Focus on...Ilulissat, Greenland
Updated: Nov 5, 2018
Winter Amongst Icebergs.
Ilulissat, February 2018.
I am trying to do one winter photography holiday every year. And by winter, I mean a proper Arctic winter. My first winter photography trip was a couple of years ago to Iceland. When I told friends that Iceland in February was in the planning, they looked at me as if I was barking mad. They know that for me any day below 25 degrees centigrade is not a good day. But they got used to the idea and, after seeing my photos, now understand what attracts me to the Arctic region.
This years' destination was Greenland. Ilulissat, western Greenland to be precise. First was the Emirates flight to Oslo, Norway. Then connection with IcelandAir to Reykjavik where the group of seven photographers would meet, to travel together the next morning to Ilulissat on a direct four-hour Air Iceland Connect flight.
Did They Say What I Think They Said?
Or that was the plan. We had already checked in at the Reykjavik airport when I overheard a conversation between two airline employees at the desk, and although I don’t understand a word of Icelandic, I did manage to pick up that the flight was cancelled. There was an moment of panic and then resignation. The flight was postponed for 24 hours due to high winds over the Greenland Ice Sheet.
They arranged a hotel and meals for all the passengers in the south of Iceland. We made the most of it by shooting some geothermal activity within walking distance of the hotel, but this didn’t make up for a day lost in Greenland.
The next morning, we departed for Greenland and upon arrival at the Ilulissat airport we were welcomed as liberators by the people waiting to board the return flight. Some of them had been waiting for five days to get a flight out because all the flights heading east had been cancelled due to bad weather.
Cold is a Relative Thing
The first thing you notice when you arrive in Greenland is the cold, the bitter cold. With daytime temperatures of minus 15 and night temperatures of minus 25 centigrade, you need to dress to impress. Fortunately, it’s a very bearable dry cold, and during our stay it even warmed up to about minus five degrees.
My Nikon D850 and lenses held up well in these temperatures, although I did need a constant supply of warm batteries to keep going.
Location, Location, Location
We stayed at the Hotel Icefiord in Ilulissat, a comfortable four-star hotel. Locally the hotel is known for its Thai food; they have Thai chefs in the kitchen. I wonder how they ended up in this remote part of the world. But for us the best thing about the hotel was the location – right on the edge of Disko Bay, with unobstructed views of many icebergs floating by and Disko Island as the backdrop.
After lunch we went for a walk around Ilulissat, a town of about 5,000 inhabitants and with all the facilities and services you would expect of a town that size. The colourful houses, the fisherman’s harbour, and the little church make for great photography. There are so many cute little details to shoot.
I did forget to bring a balaclava of sorts to protect my face – not a very clever thing to do given the circumstances. After about two hours roaming around town and the adjacent hills, Paul, the photography mentor, gave me a scare when he noticed the first signs of frostbite on my nose, something I hadn’t noticed myself. At that point we were a 45-minute walk away from the nearest built-up area, so I made do with my scarf, but this was not the ideal solution as the moisture
caused by my breathing immediately froze solid. As soon as we were back, I made a beeline to the nearest shop to get face protection, which was put to good use during the remainder of the trip.
The next morning, we were greeted by a beautiful moon, which was just about to set behind Disko Island. The hotel terrace was the perfect location to enjoy the spectacle. After that, just before sunrise, we hiked up the hill not far from the hotel, towards the edge of the glacier. The boulders and little frozen ponds make for a great foreground to shoot the pastel-coloured panorama of the glacier, icebergs, and semifrozen bay.
In the afternoon the seas were calm, and the sky was clear, so we chartered a fishing boat for a cruise amongst the icebergs and a closer look at the glacier. This is a must for anybody visiting this spot. The sea freezes over every night and there is a constant battle between the elements and the fishermen to keep the shipping lanes open. It was late in the afternoon and there was already a very thin sheet of ice forming on the sea, just strong enough to hold one seagull if it landed carefully, not two. The cracking of the ice as we ploughed through was mesmerizing.
The setting sun created a magical spectacle with the ever-changing light on the icebergs and glacier. Colours turned from warm gold to light pinks to dark purple and every pastel shade in between.
My First Helicopter Ride
On our third day in Greenland, we changed locations and took a short helicopter ride to Oqaatsut, a tiny isolated hamlet on Disko Bay. Helicopters, snow scooters, and dogsleds are the only methods of transportation to get there at this time of the year. If you are lucky enough to get a window seat in the heli, or even better the seat next to the pilot, you are in for a real treat. I didn’t shoot any photos during the ride because I just wanted to take it all in and enjoy the experience.
Cut-Off from Everything
Oqaatsut is a photographer’s dream. There are probably 50 houses, and during the winter the population shrinks to about 40. There is a tiny supermarket, a post office, a school with three pupils, and best of all no Wi-Fi anywhere.
For three days we stayed in Bed and Breakfast, Oqaatsut/Rodebay run by our Danish host Ola, who also acts as the mayor of the village. It was warm, comfortable and cosy. Ola home cooked the delicious meals, which included wild salmon, musk ox, and caribou, all hunted by Ola himself.
Just Roaming Around
Our days were spent photographing the incredible scenery in and around Oqaatsut, where a walk in any direction will land you somewhere interesting. The houses have backyards where fish is hanging to dry, the ice in and around the village provides endless photo opportunities, and there are always icebergs in the distance.
Getting Out and About
Then of course there are the very photogenic sled dogs. Almost every house has its team of dogs, and besides the snow scooter this is the only way to go hunting or get to Ilulissat, which is about an hour and a half by snow scooter and two and a half hours by dogsled.
In Oqaatsut, the dogs are kept outside the houses and are individually chained up, whereas in Ilulissat they are kept in designated areas on the outskirts of town. By just passing by them you can see the individual characters of the dogs. Some just want play, others go on with whatever they are doing, whilst a few make it very clear you should stay away.
In Oqaatsut, we witnessed the preparation and departure of several sled teams. Each team has around 15 dogs. The driver has an individual leash connected to each dog. In this part of the world, the dogs run as a group and not in pairs as I had always imagined it. The dogs are so excited to go out that it is very hard work to settle them down and keep the leashes untangled.
One of the teams consisted mainly of young dogs still in training. Every hundred meters they managed to become completely entangled, and it took the driver at least 15 minutes to get all knots out of the leashes and the dogs back in place. Patience is definitely a virtue in that situation.
It was feeding time when we passed by the dog area outside Ilulissat – all the dogs were fully focused on the door of the shed, the natural freezer in which their owner stored their food, in anticipation of things to come. The dogs burst out in a frenzy of joy when their owner brought out the frozen seal.
The Northern Lights
We were fortunate to have clear skies on the second night in Oqaatsut, and the Northern Lights came out around 10pm. For more than 45 minutes the best show on earth was right overhead, with beautiful arcs of dancing green light from the bay on one side all the way to the hills on the other. On the aurora activity scale, the Kp Index, the activity was only a four, but that was more than enough for us to thoroughly enjoy it.
The spectacle of the Aurora Borealis is something I wish everybody could see at least once in their life. In Oqaatsut, with little light pollution and a full moon lighting up the scenery, it was magical.
A Last Glance
Upon our return to Ilulissat, we hiked across the hills on the other side of town towards another part of Disko Bay with an impressive glacier that had produced incredible icebergs. The view from the hilltop was fantastic.
I am so glad I went to Greenland and had the chance to experience this stunning place during a breathtakingly beautiful time of the year. I hope to go back soon.
All images © 2018 Marco Duyves