When I visited Alaska, whose state motto is “The Final Frontier,” a year ago, I thought that I would never again see a place as desolate and remote. Little did I know, life had a way of bringing me back to the Arctic. Having just returned from a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Greenland for my DIS Study Tour, I can safely say that Alaska’s title rightfully belongs to Greenland. It’s difficult to contextualize just how barren Greenland is, a country a third the size of the US with a population (56,000 people) that could comfortably fit inside a college football stadium. The bitterly cold temperatures, dark winters, and vast ice sheet stretching across 85% of the country make it fascinating that humans survive there at all.
My first reminder of the inaccessibility of Greenland came as I was boarding the flight. The thrice-weekly flight we were on from Copenhagen is the nation’s lifeline – there is no other regular service on a jet plane. During the winters when the maritime ports are clogged up with ice, there is no other way for people and goods to enter or exit Greenland. As a matter of fact, the existence of Kangerlussuaq, the town of about 500 residents we were traveling to, is primarily tied to the town’s runway being the only one long enough to accommodate large planes in the entire country.
Life in a town of 500 people is unique, to say the least. Since the settlement was originally founded as a US military base, almost all the buildings in town are repurposed army buildings. The hotel we stayed at is called “Old Camp” because it was formerly military barracks. In a town this small and remote, everything needs to be reused – there is a small scrapyard on the outskirts of town where anyone can dump old tools, machinery, or equipment and pick up what they need. Jet propulsion devices that were once needed to provide extra thrust to airplanes taking off from ice are now used as ashtrays outside buildings! It was a little concerning to note that there are no doctors in Kangerlussuaq – for serious medical attention, one would need to take an hour-long flight to the nearest town.
The elephant in the room I haven’t yet discussed is the climate. Being quite far inland and mere miles away from the ice sheet results in Kangerlussuaq having extremely cold temperatures even for Greenland. During our time there, we considered ourselves lucky if the daytime high temperature even touched 10oF. Our class looked like a gang of bank thieves because the only bit of skin we left exposed was a tiny sliver around our eyes. During our hikes, there were icicles growing from my eyelashes, and my bottle of warm water was quickly frozen shut. Even still, I relished being outside since the crisp Greenlandic air was the freshest I inhaled in my entire life.
Despite all the constant reminders of how hardcore surviving in Greenland is, there were also aspects of daily life that are exactly the same. When we entered the one supermarket in town around 5 pm, it was packed with parents doing some last-minute grocery shopping for family dinner. When we passed by the local school, we found colorful playground equipment that might as well have been anywhere. And when we took a stop at the only bar in town, we found people enjoying themselves with a game of pool or darts after a long week of work.
For all that is different, much is the same.