“The programme was vague; the main thing was just to get going.”
Nicolas Bouvier in the travel classic The Way of the World.
“The programme was vague; the main thing was just to get going.”
Nicolas Bouvier in the travel classic The Way of the World.
… for making Out in the Cold #4 on Amazon’s Greenland list.
My two best Irish friends have gone all in on their first trip to Russia. Not just Dublin to Moscow for a long weekend, not these two. They’re right this minute bound for Irkutsk on a Moscow to Beijing Trans-Siberian train ride. They sent this picture, a frozen river, somewhere in Siberia:
It’s a good opportunity to share a chapter from my first book Common Sense and Whiskey, about our own trip across Russia. Please enjoy it.
THE TRANS-SIBERIAN RAILWAY
If you don’t speak Russian and if you decode Cyrillic gingerly, one letter at a time, it’s not completely effortless to come up with bottled water in Ekaterinburg, but it is possible, and I bought six litres.
The kiosk, alongside a tram stop, was just big enough to be a walk-in affair, not big enough for four, let alone our steamy tensome. The boys in front argued over what beer and candy to order one each of. I motioned for six bottles way up high on a shelf and all kinds of consternation rippled through the mottled impatience behind me.
In a few hours Mirja and I would be climbing aboard the Trans-Siberian railroad to Ulan Bataar, Mongolia. We’d be a week en route, so we needed all kinds of stuff.
As soon as I had all those bottles, though, I calculated we could get everything else at the train station. Six litres of water is heavy.
Today was Labor Day in the U.S. On the edge of Siberia, autumn held full sway. E-kat’s denizens plodded by cold and damp in an insistent, heavy shower. A lot of the older folks wore long coats. All day the rain beset.
Every account of coming upon the Ural mountains speaks of disappointment, and for good reason. The dividing line between Europe and Asia is just hills, really, and Ekaterinburg nestles just beyond their eastern slopes.
The Atrium Palace Hotel Ekaterinburg looked so nice on the internet that we mused back home that it had to be either German or mafia owned. Well, it wasn’t German. It was E-kat’s only “5-star,” with glass elevators and snuggly, fluffy Scandinavian bedding and BBC World on TV.
Still, it had its Russian characteristics: There was the hourly rate, Rule #2: If you stay for less than six hours, you are charged for twelve hour accommodation. And Rule #7: “The guests who troubled a lot before can not be allowed to stay at the hotel.” Hard to know if the guys in track suits grouped around the lobby drinking coffee were part of the problem or there to enforce the solution.
Mid-rises glowered down on ancient Siberian carved–wood houses. There wasn’t much spring in E-kat’s civic step. Down Ulitsa Malysheva, a second-tier comrade (maybe it was Malysheva himself) stood statuary guard near a canal. The flowers at his feet had long since conceded to summer weeds.
Old and dusty women tended the old and dusty local history museum. They turned the lights on and off as you moved through the rooms. The Communism section was closed.
During the revolution, in July 1918, The entire family of deposed Czar Nicholas was shot while holed up at the home of a merchant named Ipatiev here in Ekaterinburg – then called Sverdlovsk – and some days later the besieged Bolsheviks burned and buried the bodies outside town.
In 1977, local Sverdlovsk party boss Boris Yeltsin ordered the Ipatiev House destroyed. Fourteen years later Yeltsin, then in the Kremlin, financed exhumation of the bodies from the burial pit, and exactly eighty years after their murder, on July 17, 1998 the bones of Russia’s last Czar were laid beside the bones of previous Czars in the crypt of the Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg. In the museum, black and white pictures of Nicholas and Alexandra were pinned up alongside diagrams of skeletons.
In a dainty candle-lit Orthodox church-let, hardly big enough for the two women inside, Mirja and I bought a tiny cross and a few icons. With a glass, the women inspected the back of each, like kids examine trading cards, and they proclaimed one Nikolai and explained of another, “Blogodot Denyaba.”
E-kat’s youth did a kind of country swagger beneath a huge billboard for “Ural Westcom” Cellular – written in Latin, not Cyrillic. Every kid in town walked up and down the sidewalk drinking big brown half litre bottles of beer. Maybe it was because they could.
Muddy Ekaterinburg, east of the Urals
If your baseline was vodka, pivo (beer) was positively a soft drink in comparison. None of these young people – old enough to aspire to fashion and to drink and flirt and smoke – none of them remembered the days of vodka and The State. They were all eight or twelve at the Soviet Union’s demise.
The train station was white, granite and huge, a city block long and probably more, but it was hard to see why – they only used a tiny slice of it. There was just time to lug our stuff into the steamy waiting hall, and before you knew it, up rolled train number two, the Rossiya.
Here was a moment of some import. They told us our first class compartment was “very expensive,” but we didn’t care about that (it wasn’t that expensive), we just wanted to find it very empty. And so it was.
The woman under whose iron will Trans-Siberian lore demanded we cower – the provodnitsa – while no nonsense, appeared kindly enough as she studied our tickets, nodded, and handed over the key to cabin nine, between cabin eight, with a baby, and the toilet.
Inside – impeccably clean. Mirrors on each wall made a not very big space bigger. All six lights worked – the overhead fluorescent, lights on the walls, and tiny reading lights over each bunk.
The window was structurally shut and it was warmer than it needed to be. Satiny print curtains covered the window but Mirja moved them above the door. That way we could have it open and see out, but people in the corridor couldn’t see in. Brilliant.
A small writing/eating table. Bunks with bedding, the rough blankets in a Scottish tartan pattern.
A samovar sat at the provodnitsa’s end of each car (ours with bits of drying, fresh-picked wild mushrooms arrayed across the top) to provide water for chai or coffee. I’d remembered every possible gadget, but I’d forgotten plates and towels. I stole a towel and paid good money for plates from the hotel, but there was a plate with sweets and sugar and packets of chai, and a towel for each of us.
All the hubbub and noise of the station mixed with a sustained period of fiddling and adjusting as we fell over and bumped into one another, settling into home for the next several days.
Ours was the last unoccupied cabin in the carriage, so it made sense it was down at the end by the toilet, and Mirja rather liked the idea because it was convenient. And the toilet flushed with water, there was ready cold water in the wash basin, and there was even a roll of toilet paper, at least to start. They scrubbed it down sometimes. It didn’t even smell.
The baby next door kept waddling down to peer into our compartment. His parents, bless them, kept the kid quiet.
Everything eventually settled out and darkness came up to close around the Rossiya as we moved east of E-kat, in the rain.
Movement and noise, action and business at every stop. Traders crowded under the lights with food, furs and shawls. The Europeans and Americans popped onto the platform to stretch and take videos of the locals, and the wheels were checked and the kiosks thrived (and they were well-provisioned) and then the Rossiya groaned back to life and pulled away, and everything aboard settled back into the torpor induced by the rhythm of the rails. Continue reading
Finland, a land to which I am related by marriage, celebrated the 100th anniversary of its independence yesterday, and that distracted me from noting another centenary on the same day, that of the largest man-made explosion in history prior to nuclear weapons. This article in Macleans quotes a local arborist who cut down a tree near the site of the explosion as finding that “the entire core of (the) trunk was a column of metal shards.”
Along those lines, from my book Out in the Cold,
“You can’t grow up in Halifax without knowing everything about the explosion. It simply can’t be done, A downtown furniture maker tells us. Not long ago he petitioned for and was granted rights to cut down a maple tree under the McKay bridge built across the narrows, just about where the blast occurred.
A 22-inch maple, with the growth rate at one inch equals five years, it would have been ten years old in 1917, the year of the disaster and, sure enough, it has a seared ring near its center. He will market it to the cognizant community.”
Here is another excerpt from Out in the Cold, about Halifax and the explosion:
Beautiful maidens and wildflowers fragrant o’er the moor grace few pages of Nova Scotia’s history. A town brought up on hard work, Halifax has a history of hard luck. Some of it is other peoples’ hard luck, it is true, but that only helps so much.
In September 1998 Swissair Flight 111 fell into Margaret’s Bay just outside town, about five miles out in the ocean. Private fishing boats, the Coast Guard and then the Halifax military bases responded, but the plane had broken up on impact and all 229 passengers were lost. There are two memorials out along the bay.
After the crash, Ian Shaw, a Swiss national who last saw his daughter Stephanie when he drove her to the Geneva airport, moved from Switzerland to the tourist village of Peggy’s Cove and built a restaurant called Shaw’s Landing to be near his deceased daughter. Shaw’s Landing only recently closed, Shaw presumably having finally worked through his loss.
As in the Swissair tragedy, when the Titanic sank in April 1912, ships were dispatched from Halifax to recover bodies, since Halifax, then as now, was the nearest big port with continental rail connections.
The Mackay-Bennet, a Halifax-based steamer normally used for laying communications cable, led the recovery effort. Two days after the sinking she set out with a cargo of coffins and canvas bags, an undertaker and a preacher.
Over the next four weeks two ships from Halifax followed, the Minia and the CGS Montmagny. Together they and the SS Algerine, sailing from St. John’s, Newfoundland, recovered over three hundred bodies. Some were buried at sea, but 209 bodies returned to the Halifax shore.
Just 59 were sent away to their families. The rest, including the Titanic’s unidentifiable and unclaimed victims, were buried in Halifax, and local businesses donated bouquets of lilies. The Maritime Museum on Halifax’s waterfront has an extensive Titanic exhibit – complete with deck chair.
Deck Chair from the Titanic
Haligonians couldn’t have imagined it, but after the Titanic an even more horrific tragedy lay five years down the road, and this was all Halifax’s own. In 1917 Halifax harbor fell victim to the greatest conflagration of the Great War. I don’t know if it’s just me, but polling people I know, it sounds like nobody else knew about the largest man made explosion before Hiroshima either.
Halifax is a mid-rise city, but if it aspires to more, it might not take kindly to my saying so. Pardon. An attractive, purposeful, working town with a population just under a million, it hosts 200,000 cruise ship passengers a year and some 40 percent of Canada’s defense assets. Nova Scotia is the world’s largest exporter of Christmas trees and lobster, although Mirja makes a run at eating all the lobster in Halifax before it can be sold abroad.
It doesn’t look like a place afflicted. Perched on two rocky shores, Halifax and it’s sister city Dartmouth across the water enjoy refuge from Atlantic storms, set back from the ocean. Still further back, the Bedford Basin affords a strategic ice-free port, invaluable in wartime.
Because it has one of the world’s deepest and most protected harbors, Halifax prospered in wartime, providing men and materiel from the War of 1812 through to the onset of World War 1.
Canada entered the Great War in 1914 as a colony when Britain declared war on Germany. Canadians were just about unanimous in support. Halifax boomed, and harbor traffic rose to seventeen million tons a year from just two.
By 1917 businesses were bursting. Industry struggled to keep up with demand. A quarter of the men in Halifax were serving overseas. Foreshadowing the U.S. experience in World War Two, women took jobs formerly thought of as men’s work. Women’s suffrage came to Canada in 1918, two years ahead of the United States.
The first regular, systematic convoy of war materiel from Canada left Sydney, Nova Scotia’s easternmost harbor, on 24 June, 1917. By October as many as 36 supply ships were assembled for each convoy.
The Maritime Museum maps out a typical convoy: Two corvettes out front and one on each flank, trailed by five ships abreast, typically freighters with deck cargo of tanks, trucks and tankers, other freighters with aircraft, maybe a heavy lift ship with locomotives, sailing alongside rescue ships and an oiler with fuel for the corvettes. A destroyer carrying the escort force commander brought up the rear.
Convoy traffic moved from Sydney to Halifax during winter, owing to Halifax’s back bay. The basin, with a surface area of six and a half square miles, jammed up with ships in winter.
By autumn 1917, a jittery uncertainty hung over the twin cities Halifax and Dartmouth; it had for months. The Canadians dragged submarine nets across the harbor each night against U-boats.
Thursday, 6 December: The SS Imo, an empty Norwegian relief ship in transit from Rotterdam bound for New York to load civilian relief supplies, was keen to sail at first light.
Coal for its boilers arrived too late the day before, trapping the ship in the Bedford Basin behind the submarine nets overnight. The Imo had to bide its time one more night. The Norwegian captain, Hakaan From, stormed about the ship, livid.
The submarine nets prevented the French ship Mont Blanc, arriving from New York, from sailing into the harbor to join up with an assembling convoy. Laden with war supplies, it stood at anchor outside the nets overnight.
There was a time just four years before, when a munitions ship like the Mont Blanc wouldn’t have been allowed into the back bay. But with the outbreak of the war, control of the harbor transferred to the British Admiralty and they, considerably more detatched, allowed munitions ships in.
The Mont Blanc carried a fearsome load – 5.8 million pounds of picric acid, 200 tons of TNT, ten tons of guncotton and 35 tons of benzol, a high-octane gasoline, stacked in drums across her decks.
Picric acid was a relic of the time, an explosive chemical compound used in artillery shells by the Allies. It was less stable than TNT, which largely replaced it for war applications between the World Wars.
So worried had been the New York port authority when loading the incendiary Mont Blanc that before putting the cargo aboard they lined its holds with wood secured by non-sparking copper nails, and stevedores wore cloth over their boots.
Now both ships, the Imo leaving the Bedford Basin and the Mont Blanc coming in, were intent on making time, and Halifax became ground zero in its own unique horror.
Riding high in the water, the empty and impatient Imo was ready to move. Captain From, having sailed twice through Halifax before, felt familiar enough with the harbor to drive the Imo to its limits.
The Narrows is the smallest space between Bedford Basin and the twin cities of Halifax and Dartmouth. Scarcely two thousand feet wide, it is precisely where the Imo and Mont Blanc collided.
Benzol spilled from the drums onto the deck of the Mont Blanc. Fires broke out. The smoke was so thick the crew couldn’t tell if it was the benzol or the picric acid that was burning, but every sailor realized it didn’t matter. All too aware of what was to come, they bailed frantically for shore, for safety. Townspeople, unaware of the Mont Blanc’s deadly cargo, gathered at the waterfront to watch the flames engulf the ships.
Halifax’s fire crews raced to the waterfront in their horse-drawn wagons and the fire chief arrived aboard the town’s only combustion-engine fire truck. He and most of the town’s fire brigade were incinerated.
When the big blast came it laid bare two square kilometers. The Mont Blanc became the most potent bomb exploded until Hiroshima. The windows in most of Halifax’s houses were blown into their inhabitants’ faces.
The Mont Blanc heaved into the air and rained fire back down on the town. Its big gun landed two kilometers away. Rocks sucked up from the sea floor fell onto the town as deadly shrapnel.
So terrific was the blast that it created a tsunami. Water drained from the Narrows, then flooded back in across the opposite, Dartmouth, shore, where a Mi’kmaq Indian settlement washed entirely away, just disappeared.
The town burned. Home heating in those days came predominately from coal and wood stoves, most of which were stoked and burning on a December day. The heaters overturned, setting further fires.
At nightfall a blizzard closed over the bay, the worst in years, with temperatures plunging to 10 or 15 degrees fahrenheit. People with no shelter who survived the blast died in place, trapped, frozen in the blizzard.
Halifax reeled. Worry spread that the naval artillery stores at the Wellington barracks would explode (they didn’t). Dazed and traumatized victims, many with their clothes and even skin burned right off, stumbled through the storm like zombies.
Rumors. Halifax was being bombed by the Luftstreitkräfte, the World War 1 German air force. How did they get their Fokkers all the way over here!? No, it was a naval bombardment. Some thought Halifax’s unique hell came from German zeppelins.
Some people were lucky, if only by comparison. People told of being lifted up and deposited up to a mile from where they lived. In the end, as many as 9,000 people lost their homes, some 6,000 were injured, many horrendously, and 2,000 were dead.
Get yourself a copy of Out in the Cold, or give it as a Christmas gift. As Amazon has it,
An inspired tale of high adventure, Out in the Cold is Bill Murray’s vivid portrait of adventure across the vast Northern Atlantic from the Arctic north of Norway to Nova Scotia. Murray begins in pursuit of a total solar eclipse in Svalbard, 800 miles from the North Pole. He tests the culinary appeal of wind-dried sheep in the tiny Faroe Islands, befriends Inuit bone carvers in Greenland and camps with an itinerant Italian musician who dreams of building Greenland’s first luxury resort. He stands naked and freezing on an Icelandic glacier and later (with his clothes on), on the wind-battered Canadian bog where the first European stood 500 years before Columbus.
With a light touch, wry analysis and remarkable depth of reportage, Bill Murray weaves high adventure with practical science and absorbing history, taking the pulse of an under-explored, fragile region on the precipice of change. By turns evocative, astonishing and always a jolly good ride, Out in the Cold is a sprawling and rewarding tour of the Atlantic northlands today.
A short excerpt from my book Out in the Cold:
PART THREE: ICELAND
Time at sea is balm for the soul, respite from the workaday, a chance to contemplate the great wash of water upon the Earth. The sea is fluid; change is the sailor’s constant companion, and today we change countries aboard an obscure ferry across the north Atlantic to Iceland. A proper shipborne adventure.
Surely the passenger manifest holds no names of any ethnicity tied to terror. Here is a ship of Sigurds and Sigurdssons, Johanns and Johanssons. Still, when you change countries you offer your passport. In Torshavn’s little harbor, though, the young woman in the window just smiles and flutters her hand. “Never mind.”
Arriving at Iceland, no passport control. It’s not that no one wants to stamp your passport. There is no one to size you up at all.
Years ago I arrived at Stockholm on the party boat from Helsinki. That is what everybody called them (at least us young people), the Silja and Viking Line ferries that set out between capitals in each direction every night, their promenades overfull of food and drink and shopping, and a telephone in every room so you could call the United States if you wanted.
In my short-lived role as a businessman peddling my wares, I walked off the Viking Line onto a ramp into Sweden, where I expected someone to nod in recognition of my gravity. Nobody cared. Same thing. Nobody was even there.
A couple of days from now, flying from tiny east Iceland for the tiny capital, there will be no security. No x-rays, no walk-through machine, no questions. Just press a button on the counter to summon the clerk from the room behind a window where they can see you but you can’t see them, to take your ticket.
The Norröna, the flag ship of the Faroese shipping line Smyril (the Faroese name for a type of falcon), runs this route between Denmark, Tórshavn and Iceland. Packed, it carries 1,500 people and 800 cars. In winter between Tórshavn and Iceland, it is never packed.
Up in the heated, enclosed outdoor view point a husband and wife knit together as we take our beers to the window and watch the spray spin off north Atlantic waves in a frosty, freezy way.
Spume slaps the window while the bartender allows that the Tórshavn to Seydisfjordur leg, she is the roughest. True enough; the red LED numbers read three a.m. sharp when buffeting rearranges the interior of the cabin in the dark. The Norröna sails with all the aerodynamics of a shoebox.
The Norröna tries to nestle into Seydisfjordur in the morning, but it is more of a wedge than a nestle. Seydisfjordur, where the sun sinks behind the mountains in November not to be seen again until the end of February, is a community of houses opportunistically assembled around the inside of a fjord steep and narrow, an entirely Arctic place with cliffs covered with snow, some buildings half-buried under drifts, with a wind across the Norröna’s deck that will drive you straight back inside.
A man down at the docks, just the bundled form of a man really, claims Seydisfjordur should have been the main town in Iceland. No one but he makes that claim. When wild men ruled here, a long time ago before governments, Seydisfjordur started life around a herring fishery set up by Norwegians and they say it thrived. For a time the world’s largest whaling station, also Norwegian run, stood on the shores of Mjoifjordur, today a village of 35 people just four or five miles over the ridge, the next fjord south.
Telegraph first connected Iceland to Europe from Seydisfjordur in 1906. Engineering feats like this buck up pride out at the far end, and this one helps Iceland insist it is part of Europe. Europe is like, whatever.
Seydisfjordur has scant relation to the Faroes. It is colder and meaner, harder core, smothered by snow, an outpost at the end of a water trail, cliffs along either side narrowing onto the dock.
It takes some time for the Norröna to find a fit. The husband and wife tag team knits unconcerned on deck. Faroese and Icelandic men used to knit of necessity. Now it is sport, or perhaps chivalry. During endless winters people learn to entertain themselves. Fun is where you find it.
These Norröna passengers might not enjoy the Helsinki to Stockholm party boat. Not that kind of crowd. Neither do they exhibit any of the bovine wobble of Americans on a Caribbean fun ship.
Imagine history, long and dark. In living memory northern Icelanders read without electricity, learning their heritage, the Sagas, by the light of oil lamps. Because of Iceland’s great isolation the original Norse language has held so fast that Icelanders can still read the original Sagas like they were last week’s newspaper.
In this context the Sagas are not only the great historical epic of the northern peoples, but also social glue, nation-building tools, and in the living, breathing life of even a hundred years ago they were sources of wonder, fascination and high entertainment. Just those few years ago, you might never meet anyone you hadn’t known from birth.
Consider that while settlements sprouted on the island more than eleven hundred years ago, only for about 170 years have people in this world had effective pain killing medicine. Prior to 1846 there was no anesthesia. Before the last century rudimentary medicine served to comfort the afflicted until they healed, or they didn’t.
Before the invention of the telegraph in 1837, information could travel no faster than a sailing ship or a man on a horse. In Iceland’s earliest days killing had not yet been outsourced to the gun, to a machine. It relied on hand tools and the brute application of pressure.
WELCOME. NOW GO! HURRY!
See each place with child’s eyes and embrace the moment you do. For the strange grows fast familiar, nevermore wondrous and new.
There is a lovely blue Lutheran church in the center of town, dramatically backlit by the sun’s bounce off a snowy backdrop. In summer Seydisfjordur touts itself as an artists’ colony. An arts camp in July, musicians at the church on Wednesdays. In summer there are 4×4 tours, bird watching, biking, sea fishing and kayaking and a nine-hole golf course over the hill in Egilsstaðir.
The Blue Church at Seydisfjordur
In winter it is tough. Home-bound knitters do their best to snare the passing tourist dollar. Buy a mitten, buy a bootie. A ski lift once ran up the hill, but it is closed tight this winter. The Norröna delivers its passengers, but only once a week in winter, and today despite cerulean skies, the buses hurry straight over the pass because the captain advised passengers by public address to leave the Seydisfjord straight away, forecasting a debilitating, road-closing storm.
Nodding to the wisdom of skating quickly over thin ice, we follow. Beyond the blue church and the ship from the Faroes is just the road out, over the hill to Egilsstaðir. Up toward the pass a Scania truck that was hauling fish lies on its side, a stark admission of failure.
Happened yesterday. Driver unhurt, fish still inside. They are frozen and unlikely to melt.
I scoff at the idea of a storm under these brilliant skies but by 14:30 the world is reduced to white and shades of gray, as snow sweeps the road. The horizon winks out. By then we have run up to the foot of Snæfell, “snow mountain,” the ancient volcano that reigns over the highlands at 1,833 meters.
EGILSSTAÐIR, EAST ICELAND
We are in the hearty care of a big man named Agnar. First time I see him I feel he isn’t my kind of guy. Something about his slouch against the wall. Nobody slouches when the air is below zero.
Maybe Icelanders do.
Agnar is imposing, a ruddy man, ample and not naturally affable. He strikes me as a “from my cold dead fingers” sort and maybe he is, for he is an avid hunter, enumerating at length and in considerable detail the requirements for reindeer hunting – and his techniques.
Iceland’s reindeer have no natural enemies. Their population is managed by government-controlled hunting between July and September. Reindeer meat is an Icelandic delicacy and there is demand enough for hunting permits to require a lottery.
Agnar wears a black turtleneck of thermally appropriate fiber, tight enough to display his girth. Flitty eyes in a big head suggest a distrust I don’t think he means. Half me, half his lifetime among few strangers.
His on-and-then-off black wool cap and black fleece outer layer lay against his ruddiness to make him out as a confident outdoorsman. Might be just the guy you want around here, on second thought.
He has a Super Jeep. If super means how far off the ground you must step to climb in, it sure is super. It comes with its own Italian air compressor en suite. Essential equipment, for we haven’t made it up to the glacier by the time we slide and our back end wobbles around in one place until Agnar hops out to let air out of the tires.
Lower tire pressure flattens the tires. They relax a few inches, spread out and get a better grip. And it works. Eventually you’ll need to re-inflate the tires, and that’s where the air compressor comes in. Once we attain the main road back to Egilsstaðir toward the end of the day, Agnar stops at a junction with a billboard for us to regard in the whipping wind. It explains how geo-thermal power works around the region while Agnar sets about re-inflating the tires with the compressor.
It makes a lot of racket and he goes round to the tires one at a leisure time as if it weren’t minus eight degrees, the wind howling like a penned sled dog.
Largarfljót, the longest lake in the country, flows down from our destination, so we run alongside it on the way up. We’re headed to the great Vatnajokull, (“jokull” is “glacier”) up onto the edge of Europe’s largest glacier. The national park around it covers 14 percent of the country.
What is it about narrow northern lakes and worms? Lagarfljot has its own Loch Ness-style monster, 300 meters long with scaly humps and revolting spikes and a very, very long life. It has dwelt beneath these waters since 1345, spotted as recently as 2012. In legend its appearance augurs ill for the local folk.
It is just as well to contemplate a legend, for the landscape reveals little beyond the sweep of barren land and Iceland’s largest organic vegetable farm. Four-foot trees, a reforestation experiment that I expect isn’t destined to reach new heights, admit their discouragement in mangy patches on the road out of Egilsstaðir.
They hope the old saw about what to do if you get lost in an Icelandic forest (put the cork back in the bottle, stand up and look around) may one day get a challenge. The Forest Service claims 130 square kilometers of birch forest have taken hold in the past twenty-five years. That represents one and a half percent of the country, although you’d be challenged to find the first tree on the flight from east Iceland to Reykjavik. Still, they’re hoping for 25 percent birch coverage one of these days.
They reckon birch forests in valleys and willow scrub along the coast covered about a third of the island at the time of settlement. Iceland’s fate doesn’t run as raw as Easter Island’s, where the colonizers appear to have cut down every last tree, but the temptation to cut down trees in the Arctic for warmth and shelter must have been at least as mighty as on Rapa Nui.
Climbing toward Vatnajokull, sheep folds, circular pens for gathering and sorting sheep, line the Largarfljót flood plain. The herder might sort sheep into any of half a dozen pie-shaped low stone sections that comprise the circle, with a commonly accessible further circle in the middle.
Iceland has no passenger rail, and automobiles only found their way here in the 1920s, so horses were the main means of transport until very recently, especially for distance. Meghan O’Rourke, in The New York Times: “The Icelandic horse … is unique with its quick, short-steeped gait, so smooth a rider wouldn’t spill a drink.”
The horses in the valley of the Largarfljót graze at quiet farms on either side of the road, long manes and tails waving with the wind down the valley, white manes with dark bodies or the mirror of that, light bodies and dark manes. The river flows turbid and steady, scarcely a hundred meters wide, even less as it snakes through sand bars.
Here is an excerpt from my book Out in the Cold, in which we arrive in Greenland and try to sort out what to do next. Enjoy it:
GETTING TO TASIILAQ
First thing we have to do, we have to find Robert.
The men smoking outside the concrete block terminal are not Robert so I ask around inside. The man behind the check-in counter might as well be collecting Arctic tumbleweeds. No flights are pending; no one is checking in.
He does not know Robert.
Together we lean over his counter to look down to the harbor. One boat is speeding away and there don’t seem to be any others. He flips his palms up and shakes his head, “I think you just go down there and wait. That is your only chance.”
Humans inhabit the fringe, the perimeter of Greenland not flattened by the ice cap, and I mean flattened, literally. Even with its thinning, ice reaches three kilometers deep at its thickest, pushing the bedrock into the mantle such that if the ice disappeared, the island would become an archipelago.
You can’t fly to Tasiilaq, the biggest town on the eastern side of Greenland, for lack of sufficient flat space for an airstrip. So we have flown to a gravel strip called Kulusuk Airport. To get to Tasiilaq we must traverse the mouth of the Ammassalik fjord. We booked that online and all we know is, get to Kulusuk and ask for Robert.
We can see our destination twenty kilometers across the fjord behind a few icebergs and a coastline of precambrian rock thrust from the sea long before humanity, possibly even contemporaneous with the first life on Earth.
We invade and insult the silence with our prissy roll aboard carry-on bags, scraping and skipping the damned things down the rough gravel. Show more respect and stand still, and the quiet closes up around you as a vehement, absolute thing.
A man from Cologne with a massive backpack walks ahead of us. He has arrived with no itinerary beyond walking for two weeks. His pack reaches up past his head, bulging with two weeks of freeze-dried food and powdered milk.
Once he walked from Ilullisat to Sisimiut in western Greenland, and that is far, far farther than from here to Tasiilaq and then clear around the island, but that time he was advised that there was no danger of polar bears and he has yet to be so advised here. His itinerary may have to be revised based on local information. Right now he plans to circumambulate Ammassalik Island. He puts great store in the advice of Robert, but none of us know how to find him.
Airport to harbor, perhaps a twenty-minute walk. No boats in sight. Either side of the gravel path, just rock and a little but not much tenacious flora. Our destination across the water is low and bare with mountains rising snow-capped, glaciers embedded toward the top. Clouds tease the ridges but do not suggest a threat of rain. In between individual icebergs, not a field, rise like several-story buildings.
It turns out that two tiny Danish-built fiberglass Poca speedboats, so low slung that the dock hides them both, bob in the sea beyond the dock. Two Greenlandic men stand down there on the shore below the dock, neither in so much as a jacket, enjoying the northern summer.
We ask, “Robert?” and the younger man, with no English, shakes his head no, “Christian.” We and the backpacker, who is expecting the same ride, are at a bit of a loss until we work out, through gestures and goodwill, that Christian is here on behalf of Robert. For us, that is good.
The dock is too high for the boats, and so we scramble down onto rocks to climb aboard and Christian takes the backpacker, Mirja and me screaming across the fjord toward a similar spot on the far shore. Christian, hair stood up to a greased crown, drives standing, and stops us dead in the water alongside this iceberg, then that one, so we can take photos.
We clamber out on a rock where there is no dock at all. Christian motions without words, “up that way,” and makes no move to leave the boat. So off we scramble, not having paid anybody for anything, off to find someone who wants our money. Robert, maybe.
The Inuit seldom keep individual dogs as pets, but rather tether them in groups outside in summer, and we rouse the mild attention of a pack of tethered dogs as we troop up the hill. Inuit sled dogs have two layers of fur, the inner short, like wool for insulation, and the outer longer, coarser and water repellent. That may make them hot today, but overall they are surely chillin’, taking the warm season off, lounging all day except when growling and snapping over territory.
Sled Dog Greeting at Tasiilaq
A vehicle makes its way down the hill picking its path, for the way is gravel and bumpy. A slight girl stops to ask that we wait here, drives down the road to drop some camping supplies and returns to drive us to the Red House, a tour shop and hostel run by the famous Robert.
Robert’s reputation should have preceded him. Turns out in 1983, extreme explorer Robert Peroni from the Italian south Tyrol walked across the Greenland ice cap, all the way across the island at its widest point, some 1,400 kilometers, on an 88-day journey.
Now 72, Robert stands before us trim and erect, and above all relieved to find we aren’t planning to stay in his hostel, for he is booked solid as he would hope to be in a very short high season. We pay him for the crossing from Kulusuk, bid farewell, and the girl drives us up the hill to the Hotel Angmagssalik.
There was a time when airline passengers celebrated successful landings. I remember applause in 1986 when my Lufthansa flight landed in Frankfurt from Moscow. I thought it was as likely for getting the bloody hell out of the Soviet Union.
We came over from Iceland today on a brand new, gleaming Air Iceland Bombardier Q400 prop plane, twenty rows two-by-two. Bustling their baby refreshment cart up and down the aisle meant actual work for the flight attendants, compared to the doorman role they play on short domestic flights.
Come time to land, the plane took on a buzz incongruent with today’s humdrum air travel. In a small plane you’ve more of a sense of flying, and when the pilot maneuvered to dip under the clouds and between the mountains, we all craned to be the first to see icebergs, and phone cameras filled the windows. The runway at Kulusuk came up fast and we rode it right to the end lights.
About fifty of the seventy aboard were here for a day trip. Over in the morning, touch the soil, check Greenland off your list and fly back. I met a taxi driver in Reykjavik who said he did as a fifteen year old.
What did they do?
They deplaned, someone took them around the side of the terminal and they watched a man in a costume play a drum and a fat woman dance.
Some months ago he drove a man to do the same and picked him up later that day. What did they do? A drum and a dance.
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The approach to Tasiilaq from Iceland in high summer