Well, I'm on my way ... again. Greenland, the sequel. Back to the frigid water that freezes on your parka whenever a wave splashes over the boat hull, the apartment-house-sized icebergs that rock precariously as you motor past, and the colossal cliffs rising 1,000 feet or more out of the sea—the cliffs you have to climb to reach the nesting falcons. I'm en route to join an expedition in progress—a 1,000 mile boat trip up the west coast of Greenland to study peregrine falcons and gyrfalcons. The other people on the team left two weeks ago, and I have to hook up with them at Uummannaq, a small town midway up the coast. I'll be in Greenland for three weeks, covering the trip for Living Bird, a magazine I edit at Cornell.
In case you don't know much about Greenland, it's that huge mass of ice you fly across for hours when you're taking the polar route to or from Europe. It has the distinction of being the largest island in the world (1.8 million square kilometers) and also the northernmost country. Most of the country lies above the Arctic Circle, and it was the base from which Robert Peary and several other polar explorers launched their attempts to reach the North Pole, just a few hundred miles farther north. But you get the picture. It's a cold place—winter or summer. Only 55,000 people live there, mostly in the south, and the capital "city" of Nuuk boasts only 14,000 residents—barely a village in U.S. terms. You walk out of any town, settlement, or military base in Greenland, and you're basically in a howling wilderness within minutes.
As always when you go to Greenland, you have to take the trip in stages. Today my wife is driving me from Ithaca, N.Y., to Ottawa, Ontario (about a five-hour trip), where I'll spend the night and catch an early morning flight with a tiny Canadian airline that specializes in taking Inuits and other northern dwellers or workers from one part of the Arctic to another. The destinations have names like Kuujjuaq, Iqaluit, and Nuuk (as in the Three Stooges' "Nuuk, Nuuk, Nuuk"). I'll fly first to Baffin Island, then continue to Kanderlussuaq, Greenland, where I'll probably have to take a series of domestic flights on small planes or helicopters to reach Uummannaq. Someone is supposed to meet me in Kanderlussuaq and fill me in on the details. (I imagine myself, like Jim Phelps in Mission: Impossible, being handed a tape that self-destructs after I listen to it.)
At least I have some idea of what I'm getting into this time. I was clueless last year when I went there to cover a bird research project in northwest Greenland. I was traveling with Bill Burnham, president of the Peregrine Fund (the organization that reintroduced peregrine falcons to much of North America after their population was devastated by DDT contamination in the 1950s and '60s). I kept calling him in the weeks before the trip, trying to make sure I had everything I'd need. Now, Bill is the quintessential stoical Westerner and a man of few words, so you tend to listen closely when he speaks. Our phone calls often had an unnerving effect on me. As soon as I hung up, I'd usually call REI or L.L. Bean right away and buy more gear. One day he told me I'd need an all-season tent that could withstand 125-mile-an-hour winds. Sometimes these Arctic storms come up without warning, blowing snow horizontally, he told me, and you have to hunker down in your tent behind some rocks for a few days till it passes. "Right," I said. "No problem." I was trembling as I called the mail-order outfitter to order a tent. Then the next time we talked he said, with a deadpan Clint Eastwood delivery, "You know, a person could die out there … r-e-e-al e-e-z-e-e." I went right out and bought a new goose-down sleeping bag, an expedition-grade parka, moleskin long underwear, weatherproof gloves, fleece glove liners, and a pile of Arctic socks. And whenever my wife complained about the hundreds of dollars I was blowing on this stuff, I'd tell her: "You know, a person could die out there … r-e-e-al e-e-z-e-e."
And then I got there and a short time later, we were cruising through ice floes in the fog north of Cape York, trying to avoid hitting patches of clear ice that hung in the water in places like great floating sheets of Saran Wrap. These can be deadly—much worse than the big icebergs, which at least you can see. They can easily slice a rubber boat like the one we were in or flip the passengers out, and you can only survive a few minutes in the frigid water. Most of the people I met in Greenland don't even bother to wear life vests. They call them body finders, which is about all they're good for there. And the brand name of the boat we were using last year, Achilles, did nothing to inspire confidence in me. I know things like this are just silly superstitions, but I kept wondering what its Achilles' heel might be. But things are looking up this year. The Peregrine Fund has a new, supposedly unsinkable boat, which we'll be using on the trip. Its brand name: SafeBoat.