Words By Nat Hab Traveler Kelley McKinnon and Photos By Our Expedition Leaders
A photograph of an iceberg captures nothing of its essence or its presence. But then, two-dimensional snapshots never convey the physical grandeur of something with depth and height. In the same way first-time city visitors might stand close to the bottom of a skyscraper or a monument and physically bend back to take it in all the way up, feeling small by comparison, meeting an iceberg in person strikes awe. It is a presence you feel. It draws you in.
Our days at Base Camp in remote East Greenland include expeditions by Zodiac where we twist and wheel around in our seats to take in the 360-degree marvel. We glide on surprisingly calm waters in the midst of icebergs of shapes and sizes unimaginable; icebergs that have only recently broken off from their solid glacier beds and are now at the whim of tide, currents and wind, making their way down this remote fjord to the ocean. To describe them as ‘making their way’ makes it sound deliberate or intentional, this journey they take. However, they are travelers caught in cycles of season, temperature and climate as are we. The difference, of course, is that they have no choice nor influence in the matter, innocent and submissive actors in a play that we stepped in to partially direct.
“No, we cannot go farther north in the fjord.” Our Indigenous guide cautions our naïve enthusiasm to explore further, to touch the primary origins of these icebergs. The icebergs move fast, he says, and they could trap us by sealing off the narrow water path he discovered that had let us turn and sidle among the ice giants this far. This is the normal shift of ice on water, but we cannot discern this movement without fixing our gaze on a landmark and patiently noting the still progress of ice. There are no other ways to see it. No ripples, no wake. How does one measure shifts this slow? Our guide has known since childhood. We all learn the risks in our own neighborhoods, yet rarely understand the risks to others in their own place. His caution about being trapped by ice introduces a wedge of foreboding, personalizing nature in my mind with an inkling that she would fight back if she could.
Closest to their origin where they break off in noisy chunks, the sound of a new iceberg separating is like the loudest thunder clap, but it resonates with more depth across the expanse here, the sound channeled along the waterway. Near the glacier source, the icebergs are much larger and blunter in shape, with one the size of a football stadium. They are more ominous in some ways as we approach them in our small boats. They are closer together and seem to guard the fjord and the ice sheet in the background, laying claim to the right to pass. Going south on the fjord the day prior, we had all been delighted by the still massive icebergs that had been worn by artistic forces of erosion into shapes our imaginations discerned. We variously saw circus performers, skate parks, scary monsters and dolphins in our ice sculpture world that had our imaginations running, in the same way people search for shapes they recognize in clouds. These icebergs were more separated, like a herd of horses that was comfortable in its run and not held close together for their own sense of protection.
The experience of being in this landscape does not compare to mountain hikes or other tourist treks. It is unlike the pause one might take on a peak within a range of grand, seemingly immovable mountains. The eight of us in a Zodiac feel different inside the chess board of icebergs because we are not observing a static landscape. We are inside a dynamic as if dropped to the middle of a stage while a slow ballet dance is underway all around us. We are moving as the icebergs and water are moving and it feels as if our heads must constantly turn to keep out an eye for another player on this stage that we might unwittingly bump into.
Our grinning local guide at one point yells, “You want to touch an iceberg?” He quickly angles the Zodiac just enough on its path so that raised arms on one side of the boat can glance for a second off the overhanging edge of ice, small enough, in the guide’s judgment, to pose no risk as we enter its space.
The utter stillness of this landscape can lull one into a sense of calm until the moment this place asserts its independence with a movement so swift, pronounced and unexpected that it truly took our breaths. One day while boarding the boats, some saw movement while others only heard a nearby crack like a gunshot. In the bay where we had come ashore, close enough for the resulting waves to threaten to engulf us, a large chunk of ice had calved from an iceberg. Some saw it. The now instinctive grab for phone cameras was not quick enough to capture this in-real-life surprise. Our guide knew this photo-op moment carried danger and he jumped with an energy we had not yet seen to launch the boat in seconds and turn it to point safely into the waves that were coming.
Our first day out, we were close to an iceberg that ever so slowly rolled over as we approached it, seeming like a sleeping giant shifting lazily under blankets. What prompted the roll we did not know, but some shifting imbalance in the whole of the ice structure in its relationship with its bed of water was at work. While we delighted in the sight of this gentle giant moving before us, we were also wordlessly warned of the unpredictability of our ice companions and their indifference to our safety.
One day we picnic on a barren island of rock within close view of the ice sheet. What was striking on arrival to Nat Hab’s Base Camp two days prior was that the ice sheet lay flat for miles to see with mountain peaks punctuating its front but rarely extending above its flat profile. We were all accustomed to seeing varied peaks jutting raggedly into the sky, but here the height of the ice sheet exceeded that of most mountains. From a distance, the ice sheet looked like a soft white blanket spread quite evenly along the top edge of the horizon. At a glance, it could be mistaken for a flat layering of clouds. Its presence became a constant grounding force, something we looked to over morning coffee and in the evening as the sunset emphasized its line. It felt almost like the ice sheet was holding the rest of the landscape together, like a shield that protected the mountains underneath from erosion; like a glue that held them back from sliding into the sea.
The hikers return from their post-lunch foray. The rock and the small but hardy tundra growth seem unaffected by the press of our feet. No footprints have taken in this hard place. One traveler observes, “I could not stay here. It is too hard a place.” She doesn’t mean difficult or challenging, even though surviving here is itself a question. She means the austereness of it; the coldness that registers even though we were snug in our orange survival suits. The landscape feels cold to your eyes even while it offers the striking majesty of fjords, mountains and colored striations of rock formations.
Occasional tiny purple or white flowers would mark a strip of exposed dirt in a valley or nook. But even those bright soldiers did not ease a feeling that our presence was highly foreign here. By the second day, the barrenness registered in a deep sense of humility and slight discomfort even as I admired the distant view of the ice field each morning over coffee. It struck me that we had seen not one tree or shrub and no sign of life except for infrequent birds and the single humpback that had observed us in our puny Zodiac. That whale, seemingly alone in the vast fjord, had only emphasized the scale of our surroundings, our isolation, and the extent to which nature here quietly dominated us in every way.
There were many surprises in Greenland. One of the sweetest was to hear the voice of ice. Or, rather, ancient bubbles of air trapped seemingly forever in the compressed ice emit delicate spontaneous chirps as the ice melts and they are free again. I interpret them as little squeals of delight at rejoining the atmosphere from their longstanding cells. Or perhaps gasps of surprise at release from slumber.
We sit on ancient rock that forms a small island and have 10 minutes of silence after our lunch. Our guide, a writer as well as adventure seeker, reads us a poem to encourage reflection. He states the obvious—all too rarely do we have the chance to sit in a moment where not one human-made sound can intrude. We are miles from another human or human settlement. There are no flight paths here. In a bay miles away is the crumbling foundation of an abandoned sod hut that was strategically placed on a hill by people who survived only through attention to nature’s cycles and her whims. Their humble shelter was built to see when whales or seals or other seasonal bounty was arriving, nature supporting their survival efforts in this otherwise inhospitable place. These ruins are the only evidence that people once lived on the land away from the settlements, settlements built by governments that preferred people to live together with human aids, not the natural challenge and rhythm of the hunt.
I find myself listening with my eyes closed to distinct water sounds. There is something I have never heard before. At first, it sounds like multiple small flows down the mountain, little creeks and streams of melt running their way to the ocean. This is the sound of running water that untold people try to recreate in gardens and homes and offices with artificial fountains or meditation tapes. The sound of running water is somehow a grounding presence that speaks directly to our souls. Yet this is when I first notice the distinct sound of ice, at first thinking it a second smaller stream. The insistence and pace of the bubbling sound are magnified in this little island bay along the vast fjord of ice with echoing mountains, giving us surround sound like the finest concert hall. We gratefully listen to this fast, light symphony within sight of slowly grinding glaciers and the seemingly peaceful blanket of the Greenland ice sheet. If we could speak the language of these delicately bursting ice sounds, would they tell us they are grateful or afraid to be released from their ice slumber?
In our 10 minutes of silence, most close their eyes. I know this because after I listen a while to the ice symphony, I cannot resist a look at my friends, curious to see if there is physical evidence of how they are affected by this place and this moment. I perceive varying levels of embrace for this quiet; of comfort with group silence. Bodies give away signs of complete relaxation, of giving up to the environment in this moment. Other bodies hint at states of ready activation, those whose minds are processing the act of stillness while waiting for the signal to move. How differently do people value moments of stillness, I wonder? How do people learn to sit with their surroundings, rather than feeling obliged to try to shape them?
We get close to small icebergs. Locals call them ‘bergies.’ They are no threat to our boat. Up close, you can see how much ice lives below the water’s surface, the edges of the submerged ice often wider than the protruding top which has been reduced by wave and wind. Refractions of light waves make some parts of the ice bright blue. The ice underneath the water has a different color, as if it wants to express itself as distinct from the visible peak. Ice teaches us lessons about human limitations and about nature’s objective path.
The Titanic comes to mind first, a lesson in hubris and under-estimation; also a lesson about care and attention, and not making assumptions about your place in the world at any moment. Polar bears need ice, a certain amount in certain places at certain times of the year. There is so much certainty and uncertainty tied to the survival of a species. Ice that blocks human passage and disappearing ice that may open new passage; passage that will result in either new conquest or new cooperation amongst humans who tend to see only newly open water and its possibilities. Most do not reflect on what was lost.