Two sociable days

Saxon Blue's Blog
Harvey Jones and Andrea Stokes
Mon 9 Aug 2010 13:15
We spent yesterday in and around Umanak as we had some jobs we wanted to do although, in the end, we didn't get any of them done. Andrea and I walked from Spraglebugt over to Umanak which took about an hour. It's a rocky track and interesting to see the geology of the island. As we crested the middle of the island, it took us both by surprise to see the massive bergs parked just outside Umanak harbour. Maybe the locals are used to seeing all this ice around but it still takes our breath away. Apparently, even the locals were concerned about the amount of ice over the last few days and moved their boats to a different harbour in case one of the bergs created a wave big enough to damage them. It's happened in the past here, with many boats destroyed.

We hoped to visit the museum in Umanak but it was closed (despite saying on the door that it should be open) so we went down to the cafe to get some lunch. I'd been successfully persuading Andrea to let me have chips but no luck on that front, either. The town had run out of chips and there wouldn't be any more until the chip boat docked on Monday. Disaster. I had to have a burger and Andrea had to have a burger without a burger in it so that put paid to her gloating about the chips. Just then, Magnus arrived in the tender. He'd forgotten to bring the rubbish with him, failed to purchase a 25 litre barrel as the shop was shut and couldn't buy any diesel as the pump was closed until Monday. He cheered himself up with an Angel cake.

Peter and Uiluq, two of the Greenlanders we'd met a few nights before at the fishing party were also sitting chipless outside the cafe and we got chatting to them. Uiluq's grandfather then came along and sat down with us. He's 74 years old and his first memory is waking up and hearing the sound of water rushing past his ear. He looks up and sees that he's in the bottom of a Umiak - a skin boat rowed by women - and can see the water through the skin. He spent his early years hunting seals and whales from a kayak. He's still hunting seals these days but with a bit more horsepower to help. It's amazing to imagine the changes that this one person has seen in his life as Greenland society has been transformed from pre-agricultural to post-industrial with barely a pause for breath. We asked Peter and Uiluq if they'd like to come out for dinner in the hotel later as our guests and they were pleased to accept.

Magnus went back around to Saxon Blue in the tender - presumably to appologise to Kali for not getting any jobs done - and we gave the museum another try. Still no luck. Peter and Uiluq invited us back to the house where they were staying so we accepted that and got a ride through town in their truck along some comprehensively pot-holed roads to a house on the outskirts of Umanak. The view from the house was beautiful - right down the fjord with islands, both rock and ice, dotted around and a large berg right below, so close that you could hear it fizzing as it melted. The house was very stylish and Scandinavian with a white leather sofa and all the modern kitchen stuff. The three Narwhal tusks on the wall and the carved Reindeer antler ornaments were reminders that we were still in Greenland, though.

After an hour or so of chatting, it was time to head back to town for an open-air concert and party on the quayside. There were two local bands performing - one of which was very good - and a barbeque of stuff that we didn't recognise so probably seal. It was incongruous to be sitting on a dockside in the sunshine in the Arctic watching 4 Greenland lads performing Apache by the Shadows. After a while, Kali and Magnus walked up and we headed up to the hotel for dinner.

Peter and Uiluq soon arrived and presented me with a gift specially made for me by Uiluq's grandfather - a sealskin dog-sled whip. Peter said that, having met us, he thought that we'd like it. I do like it very much indeed. The sealskin whip narrows gradually to the tip and is about 20 feet long. It's plaited onto a wooden handle with a thong to put over your wrist. Before use, the locals would grease it with blubber to make it supple but this would make it smell very bad so, luckily, hasn't been done. It's an appropriate reminder of Umanak, the dogs that are such a feature of the town and the new friends that we've made here and who have been so generous to us. It will also help as I try to impose discipline on the crew.

After dinner, the four of us had a lovely walk back to Saxon Blue through the low red sunlight. There was our beautiful boat, bobbing gently in the secure anchorage with massive ice mountains glowing all around. More Greenland magic.

Peter had told us a lot about Greenland current affairs and had recommended a few interesting local places to us so we decided to explore one of them today, the old mine at Marmorilik. We set off and soon had the sails up but that didn't last long until the wind died and we were back to motoring. The calm sea did give us a great view of a passing Fin Whale, though, and we followed it through the ice for half an hour. Our destination is at the head of a fjord that gets very close to the inland ice. It's heavily eroded and there are glaciers almost to the water along it but very few bergs. We arrived in the middle of the afternoon and spent a while finding a spot to anchor. Once we had, we could get a good look around.

On the point to the West, there is a jumble of what are clearly abandoned industrial artefacts - concrete bases for buildings, mine tailings, rusting machinery and gravel roads. In amongst that lot are some brand new buildings and shipping containers along with huge drums of cable and two cable-cars. On the other side of the fjord and 700 meters up a sheer rock face are two pairs of what look like doorways into the mountain. Around them are anti-avalanche grids and, amazingly, a series of ladders up the rock to a tiny platform above. We were working out how they must be building a new cable-car system across the fjord when we heard an outboard engine approaching. If you have an engine running on a boat, the sound carries your voice clearly over the water so we could hear the two guys sitting in the boat chatting to each other in English.

They could only have come from the mine so, when they got close and asked us what we were doing, I answered "We've come to see you." They invited us ashore for a look around so we set off in the tender and ended up getting the full story. This place is a Zinc mine of exceptional purity. The first period of mining hollowed out a series of chambers in the mountain, leaving pillars to support the roof. As techniques have improved, it's now possible to replace the pillars with concrete and mine the original pillars so that's what is happening. There has been a construction crew here for months until recently putting in new infrastructure but there are now just these two young English geologists on site, both recently out of university.

They took us around their accomodation which was comfortable but basic and then for a walk around the newly constructed cable-car station and finally into the entrance to an old exploratory mine tunnel above the buildings. The tunnel was absolutely dark after about 100 meters and a freezing cold wind was whistling out of it. We could look across to the doors in the cliff opposite where these guys had been working earlier. They had been ferried up there by helicopter which lands on the tiny platform above the doors. The workers then have to abseil down and in, work their shift and then climb back up the ladders before being taken home. The rock around the tunnel entrances is folded and patterned, the most distinctive pattern looking like a huge winged creature, the Black Angel which gives the mine its name.

We asked the geologists if they'd like to come back to Saxon Blue for dinner which they accepted - I think they'd do anything for a change of scene! They came over with some rock samples of the lead/zinc crystals that are being mined and some other glittering minerals. Even the waste rock that they're digging out is fine quality white marble so the whole place sparkles. They kept us entertained with details of their operation here and they've just gone back to their dormitory now. We're anchored in the milky water just off the mine buildings with the Black Angel right over our heads.

It's been a fascinating couple of days and we've seen aspects of Greenland that have deepened our understanding of what goes on here. The pace of development is staggering and the issues it throws up are going to be difficult to manage for the inhabitants, I think. On one level, they still love their dogs and their hunting. On another level, they're sitting on a treasure-trove of minerals - we've heard talk of Uranium, Rubies, Gold and Oil. Quite where that leaves their virtually pristine natural environment is going to be a serious debate.


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