Traveling to report a story on narwhals meant taking three planes and a helicopter to a small, remote town in Greenland that's only about 850 miles from the North Pole.
I recently went on a reporting trip to follow a researcher who studies narwhals — Arctic whales that have a long, spiral unicorn horn. She wanted me to meet her in Qaanaaq, Greenland, a little town that's just about 850 miles from the North Pole.
The other day, I was trying to explain to my editor exactly how far north you have to go to get there. I reached down and grabbed an old globe that was in her office. To my surprise, this village of about 650 people was actually marked on it, at the very tip top, almost hidden under the little plastic disc that lets the world spin.
In summer, Qaanaaq enjoys 24-hour sunshine. But, in winter, the water freezes over and darkness descends for four long months — so the town's gravel roads have streetlights.
In summer, Qaanaaq enjoys 24-hour sunshine. But, in winter, the water freezes over and darkness descends for four long months — so the town's gravel roads have streetlights. Nell Greenfieldboyce/NPR
To reach Qaanaaq, I first took a plane from Washington, D.C., to Copenhagen. Then, I took another plane north over Greenland's ice cap, to Kangerlussuaq, a small airport on the west coast. On the way there, looking out the window, I could see a vista of white. I knew it was ice, and not clouds, because of the occasional dark edge of a mountain breaking through.
Then, I got on another plane, to go farther north, to Thule Air Base, a remote U. S. military installation that was built during the Cold War. To pass through there, I had to get written permission. It's a dusty, bare-looking place, with long rectangular buildings and pipes running between them. Five decades ago, the community of Uummannaq, or Dundas Village, lived nearby. But in 1953 the Danish authorities told the residents to pack up and move, with just a few days notice, because of their proximity to the defense areas.
Qaanaaq is one of the world's northernmost communities.
They went north, to a new village — Qaanaaq. And once a week, Air Greenland runs a helicopter there, from Thule. The trip takes about an hour, over glaciers and water filled with icebergs.
When I finally landed at the town's dirt airstrip, which has a cheerful blue airport complete with a tower, I saw a rocky hillside by a fjord with houses painted bright colors.
It looked just like the photos I'd seen on the town's Web site. The Internet streams down to a big satellite dish at the top of the village, as does the one TV channel. So people here can update their Web sites and then go out in kayaks to hunt a narwhal, using Inuit harpoons. Subsistence hunting is common here, though a lot of people work at places like the town hall, the school and the stores.
I'd been almost a little sad, before going, that I could tour the whole town online. I thought it might take away the mystery. But no photo on the Internet could really convey the feeling of being in this place. For example, the Web site says there are a lot of sled dogs. But when you walk down gravel roads under the intense stare of these powerful, burly animals, it feels like no other dog has ever really looked at you before.
Greenlandic sled dogs aren't pets but rather a primary means of transportation in winter and essential for hunting. Dogs are kept chained in town, though puppies can roam free.
Greenlandic sled dogs aren't pets but rather a primary means of transportation in winter and essential for hunting. Dogs are kept chained in town, though puppies can roam free. Nell Greenfieldboyce/NPR
And I'd read about the endless summer sunshine, but I didn't know it would utterly erase my sense of time. Life seemed to slow down, but I also felt elated. I was far from the rest of the world, but also from my normal existence. I did not want to leave.
One day, I sat on a rock by the fjord, talking about all this with Poul Alex Jensen. He's chief of administration in Qaanaaq, but he's originally from Denmark.
"Right now, with the sun shining for a month, maybe, day and night, no wind — it's hard to not love it," Jensen said. But he reminded me that Qaanaaq also has four cold months of frozen darkness, when people never see the sun. "And that can be tough, because that is doing something to people, too."
He says to survive in this world of extremes, you have to be calm, tolerant and accepting. He says when he tries to explain why he's drawn to this place, he describes not so much the incredible scenery and wildlife and surreal ice, but rather, the people. "I think, really, the people of Greenland is much more interesting," he says.
What makes them so interesting, though, might be the power of the world they live in. Already, after just a week, I could feel the overwhelming landscape start to change me. It made me wonder what would happen if I stayed there forever.