Our Man in Greenland: Way Up North
Explorer and filmmaker Mikael Strandberg packed up his family to live in a remote community in Greenland for a year. Here’s his latest.
For more than 30 years, Mikael Strandberg has parlayed a natural rootlessness and a consuming curiosity with human nature into a career as one of the world’s most unconventional explorers and filmmakers. Director of six documentaries, including 2016’s Man With a Pram – an eye-opening 466-mile journey across post-Brexit Britain in which he walked from one of Manchester’s poorest suburbs to the steps of Buckingham Palace while pushing his two-year-old daughter in a stroller – and a fellow of The Explorers Club, the Royal Geographical Society, and other distinguished organizations, Strandberg is no stranger to going where others don’t or won’t.
Last month, he set out in search of the Ilulissat Icefjord, a UNESCO-protected region 155 miles (250 km) north of the Arctic Circle where the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier meets the sea. An important site for glaciology and climate-change research, the icefjord is also one of western Greenland’s most beautiful places. In his typically atypical style, Strandberg opted to explore the region… on skis. Here’s his journal of the experience:
May 10, 2018
The expedition will happen! I am a bit late – we haven’t yet arrived home and the snow is disappearing fast here in the north, the ice as well is going away, and the equipment will take a severe beating getting dragged over stones and grass. But, how much I look forward to setting off again into this extraordinary wilderness for at least two weeks! Hopefully, three!
May 11, 2018
I am still at base camp, for two reasons. First: the wrong ammo. I bought .222, but it turns out when tested, it was wrong. Thank God I took another day to check it – not a good thing to happen if you do meet a curious polar bear! Second: my Iridium Go hasn’t been activated yet. Amazing, this tech thing. But such is life.
The reason I want to get away ASAP is the weather. I worry about the ice getting thinner and the snow disappearing.
I have a feeling it will be a journey of great beauty, but a complete ruin to my equipment. It will be arduous work that will thin me out to nothing. It would say the weight is around 176 lbs. (80 kg), so less than half what I pulled in Siberia back in the day.
Let’s hope my next dispatch is en route!
May 12, 2018
I just arrived at the small village of Ilimanaq, a beautiful little town overlooking Disko Bay, which is full of icebergs. It didn’t see a soul at first, but it felt great to be an outsider again, arriving when no one knows you are coming.
Eventually, a woman turned up and told me everything was closed until Monday. I needed toilet paper and petrol. I don’t mind staying a day here.
I left base camp at 3:30 pm yesterday but arrived here at 4 pm today. The distance is 22 miles (37 km), but I have been going too hard and fast. Moving 49 miles (80 km) uphill takes power. Yesterday was presented with beautiful, sunny winter weather, around 14°F (-10°C), but I woke up with clouds and 39°F (4°C). I have lost a lot of liquid today, but otherwise it is utterly magnificent to be back en route, pulling a Fjellpulken and sleeping in a tent. I lost a ski going downhill, but otherwise my routines are serving me well. It is like I haven’t been away for more than a day.
These surroundings must be among the best on Earth. I do miss my daughters badly, though.
May 13, 2018
“Ice is bad on Tassuisaq,” a villager told me when I was walking around this fishing, hunting and tourist place of around 50 inhabitants. I am worried. So much snow disappeared overnight. It’s warm and crossing ice on rivers and lakes not only saves time, but is much less work. I have a tough 10-12 days ahead of me.
Last night, I met two villagers. One put me up and the other spoke English. She brought me around the village today. They are developing tourism to help them survive as fishing and hunting get more complicated, mainly due to the political situation and the warming of the climate.
“Icebergs are much smaller today, and the climate is getting warmer every year,” she says. But I think most Greenlanders, most of us who live in Nuuk, we like it. But for people in the villages it makes their traditional lives harder.”
The Greenlandic dogs howl when we pass them; they too are employed in the tourism sector. While walking around the village on snowmobile tracks, two groups fly in on helicopters: English ski tourists who visit the town for about 30 minutes. But the villagers are happy that they have come; a third of the city survives on tourism.
We pass the school, which has nine students between 7-14 years of age. I haven’t seen one kid yet, but it is Sunday, so I guess they are all inside. Not using the internet, though; it does exist here, but seems very slow.
I heard they shot a polar bear swimming away. I wanted to see it. Looks like I didn’t need to bring my ammo and rifle after all.
May 14, 2018
I feel dehydrated, so I am working my stove now. I have pitched my tent at a beautiful mountain lake and just had dinner. A dramatic day indeed, where I have made one grave mistake but still enjoyed the day to its fullest.
I left Ilimanaq at 8 am and crossed a tarn with water up over my boots. I started to climb immediately on mainly snow, but also bare patches, but it was one long climb until I reached a passage so steep I couldn’t make it up. I tried to do it without skis, dragging myself up, but it was too steep and for some unknown reason, I guess tiredness and lack of strength, I let go of my Fjellpulken and it went straight on to a rock. One-hundred-and-seventy-six pounds (80 kgs) at full speed. My lovely pulk now has a severe dent. I hope gorilla tape will do, otherwise everything will get wet once I’m down in the melting valleys again.
I rerouted and instead took a hard downhill to this mountain lake, 820 feet (250 m) up, with and without skis. I had to pass some avalanche areas and got stuck in deep snow, but eventually made it down to the lake where I am now trying to figure out what to do. I can’t climb passes that are too steep. I know this.
A lovely, lovely day nonetheless! I love this life. I saw and heard seven cranes, have seen old caribou and musk ox tracks, and fresh ones from an arctic fox.
May 15, 2018
I have just had Swedish rosti with lingonberries and will soon make some sesame bread. I am trying a new food supplier called Friluftsmat of Sweden, and so far it has been a delight, mostly due to the weather which makes cooking much more comfortable than in the cold!
This has been another day pulling my Fjellpulken up and down over rocks, stones, and wet marshes, on-and-off across snow. No significant distances today, except a three-mile (5 km) crossing of sea ice, nine miles (15 km) in total.
During the crossing of the solid sea ice, I thought about that
Finnish lady who disappeared a few years back when heading for the North Pole and either drowned or got taken by a polar bear when crossing an open lead. A bit of a Jaws feeling over today’s crossing!
The sun is incredibly hot – it’s 60°F (16°C) out there! I need to figure out what to do. Spending most days pulling the sled on snow-free mountain ground makes it hard to enjoy the magnificent view.
May 16, 2018
Water up to my knees, living in a melting environment. Wind bursts kept me awake most of the night. Due to the permafrost/no-snow scenario, there’s nothing to anchor upon which to anchor the tent. So the heavy Fjellpulken made the difference, but I couldn’t relax. At times I had the tent ceiling on me.
I quickly realized that the wind had cleared more snow and left behind deep, wet snow. The lakes and rivers where showing patches of open water. Birds were singing, cranes trumpeting, dripping water was heard everywhere, and I realized I have to cut the journey short and return home. I am a week late. If I had had the opportunity to set off a week earlier, it would have made a significant difference.
All I can do now is to reroute back to base camp. Shouldn’t take more than a day or so, depending on the conditions.
I set off after a filling breakfast of apple pancakes and bread made on the stove and started to cross a lake with open water on and off. For safety reasons, I didn’t harness myself in; if you go through, the Fjellpulken will pull you down to your death. Snow got mushier and thicker and the going was hard. Sometimes, the snow caved into just plain water up over the ankles.
Up and down in the intense heat, I stopped to drink cold water from new streams, really the best of the best. The views are so extreme, so beautiful. I doubt there’s a more remotely scenic and beautiful place on earth. Even though the going is tough, it means no people, seeing winter break and spring arrive and just enjoying the heat.
May 17, 2018
As you can see from this photo, right now it is too hard work. More time to enjoy the scenery!
I am returning to home base to pick up my girls and take them with me out tomorrow for a night or two in the tent. I will set off on another week by foot once it is possible to do so.
It has been a fantastic week, albeit one cut short due to the rapid change in weather. A week earlier would have made a difference.
May 18, 2018
I got rid of the challenging sled and took out everything I did not need in order to put in all the girls’ stuff. We have made it to one of our favorite places: Nussuaq, where we can enjoy some solitude and peace.
I have just cooked potato stew with pan bread, and we will finish off with a chocolate cake. An altogether a two-hour job, but who cares? Just a beautiful day, and being with my girls only gets better by the day. What a gift they have been given, this joy to love the great outdoors.
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