Here is Chapter two of Common Sense and Whiskey, the book. We'll publish each chapter over the course of the summer. You can order the entire book direct from EarthPhotos Publishing, or at Amazon.com. The accompanying photos, and additional commentary are available at The Common Sense and Whiskey Companion.
You know those gauzy coffee commercials where cozy people savor their morning brew, steam rising in circles from the cup? In the midst of a scene like that, cradling our cups in our hands in Silva’s kitchen, with a great low rumble an iceberg broke apart just offshore from Ataa camp, Greenland.
Boulders of ice plunged into waves around the berg, now off balance, as it rocked side to side in slow motion. Silva stoked the commotion, cursing and scurrying for his video camera (he did this more than once). He was sure someday he’d be in National Geographic.
Silva ran the Ataa Holiday Camp. The tourist service down the coast in Ilulissat cheerfully recommended it, because Silva was a Man Of Some Repute in Ilulissat.
He was in year eighteen in Greenland, first as an itinerant musician from Denmark, invited up here to play hotels for a month, then three, then a year and one thing led to the next. Now he ran Travel Nature Touring Company and he was having a go at redeveloping this abandoned trading post into a tourist camp.
In 1915 Ataa boasted 59 residents: 58 Inuit and the station chief, the only Dane. They lived in six houses and three tents, with a school, the manager’s house, a workshop and a storehouse for seal blubber.
Seal hunting kept Ataa alive, and that year they collected 137 barrels of seal blubber, 42 barrels of shark liver, five blue and eleven white fox skins, 70 seal skins, eight and a quarter kilos of tusks and four and a half kilos of eider down.
Nobody lives there full time now. The nearest settlement today is at a place called Qertaq, thirty kilometers away.
Ataa camp sits at the base of ancient, rounded low hills of less than 1000 meters, Precambrian gneisses finally exposed only 7000 or 8000 years ago, when the ice cap most recently melted away. Ataa means “its lower part” - the base of the hills.
My wife Mirja (it’s Finnish, pronounced “Mir - ya,” sort of) and I got there by speedboat. A Quicksilver 3000 Classic bounced us across choppy water, under mean, lowering gray, 70 kilometers from Ilulissat to Ataa. Its pilot, Jergen, with his broad, expansive head, buzz cut and ready smile, was Greenland Man.
The wind kicked up. We spied the spray of a finback whale, spun around and saw him dive, and in the spinning spotted a seal.
Jergen pounded the Quicksilver’s butt into the tiny harbor at Ataa, where Silva bobbed aboard a Zodiac, perched uncertainly and growling. He wore the only clothes we ever saw him in, Nikes and a running suit.
Welcome to Ataa Holiday Camp.
Silva’s own hand, improbably, built the yellow plyboard breakfast and general headquarters shack where we warmed up over coffee. It perched on rocks some few meters from freezing, lapping water.
His sister Lilliana and her husband Filita were visiting from Florence, original Home of All Culture, and I suspect just maybe they considered Silva a bloody wide open, straight ahead idjit.
Loud and fifty, soft-hearted, quick to take a stand and quick to back away from it, Silva, with an impossibly full graying mustache and tousled hair, was a real piece of work, with eight bambinos - four in Italia and four in Ilulissat.
Silva shuffled across the kitchen, singing, whistling, posing, acting like supervising his sister Lilliana, who did all the cooking. What would he do when she went home to Italy?
Silva got caught up in the drama of the changing weather. We’d been there half an hour. Eyes widening, palms spread wide, he told us, “We cannot risk our lives to take you back if the weather is worse tomorrow!”
We sipped our coffee and watched him realize that since we’d just arrived he might be getting off on the wrong foot. He retreated behind his hand and allowed as how on the other hand his sister had to fly to Denmark on the same flight as us. When you can sit and watch a man think, his is a disarming guilelessness.
Mirja and I hiked up along a steep ridge to see the mouth of a glacier called Kangilerngata Sermia, forty speedboat minutes away. We traced the side of desolate Kangerdlo Bay to the north and scaled the western ridge to walk back along Lake Taserssuaq. Up on the ridge Mirja played with a bird, a tiny handful of brown that followed us just for the novelty.
Mirja set out to pick mushrooms. When she found a little brown-capped thing she declared, “Greenlandic people say there are no poisonous mushrooms in Greenland and I believe them. If I die in Greenland, it is my destiny,” and she ate it and she didn’t die.
The world felt constrained, all gray and closed in around the edges. We walked just several meters below the cloud line that hugged the mountain, kicking tiny, bell-shaped, yellow-rimmed flowers called lavender Lapland cassiope. Truth be known, this was more slog, slowed by bog and marsh, than wilderness adventure.
From the ridge you could see an old collapsed shack, fallen in on itself, from Ataa’s trading post days.
“We keep it as a museum,” Silva grinned.
The building next door had “119” painted on its roof. Before radar was sophisticated, the “119” marking helped U.S. pilots navigate on their way north to a DEWS (The Distant Early Warning System during the Cold War, set up to detect Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles) base up north at Thule. It showed supply planes where to parachute in supplies.
We asked Silva for water to take on our hike and drew a stone-cold blank look of surprise. He rummaged around and came back with a bottle with Coca-Cola still rolling around inside it, and told us to take it down to the creek to wash it out and fill it up because the water here is completely clean.
When we left to hike up the hill, he promised us home cooked caribou for dinner and there sure was, caribou and potatoes and smoked halibut, whipped up by Lilliana and Filita, and it was outstanding.
A crowd of Germans had sailed in, and we had a rollicking good time in Greenlandic, English, German, Danish and Italian. Everybody understood a little bit of what everybody else said, and there was lively Italian style family cooking, Silva and Lilliana humming and puttering and feeling at home.
Then came an astonishing knock at the door. We all sat up to welcome three people from a boat around the bay who needed petrol. Their boat was the Nosy Be and that perked up Mirja and me, because Nosy Be is a resort town in Madagascar. We’ve never been there, but some years ago a few thousand dollars were charged to our American Express card from a resort there.
Before the end of dinner, Silva developed a mischievous grin.
“Beeel, are you tired?”
“After eight beers and caribou I will be,” I reckoned.
Silva grew reticent. “Then I will suggest nothing.” But he couldn’t contain himself and the next thing you knew we were tearing across the bay in a speedboat and Silva, behind the wheel, was screaming, “It’s not coooolllldddd!”
It must’ve been 9:30, might have been ten. “Wanna see some seals?” he twinkled, and off we went, toward the mouth of a fjord called Kangerdluarssuk.
“How far is it over there, Silva?”
“Ten kilometers,” he shouted. A waffling hand. “Twelve.”
Glassy smooth, no chop, my thermometer read 46, but try sitting centimeters over water in air that’s 46 degrees, tearing across the sea in Greenland at night. It’s cold.
“We have to know the icebergs,” Silva was shouting. “That one is sick ice. Cannot go close.”
We trolled the coast and we didn’t find any seals.
“We are worried,” he told us with a twist of the mustache, maybe because he was a sage conservationist, maybe because his camp promised seal safaris.
After a good effort, Silva flat out raced back across the water, singing uproarious Italian nationalist songs then whistling Copland then humming a British march. There were no life vests. Just Silva, Mirja, me and the bare white bottom of the boat.
The south wind set in - an evil wind, pulling the wet up around the mountains behind Ataa, at the north end of the bay. Warmth whipped away on the wind.
Silva assigned us to a barracks with four rooms, each with bunk beds, a common room and a biological toilet. Nobody was there except us.
Silva came into the bunker around midnight. He would sleep there too. Eyes fired with the prospect of deals, earnestly, eye to eye, he told us of his plans for world kayak competitions and an international dive center right here, and ice golf in Iliminaq.
Greenland is to the Kingdom of Denmark as Tahiti is to France. There’s considerable home rule, with a 27-seat parliament. Copenhagen is suzerain, maintains the courts and subsidizes prices. When we visited the only convenient access was via SAS from Copenhagen.
Approaching Greenland’s gateway airport at Kangerlussuaq, you fly across mountains of rock, covered nearly to the top with snow. Nothing else. No people down there. As far as I saw, there wasn’t a tree on the island. There were no highways. You got around by air, ferry or dog sled. There are only 55,000 people, and they all live around the coast.Kangerlussuaq Airport is on the Canada side of the ice sheet on a coastal plain between bare hills alongside a sandy sluice that’s also called Kangerlussuaq, or the long fjord, 105 miles from the sea. The ice cap is 17 miles east. Kangerlussuaq isn’t a city. It’s just the airport.
The oldest rocks anywhere are here - 3.7 billion years old where the earth is maybe 4.6 - and if you could get at the soil underneath the ice cap you’d find it (they think) 1.6 billion years old. They say the ice is so thick and heavy and it’s been pressing on the center of the island so long that the interior may be up to 360 meters below sea level.
Northbound to Ilulissat, 25o kilometers above the Arctic Circle, we sat in a jam-packed DeHavilland including two seats of mail. For a time we weren’t sure of getting seats.
“The mail,” explained the ticket clerk, “has priority here.”
Glacial lakes – tarns - skipped from the ice cap to the shore. Mineral laden fjords turned every shade of aqua, kelp, deep blue, almost brown. Mere meters separated deep, seductively dark blue tarns from sluicy gray, narrow channels that wound down to Baffin Bay.
Twenty-five minutes outside Ilulissat icebergs appeared offshore. Hard to tell how tall they were, hard to find a reference, and road number one was nowhere. I thought of the middle of the outback, just unedifying, useless land - here without brush, with icebergs instead.
None of Ilulissat had a plan. Built on an uneven, rocky promontory, it sprawled out of control (in a modest-sized way) not with roads so much as trails between boulders.
I was the only passenger on the bus into town, and finally the driver stopped, turned around and wondered, “Where you want to go?” I didn’t know, so I popped out where we were, at Super 1 market.
You’d be surprised what you could buy there: Tomatoes, bags of mean little onions and dull potatoes, dill and one stout yellow melon. Withered yellow and red and green bell peppers, un-bought and forlorn, apparently didn’t salve the Inuit palate.
The freighter Sophie Cristina, drowsy red, sat docked at the harbor. Massive, appalling heaps of trash lined the docks. Maybe it was just a collection problem. Maybe snow covered the stuff most of the time. But just now trash stood as high as the dumpsters along the waterfront.
I set out up the hill toward the glacier. Now this glacier, that presses from the ice cap down the fjord to the sea, is the most prolific calving glacier outside Antarctica. They’ll nod earnestly over astounding statistics, like that the amount of water frozen in the ice that’s pushed out into Disko Bay every day would supply New York City for a year. And the bergs loom over town, moving and shifting with the current, changing colors with the angle of the sun. It takes over an hour to sail across the mouth of the fjord.
I swore I heard gunshots. A lone fishing boat bobbed offshore. I sat on a rock and stared. It happened again, a couple times more. I couldn’t make out whether the fisherman had a rifle and what was he doing anyway, shooting fish?
Turned out those were no gunshots. They were just oxygen under pressure, escaping from the ice. Happens all the time.
Up on the hills you’d hear the sled dogs. They’d yip, and the men were a whistlin’ lot. Yippin’ and whistlin’ and poppin’.
On rocks or wooden pallets or just debris without order, sled dogs lay sleeping, bedraggled, summering in chains. I walked home past wooden houses all shades of blue through green, and red through peach into yellow. All deep shades, all stained wood. Fish dried on wooden frames. Sometimes two dogsleds were stacked one atop the other, or three, baby-mama-papa bear style.
At dismal brown housing blocks, a couple played with their baby with a line of beer bottles up on their ledge. A frame hung over one ledge for drying fish. A huge reindeer skull and antlers, too. And on all of the balconies, the laundry. In summer, I guess, every day is laundry day in Ilulissat.
I ducked around a bucket truck and had to scoot to avoid a front end loader. A working town. Mini-buses from the three hotels, too many taxis and bulky trucks plied the roads. Trucks with rusty brown tanks, a Volvo earth mover pounding at the roadside, paving equipment. And the cars the Politi drive, primarily for carrying their wives around town.
Ilulissat is a little bigger than you might think, maybe 4500 good people, unkempt, but not down at the heels. Celine Dion and Spice Girls T-shirts were here (I’m sorry) but the people owned the road. Africa-like, friends walked side by side until traffic chased them into single file. Unlike in Africa, the drivers didn’t lay on their horns.
In fact, Ilulissat was quiet and content, although you always felt the looming presence of the icebergs. The gravity of the whole place was just drawn down to the icebergs.
About a dozen of us cruised toward the glacier under the half-an-hour-before-midnight arctic sun. It was biting cold out there between building-sized blocks of ice.
Midnight cruise on Disko Bay.
A clumsy, gregarious Turk won over the crew. Said he was working on a magazine article about the people of the north. He’d already done Kamchatka, Alaska and Baffin Island and meant to do Spitsbergen (Svalbard) next spring.
The crew thought they’d be famous and took us out to walk on an iceberg.
They tried to find seals.
“What do I need seals?” the Turk confided. “Other places where they don’t kill ‘em, they come right to you.”
And they would kill anything here. It was survival. You could buy the furs and skins of everything they could kill - even rabbits and sled dogs.
The sun hung fifteen degrees over the horizon at one o’clock in the morning, and then it never went down, slowly rolling to rise up again and be bright the next morning. But at that one o’clock hour, with the sun low, near horizontal, the colors of the ice changed by the minute, with crevasses deep green and purple. Like your fingerprints - no two views the same, day to day, even hour to hour. Every day forever, bergs drifted, cliffs broke off and fell and changed.
But man, right through your gloves, it was cold!
In the new day, Hans and Edward sailed us south across the mouth of the fjord to a little settlement called Iliminaq. The mosquitoes were so thick through the window, they blew around in the wind. As he helped us aboard, Edward put out his hand and brightly offered, “This is not guides.”
We told him, “No problem.” He smiled in relief and went below to brew coffee.
Steering a trawler across the mouth of a calving glacier ain’t cake. You don’t just point and shoot. You juke around tons of ice, most of it invisible underwater.
In 45 minutes Ilulissat had disappeared, and it was just Edward, Hans, the gulls, Mirja and me and the ice. One lonely fishing dinghy bobbed out toward the open bay.
An ice-fringed blue chop kicked up under the hull and bounced our ship. The bigger icebergs were at our backs and the wind pressed down the glacier valley. Open water. We walked around the little boat to stay in the sun.
Edward, with hair, not mustache, over his lip, more or less in English, made me know he was from Christiansund, the next town of any size south of Ilulissat. He’d been to Denmark twice but wouldn’t want to live there and always wanted to stay in Greenland. Watch the daily iceberg show and you’ll understand why, he said.
“Is there government in Iliminaq?” I asked.
A blank look.
I searched for another word. “Politi?”“Maybe.” Edward had never thought about it.
“How many people there.”
“Not so much.”
“What do the people do?”
Quiet for a while. Light flashed across Edward’s face, followed by a rueful shake of the head. “Two hour boat ride,” he ruminated, “too far!”
He meant from the civilization of Ilulissat.
Mirja and I counted twenty-one buildings scattered up the hill, including the houses and the building by the dock and the church and I think we may have missed a few but not many.
A leisurely walk among the houses, all pitch-roofed, up a hill to the cemetery, icebergs bobbing by, stepping through moss, lichens, spores, whatever grows closer to the ground than grass, all fiery yellow, pale green, flaky black and brown and burnt red, so thick and boggy that if you stepped just here or just there you were liable to sink half an inch, or even two inches.
At Post Kalaallitt Allakkeriviat, you could rent P.O. boxes numbers 501 to 530. There was a store (closed for lunch) and a toilet and, I guess if there was any town administration, you’d have found it there.
The Arctic Hotel Ice Rock Bar in Ilulissat is the only bar I know with an iceberg view. Ice Rock rocked in cigarette smoke, late. High summer meant something up here. Happy hour was from 22:00 to 23:00.
A drunken man pumped my hand so fervently when I told him where I was from he made me glad to be American. But I decided in the end he was just weary of the constant dribble of tourists from nowhere but Denmark. Sick o’ Danes.
Rain this morning. We heard it on the window overnight, in our sleeping bags on our bunk beds in the Ataa barracks. All of the tourist wonders near Ataa were out of the question in this weather, and Silva was already scheming to pass us off onto the boatload of Germans so he wouldn’t have to sail us back to Ilulissat.
And we did fall in with Willy, the captain of the German excursion, and his passengers and crew. Trouble was, they weren’t bound for Ilulissat, but rather Rodebay.
When Willy came into the yellow hut for coffee, Silva set upon him. His passengers would rather be in Ilulissat than Rodebay on a day like today, wouldn’t they, and Willy told Silva that he’d have to ask them, but in any event he’d take us, so Silva waved off any other complications.
By eleven we were at sea, ten of us, southbound in the rain toward Ilulissat. Willy’s boat was the Maya Qaqqaq, from Nuuk, built for twelve, and we all sat comfortable and dry, listening to a tape of German sailing songs, three women and two men, the paying passengers, our captain Willy and his Greenlandic wife Kala (who had just had brain surgery and who slept below among the luggage), Anja the cook, and Mirja and me.
Forty-six degrees in the rain.
Dutch whalers disemboweled their catch up on the rocks of Rodebay, or “Red Bay.” Just now tents perched up there on the rocks and Willy told us it was Amasat season. Amasat is a small native fish, and they only came here for two or three weeks, which were now ending.
Fishermen pitched tents, caught Amasat and laid them out to dry. They’re easy to catch in season. Just scoop them from the back of your boat with a net. Willy liked them fried.
We were one of three boats calling at Rodebay, joining a small passenger ship and the cargo ship Aqipi Ittuk, which was delivering diesel fuel. I think the three ships in the harbor equaled the population of Rodebay.
Settlements like this are workmanlike places, short on aesthetics, and none really puts its best face on for the new arrival. Harbors are ringed with tanks for fuel and oil.
In Rodebay there was no river to the sea. Willy remembered that boats used to bring in the town’s drinking water from ice melt, but now they had a desalination building. There was a school with six pupils.
We dropped anchor as the radio crackled, “Maya Maya Ataa Maya,” and it was Silva asking about the weather. In Ataa, his weather was “not good.”
It’s too bad there were no trees, because if you ever wanted cozy, you wanted it here, but look around: There was no wood to burn. Little space heaters and heat from oil afforded all the warmth, appallingly, to be had.
The roof of the Rodebay hostel was painted “H8.” Rubber boots, knee high, and solid bright colored rain-breakers were the uniforms of modern Rodebay.
Anja prepared a fish and cucumber lunch. Bobbing around at anchor, they had a long German tête-à-tête about where to spend the night. But suddenly and above all else, excitement! A seal, dragged up on a rock, just off Rodebay town.
Willy dispatched the Zodiac off the back of the boat and we sped over to stand with the man with the knife and the seal on that rock. Four feet long, that seal was no more than a year or two old.
The Greenland seal mates in Labrador, and in summer comes over here to be killed and cut up. So we all perched on that rainy rock and watched a boy with a red Grønlandsfly cap, knee-high boots and a foot-long knife slit the seal, neck to anus, peel the skin away, slop its bowels onto the rock and cut flank and butt steaks.
Seal kill at Rodebay.
Another boy, a ten year old, packed the steaks in black plastic. He left spine, whiskers and feet, and the sea gradually came up and reclaimed them from the rock while we had lunch.
In the end, the touring Germans opted for a hostel in Ilulissat over a hut in Rodebay, and so about four o’clock we sailed away, skirting the shore because it was deeper there, until icebergs blocked the way.
Willy peered into the radar and he exclaimed, “Aye, there’s rocks fifty centimeters below the keel!” We skirted them ever so slowly and the rain ended, and we sailed on past Ilulissat back into the mouth of the glacier.
Fantastic blue veins ran the whole way through some icebergs. Willy explained: These occur when the age-old ice cracks and water rushes in to fill the cracks. The white bergs are full of air - not dense, and the water, much denser, freezes blue. The white of the bergs is in large part due to the air trapped between snowflakes that fell thousands of years ago.
We had a go around the mouth of the glacier. Willy pointed out the pointy-topped bergs as the most dangerous. They haven’t fallen over yet, their center of gravity is high, they’re more unstable.
He told a gripping story about how he’d been hired some years back on this very spot to put in divers who would push around a “periscope” for a helicopter to film as the closing scene in a German movie.
He took his place and was set to put out the divers when the helicopter, inexplicably, barreled overhead and crashed upside down into the water not thirty meters in front of his boat. The divers rescued the pilot and pulled him onto the Maya, and “a handful of brains” of the cameraman, who, it seems, had caused the crash by hitting some forbidden switches with his foot.
In the height of rescue, Willy didn’t think to try to videotape it, but once he did sell a tape of a disaster at Umummaq, to Real TV, for $1500, and he’s sure he could’ve gotten more. An iceberg broke apart near Umummaq harbor and a dozen or more boats were swamped, though nobody, miraculously, was hurt. I thought back to Silva grabbing his video camera and cursing every time an iceberg split, always getting into place too late.
Now Willy stopped to drift as near to a berg as he dared, and went aft to dip a bucket into the water until he retrieved a bobbing basketball of ice that he picked into pieces. We all shared martinis poured over glacial ice that popped and snapped as the heat of Willy’s boat freed oxygen as old as man.
Three hundred thousand year old air popping in our glasses - The sound of Greenland.
Coming next: Chapter three, Papua New Guinea