Friday, July 14, 2006

Frederiksdal, Greenland

The wind howled through the night, building to a tent snapping crescendo. I put on the earphones I normally use to block the outboard noise just to get some sleep. At some point the rain starts in, but I stay warm, mostly and dry, almost. I wake around six and peer out through the tent door into a wall of fog and blowing mist, and dig a little deeper into the sleeping bag. It's not until a lone drop of water falls from the tent roof and lands squarely in my eye that I truly awake.

It's still blowing, and a quick look around shows blowing walls of mist. What must have the Vikings thought when they washed up here? I cannot begin to imagine living in some poorly insulated stinking sod and stone hut on beyond the edge of the world. One night in a tent and I'm ready to chuck it in and find a hotel room.

Which is precisely what I do.

Frederiksdal is just across the fjord from Herjolfsnes, and I make as speedy a passage as I can, trying not to soak everything during a rushed packing job between downpours. The southernmost settlement in Greenland appears out of the mist, a few rows of colorful fishermen's cottages lined on a rocky bluff overlooking the harbour. There isn't a soul in sight, just a handful of dinghies tied up along the shore and the bleached and grimacing visage of a skinned harbor seal leering up from beneath the surface.

I tie the boat off on a metal spike hammered into the rock, and wander into town. The only guesthouse in town is owned by the Tele-Fredericksdal office, which tends to a radio relay station which handles all the transcontinental air traffic between Europe and the states. I can't find anyone except an old native woman pounding seat cushions with a tennis racquet. She speaks not a word of english, but points me up the hill. I can just catch the name of Jasper in there somewhere, and he answer the door just barely restraining an enormous, shaggy dog. Both Jasper and the dog turn out to be friendly, and I wind up the sole occupant of one of the apartment buildings run by the telecom business as a side venture.

I settle in, spread my gear out to dry and the rain soon abates. After a round of shopping at the small store (milk, gloves to replace my favorite pair lost and presumably blown away last night, one highly overripe banana far from home and a couple of beers), I set out down the fjord.

The fjord holds a string of impressive bergs, but I decide to head for the terminus, drawn by a massive waterfall pouring hundreds of meters off a sheer cliff at the fjord's head. Surrounded by thousand meter peaks and arched icebergs and clouds through gaps in the mountain walls, I burst into laughter at the idea that I have it all to myself. There's not another soul in this entire fjord. Which in a moment leaves me wistfully thinking that it wouldn't kill me to share sometimes.

I grab a couple camera bodies and decide to travel light, hiking quickly through the heather but trying not to overheat in all my layers. Wearing rubber boots is a trade-off. Great for fording rivers and stomping through wet tundra. Crap for climbing and scrambling on slippery rocks. I slip again and again, banging cameras and scaring myself with the image of me lying there with a broken leg, slowly freezing to death, utterly helpless and completely alone.

It feels good to get out of the boat and see some of the country, scramble up and over the hills and into the heart of this wild place. I hike in for a couple hours, shoot some pictures, get lost coming down (there are two valleys, and the first one leads to a nasty dead end of vertical walls and considerable swearing. Backtracking up and over, I find my way but only after a deep crossing with soaked feet. There's a sloppy tired walk out, scaring myself again with repeated slips and falls.

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