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Archive for the ‘Ilulissat’ Category

The colorful houses, constant barking of chained up sled dogs, and the ever-present icebergs floating just off shore were just a few of the amazing things that the magical little town of Ilulissat has to offer. But for me, one of the biggest highlights of our stay in Ilulissat was visiting the vicarage where polar explorer and anthropologist Knud Rasmussen was born and raised. The building is now home of the Ilulissat Museum, which contains numerous exhibits on Inuit culture and history in addition to artifacts from the life of Knud Rasmussen. I have to admit that I had never heard of Knud before visiting Ilulissat, but it didn’t take long for me to become a full blown Knudist.

A typical view in Ilulissat.  Not too shabby!

A typical view in Ilulissat. Not too shabby!

Part of Knud’s success as an explorer and social scientist came from his ability to seamlessly interact with both Danish and Greenlandic cultures.  I think that’s probably why Knud’s story struck such a chord with me.  My wife is from Costa Rica and we are expecting our first child in less than a month. We worry that the child will feel more comfortable with one language and culture over the other, and therefore favor communication with one side of the family more than the other. Knud, who had a Danish father, the vicar Christian Rasmussen, and an Inuit-Danish Mother, Sophie Rasmussen (nee Fleicher), was not only able to integrate himself into both cultures, the embracement of both cultures is what made him so successful.

The man himself, Dr. Knud Rasmussen!

The man himself, Dr. Knud Rasmussen!

Knud spent most of his childhood in Ilulissat, but traveled to Denmark to study at the age of 12, which kicked off a lifetime of travel and exploration.  After graduating and working as a correspondent for several newspapers, he joined the Danish Literary Expedition to contact “the new people” of Thule – Inuit communities that had so far had very little contact with outside cultures. Knud collected a great deal of information about their way of living, myths, beliefs, and culture. The expedition was so successful that Knud was motivated to embark on further expeditions, including exploring more of Greenland and visiting the native peoples of Canada, Alaska, and Siberia. Through his travels he realized that the language and beliefs of many of the Inuit were similar. He was even able to easily communicate with the peoples he encountered in Canada and Siberia using his native Greenlandic language, Kalaallisut.

Ulu, or the "woman's knife" is used for cleaning and skinning animals.

Ulu, or the “woman’s knife” is used for cleaning and skinning animals.

Are the Inuit snow goggles not the coolest things ever?  I seriously love these.

Are the Inuit snow goggles not the coolest things ever? I seriously love these.

We never totally out what wound plugs are for exactly, but I was fascinated by them, nonetheless.

We never totally out what wound plugs are for exactly, but I was fascinated by them, nonetheless.

In addition to all the exploring and reporting, I was particularly impressed by the creative ways that Knud brought attention to the Inuit way of life, such as by making the film “Palo’s Wedding”.  It is a remarkable film and I encourage everybody out there to watch it! It can be hard to find, although you can buy it on Amazon, and there are a few short clips on youtube. Greenlandic filmmaking lives on, by the way, check out the recent horror flick Qaqqat alanngui. Not to be missed!

Knud’s adventures were not without their challenges (such as being deported from Siberia), but he nonetheless visited Inuit communities throughout the world and brought attention to their relatedness, migration patterns, complex belief system and the remarkable adaptations to polar life. As a reward for all his work Knud was awarded honorary doctorates from the universities of Copenhagen and Edinburgh.

Kristen points out some articles in the museum related to her research!

Kristen points out some articles in the museum related to her research!

In addition to the exhibits on Knud, the Ilulissat Museum had a number of exhibits on Inuit culture in the past and present.  A favorite of mine was a special exhibit on how climate change is perceived by the people of Greenland (link). Despite the fact that the arctic is experiencing climate change at about twice the rate of the rest of the world, the majority of Greenlanders see climate change as either a distant threat or of minimal consequence.  Doesn’t feel too far from home, to be honest!  Check out some of the photos from the exhibit below.  My favorite by far is the boy upset that climate change is affecting Christmas.

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Hey Ruth, how do you feel about climate change?

Hey Ruth, how do you feel about climate change?

All in all the Ilulissat Museum was an excellent stop and very educational. Definitely worth a visit if you happen to find yourself in a majestic town of Ilulissat!

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Kristin had been raving about Ilulissat all summer.  In Nuuk, when we exclaimed about the icebergs in the fjord, she laughed and said, “Just wait for Ilulissat.”  And yet, she kept worrying outloud: “What if the others don’t like it?  What if it really isn’t as spectacular as I think?”  The second our cohort spotted Ilulissat from our plane windows, we knew Kristin had no reason to worry.  She was absolutely right: Ilulissat was so spectacular that our pictures didn’t seem real, even hours after taking them.

Taking in the view from the hotel's balcony.  By this point, we agreed with Kristin completely: Ilulissat was incredible.

Taking in the view from the hotel’s balcony. By this point, we agreed with Kristin completely: Ilulissat was incredible.

Indeed, the natural beauty of Ilulissat, the third largest town in Greenland, has been recognized internationally by the World Heritage Committee.  In 2004, Ilulissat Icefjord joined the ever-growing list of World Heritage sites, which includes familiar locations such as the Statue of Liberty, Yosemite National Park, and Yellowstone National Park.  World Heritage sites are chosen for their ‘outstanding universal value,’ and must meet at least one out of ten selection criteria (to learn more about the selection process, visit the World Heritage Committee’s website).  Ilulissat Icefjord met two selection criteria: being an example of an important stage in Earth’s history, and being a memorable natural spectacle.

There is no doubt that the view of the Ilulissat Icefjord is memorable.  Our first day in Ilulissat, Kathy Young, CPS Science Coordinator, took us on one of the many marked trails around town.  As we rounded the corner and the icebergs came into view, our jaws dropped in amazement.  Continuing along the rest of the hike was slow going – we had to stop every few minutes to stand in awe, take pictures, and pinch ourselves.

Cohort 4 soaks in the beauty of the icebergs during our first day in Ilulissat.

Cohort 4 soaks in the beauty of the icebergs during our first day in Ilulissat.

We had to stop frequently to take pictures.

We had to stop frequently to take pictures.

A few days later we experienced something that will stick with me forever.  As we walked from town to the World Heritage Site, cold fog suddenly blew in.  At first, we thought we wouldn’t be able to see any icebergs.  As we looked up, however, we realized that the tops of the icebergs were sticking up through the fog, floating pinnacles of towering ice.  Absolute magic.

Icebergs floating on a bed of fog.

Icebergs floating on a bed of fog.

It is Ilulissat’s other reason for World Heritage site selection that makes me pause and think: an example of an important stage in Earth’s history.  Usually, when I think of Earth’s history, I think far back in time: the first life on Earth, the rise of oxygen in the atmosphere.  Ilulissat Icefjord, however, is an example of a very recent stage in Earth’s history.  The fjord was full of ice during the Last Glacial Maximum, and we are today witnessing the retreat of the glacier up the fjord.  Thinking about the site in terms of Earth’s history makes me realize just how fleeting this natural phenomenon is.  At some point, will people stand looking out over the fjord, relying on signs telling them about the icebergs?  Will the location of the World Heritage site seem strange: just another glacial fjord, devoid of ice?  How will they ever know how beautiful it was?

A boardwalk leads to the World Heritage site.

What will this boardwalk lead to in a few hundred years?

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