A little farther afield from our usual Alaska fare… This is Josh and Brian’s first report from their Greenland expedition: Unpeeling the Banana Coast. Videos are small clips that are taken unedited from their camera – I haven’t captioned them because I don’t know what exactly they’re showing, though I think I’ve got them in chronological order.
Startled, we scrambled out from under our tarp, fighting the lethargy of our first big meal on the trail. As we scanned the fjord, cliffs, and sheep pasture – searching for an explanation – the landscape assumed its best poker face.
“What was that?”
Confused and vaguely threatened, we ran through the possible sources of the explosion. Icebergs bobbed in the fjord. Was it the sheep farmers operating heavy machinery? A diesel generator at the airport? The Danish military seeking to reassert colonial hegemony? A shipping collision? Eco-terrorists bombarding the ice cap in order to accelerate its melt several kilometers north, implicating the military industrial complex as the main perpetrator of climate change? We scratched our heads.
“Brian, what about… the mine?”
We looked up at the mountains to our south – our task for the morning. Two dark towers loomed, illuminated by the light of the midnight sun. It must be the mine, we agreed, carelessly blasting well into the evening. As we backed cautiously into our shelter, a small iceberg cracked and flipped near shore, emitting a kaboom of its own… Our conspiratorial hopes deflated, we stared at the de-oxygenated blue of the flipped ‘berg.
The next morning we awoke to the baah of the nearby sheep, one of the few forms of husbandry familiar to this region of Greenland. We assumed our packs and began the days hike. We walked on tussocks, through arctic willow, and over deer moss, all the while guided by sheep trails and a map so zoomed out it was much more artistic than navigational. Making our way into the mountains, no drilling rigs appeared, and the mysterious towers of the night before were revealed as harmless communication equipment. Many kilometers and bug bites later, we began our descent to the next sheep farm along the coast, nestled between the icy fjord and jagged mountains.
As we approached the humble farmhouse, we were greeted by a woman with a kind “Bonjour!” Shocked, confused and unarmed with a Danish to English dictionary, much less a French one, we stared dumbly. After clearing up our lack of French nationality she directed us to a grassy spot to pitch our tarp and were escorted by the over-friendly herd dog. Wasting no time we kicked off our boots and began unpacking, eager to get settled in and eating dinner. As we did so, a man approached, breaking the silence of our focus, “I am Kalista,” he said, “and I come to remove you!”
He was a skinny Greenlandic man who wore a well-loved pair of overalls and only a t-shirt, an impressive feat in itself as we were mummifiying ourselves in synthetic layers and down insulation. After our relocation off his meadow – next winter’s feed already in the works – we began speaking with Kalista and eventually gathered the courage to ask him about the mine, knowing about the plans to place the deep-water harbour for the mine smack-dab on his farm. A smile slowly broke out across his lips, and he gestured a gun against his head saying, “Shoot me now.” We spoke for a long while, learning the story of this Greenlandic man and French woman who had spent the last three years fixing up the run down houses and barn on the property, removing the endless glacial rocks from the hay fields, laying hundreds of meters of fence around the sheep pastures, and running their small bed and breakfast, Ipiutaq Guest House, on the side. All the hard work earned the proud man Greenland’s fattest sheep at last fall’s slaughter, yet all of this was now threatened by the prospects of the nearby min. Spurred by Kalista and his wife Agathe’s stories of big-time mine officials visiting their farm for negotiations via helicopter, we moved on to Narsaq the next morning with fantasies of monkey wrenching dancing through our heads.
Coming down into Narsaq Valley after our longest day on the trail yet, we saw the historical uranium mine adit in the cliffs across the way, a reminder of all the money in the mountains we had just tread across. We spent the next week camped on the outskirts of town, storing our gear in an abandoned mink farm barn as we ventured in to explore the small community of 1,000 people by day. After spending three days following sheep trails and talus fields to get here, the next week was a blur. We were all but adopted by a local mineral collector and his family (glstones.com), went seal hunting, celebrated Greenland Day, hiked to the mine site, spoke with Greenland Mineral and Energy’s Operational Manager and Geologist, watched the football tournament with an old Norwegian sailor and his collection of five guns and Inuit harpoon artifacts, spoke with many of the local people, ate approximately five kilograms of pastries as an attempt to compensate for our oatmeal and PB and J diet, met a traditional Inuit storyteller who was Robert Perry’s blood relative, learned about sorcerers, floating kayaks and Greenlandic ghosts, saw more weird things come out of shipping containers than ever before, saw Erik the Red’s original settlement from the 980′s, enjoyed over 20 hours of daylight on the longest day of the year, discovered the unrivaled shrimp-trout-mayo-bread delicacy known as the Shooting Star, and emerged from it all hopelessly confused about the Kvanefjeld mining project. While the people we met were incredibly kind and generous beyond belief, they were the first to admit that Narsaq is facing tough times. A closed fish factory, a slaughterhouse that is only open seasonally, and municipality headquaters that have moved to the next town over all contribute to an unemployment rate well into the double digits. Nearly everyone we spoke to supported the mine, trusted GME, and said, “Narsaq is dead.” We spent six months planning our project and researched many of the negatives of the mine. But although every project has costs, every project has benefits as well. Meeting some of those people who feel they’ll benefit made us see just how complex the situation really was.
Once you get there, South Greenland is an incredibly accessible wilderness. You only need to walk several kilometers into the mountains until you are alone, by yourself in this rugged, wild place. Yet walking into a town, you realize it is not that simple. Stumbling off a talus field onto a road, you are forced to acknowledge it is not either or, but rather how and when… hopefully the rest of our trip will get us closer to why.