On leaving Greenland

400 years after colonizing a new world, the Norse settlers of Greenland disappeared. Departed, killed or vanished, a more precise theory varies with whom you talk with. Some believe that the colony, which had been dwindling for hundreds of years, could have collapsed due to climate change causing famine and that the remaining few faced isolation and left or died. What we do know is that after 1450, there were no concrete traces of Norse people in Greenland.

Centuries later, the Kingdom of Denmark sent emissaries to Greenland to assert sovereignty over the great arctic island, only to discover an exclusively Inuit population, and well, that second Scandinavian colonization is… History. Today Greenland is still making history. Known nationally as Kalaallit Nunaat, the country is in the last stages of regaining its independence.

Most people don’t realize it, but Greenland is part of North America. Though certainly remote, it is at the crossroads of the Old World and the New World, of East and West. This unique society is what makes Greenland’s culture as fascinating as its nature. After spending 20 (mostly cold) days in Greenland, I was looking forward to a good latté but extremely thankful to have taken part in historical research, met locals and travelers alike, and experienced this incredibly unique place.

Qaqortoq

Picturesque and modern Qaqortoq (formerly Julianehåb) is the largest town in South Greenland

Group pic

From left to right, Georg, Jacob, Andreas, Viking Explorer, Henrik and Terryll. The artists and archeologists got along splendidly.

Christmas beer

We celebrated our arrival and departure from the Hvalsey site with “Christmas” beers

Advertisements

On reconstruction and restoration

While most of the vestiges of the Viking Age lie in ruins or have been buried underground, a few examples of well preserved structures from the Norse occupation of Greenland still remain standing. The best example is the Hvalsey church, a stone structure complete with all four original walls that include openings for three entrances and two windows. The site of this iconic church, which rests on a sloping hillside pinched between a frighteningly steep mountainside and the stunning fjord, became our camp for five days while we photographed and filmed the restoration of the nearby hall.

Hvalsey light

A document from Iceland that tells of a wedding that took place here in 1408 is the last record of Norse presence in Greenland.

The north wall of the problematic structure had collapsed decades ago, leaving archeologists Georg and Henrik along with Jacob the restoration expert with the task of rebuilding the structure by referring to early 20th century photographs and using the original massive stones which lay strewn throughout the interior of the building. Back in Igaliku, the team has used simple hand tools and straps for the restoration of the unstable stone and lintel passageways, however this job was going to require a little more muscle.

photo for reconstruction

A photo from 1935 shows the state of the north wall before it collapsed

As we cruised towards the site in a passenger boat, another boat containing a small excavator glided alongside. The excavator would become an extension of Jacob who used the mechanical arm to lift massive stones, while Henrik directed his incredibly slights movements. Witnessing the process of replacing the stones was like slow motion; it would seem as though nothing was happening until the magical moment when a stone suddenly snapped into position. I asked Jacob how the Norse quarried and moved these stones with no machinery. It wasn’t more of a problem for them than for us, “they just did it” he explained austerely, using technology that we have completely forgotten about.

Henrik and Jacob humbly admit that there are very few restoration experts working today – in fact these are the only two currently tasked with saving the Norse Greenland sites. When asked why we should bother reconstructing ruins that have been crumbling for over a thousand years, Henrik explains, “Every time a little stone or two falls, the collapse is continuing. It could take a century, but if we don’t try and stop it…” He trails off, partly because he can’t find the words to describe the loss and partly so that we can take a minute to look and appreciate what we still see today.

Hvalsey restoration_01

Henrik slowly guides this two-ton stone back into place

Hvasey restoration 2

Henrik and Jacob working on the collapsed wall

Encountering Igaliku

Today’s Igaliku, which was once Norse Gardar on Einarsfjord, was the next location on our itinerary. I say “our” as my partner Andreas and I met up with cinematographer Terryll Loffler on the boat from Qassiarsuk to Igaliku, to begin shooting the restoration of some stone structures at Gardar. Gardar was a very affluent farm during the Norse occupation and the Episcopal centre of Greenland, the place where the Bishop lived.

The 4 km walk from Ittileq to Igaliku was full of anticipation. We were excited to meet Georg Nyegaard and his team and the stroll along and old tractor trail known as the ‘King’s road’ was very pleasant. As we came over the crest of the hill, our first view of Igaliku was astonishingly pastoral and idyllic.

Shortly after settling in the house that became our home for the next week, we began shooting Georg, Jacob and Henrik as they began their survey and cutting the long grass around the ruins. Besides the presence of our two teams, we understood that these ruins were a very lively place within the spirited community of Igaliku. Tourists and locals regularly wander in and out of the ruin site and the children use the large stones and lintels as their playground. Before long, the kids were swarming us, curious about our cameras and sound equipment so Andreas and Terryll allowed them to assist with the video until we realized the impossibility of keeping them silent while recording.

Location shot

Terryll takes video footage of Henrik working on the straightening of a potentially hazardous lintel.

camera with kids

The children took turns looking at the images projected on the ground glass of the view camera

We have been working here for five days and have had the opportunity to witness two weddings and experience a slice of daily life in Igaliku during the summertime, where the children play freely throughout the long days and visitors like us are made to feel welcome by the local community.

kids at ruins

Children gather in the ancient playground

Greenlandic wedding

The customary wedding attire for Greenlandic weddings is simply gorgeous

On Eriksfjord

When the Norse disappeared from Greenland in the 15th century, the only traces of their 400-year occupation were the ruins of their farms and settlements throughout the numerous fjords of southwest Greenland. The most legendary of these fjords, was settled by Erik the Red – Greenland’s first colonizer. For centuries after the Norse vanished their lands lay mostly untouched until another wave of colonization and settlement returned to these remote farms. As the memory of the Norse faded so did their place names – Eriksfjord became Tunulliarfik, and Erik’s farm at Brattahlid was resettled as Qassiarsuk.

Quassiarsuk

The ruins of Brattahlid can be seen in the foreground of modern Qassiarsuk

I flew into Narsarsuaq, a former U.S. military airstrip called Bluie West One, which also breathes a new life as a commercial airport and operates daily in summer. It welcomes researchers and adventurers to South Greenland from around the world. Amazingly, the airport is only 5 kilometers across the fjord from Qassiarsuk (Brattahlid), making this significant Viking Age site relatively simple to visit. Before heading across the fjord I spent a couple of days in Narsarsuaq, taking the opportunity to hike to the largest non-polar ice cap in the world. While staying at the hostel I met other groups of researchers ranging from glaciologists to peregrine falcon specialists. So far it seemed that I was the only one in search of Norse sites.

Crossing Eriksfjord in a small boat took merely 10 minutes. In the perfectly bright overcast sky, I set out to begin photographing the ruins and the reconstruction of Thjodhild’s church, the first Christian chapel in Greenland, built at the time of the Norse conversion to the ‘new’ faith. It was at the replica site that I met Lars, the keeper of the keys for the reconstructed Brattahlid buildings. Lars is a typical local – he was born in Qassiarsuk and lives in the yellow house closest to the ruins.

Brattahlid reconstruction

This replica of the chapel at Brattahlid had also been reconstructed in Iceland

Spending five days in Qassiarsuk afforded the time for hiking to ruin sites up in the fells (mountains) and on iceberg laden Tasiusak fjord.  Although these piles of historic stones stand impressively against the sublime Greenlandic landscape, I was more captivated by the juxtaposition of the ancient and modern architecture of Qassiarsuk.

Ruins near Tassiasuk

The viking explorer surveys these ruins on icy Tasiusak fjord

On preparing for a voyage

One cultural aspect that defined the Viking Age was a predilection for traveling. Whether their wanderlust stemmed from the tradition of raiding for prosperity, acquiring or trading resources, searching out places to settle, or simply to explore freely, each expedition required a basic amount of planning and preparation. Long journeys were mostly taken during the summer months, when the fjords were free of ice and the sea less treacherous. The winter before would be spent building ships, weaving sailcloth, and preparing food such as cheeses and skyr (type of yogurt that is still popular today.) I imagine some time was spent training for possible conflict.

In just a few days, I’ll be leaving for my next voyage to continue photographing and making videos. Here I will share some of the process that goes into planning a 6-week shooting expedition throughout the North Atlantic.

Research and itinerary: In my quest to photograph along the westward routes of Norse explorers, Greenland is the most challenging place to visit and my main priority for this year. Over a year ago, I began contacting archeologists that may be working in Greenland this summer and found Georg Nyegaard from the Greenland National Museum in Nuuk. He was pleased to have me join him and his team in South Greenland for a couple of weeks while they work on the restoration of a few Norse sites. Flying into Greenland is most commonly done via Reykjavik or Copenhagen, so I decided to go back to Iceland, where I could re-shoot some of the sites I’ve missed due to inclement weather. Afterward I will travel throughout South Norway to photograph the Børre mound cemetery and the Viking Age village of Kaupang. Finally, no trip to Scandinavia is complete for me without stopping in Gotland, where I’ll visit some friends at the Brucebo residency.

greenland

My itinerary in South Greenland includes  Qassiarsuk (Brattahlid), Igaliku (Norse Gardar) and Hvalsey (Hvalsey Fjord Church).

Assembling a crew: Viking Age seafarers would often travel in groups with multiple ships. My travel experiences have been mostly solitary however this upcoming expedition will entail making a film, something rather new to me. For the Iceland and Greenland part of the trip, I will be accompanied by my partner The Virtual Hiker, as well as filmmaker Terryll Loffler.

Preparing for remoteness: Some of the places where we will be shooting in Greenland are in the backcountry, where ruins have been well preserved as villages have not been built over or around them. Part of the expedition entails camping in the wild, with no electricity to charge camera batteries, and nowhere to buy or refrigerate food. After considering solar chargers, which are heavy and expensive, our solution to the lack of power is to stock up on Canon 5D Mark II batteries (we have a dozen)! In terms of dry foods, I’ve spent the last week cooking and dehydrating chili and curry dishes for us to eat in Greenland.

Bringing the right gear: I wish I had a Viking ship to carry all the gear we need to bring. Aside from the camping gear and warm clothing, we have abundance of photo and video equipment: 2 tripods, 3 tripod heads, a dolly track, a 4”x5” view camera with holders and other accessories, a light meter, a medium format film camera, 2 Canon DSLR cameras, sound recorders and microphones, along with laptops and external hard drives. Too bad there isn’t a Norse god for technology.

06_Gear

Just some of the photo equipment I will bring along

Getting in shape: In order to be able to carry all this gear and walk long distances, I keep in shape with a combination of running and Yoga. I also practice orienteering with the Ramblers club in Montreal, yet I still managed to get lost at Fjäle in Gotland in 2011.

Finally, there is only so much one can do to prepare for travel. Sometimes being over prepared takes all the adventure out of the journey. Another important aspect of Viking Age culture was their belief in Luck (yes, with a capital L.) Some people were more Lucky than others, and some journeys as well. I hope for a good dose of Luck on this one.

On Smiley’s Greenlanders

On my recent shooting trip to Sweden and Norway, I brought along Jane Smiley’s novel The Greenlanders, a work of fiction that traces the lives of a brother and sister, Gunnar and Margret, who were born and raised on a Norse farm in Greenland during the 14th Century.

Taking place generations after the time when Greenland was settled by outlaw Erik the Red, The Greenlanders retains the mood of an Icelandic saga. Smiley’s story is centered on recurrent themes such as the importance of social status and the struggle for order and survival, all of which characterized life during Viking times. Nevertheless, her characters do not possess the qualities that saga authors typically attributed to their ancestors. Gunnar and Margret are not beautiful, valiant nor affluent. In fact, we identify with them through their faults and weaknesses. It is through a strategy of borrowing the language of the sagas yet bringing the story down to earth, that Smiley has created a very contemporary historical epic.

Writers of historical fictions are tasked with endless research when it comes to understanding the time and place in which their novels are set. For Smiley, this must have been especially challenging. Historical accounts of Norse settlement in Greenland are vague. From the Vinland Sagas, we learn that Erik the Red discovered Greenland around 982 and colonized the country shortly afterward. At this time, two Norse Settlements were established along the island’s west coast, the northernmost one was called the Western Settlement, and the more southern called the Eastern Settlement. By the time the story of The Greenlanders opens, the Western Settlement has already been abandoned foreshadowing the eventual outcome of Norse occupation in this country. The reader is constantly made aware of the harsh and remote conditions of north, in which famine is capable of consuming the population and communication with the European world is close to non-existent. One is left to wonder if anyone from this era survived to tell his or her story.

Smiley is also a master storyteller, crafting stories within stories, and sometimes referring to Norse mythologies and earlier sagas with enough confidence and creativity to alter the original narratives. She reminds us that in difficult times, the sharing of tales is always accessible and can help to pass the long, cold winters, “for folk may not contemplate their fates all the time, and must play as well as work.”

I was turning the last pages of The Greenlanders on a flight home from Stockholm, as we flew over the southern tip of Greenland. Luckily the sky was relatively clear and we could see the landscape below. Photo by Jessica Auer.