On a big rock above a crystal-blue and iceberg-filled bay in wild East Greenland, I realized that travel sometimes can mean not moving at all.
For several days on my Natural Habitat Adventures group tour to Greenland, I had hiked and kayaked, and climbed up and scurried down slopes with nothing, it seemed, but loose rocks under my boots. So, on one day about halfway through the tour, I decided to do nothing at all—except bake on a colossal, sun-warmed slab of granite about 66 miles south of the Arctic Circle.
That lack of motion proved to be one of my most lasting memories of the place.
Rockin’ me to reveries
Greenland is my kind of spot: cold, icy, green, glaciated, spongy, soul-stirring and on the cusp of solving some very modern problems while preserving some very traditional ways.
After a morning of Zodiac cruising around monumental, blue icebergs in Sermilik Fjord, our guides gave us a choice. We could opt to take a “sweaty hike” up to a high overlook (there are no truly developed trails in Greenland), go on a “medium hike” that would snake partway up a steep slope or take a “photography cruise” with the skipper of the Zodiac, as he ferried our packed lunches to our appointed rendezvous. Not a fan of heights but an avid amateur photographer, I choose the cruise. One other woman joined me.
The boat ride was short; it only lasted a few minutes. The Zodiac driver left us off on the wet rocks just below a massive, stone behemoth. We clambered up the giant to get to the tableland on top. We three then separated, each finding a private spot to gaze upon the icebergs in the fjord below.
It was a perfect day. The sun was shining, the breeze was gentle and the rock was warm. The stillness and quiet were broken only by the occasional sound of “thunder” in the ice and of rushing water when big bergs tipped and rolled over. The serene and rare scene called out for a stretch-out.
Using my backpack as a pillow, I lay down on a bed of bedrock. I stared up at the sky and let the sun beat down on my face. I watched as wispy bits of white tracked across the bright blue overhead. And I began to let my thoughts roll by with the clouds.
My first notion was a simple and obvious one: how amazing it is to be in Greenland. It was soon followed by the thought that on top of that, I’m lying on a rock and—of all things—sunbathing! If this self could go back in time and tell my younger, elementary school self that one day I would actually visit Greenland, I wouldn’t have believed it. It’s the wish of every traveler to be transported not only in space but also in mind and in time, and I certainly had been.
In elementary school, I learned—as I’m sure you did, too—that Greenland is the land of Erik the Red. Most of us were told that Greenland is in actuality icy and Iceland is green but that the name Greenland was used as a marketing ploy to get people to move there. Today, there’s even an Internet meme about it.
The theory goes that Iceland’s Vikings thought the name would discourage oversettlement of their verdant island, while nobody cared if people tried to inhabit the ice-covered Greenland. But the truth is often more complicated than it seems on the surface.
Scamming the public—or not?
Regarding Erik the Red in the Icelandic Sagas, there is a sentence that reads: “In the summer, Erik left to settle in the country he had found, which he called Greenland, as he said people would be attracted there if it had a favorable name.” That one line is probably the source of the marketing ploy theory. But, the naming of Greenland may have had more to do with shifting climates and Norse customs.
According to scientists, the Greenland ice sheet, which covers more than 80 percent of the world’s largest island and is almost two miles thick in places, is between 400,000 and 800,000 years old. That means that the Greenland the Europeans settled is unlikely to have been much different than the Greenland of today. However, there is evidence from ice core and mollusk shell data that suggests that in the southwest of the island where Erik the Red first landed in A.D. 982, the area was warmer than today. This warmth coincided with the period known as the Medieval Climatic Anomaly, also known as the Medieval Warm Period. During this time, some areas, most notably in the North Atlantic and parts of Europe, were at least as warm as today, if not warmer.
That fact, however, should not be confused with the state of the overall global warmth during this period, which was not particularly pronounced. With other areas being colder than today during this time, global temperatures were similar to those at the beginning or middle of the 20th century, and colder than today.
Another factor at play may have been Viking culture. Norse custom was to name a thing as it was seen. For instance, when Erik the Red’s son, Leif Eriksson, saw wild grapes (probably blackberries) growing on the shore, he named a portion of Canada Vinland.
Today’s Greenlanders call their country Kalaallit Nunaat, which roughly means “Greenlander Country” or “Land of the People” in the Greenlandic Inuit language. Unfortunately, this land of Greenlandic people now faces the impending realities of climate change. The rapidly melting Greenland ice sheet has resulted in cold temperatures in the North Atlantic, which has significantly slowed the North Atlantic Current. Should the trend continue, Greenland will continue to grow warmer and shed icebergs at an alarming rate.
Not missing you or wishing you were here
I was so deep in reverie during my sunbath that I didn’t even hear the medium- and sweaty-hikers as they approached after the end of their treks. I startled when one of them stood over my prone figure and asked, “Did you miss us?”
Luckily, I didn’t have to answer. My response may have been construed as impolite. One of our guides, who was walking by, heard the query and said, “No. No. I don’t think she missed us at all.”
His theory was right.
Here’s to your adventures, in whatever corner of the world you find them,