then you went hungry.
While on my wander along the coast, I heard a party getting started back in the village. There was a local band playing outside the pub (which had ran out of beer), taking the party outside on such a nice night. A few dozen people around about were enjoying the impromptu gig and getting torn into some homebrew. There were kids playing, sled dog puppies wandering. It was the only place to be that evening.
I was eager to get a photo of the midnight sun while I was in Qaanaaq and one evening proved perfect for this. I set out at 1130pm, walked east of the village and picked a spot. At this time of year the sun doesn’t even come close to the horizon, it doesn’t even dip behind the hills. For weeks on end it’s endless daylight as the sun circles around and around over head. The way of life naturally adapts to this and even at 2am there were people out and about, kids playing, people working. If you didn’t have a watch then you would never know when it was morning, noon or night, and you likely wouldn’t need to.
The forecast for the few days ahead showed promising weather except for one day. How to enjoy Qaanaaq in days of rain is thankfully something I won’t need to find out, and on the first sunny morning (I say morning but whether I went out at 1am or 10am, it made no difference under perpetual daylight) I took a walk north. The Greenlandic ice cap is a few miles directly north of the village on a hike which starts off with a steep hill and then allows for meandering any which way, always aiming for the pristine white on the horizon.
The area towards the ice cap reminded me of photos I saw as a kid which were sent by Viking 1 from the surface of Mars. Red, rocky, barren. I had no plan, no path or route to take, only to wander where I felt like, exploring little peaks on the way to see what the view was like from each, and every step took me further north than I had ever been before.
Some parts were inaccessible for me as the icecap descends into a valley and melts into a bit of a river, and without crampons it would be tough to walk across it, but that aside, you’re free to wander anywhere, as with other parts of Greenland. If you’re properly prepared then the world feels like your own.
On my descent I had wandered further east than expected and ended up back at the cemetery/football field. Down at the beach there, the hunters, still on the lookout for narwhal and seals, had spotted something. One was instantly out in a kayak, spear in hand, paddling out to where the sighting had been, but this time there was no such luck. The timid narwhal was gone.
Days two and three in Qaanaaq involved much the same, heading east and west on the respective days and exploring wherever my instinct took me. As someone who loves to walk, this is just perfect: there’s no other way to travel in the summer but to walk and the endless coast and changing views are spectacular.
The only rainy day in Qaanaaq provided something quite different. I had spent time talking with my host, a Greenlandic chap called Hans Jensen who seems to be a bit of a local fixer, but got chatting far more. It’s inspiring to meet someone who does so much yet is so humble. On the wall in the accommodation was a world map with a pin in every place from which he’s had a visitor, with plenty from Europe, a few across North America and others from remote Siberia and Wellington in New Zealand.
On another wall is pictures of expeditions which have passed through or ended in Qaanaaq, with photos going back years. They’re of people who have explored the most remote areas, months on end in the Frozen North from the pole, across Northern Greenland and the ice cap, ending with the warm hospitality they found in Qaanaaq. One in particular that stays in my mind was dubbed “the last great expedition on Earth” – a trip from Lake Baikal near Irkutsk in Russia, to Qaanaaq. Truly mind blowing. In the depths of winter, after spending weeks on a dogsled in unthinkably cold weather, the welcome provided in Qaanaaq after these expeditions must be one that stays with you for life.
Two things make a trip: what you do and who you meet. Qaanaaq had some of the most wonderful scenery I will ever see. The calmness of the Northern Arctic backed by stunning mountains and icebergs all under the midnight sun is bewitching. And the people were so welcoming and warm that it’s little wonder most visitors I spoke with were returning to Qaanaaq for at least their second visit. It’s a hard place to get to but the trip is most certainly worth the time and effort.
When it came time to leave and return home, it made for one of the most straightforward airport visits I’ve ever had. No security, no bag checks, no ticket checks. There’s one flight a week and if you’re at the airport then you must be on it. Incidentally, it was delayed and that meant I was going to miss my connection in Ilulissat to take me south to Kangerlussuaq. Air Greenland held the connecting flight for me, allowing me to run across the tarmac to the next plane, which was in the sky two minutes later. That’s service.