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In The Land Of White Nights And Erik The Red

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For most of history, Greenland has been one of the most remote and inhospitable places on the planet. You would be hard-pressed to find someone who could say exactly where it is, who runs the place and who lives there. But with the Arctic ice retreating, some of the world’s largest energy and mining companies are now eager to explore for oil, gas and rare earth minerals. As part of our series on the Arctic this week, NPR’s Phil Reeves visited Greenland and talked to the people about the prospects of change. You can hear his reports on Morning Edition. Here are some of his observations during his recent stay in Greenland’s capital Nuuk.

A drizzling fog has sauntered in from the sea, and swallowed up the town. The hour is late. Finally, I have my fingers around the neck of Erik the Red.

Erik was the man who, about 1,000 years ago, gave this giant island the wrong name. He was keen to persuade his fellow Norsemen to leave neighboring Iceland and settle on these shores.

So he talked of a place called Greenland, thinking this alluring billing would surely attract boatloads of Vikings. At least, so say the Icelandic Sagas.

The name was a lie: Greenland was then, and is now, a vast wilderness of ice, snow, and rock, most of which is above the Arctic Circle.

Even in its exposed parts, along the coastal fringe, Greenland is more brown than green: I haven’t seen a tree.

Greenlanders of the modern age have rewarded Erik’s outrageous hype by immortalizing him in liquid form.

In the bars of Nuuk, you can buy bottles of locally-brewed “Erik the Red” beer. I have my hand wrapped around one now. A swig of Erik is an antidote to a day spent pounding the streets of this unusual town.

Nuuk lies in a rocky cradle of land, surrounded by jagged mountains beside a cold, clean sea that is ornamented, in the summer, by the occasional shard of passing ice.

A few days ago, two whales were spouting in the steely waters below the wheels of the Fokker 50 propeller plane as we prepared to land in Nuuk from Iceland.

Beyond the town lies a vast, wild network of fjords and glaciers, the plumbing system for the run-off from the gigantic ice cap that covers most of Greenland, the world’s largest island and a self-governing dependency of Denmark.

Nuuk is the capital of Greenland, and the town therefore holds itself in high esteem. Yet only 16,000 people live here.

In Greenland, 16,000 is a big number, more than a quarter of the island’s entire population — most of whom are indigenous Inuits. The tourist blurb in my hotel calls Nuuk “tiny,” but also boasts of a “sprawling metropolis.”

One Greenlander I interviewed compared Nuuk with Las Vegas. At least, she says, that is how dazzling the town seems to an Inuit hunter or fisherman when he arrives for the first time from one of Greenland’s tiny, faraway coastal villages.

That hunter-fisherman will find that Nuuk has several big, well-stocked stores, including a large supermarket selling Italian wines, French cheese, olives and pineapples.

He will find a shop that sells cuts of whale skin, big lumps of blubber, and racks of seal ribs.

If he tours around town by taxi — and he should expect breathtakingly high fares — he will also find a few boutiques, cafes, bars and restaurants, including one that serves surprisingly good Thai food.

During the summer’s “white nights,” when the sun barely sets, the hoots and howls of drinkers echo into the early hours. Sometimes these chime with the pounding rhythms of a Nuuk rock band. The town has a remarkably active music scene.

Yet Nuuk is not Sin City, not by a long shot. There are just two traffic lights, and much of the time the city is hushed.

A few days in, I find myself wondering why the town is not dying of boredom. Yet the people tell me there is much to do, especially if you have a family. “We celebrate everything that happens in the family,” one Nuuk resident told me.

“If it’s your birthday, we have a party. If you’re setting off to college, there’s a party. If you’re coming home from college — another party,” I was told. There is evidence of this in the local paper. It carries big advertisements announcing the birthdays of children.

Proof of another great passion lies down in the harbor. There is a large fleet of tiny boats in which people sail out in the summertime to explore the fjords. They build cabins, fish, and shoot seals. Residents say they fill their freezers with the meat and fish they’ve killed.

Evidence of Greenland’s hunting culture is everywhere. Even the chairs in Nuuk’s cheerful little airport are lined with seal fur.

This picture has one big, and to the outsider, surprising blemish. Dotted around Nuuk, looking utterly out of place, there are some giant down-at-heel Soviet-style apartment blocks.

They are the product of a program a few decades back, when Inuit hunters and fishermen were forced to move out of their coastal settlements and into Nuuk, to provide labor for the fishing industry.

The issue remains a sore point. Greenlanders tend to blame the Danes, their former colonial masters. The apartments are gradually being knocked down, but they remain a nasty scar on an otherwise idyllic landscape.

Erik the Red — the Viking equivalent of a realtor — would surely have been appalled at these eyesores.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit

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