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On site with one of nature's magnificent wonders

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By Mark Robinson
Meteorologist
@StormhunterTWN
Wednesday, December 11, 2013, 1:25

Landing in Ilulissat was a simple matter of maneuvering the Zodiac through multiple ice packs,bouncing off big waves and finally driving the boat up onto a rocky beach. There was no dock so the best way to get people off was to go as fast as safely possible right at the rocks and yank the engine up at the last second. One abrupt halt later and we were well onto shore. 

And what a place we had landed at. A small red painted church nestled in a field of Arctic cotton and windswept grasses. A small bench allowed weary travellers to rest and gaze out into the ice choked harbour of the town. I stopped for a minute to look over the vast field of crumbled icebergs and for a moment wondered what it had been like for Vikings that landed in the same place many hundreds of years ago. Did they get the same sort of awe that I did? Or did they simply see the ice as hazards to navigation and a landscape to be tamed? I like to think that humans are pretty much the same across time and space so my personal hope is that they looked out from the rocks that I was standing on and got the same feeling of wonderment that such a place exists. 

Once I was done being all existential, we headed into town. We’d heard that there was a spot that we could get up close to the icebergs but it entailed a long walk through town to a boardwalk that led into a UNESCO World Heritage site. We had no idea what we were going to find there, but it seemed like a good place to go. We’d already shot a bunch of film of towns, so this was at least something new.

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I strapped on as much of my camera gear as I could carry as well as enough clothing to be prepared for whatever the weather was going to throw at me. I shouldn’t have worried. The day was warm and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Still, with the wind coming off the harbour, the air was cold whenever there was shadow. As we marched through the town, the usual plethora of yellowish dogs began to wander past, checking out what we were doing. One hill later and we came across the largest area of dog kennels I’d ever seen. There were hundreds of the animals spread across what must have been over a kilometre square area. They didn’t look especially comfortable with just crudely built huts for shelter, but I had to be careful not to judge. These were working dogs and really my own experience with dogs was strictly with pets. It still didn’t sit quite right with me. 

The road that we were trudging down led past the dog field and into a small parking lot where a few cars and bus were parked. A large sign at the far end declared this the UNESCO World Heritage site, Ilulissat Icefjord. A walk down a wooden boardwalk across some preserved tundra and we’d be in site of one of the natural wonders of the world. I didn’t expect too much, but I could see a long line of snow covered hills in the distance. It looked like they must have been on the far side of the fjord. 

We began walking down the long boardwalk and the weight of my tripod began to dig deeper and deeper into my shoulder. I had to use the excuse of filming to stop and take a rest now and then. I swear I’m not out of shape! That let me take a look at the surrounding tundra that we were walking over. The boardwalk was elevated above the sodden ground so that there was little interaction between hikers and the tundra. Water trickled through the grasses and smallplants that made up the growth beneath and I could imagine that stepping down would result in some soaking wet shoes almost instantly. It resembled a very shallow swamp, but the usual smell of rotting vegetation was conspicuously absent. It might sound odd but it really reminded me of a very short (and colder) version of the Florida Everglades.

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We continued on down the boardwalk and the snowy hills seemed to get larger and larger. They were still far away and I was trying to figure out exactly where they were in relation to the fjord. The only thing I could figure was that they were on the far side and I was seeing them in the distance. The stark white of them seemed almost surreal. Something seemed…odd about them. 

George stopped ahead of me as we passed close to a small bay choked with massive chunks of ice. Green hills rose into the sky ahead of us and a set of stairs led up into them. George was grinning like an idiot and he pointed to the sign; it said “Tsunami Warning. Do NOT proceed to the beach below as calving icebergs can cause local tsunamis that will flood the beach and you could be swept into the ocean.” 

Only in Greenland. 

The snowy hills loomed over the smaller green hills and I suddenly had a sneaking suspicion about what the hills actually were. George ran on ahead and began climbing the stairs. I could see his face as he reached the top and the grin on it told me I was in for something special. 

“Oh my god,” he called. “You've got to see this.” 

I raced up the stairs, the weight of the gear and tripods forgotten. As I reached the top, one of the most magnificent sights I’d ever seen greeted me.

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The Icefjord of Ilulissat is one of the wonders of the natural world and it was laid out in front of me. The hills of snow that I’d been watching as I’d walked along the boardwalk were actually the top of one of the largest icebergs I’d ever seen, even bigger than the ones we’d boated around in the morning. This one was a mountain range of ice, utterly huge and awesome in every sense of the word. Around it, smaller tugboats of ice moved around the behemoth. Most incredibly, the mountain of ice wasn’t the only one in the fjord. Spread around the water were similar titans of bluish white ice, a fleet of impossibly massive pieces of a glacier that was still many mile away up the fjord. It was only here that these icy travellers paused in their trip out to the ocean as they ground up against the sunken moraine far below the waves. 

The icebergs had stopped in such a manner that a ribbon of open water had formed at the base of the rocks that were standing on and a literal river of ice was moving past. Huge chunks of ice slid through the water, slowly grinding against each other. Cracking growls echoed across the fjord and deep bass booms shuddered through the air as the icebergs shed small bits of ice. As we watched, more and more ice moved down the open river of ocean water in front of us. 

We filmed and shot still pictures until we ran out of batteries. I even managed to do an introduction to the place in only four takes, much to the amusement of the rest of the One Oceans passengers and crew.I understood why this place had been designated as a World Heritage reserve. I’ve been to a lot of amazing places on this planet, but this was something unlike anything I’d ever seen. It was simply the most dramatic and beautiful spot I’d ever seen. If you ever have the opportunity to get to Greenland, this is a place that is not to be missed. 

It will feature on my Arctic Top Ten list too. Stay tuned!

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