The path stopped at the lip of a sloping meadow whose terrain was largely made up of spongy moss and lichen-covered rocks. We could not see far because of fog in the distance. But, taking the topographical maps we had purchased and our primitive compass-reading skills as our guides, we set out over the meadow toward where we thought the glacier ought to be.
We were not at great altitudes, perhaps 800 to 1,000 feet, but the higher we climbed the more enveloping the fog became, and within 45 minutes we were relying on the sound of rushing water to assure us we were still near the stream of glacial runoff.
With only enough hours of daylight for the return walk, we reluctantly abandoned the pursuit and turned back toward the town. We dined that night on authentic Greenlandic cuisine--bite-sized cubes of chewy whale blubber and a dark brown soup of seal meat--but couldn't shake the feeling we had missed an authentic Greenland experience.
Our urge to touch the inland ice was somewhat satisfied the following day, however, on a boat trip between Narsaq and our next destination, Qaqortoq. The captain navigated us into a small cove where, as it does in several spots along the coast, the inland ice spilled over a rocky promontory and into the fiord. We stepped from the boat onto the rocks to explore the ice, which sloped down from 100 feet above us.
To one side, it formed a sheer face that slid directly into the fiord, where the water had turned a dusty green from mixing with the fresh water of icebergs that were periodically calved from the ice.
To the other side of the rocks, the ice face formed an arch whose vault was a deep blue, a reflection of the fiord below. And directly in front of us, the ice descended onto the rocks, looking like a waterfall flash-frozen explicitly for us to inspect.
Later that day we landed in Qaqortoq, a town of 3,500 people that is the hub of southern Greenland and that afforded us the most complete picture of daily life there. The most well-off residents of Qaqortoq live in the brightly colored homes that dot the hillside leading down to the picturesque harbor; the majority, however, live in unattractive apartment buildings over the hill, whose only selling point is a view of the lake behind the town.
Before taking a walk to the lake on one of our three days in Qaqortoq, we stopped in a grocery store for provisions and were surprised to find the standard brand-name products of Western Europe, as well as such luxuries as French and Australian wines, all at prices made reasonable by subsidies from Denmark.
We found some of the few products that don't need such subsidies another morning when we walked down to the fish market, where people gathered to buy the freshest catch, to talk with friends or simply watch the day unfold on the equivalent of the public square. Outside the small wood market building, three older men on a bench chatted while a fourth standing nearby scraped the flesh from a seal skin.
On a day trip from Qaqortoq, we also saw some of Greenland's past at the Hvalsey church, a stone structure built about 1300 in the shadow of Mt. Qaqortoq. The Hvalsey church and a neighboring farm are the most well-preserved ruins from the Norse period in Greenland, which began when Eric the Red stumbled upon the territory in 982.
In what was surely one of the great marketing scams of the 10th century, Eric later persuaded other settlers to join him by telling them that he was calling the giant island by the seductive but somewhat misleading name of Greenland. (Greenlanders call their home Kalaallit Nunaat, which means Land of the People.)
One can only imagine the look on the face of the Norseman who anticipated rolling pastures and forests but found himself instead in a land where there are almost no trees.
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GUIDEBOOK: White on White in Greenland
Getting there: There are no direct flights from the United States to Greenland. You can fly from Los Angeles to Reykjavik, Iceland, with a change of planes in JFK or Boston (round-trip fare begins at about $770 including tax); on the second leg, fly either Icelandair or Greenlanair from Reykjavik to Narsarsuaq, Greenland (fare begins at about $530).
Local transportation: Once you're in Greenland, you can get around on Greenlanair (also known as Gronlandsfly), which operates both planes and helicopters. But expect the weather to play havoc with your schedule, and it won't be cheap. A half-hour flight from Narsarsuaq to Qaqortoq, for instance, will cost about $100 and to fly from southern Greenland to Disko Bay on the west coast will set you back $700. It's cheaper to explore one region.
Tours: You can make arrangements through a company such as Arctic Adventure in Copenhagen (011-45-33-25-32-21) or through an agent in the United States that deals with Greenland, such as Borton Overseas in Bloomington, Minn., tel. (800) 843-0602.
For more information: Danish Tourist Board, P.O. Box 4649 Grand Central Station, New York, NY 10163-4649, (212) 949-2333.