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Greenland Winter Is Long, Tourist Season's Short

September 10, 1989|DICK ALEXANDER | Alexander is a free-lance writer living in El Granada, Calif.

NARSARSUAQ — Even in late summer, the air here is cool, crisp and clean. You can walk out of any town into the middle of still, Arctic scenery.

The air base in Narsarsuaq, founded by Americans during World War II, is the gateway for all air traffic to South Greenland. The base also is headquarters for vital iceberg reconnaissance in the waters around southern Greenland.

We alighted from our plane and took a bus about 300 yards to the two-story hotel, one of two Arctic Hotels in Greenland.

The city has a population of about 120. Most residents work at either the Arctic Hotel (a former bachelor officers quarters), the fire station or the harbor.

The town has only one restaurant, The Blue, where hotel guests can get a large smorgasbord for lunch and Greenlandic delicacies for dinner.

About 30 minutes' sailing south of Narsarsuaq is the sheep-breeding village of Quassiarsuk, where Eric the Red settled when he came to Greenland from Iceland about AD 982.

There are no highways and no railroads here. Up north, where the dog sled is still the main transportation, all travel between towns is by airplane and helicopter, or, during part of the year, by ships built specifically for ice-covered waters.

We flew the 90 minutes from Narsarsuaq to Godthab aboard a four-engine turboprop plane ideally suited for operating in year-round Arctic conditions. In addition to the usual rafts and flotation cushions, the plane carried zip-up survival suits with hoods.

Godthab sits at the entrance of a large fiord with steep mountains, lush valleys and a few villages. It is Greenland's largest town, a "metropolis" with 12,000 people, hotels and a shopping center.

Dotted with green- and red-frame houses, it is also the country's capital and home to the Greenland National Museum. There, visitors can see the mummified remains of several Inuit Eskimos, well-preserved, fur-clad and believed to be 500 years old. They were discovered in a cave in northwestern Greenland in the 1970s by two brothers on a ptarmigan (alpine grouse) hunt.

The mummy discoveries were important because they gave scientists knowledge of clothing worn by Greenland inhabitants in the 15th Century.

The temperature was 3 degrees Celsius (about 39 degrees Fahrenheit) when we landed at the Godthab airport in early September and were driven by taxi through a bleak, boulder-strewn countryside to the new Hotel Hans Egede, where men were still working on the lobby as we entered.

I was the first guest to use room 407, one of 60 double bedrooms with mini-bar, radio, telephone and color TV.

The hotel was named for Hans Egede, a Lutheran pastor from Norway who in 1721 sailed to Greenland with his family of six to set up a Christian mission and trading post.

Greenland cannot handle a large tourist trade--only about 5,000 to 6,000. The season is short, from the end of June to mid-September. There are only about 800 hotel rooms in all of Greenland, plus hiking huts in the south that are open from mid-June to early September.

Most hotels have good restaurants specializing in Danish and Greenland food. For the most part, Greenlanders drink beer, but alcoholism is a problem. Bars stop serving drinks at 11 p.m., so it is not unusual to see locals line up 5 to 10 bottles of beer before the midnight closing.

From our table at the Hotel Hvide Falk (White Falcon) in Jakobshavn, where we flew from Godthab, we could see towering icebergs at the entrance to Disko Bay.

In the yard below, several Eskimo dogs--restless in the Greenland summer--gave an occasional howl and lifted their muzzles in our direction, sniffing the food.

Jakobshavn, a coastal town 180 miles north of the Arctic Circle, has about 4,400 people and 6,000 dogs, but at times the residents are wary of the huskies because of their occasional aggressiveness.

Nevertheless, the animals are a necessity in winter because no other vehicle in the world, it is said, can match the Greenland dog sled for speed and versatility over harsh and unpredictable terrain.

I was pleasantly surprised with the hotel menu that included tender sirloin, escargot topped with small slices of garlic toast, tomato and mushroom bits and artichoke hearts with shrimp.

It was the second day of September. In two months the freeze would arrive and the last supply ship would head south past the great masses of floating ice that give Jakobshavn its Greenlandic name, Ilulissat, "Place of the Icebergs."

We had taken our boat into Disko Bay earlier in the day to get a close look at the icebergs. The sight was awesome.

The Jakobshavn ice fiord, largest producer of icebergs in the world, turns out about 140 million tons of bergs daily, some weighing up to 7 million tons.

During summer the glacier moves as much as 100 feet a day. Some of the bergs drift toward Davis Strait between Greenland and Canada and are carried by the Labrador Current as far south as Newfoundland.

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