The Largest Island in the World
Greenland is an enormous, ancient land mass. Besides its massive ice shield, the country consists of some of the oldest rock in the world- gnarled Precambrian formations that date back 4.5 billion years. It covers 1,345,943 square miles (2,166,086 square km), nearly three times the size of Texas. Which leads me to the question: Why is Greenland not considered the planet’s eighth continent?
A wise geologist from Reykjavik explain to difference to me. “Continents are always the largest land forms of the earth’s major continental plates. For instance, Australia fits that description for the Australian plate. That is why it is considered a continent rather than an island. The same goes for North America. It is the largest land form on the North American plate followed by Greenland. So that is why Greenland is only considered an island.”
When Erik the Red landed here in 982 AD, he had no idea about any of this. But he was so bowled over by the island’s verdant western shore, that he named the place “Grønland”. Historians speculate that the Viking did this as a land scheme to encourage settlement in Greenland rather than neighboring Iceland. Some people just can’t seem trust a red-headed pirate, plunderer and pagan. Later, explorers would find out quickly that most of the interior was covered with a behemoth mantel of ice, roughly 80% of the island. Today’s scientists have measured that to be 6,600–9,800 feet (2,000–3,000 meters) in depth. Needless to say, the expedition ship of which I was aboard, followed the western shore where today vast majority of Greenlanders reside.
Our first destination was Uummannaq, some 184 miles (295 km) above the Arctic Circle. For a tropical troubadour like myself, I was way out of my comfort zone, but that is probably a good thing. September temperatures, however, were bearable ranging from 46-53 ℉ (8-12 ℃). But there was trouble in this frozen paradise. An iceberg was blocking much of the harbor entrance making entrance by Zodiac (rubber inflatable dinghies) dodgy at best. Plus, our mother ship was threatened by large, drifting icebergs outside the harbor due to current and wind, making anchorage dangerous. Thus, the captain scratched landfall for our first port. It was a warning that nature would be dictating the remainder of this voyage with no questions asked.
But we did later land at Nuuk, Greenland’s bustling capital of 17,000 souls making it the largest ‘city’ in the country. The highlight of this stop was going into the Pub Maximut at 5 pm. It was that quintessential moment when you enter the saloon and the juke box stops. It was packed full of Inuits, the indigenous people of Greenland, and we were the only gringos in the bar. All eyes were upon us. It was déjà vu all over again.
I flashbacked to the time I was traveling across the country with my buddy, Pate, in 1970. We were 21, hair down to our shoulders, and headed to California to experience what was left of the Summer of Love, two years late. Due to circumstances beyond our control we ended up stopping in Muskogee, Oklahoma on a hot June day. Yes, it was that Muskogee, the one who country singer Meryl Haggard popularized with his song “An Okie from Muskogee”, which was immediately embraced by every redneck in America. Some of it goes… We don’t make a party of lovin’. We like holdin’ hands and and pitchin’ woo. We don’t let our hair grow long and shaggy like the hippies in San Francisco do. We pulled into a bar for a beer and parked. Ours was the only car in a parking lot. The other vehicles were pickups tricked out with obligatory gun racks. That should have been our first clue. As we entered, the jukebox stopped cold. A couple of dozen cowboy hats turned in unison in our direction just as Johnny Cash’s “Walk the Line” kicked off. It was one of those fight-or-flight moments. Pate and I looked at each other and dashed out the door. Suddenly we were not so thirsty. I remember looking back in the rear-view mirror as we sped away. Angry cowboy drunks shouted obscenities from the entrance as the greasy, bald-headed bartender threatened with a baseball bat held firmly in his fist.
But I digress. The Pub Maximut customers displayed no such hostility. People were friendly, smiled and drank endless rounds of imported Tuborg Beer. The stereo played “Mac the Knife” and the Bee Gees “Staying Alive”, tunes from another time. And for the Inuits, staying alive has always been at the top of the agenda. Until the 1950s, they lived in sod houses and survived as hunter/gathers. They hunted seal and whale and fished the sea. But then Denmark (Greenlanders still recognize the Danish queen as head of state) decided that the locals really needed to be brought into the modern world. Multi-story apartment buildings were constructed. Folks that lived outside in small villages were encouraged to move to Nuuk and other towns. The Danes eventually cut off all services to these remote places to consolidate effort and expenditures. Soon the Greenland’s Inuit culture experienced rapid social change. As in other parts of the world, problems began with drugs, alcohol and domestic abuse. With limited economic opportunities, crime rose. Exposure to outside consumerism through media made things only worse. These days there is a resurgence in Inuit culture and pride. But the Danes continue to build high rise apartments. It remains a society in transition.
I had other interesting encounters in Greenland.
In Ilulissat, I boarded a local bus. I had no worries about where it was going since this town, like all others, is unconnected to the rest of the country. The route was based on looping circles serving the village’s 4,500 inhabitants. There are nearly as many sled dogs as people in this picturesque port.
We spent a rainy afternoon in Zodiacs while searching for underwater mineral pillars in the Ikka fjord, the only ones of this type that exist in the world. Even cooler were the dozens of muskoxen grazing on the surrounding mountains. These beasts are buffalo-size but nimbly run along the fiord’s rugged cliffs with surprising speed. Their fine hair is baby soft and said to be eight times warmer than sheep wool. We also had a taxi driver from the village of Narsarsuaq (population-158) take us beyond our awaiting Zodiac to a natural spring out of the goodness of his soul. He urged us to bend down and sip the cold water. It was amazingly sweet and pure, glacier runoff that supplies Narsarsuaq. I never tasted anything so pristine. “We have water piped from other sources into our homes,” explained the driver. “But we only use that for washing and the toilet. We come to this spot all year long to get the glacier water for drinking.”
Plants thrive around the spring.
My last impression of Greenland was when we rounded its southern end, destination Iceland. The captain chose to go through Prince Christian Sound, a waterway of towering mountains, waterfalls cascading in slow motion and gigantic glaciers pressing to the sea. This stunning fjord connects the Labrador Sea with the Irminger Sea. A fellow passenger from Germany commented, “I’ve been to the fjords of New Zealand, Norway, Canada and Alaska, but I have never seen anything as beautiful as this!” The man spent the entire four-hour passage of the 60 mile-long sound on deck braving wind and cold. So did I. It was my last impression of the largest island in the world before heading to open sea.