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We're generally not the rugged outdoorsy types who enjoy rock-climbing, mountain biking, and other dangerous activities. To be honest, my idea of "roughing it" is a motel with no room service. Some of our trips have led to some unexpected adventures, and this story about our trip to Greenland in 2007, is one of my favorite examples.
On our second day in Qaqortoq, Greenland, we got up early to catch a boat to the Norse ruins at Hvalsey. I had been reading Jane Smiley's historical novel, The Greenlanders, which is set during the 14th century and the waning years of the Norse colony in Greenland. The book follows the fortunes and misfortunes of one family of Norse settlers, and the toll that disease, famine, and climate change take on them over the years. Most of the book takes place in the fjords near where we were staying, and I was curious to see how the modern scene compared to what was described in the book. It's a terrific book, one that I highly recommend if you are interested in what might have happened to the Viking colonies that settled Greenland for 500 years, then just disappeared.
We were supposed to meet our boat at the small dock at the bottom of the hill, and when we got there, there was a small cabin-cruiser waiting for us. We waited to see if a guide would join us, but didn't see anyone, so we just boarded the boat on our own. There was a thirty-ish Greenlandic woman on-board, a Danish man, and the captain, a handsome young Greenlandic man who looked a little like a weather-beaten Keanu Reeves.
As we were getting ready to leave, two older men wearing painting overalls came aboard with buckets of paint and tools. I wondered if they were doing some work at the ruins, or if we were dropping them off en route. No one except the captain spoke English. The three men had an animated conversation in Danish, as cigarettes dangled from their lips. I hoped none of the bottles of paint thinner they were carrying would burst into flames, but I tend to worry like that.
I asked Frank, "Are you sure this is the right boat?" just as the captain untied the boat from the dock.
"I guess so. It's 8 am, and this is the only boat here." He showed me the e-mail confirmation of the time and the name of the boat landing. We figured they would probably let us know if they weren't expecting us.
Captain Keanu invited us into the cabin and graciously offered us coffee. It was cold and misty outside, so we welcomed the chance to be inside the warm cabin. The Greenlandic woman stoically sat outside in the back for a while, but as we sped through the fjord, she got cold and came in. She didn't speak to anyone on the boat the entire time, so I figured she was most definitely not the tour guide.
We were on the boat for about an hour and made a turn up another fjord, this one full of ice chunks and icebergs of varying sizes. We could hear the ka-chunk ka-chunk ka-chunk of the boat hitting the ice. This sound scared me during the first boat trip we took through the icy waters of Ilulissat. By now, I was used to the sound and no longer feared that the ice was ripping the hull of the boat to shreds and that we were going to sink at any moment, like a mini-Titanic with no band.
As we got further into the ice-covered fjord, Frank noticed a town up ahead, so he asked the captain, "When do we get to Hvalsey?"
Captain Keanu looked at him blankly. "Hvalsey? This boat goes to Narsaq."
"Narsaq? Do we go to Hvalsey Church after Narsaq?" Frank replied.
"No. We never go to Hvalsey. Only Narsaq. I normally don't drive such a boat. I work on the passenger ship," the captain offered.
"When do you go back?" Frank asked.
"July 11. Next Tuesday," was the reply. Frank turned beet red and I thought he was going to have a stroke or a coronary right on the spot. Now I knew why we kept seeing ambulances parked at the docks. I started to worry. We pulled into the dock and the workers, the Greenlandic woman, and the Danish man got off, along with all the painting supplies.
I decided to pipe up,"So, when will this boat go back to Qaqortoq?"
"I don't know. You can get off if you want. Maybe the other captain will take you."
"Who is the other captain?" I asked.
"The other man who was here," he gestured to the seat at the table where the portly Danish man had been sitting. "Maybe he take you. Are you sure you won't get off?"
I said, "No, thanks." There was no way I was getting off that boat without finding someone to take us back to Qaqortoq. I had a vision of Captain Keanu and the Danish captain each grabbing one of my legs and trying to pull me off the boat while I dug my nails into the starboard side. At this point, hijacking the boat and ka-chunk-ing it back through the icebergs myself would not have been out of the question. Frank looked worried and mopped his brow.