Here in Seattle, we ended July with six consecutive days of 90-plus degree heat—a new record. That is by no means as hot as other parts of the world, but it has been a sobering event here. On the first day of the heat wave, I had gone kayaking. The air was cooler by the water and if I got hot, all I had to do was dip my hands and hat in the water. During the last two days of the heat wave, smoke from wildfires in British Columbia tainted the air a blue haze and the faint smell of wood smoke. Kayaking and all other forms of outdoor exercise weren’t advisable so I was stuck at home. I don’t have air conditioning—most old houses in Seattle don’t—so I got by with fans, an air purifier, and a spray bottle for a cooling mist of water. Even so, the heat and the confinement were stultifying. Thinking there might be some truth in the saying “where the mind goes, the body follows,” I pulled out the color slides of the kayaking trip I took in Greenland 20 years ago. Peering through the loupe at the luminous blue icebergs and the chalk-white glaciers provided the escape I needed.
In the summer of 2012, I joined guide Baldvin Kristjansson and seven other paddlers on the southeast coast of Greenland to paddle the 30 miles from the village of Kuummiit to the Knud Rasmussen Glacier. There were icebergs around us from the very start, but they were just bergy bits and growlers—as the smaller floating blocks of ice are called—and few were any larger than the kayaks we paddled. They were interesting as a novelty to me as an outsider, but what captivated me was the color of the water around the kayak. If I looked straight down, the dark reflection of my head obscured the reflections of the clouds and sky, which masked the surface like a film of oil. The water was immaculate, limitless, and a hue of green that I have only seen when I catch a glimpse into the edge of a plate-glass door. It was hard to take my eyes off it.
On our second day out, we made camp on a tennis-court-sized patch of flat ground on the north side of Iqateq Fjord. Along the shore there were a few blocks of ice as big as washing machines, and as smooth and translucent as molten glass. In the evening, I hiked up the ridge above the campsite. There were no trees anywhere, just a tangle of tightly woven ground cover that didn’t even grow high enough to snag a boot. From the highest point I reached, I had a good view of the fjord where a half-dozen sugar-white icebergs almost imperceptibly drifted with the ebb tide. Qîanarteq Island hems in the far side of the fjord, and its dull brown flanks mirrored the slope I had climbed. A boat motored in from the east, leaving only a faint gossamer streak of white as its wake. The boat itself was just a speck and the sound of its motor was swallowed up by distance. My realization of the scale of the landscape around me changed in a dizzying instant. The land, the water, and the ice were three or four times larger than they had appeared. The icebergs were not as big as gymnasiums as I had thought; they were as big as stadiums. The fjord was not a few hundred yards across; it spanned nearly a mile.
That experience gave me some insight into inukshuks, the stone cairns that the people of the Arctic have built to mark travel routes, campsites, and other resources. The word is made up of inuk (person), and suk (substitute or stand-in). Some were even made to resemble the human form with legs, outstretched arms, and a head. Not only would they have been an easily recognized mark in a treeless landscape, but they would also stand in for a person and any manmade structure to offer a sense of scale and distance.
By the time I got back to camp, I had broken a sweat. While the others in the group were warming themselves in the kitchen tent with hot tea, I chipped some ice from a waist-high bergy bit on the shore and filled my cup with cold water. The ice fizzed as it melted, releasing air that could well have been trapped in it for thousands of years.
The day that we paddled the last 10 miles to the glacier, we passed dozens of large icebergs. A few times we heard the rush of falling water as a berg began to roll. The ice that had been above the water was white and the once submerged ice that rose to replace it was light blue, as if Windex or mint mouthwash had been frozen into it. When some bergs rolled, ice turned transparent by being underwater revealed streaks of obsidian black inside. Other bergs that rolled had their history incised in them where ice at the water’s surface had melted quickly, leaving overhangs. Some had a few parallel bands created as they rose, lightened by the meltwater dripping from the top during the day. Others had intersecting grooves, a new one carved after every roll.
The air was still on the afternoon that we paddled to the glacier and the quiet undulations in the fjord stretched the reflections of the escarpment into bar-code stripes of white and gray. The 1-1/2-mile width of the glacier made its height hard to judge. Even if there had been an inukshuk next to the south side of the glacier where we were going to camp, it would have been rendered invisible by the 4-mile distance we had to paddle to get there. I don’t know how far we stayed from the face of glacier; it seemed like a few hundred yards, but it might have been closer to a mile. We didn’t see any massive icebergs calve from the glacier, but when smaller bits of ice broke off and fell, they seemed to drop in slow motion.
That night, at a campsite a few hundred yards from the glacier, a pale green aurora borealis lit up the sky and the river of ice cracked and boomed as it spilled itself into the sea.
Looking at my slides and recalling my memories of Greenland’s landscape of ice helped me escape from the stuffy summer heat in Seattle. But it worries me to think it was only a glimpse of a time that has gone by and a landscape that now exists only in my handful of slides.