Getting to Greenland: Book Excerpt

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:


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.


Order the whole book here in the U.S. or from Amazon in your country.

Tasiilaq town

The approach to Tasiilaq from Iceland in high summer

Three-Dimensional Pedestrian Crossing

…  in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

See the article at

Out in the Cold Audiobook Available Now

Get yourself a copy of this just-published audiobook, written and narrated by me. I am not the actor with the same name. Get it: On Audible. On Amazon.

Here are several written and spoken excerpts.

Get the written version of Out in the Cold on Amazon, here, and the audiobook versions of my other books here:

Common Sense and Whiskey on Audible.
Visiting Chernobyl on Audible.

Manifesto for Travel

This morning I sat down to begin the long process of narrating the audio version of my new travel adventure book Out in the Cold. As I reread the preface (it has been a little while since I wrote it), I thought it stands alone as a pretty good manifesto for travel. So I thought I’d share:


I’m pretty sure the discovery of America started with a bar fight and I believe I can persuade you that it is so. The chain of events that brought Norse ships to Newfoundland began when a court in Norway found Thorvald Erickson guilty of murder and tossed him out of the country.

The Saga of Eirik the Red, Thorvald’s son, doesn’t say exactly what his old man got up to that night, just that he was exiled “because of some killings,” so Thorvald and the clan loaded up the truck and they moved to northwest Iceland.

Eirik grew up and married a local girl. When Thorvald died they moved south where before long the local sheriff found Eirik guilty of murder just like his old man, and Eirik was banished from Iceland. Thorvald’s bar fight led to Iceland, Greenland and the New World. We will visit the settlement his grandson built in Newfoundland.

But this is not about the Vikings, although they are here. This is a collection of northern tales from the frozen-tight Svalbard archipelago, 800 miles from the North Pole, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and Atlantic-facing Canada.


A daiquiri on your cruise ship balcony may imply that you are on vacation, but it does not mean that you are traveling. Crowding people together on “fun ships” to share viruses for several days holds up as well as socks from Wal-Mart.

Once, in the Himalayas, in a place called Sikkim, whose very geography required vocational derringdo, a mad driver told me “Man didn’t evolve from apes to act like sheep.” He meant that you must engage.

Your free time is as surely an asset as your home or your car. I say, get out there and put some of it to good use. If the unexamined life isn’t worth living (Socrates), get to examining. Compare and contrast your experiences to those of others.

In these pages we will meet an artisan carver of narwhal bones in Greenland. We’ll cruise the streets of Reykjavik with an ebullient Icelandic author, hike with a part-time tour guide in Labrador who cannot imagine why you’d want to be anywhere other than on the tundra, and spend time with others whose lives, objectively, are nothing like your own.

We will shake hands with the President of Iceland and stand naked and alone on the side of the glacier Vatnajokull (separately from the president). We will drop in on the last French outpost in North America, talk shop with a diplomat and eat wind dried sheep in the Faroe Islands, dine with strangers alongside icebergs at a lighthouse north of Newfoundland, and find Greenland so beguiling, we will visit twice.


Who ever thinks they are finally and fully grown up? Not me, not in my 20s, or 30s or even 40s. I still think people who wear adult clothes and enjoy it, skirt and blazer, suit and tie, selling investments or copiers or conjuring income from intangibles like air time or web space – those people are grown up, or at least grown up in a way I’m not, in the western businessy way.

I will never be a winning jockey in the Great American Corporate Advancement Derby. I don’t enjoy yard work or the NBA and I don’t know anything about grown-up stuff like the American Automobile Association or why you should be a member. Or what those ads for active traders are talking about, when you be honest.

I don’t buy clothing with the logo of its manufacturer or shop on Black Friday. That others do, that’s real nice. I just don’t have their motivation. But I think I’ve got one thing on them: I’m pretty sure the flame burns brighter in my magic adventure lamp.

Let us all think of a place that sounds exciting, take ourselves there and see what happens, minding Nelson Mandela’s words: May our choices reflect our hopes and not our fears.


Imagine a range of actions: At one extreme, you never leave your house, and at the other you drive into Somalia honking your horn and waving an American flag. I like it just inside the go-too-far side of that tent, poking on the fabric with a dull knife, trying not quite hard enough to cut through.

Within reason, mind you. Cut through the fabric and you end up kidnapped in Niamey, blasted in two in Helmand or beheaded in the new Caliphate. So let us stick with adventure reasonably achievable. In this case, starting 800 miles shy of the North Pole, chasing a total eclipse.


Preface from the book Out in the Cold, Travels North: Adventures in Svalbard, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and Canada. Buy it in paperback here. Read other excerpts here. Kindle version soon. The audiobook version, begun today, should hit in the fall.

Also published on Medium.

My New Book. Go Get This.

Read this book. It will make you a better person.

Go get yourself a copy right now!

Look Inside Out in the Cold

After a title goes live on Amazon, as Out in the Cold did last week, it takes a few days for the “Look Inside” feature to appear. From this morning “Look Inside” is live on Amazon, giving you the chance to get a more extensive preview of what you’ll be buying. I am not sure whether “Look Inside” grabs more of a book’s text over time, but right now we have some of the beginning available and some of my reporting on Iceland. We’ll have to watch and find out. Still, I invite you to use the feature to see more of what’s inside Out in the Cold. Then, grab yourself a copy.

The Fearsome Hallgrim’s Church, Reykjavik

Photo Preview

My new book Out in the Cold should be live on Amazon next week so I thought I’d send us into the weekend with a photo from each of the countries in the book. All these are clickably linked to higher res, much larger and more enjoyable versions at

Meanwhile, between now and next week, here’s a little text from the book:

Saint-Pierre et Miquelon: France in North America
Svalbard by Snowmobile
Naked and Freezing in Iceland

The photos:

This is the tiny little idyllic town called Tjørnuvik, on the island of Streymoy, Faroe Islands.

Here is Iceland’s famous Gulfoss, looking good full of snowmelt in June.

Tasiilaq, the administrative hub of east Greenland.

The super friendly, perfectly-sized city of Halifax, Nova Scotia.

And the object of our quest to Svalbard, 800 miles from the North Pole. A total solar eclipse.

Out in the Cold: Book Excerpt

outinthecoldcoverrightsideMy new book is just about ready to share. It’s called Out in the Cold (cover, left), and as we run up to publication I’m sharing some photos and excerpts here on the blog. In Out in the Cold we explore up north: Svalbard, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and maritime eastern Canada, including a curious artifact, the last remaining French colony in North America, a tiny pair of islands off Newfoundland called Saint Pierre and Miquelon. Today it’s winter in East Iceland. Hope you enjoy it.



Reindeer break at once across the hill above the road – a herd of forty – and kicked-up snow gathers speed rolling our way. No apparent reason for their stampede. These beasts, magnitudes more hearty than the dispirited troika that pleaded for handouts in Russian Barentsberg, appear to run for pure joy.

In the world of Icelandic reindeer, the ladies are both the fairer sex and the tougher. Females and males alike shed their antlers annually, but bulls shed right after the rut, in autumn (and it must be a relief, because reindeer antlers represent the fastest tissue growth known in mammals, up to two and a half centimeters every day. They can weigh ten kilograms).

Cows fight, physically, for the best feeding spots in the winter when they are pregnant, so they keep their antlers through winter. Collectors fan out across these hills as soon as the snow melts searching for shed antlers that soon after appear carved into every kind of bauble in the boutiques of Reykjavik.

The day of the eclipse Agnar was guiding a group. “We were standing on that hill there,” he says, pointing, and for a few minutes at maximum eclipse “the reindeer all got into a group,” as they do at night. “For the reindeer it was a very short night.”

The Arctic fox (that they reckon has been around for 10,000 years, turning brown in summer and white in winter) is Iceland’s only native terrestrial mammal. Reindeer, Iceland’s entire cadre, were introduced from Norway. Unlike the Lapps of northern Scandinavia, Icelanders never took to domesticating reindeer, so they live up here in the eastern highlands in winter and come down toward the shore for better grazing in summer.


Agnar parks the Super Jeep in front of a completely improbable guest house built for twenty or thirty, perched at glacier’s edge and across a road marked only by reflective yellow poles along one side. Truth is, the glacier looks the same as the mountains it lies between this time of year, undifferentiated, everything bathed in white.

Agnar sets about digging places to make footfall in the snow, a spadeful per step, from the vehicle to the door. Just several meters away but over the snow horizon, he claims heat glows beneath the snow and that we should shed our clothes and jump into a hot pool.

At minus eight degrees it sounds like an act of dubious wisdom, especially since we can’t even see that such a thing exists.

“Most people,” he smiles, take their clothes off and run with their coat and boots on, maybe a towel.”

He points to the changing rooms, leaves us towels and sets off with his spade digging a path.

No one within twenty miles. We do as he says.


We imagine that once we commit we will see the tail lights of the Super Jeep driving away down the hill, Agnar cackling with evil, the two of us locked outside and naked.

Shedding my clothes, I read a sign on the wall that explains the water in the pool stays at a constant 48 – 53 celsius degrees. Stand at the edge and the snowy rim reaches above your private parts, not that there’s anybody around. You jump in – quickly – and find a place not too near the hot vents, and your feet float up like in the Dead Sea except it’s not salty.

Whoever made the pool rimmed the water with stones and today nature has laid fresh snow around the pool so that when you get down low in it to expose only your head to the cold, you can’t see above the snow rim. It’s quiet as a scared kitten, so quiet I imagine hearing individual snowflakes land on the glacier. This tiny mote of space is all that exists in the world. It’s snug in the water and morsels of ice tickle your face.

Refreshing, renewing. And like so many other things around here, utterly incongruent. Elsewhere on this island, with heat so near the surface Icelanders bake Rúgbrauð, or Geysir Bread, buried in a pot two feet underground to cook overnight.


Guides the world over fix on their favorite landmarks. For our Burmese guide it was factories. “That is milk factory,” “That is rice factory,” “Do you want to see brick factory? Take photo?” Kemm on Streymoy Island liked churches.

For Agnar it is power stations. He shows us all of them (and there are many) big and small, and tells the tale of a farmer and his own personal power station. Power shed, really. It seems that one summer, when there was no snow, the electricity went out and the farmer went to investigate.

He found the door blown off and snow tumbling out of his shed. Failed electricity led to a burst pipe, turning the shed into the farmer’s own personal snow machine. His neighbors snickered that he could hire himself out to ski slopes.


Agnar’s tires are straight-from-America and too big for him to carry a spare. Only America, where bigger is always better, he says, would make these tires. He scoffs at an Icelandic company that has 38 inch tires made in China and imported. They won’t do in EAST Iceland.

And since they are too big to carry a spare, what do you do if you have a flat?

“You have to fix it.”

He glued his tires right to the rims and the mechanic who helped him told him he was crazy. But he didn’t mean for them to come off. Ever.

I was wrong about Agnar at first. All this derring-do makes Agnar’s fine company on the side of a glacier beat that of any neurotic city boy, or gentrified psuedo-farmer like me.



Back to Egilsstaðir, one of Iceland’s few inland towns and the transport hub for the east. It is the first proper town if you arrive on the Norrona ferry and home to an airport with multiple daily flights to Reykjavik. Population, about 2,750.

There is a cafe in the red house (they just call it the red house) in the middle of town. Tonight maybe thirty people socialize in a light, Egilsstaðir way, gathered in groups around laminated diner-style tables like the Hvonn brasserie in Torshavn.

(Most people on the island are related at least at the 8th or 9th remove. To avoid striking up a relationship with your cousin when out at the pub, there is an “incest prevention” app based on genealogical data that allows people to bump phones and determine how closely they may be related. Just in case.)

An Indian fellow in the kitchen serves up tandoori chicken dishes, Gull Icelandic beer in big mugs and ‘wood fired’ pizza, surely exotic in a place with no wood. People come for the food and the free wifi, or to play chess.

Icelanders play a lot of chess. It is one of the ways to pass the long winter. In the off season fishermen carve chess pieces from whale bones (wood being more scarce) and people knit. There is a fine selection of yarn in the store. Families, friends, the community, everybody nods closer in the winter.

And Icelanders read. In the 1960s there were a dozen daily newspapers and forty bookshops in Reykjavik. There are more books published and more books read per head here than anywhere else. Every tenth Icelander is an author.

Meanwhile, in the Icelandair Hotel Herad across the way, mod furniture that may have found exile here from the rest of Europe after the 80’s swivels in place beside the overbearing silence of its restaurant. The Hotel Herad’s most notable feature may be ahead of its time. Its default TV news channel is not the advertising wasteland of CNN, but France 24 TV news.




I throw open the blinds the day of our flight from Egilsstaðir and flop back down on the bed, self-satisfied because I’ve built an extra day into our itinerary and this will be it, the day we are socked in with a full blizzard. The street is scarcely visible and the flags outside stand straight, towel-snapping in the wind. No plane will fly here today.

Snow-whipping wind bends the trees sideways while I imagine a day of amniotic calm in which I needn’t be kempt nor ept nor sheveled. I imagine ordering modest room service fare in the modest Icelandair hotel, never progressing beyond my underwear and soaking in the state of the world as France Vingt Quatre sees it, nibbling the admittedly graying grapes on the Herad’s fruit platter. Until the next time I look and blue sky and calm reign, and the occasional car makes wary time down the highway.

All flights lead to Reykjavik, four of them, at 8:55, 12:15, 12:55 and 16:10. They ask that you arrive thirty minutes before your flight but still you have to ring the bell on the counter for service. It’s a little whacky. There’s a video monitor on which Saevar the Reindeer Whisperer offers tours of East Iceland.

Americans have tried to convince ourselves since 9/11 that a more prominent display of intolerance, flags and belligerence by Homeland Security will take care of the security threat. Back home we have made the dour airport experience the new normal.

In Egilsstaðir, the old normal never left.  There is no security and there are no security personnel. You are hard pressed to find any personnel at all except the lady behind the counter at the coffee shop. And there are no bag scanners or x-ray machines. Just jump on and ride.

By this time we have had any number of alternating gales and lulls since that first look out the window. Three Caterpillar tractors with big blades race up and down the airstrip. In winter, I guess clearing that bit of land is a full time job. The 8:30 arrival, a Fokker 50, roars in ten minutes late and we are southbound within a half hour.

A pilot on the Savusavu air strip in Fiji once lauded the entire Fokker line to me, saying these little worker bees demand the air, and you have to hold them on the ground. So it was with today’s flight in a Fokker 50, as we roared down the air strip and out of east Iceland like lightnin’.

When I was a teenager my friend Jim and I found some of his dad’s money, paper bills that said “Landsbanki Islands,” and we scoured maps to find these islands. We couldn’t, and came to realize the translation would be something like the “National Bank of Iceland.” In fact, the failure of Landsbanki, alongside Iceland’s other two big banks Kaupthing (“marketplace”) and Glitnir (as we learned in the Faroes, Norse heaven), precipitated Iceland’s bankruptcy in 2008.

The word “Islands” works the same way here. The airline is Air Iceland when you book your tickets in English on the web; here it’s Flugfelag Islands in its livery, and in-flight magazine.

They keep Reykjavik city airfield busy with domestic flights to Isafjordur, Akureyri and then on to Grimsey in the Arctic, Þhorshofn, Vopnafjordur and Egilsstaðir, to Tórshavnin the Faroe Islands and to Illulisat, Nuuk, Narsarsuaq, Kulusuk (where we are bound soon) and Ittoqqortoormiit in Greenland.

From my seat 2A I lean forward and guess that if that propeller comes loose so will my head, because before they start it up and it spins too fast to see, I reckon it is maybe just a touch more than a meter from where I sit. Which might be just as well if the prop flies off, anyway.


Here is a previous excerpt, from the Faroe Islands.

Out in the Cold, Tomorrow


Coming tomorrow, an excerpt from the book Out in the Cold from Iceland.