‘Ice, mast-high, came floating by’: the beauty of berg-watching in a whiteout

And now there came both mist and snow,
And it grew wondrous cold:
And ice, mast-high, came floating by,
As green as emerald.

Well, it’s blue as Bombay Sapphire, actually, but otherwise Coleridge’s description of floating bergs in ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner‘ is pretty accurate. Coleridge’s poem tells of a disastrous voyage south to Antarctica – as any twitcher could tell you, because you won’t, as the Mariner does, encounter any albatross in the Atlantic. (The various albatross species live in the Southern Ocean and North Pacific.) But northern waters are where you’ll find the most famous place in the world to watch icebergs – Disko Bay in Greenland.

So naturally Disko – or its nearby settlement, Ilulissat – would be on my to-do list when in Greenland these last couple of weeks? Well, actually, no. I went to Greenland for more Viking research, and the Norse in Greenland never lived as far north as Ilulissat; I was exploring the south-western quadrant of this mighty island, the largest on Earth (if you accept a bit of iffy pedantry about Australia not counting because it’s a boating continent….).

But happily, I didn’t have to forsake the ice. Because the Vikings loved fjords, and in Greenland, those fjords almost all end in the vast ice-sheet that smothers more than 80 percent of the the country’s surface area. So there’s a glacier just round the corner from the first Viking settlement in Greenland, Eirik the Red’s farm, Brattahlid, which today is a working sheep farm. I spent two days wandering round Brattahlid in searing sunshine, but when the morning came for my three-hour cruise of the Qooroq Icefjord, I woke to inpenetrable fog.

My initial reaction was sore disappointment, but it turned out to be one of the most magical travel experiences of my life. Our boat floated in pure whitegreyness. There was no horizon, no visibility beyond a few metres, and little perceptible movement or sound – and even that disappeared once out among some especially beautiful bergs, when our skipper killed the engine. It was utterly disconcerting, a sort of sensory locked-in syndrome, and for that half hour it seemed inconceivable that there was a real world for us to return to. (Think of the final 10 minutes of the 2007 movie of Stephen King’s The Mist but, you know, happy.)

Gratifyingly, I got my Viking research in, too. Our guide did the time-honoured glacier-cruise routine of hauling out an especially sparkly lump of ice, hacking it up in in a big ol’ pot, and dumping a chunk in a glass for each of us before pouring over a generous slug of Martini. You hear the ice fizz and crack as the air escapes. Turns out the ice currently calving from the Qooroq Glacier is about a thousand years old, which makes it near-as-dammit contemporaneous with Eirik himself (he died in 1003). So the air percolating upwards through my glass may have been enjoying its first taste of freedom since passing through the lungs of one of the Viking age’s most notorious – and adventurous – bad guys.

My travel in Greenland was arranged by the wonderful Blue Ice Explorer, who I would wholeheartedly recommend.

Posted in Travel.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *