Inspired by Ice

Inspired by Ice
Leica M9 Summilux-M 1.4/50 - ISO 1250 f13 1/250 sec.
Leica M9 Elmarit-M 2.8/28 - ISO 160 f6.7 1/500 sec.


After two days, two train trips and two flights we reached Kangerlussuaq, the main airport in Greenland. This airport is not only Greenland's largest, but also Air Greenland's biggest hub, one that causes a shift in the idea of normal dimensions. For the next few days in Greenland one thing is clear: this shift means that everything is different. Expectation dominates the mood. Anticipation. We were in the Arctic at last, and there was only one flight left until our destination: Ilulissat on Disko Bay. Ostensibly, a Boeing 747 could also land at the airport in Kangerlussuaq, but the landing field seems to be full even with just our Airbus 330-223. Really full.
Airbus in Kangerlussuaq

Transport hub

The dream destination that Markus and I have had in mind for almost ten years is only one flight away. The next airplane waiting for us is quite a bit smaller than the already small Airbus. If you look at this picture, you have seen most of the airport. This transport hub is only as big as a large supermarket with a parking lot.

Departure for Ilulissat

Travelling in the summer with the equipment you need for an Arctic trip is only so much fun. The space that available to you is quite limited, both on the train and in the plane. The sweaty journey is anything but relaxing. Due to the strict luggage restrictions of Air Greenland and the equipment you want to have with you, there is only one option: Wear as much of what you want to take with as you can. With the summer temperatures, the frequent transfers and the long waiting times, that is really no fun, especially looking into the eyes of all the travellers in flip flops and shorts who have booked a package holiday and are waiting for their flight to Mallorca. Still, the anticipation of reaching the Arctic makes you forget everything, and the flight over Greenland marks the start of a film that etches itself into the synapses and will be stored on the hard disk in your head for a lifetime.


Leica M9 Summilux-M 1.4/50 - ISO 160 f6.7 1/180 sec.
Leica M9 Elmarit-M 2.8/28 - ISO 250 f9.5 1/350 sec.

Ilulissat means something like "the place of icebergs". The city is one of the largest in Greenland, the third largest, to be precise. But then that first impression at the air hub comes into play: Everything is different. About 4,600 people live in Ilulissat. Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, has a population of just under 16,000; Berlin by contrast has over 3.5 million.

Ilulissat with power plant

The tourist office

Ilulissat City Tourist Office

The tourist office is the centre of the action in Ilulissat. And yet, there are not very many tourists. Even though they are actually the focus here, they are few and far between. When you think of Greenland, you think first of ice, certainly not that football is the main pastime of the children and young people here.

Ilulissat football pitch in the village centre

Work centre

The real centre of Ilulissat, however, is the harbour and the fish factory. The people here earn their living mainly from crab and halibut fishing.

In Ilulissat there are not just supermarkets, hotels and souvenir shops, but also a large church and a large hospital. This is important, as there are very few roads in Greenland and no place is connected to any other place by road. 

Ilulissat church and hospital

 In summer the only way for people to get across the country is by using airplanes or by a means of transportation that has been getting people from place to place since they started walking upright: their own feet. The latter is the means that we used first. Our destination: Disko Bay. We noticed that even the third largest city in Greenland is small and fragile. After only a few kilometres it disappears into the landscape of Greenland.

Ilulissat from afar
Leica M9 Summilux-M 1.4/50 - ISO 160 f4.8 1/3000 sec.
Leica M9 Summilux-M 1.4/50 - ISO 160 f6.7 1/1500 sec.

Disko Bay

Leica M9 Elmarit-M 2.8/28 - ISO 160 f13 1/500 sec.
Leica M9 Elmar-M 2.8/90 - ISO 160 f13 1/2500 sec.

Once we arrive at Disko Bay, we are astonished to find it relatively empty. Perhaps we had imagined more ice. Again I have to think of the air traffic hub: in Greenland you lose control of time and space very quickly. You might think you can cover a visible stretch in maybe half an hour, but you will be proved wrong and it may take three hours. Not only are there no roads, but no paths either. That is why you sometimes keep climbing in vain, making no progress, then you have to turn around and try a different route.

Disko Bay with very little ice

A few kilometres further and the Bay a bit fuller. We had probably started hoping a bit prematurely to see the limit of the ice cap in Disko Bay, as it was a good 35 kilometres from where we were further inside the bay.

Disko Bay with some more ice

Going the 35 kilometres takes maybe a good hour or so on a racing bike, but in Greenland that is a pretty decent distance to cover on foot. Without tents, food and an armed Inuit this stretch would not be recommended, because you could not get there and back in a day. 

When we returned, we asked why Disko Bay was empty, and our answer was just a shrug of the shoulders and the statement: "What's normal in Greenland?" We would hear this statement often on other occasions later on. A day later, Disko Bay and the Davis Strait are full of pack ice and icebergs. That can happen in Greenland; normal is somewhere else.

Disko Bay full of ice


Leica M9 Summilux-M 1.4/50 - ISO 200 f11 1/60 sec.

Leica M9 Summilux-M 1.4/50 - ISO 200 f6.7 1/250 sec.

Another way of getting around is by using fishing boats, which are sometimes booked for tourist trips. This provides an additional, quite welcome, source of income for the fishermen.

Greenland fishing boat

You pass the icebergs at a safe distance and then cross the fjord, as far as possible. The icebergs that look quite small in the distance, now reveal themselves to be the true giants they really are. It reminds me of that story with the Titanic... Some of the icebergs are over 100 metres high, and that is pretty impressive.

What you should not do is block the helmsman's view. If you do, he gets loud. Although the boats are made to handle the ice, they cannot deal with every chunk of it. But we will learn that later. You should also know that the sun never sets in Greenland in the summer. The proof? An image from the fjord at midnight.

Midnight in Disko Bay

Leica M9 Summilux-M 1.4/50 - ISO 200 f9.5 1/350 sec.

The sun never gets lower, and it can only get a little darker (relatively speaking) when there are clouds.

Leica M9 Elmarit-M 2.8/28 - ISO 200 f16 1/1500 sec.
Leica M9 Summilux-M 1.4/50 - ISO 200 f4.8 1/350 sec.


The view from where we slept on the cliffs will probably always remain fixed as an image in our minds. Above all, it is a pretty bright image. It was clear from that moment on that we would never forget it.
View from the cliffs

Every now and then, however, the view is clouded by the fact that the "Fram", a Hurtigruten cruise ship, is parked for a few minutes right in front of you. The ship must keep constantly in motion so it does not get stuck in the pack ice. They often give up on the disembarkation of tourists with the "Fram's" own boats after many attempts. 

The Inuit then manage the disembarkation with their fishing boats. It is also great to have boat announcements to the passengers on board that were always preceded by a "GONG" sounding across the whole bay at what seemed like one-minute intervals. Sleep? Tomorrow. Maybe.

The Fram visiting the bay

Boats are important for the Inuit in the summer, not only to get fish and ice, but also to be able to visit friends and acquaintances in other villages. That is why you can hear boats going out to sea 24 hours a day in Ilulissat. Prize question: How many boats can be seen in the next picture?

Boats between the icebergs
Leica M9 Summilux-M 1.4/50 - ISO 160 f9.5 1/1000 sec.
Leica M9 Summilux-M 1.4/50 - ISO 200 f16 1/1500 sec.

In the city there are only a few kilometres of road, plus the road leading to the airport. Most residents do not have cars, but there is a taxi company. Where we have cars in front of our houses, in Greenland they have boats and snow scooters outside the door. And there is, nonetheless, a junkyard at the end of the world.

Ilulissat junkyard

Building in the language of Greenland

What strikes you immediately is how the Inuit build. Not only are the climatic conditions brutal: the granite that Ilulissat is built on prevents any laying of pipes underground, so you see pipelines everywhere. In winter, however, you cannot see them anymore. 
I talked to a plumber in sweatshirt and overalls who was clearing a clogged drain line. I asked him: "It's summer now, so how often does that happen in winter?" He laughed and said that it did not get really cold here on the coast in winter. Amazed at the response, I asked what was warm and what was cold. He said that it would be no more than minus 10 to minus 15 degrees, and that would be pretty warm. Temperatures reach minus 35 to minus 50 degrees inland in winter, which is pretty could, according to the plumber.

read more >