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Kangerlussuaq, Greenland

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Kangerlussuaq is the Greenlandic word for 'long fjord'. Greenland has three places called Kangerlussuaq: one in North Greenland, one in East Greenland, one in West Greenland1. This entry is about west coast Kangerlussuaq. Danes call the place Sondre Stromfjord, which translates into English as 'South Stormyfjord'2. Americans used to call it Sondrestrom Air Force Base, when they maintained an air force base there. International aviators call it 'SFJ'.

Natural History

The fjord known to West Greenlanders as Kangerlussuaq is 185km long. Its tip lies 60km north of the Arctic Circle, which gives it 24-hour sunlight for a few weeks in the summer and (due to atmospheric refraction) 23-hour lack of sunlight for a few weeks in the winter3. It lies at the northern edge of the ice-free zone of west Greenland, so it is navigable year-round.

The area is part of a climate zone known as Arctic desert. It is 100km inland from the coast. Even in Greenland the coast (and the offshoot of the Gulf Stream current which flows there) provides a moderating effect on temperature. The land area around the tip of Kangerlussuaq does not benefit from this, and its extremes of sunlight lead to extremes of temperature. Temperatures can reach 30° Celsius there in the summer, and -40 in the winter. There are no trees growing there, but grass and bushes abound, as do musk oxen and reindeer who feed on them. There are many lakes in the area, which are home to Arctic char (a close relation to salmon). Seals were once abundant in the fjord, but now are rare.

West Greenlanders used their Kangerlussuaq as a summer hunting ground, and sensibly abandoned the place in the winter. Danes established year-round settlements nearer the outer shore in the 1800s, sensibly avoiding the head of the fjord in the winter. The first permanent settlement had to wait until 1941.

Political History

Before the entry of the United States of America into World War II, the US government was preparing for intervention in the European war. An important part of this intervention involved getting airplanes to Europe. At that time, planes had shorter flight ranges than today. The shortest range planes had to cross the Atlantic in several hops, from the US to Goose Bay in Labrador, to West Greenland, to East Greenland, to Iceland, to the Faeroes, to Britain. The points between Labrador and Britain were all under Danish control.

In 1940, the Danish government had to flee Denmark abruptly to avoid German troops. Denmark and the US jointly took that dubious opportunity to entrust the Danish north Atlantic possessions to US defense.

The United States promptly started building airbases across the north Atlantic. 13 airbases were built in Greenland: eight in West Greenland, five in East Greenland, numbered Bluie West 1 through 8 and Bluie East 1 through 5 respectively. The northernmost of these bases, Bluie West 8, was built at the head of Kangerlussuaq/Sondre Stromfjord. Because of its Arctic desert climate, its flying conditions were ideal despite the cold. After the war, this base was kept operational while other bases closed and it was renamed Sondrestrom Air Force Base. It remained important throughout the Cold War, as a supply point for distant early warning stations.

During the 1950s, passenger planes had to stop for refuelling during Atlantic crossings, especially if they were aimed from Europe to the American west coast. In 1954, someone noticed that Sondrestrom Air Force Base was an ideal midway stopping point between Copenhagen and Los Angeles. Planes stopped at the base from 1954 to 1965. This firmly established the base as an entryway to Greenland.

As the Cold War ended, Americans closed down air bases throughout the world, and Greenland was no exception. The United States handed Sondrestrom Air Force Base over to Danish authority on 30 September 1992. The next day, the Danish authority handed the base over to the Greenland Home Rule. It was titled Mittarfik Kangerlussuaq(Mittarfik is the Greenlandic word for airport). The airport was kept operational by Mittarfeqarfiit (the Greenland airport authority), as a major hub for airline travel within Greenland.

Today, Kangerlussuaq is home to a small Royal Danish Air Force garrison (Luftgruppe Vest, RDAF Detachment Gronland), about 20 scientists who study the icecap and the Arctic atmosphere, and about 300 other people who all work directly or indirectly to maintain the airport.

Travel Guide

Kangerlussuaq is an excellent venue for outdoor activities, particularly hiking, biking, camping, fishing, and photo safaris. Kangerlussuaq Tourism is the tourist bureau for the area, and actively encourages each of these activities.

  • Hiking - Destinations include Sisimiut on the coastline, 120km distant, and the great Greenland icecap, 25km away.

  • Biking - Sondrestrom Port is 10km from the airport, and a paved road connects the two. A radar site known as Kellyville is near the port. Other paved roads go into the hills near the airport, to cabins and scientific installations. For the hardy rider, trails go as far as the icecap. Kangerlussuaq Tourism rents bicycles to tourists.

  • Camping - There's a small campground with some conveniences near the airport. But hard-core campers leave town. With exception of within 30 feet of the icecap (where ice can fall on you) and one area between the fjord and the icecap (where there are old Greenlandic ruins), camping is allowed anywhere.

  • Fishing - The freshwater lakes in the area all have potable water, and the fish reportedly love it there.

  • Photo safari - Kangerlussuaq Tourism operates some specially-equipped four-wheel-drive vehicles, which are capable of driving throughout the area except during the spring thaw (in May and June). They drive tourists to the ice cap, and to look for reindeer and musk oxen. In wintertime, the safaris can take place by dog sled.

  • Golfing - Kangerlussuaq has a golf course, left behind by the US Air Force. To the casual observer it looks like a giant sand trap... but it is said to be the world's northernmost golf course.

In summertime, the mosquitos are capable of biting through blue jeans. In winter, the cold can be dangerous. When this stuff drives you inside, there are also some indoor activities:

  • Hanging out in the hotel room - If you ask for it, you can get a room with a view overlooking the fjord - but be ready for American voltages. If you don't express a preference, you'll probably be assigned a Danish-style room - between the air strip and the power plant. The TV stations get a couple of Danish TV channels (usually showing American shows with Danish subtitles), plus the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Company) Northern Service.

  • The Kangerlussuaq Museum - It's hosted in a small building (four rooms) which used to be a hotel annex. It contains military memoribilia from the base's history, including a replica of the commander's office. The museum drove home the point that the community has three founding peoples: Greenlandic, Danish, and American. One may also note from the displays, that the base never saw combat.

  • Greenlandic dining - There are two restaurants operated by Mittarfeqarfiit: one in the airport terminal, one up by a lake. (The latter is open summer only). The cuisine is lamb, musk ox (much like beef, but after preparation by Greenlandic cooks, it's very tender) Arctic char, or duck (all forms of meat which may be found within Greenland), all lavished with canned vegetables and whatever sauces the chef prefers - in 1999, a chili sauce was prevalent. This same cuisine also makes it onto Greenlandair flights. There's also one nightclub pool hall, which serves burritos and other casual cuisine. Bring cash there; at last report, they didn't take credit cards. There's also a cafeteria, and Kangerlussuaq Poelsevogen, said to be the world's northernmost Danish hot dog wagon.

  • Greenlandic drinking - Alcohol is served in three of the restaurants, plus in the airport bar. You can wash your meals down with yellowish Danish beer - three flavours of Carlsberg and Tuborg. (But not Tuborg Gold. The Greenland Home Rule considers it too alcoholic.) Wine and cocktails (carefully mixed to avoid being too strong) are also available. For stronger stuff, try the Duty Free shop, or bring your own; there is no customs check for inbound travellers.

Buildings in Kangerlussuaq are mostly brightly-coloured leftovers from the United States Air Force. As a counterpoint, the Danes built a steel-grey transit hotel at the airport terminal in the 1950s. The Greenlanders still maintain this hotel, and have supplemented it with rooms and dormitories converted from American bachelor officer quarters. It's one of the few places on Earth where travellers may take their choice of European or American voltage for their electrical devices, depending on what room they occupy. Kangerlussuaq has enough public accommodation for 400 visitors.

This Researcher spent a week of vacation at Kangerlussuaq. In short, it's a lot like the description of Kulusuk, except:

  • Kangerlussuaq is in West Greenland, Kulusuk is in East Greenland.

  • The icebergs in Kangerlussuaq don't conveniently float past the airport in spectacular fashion; one has to hike 25km to the great Greenland icecap. But the view there is equally spectacular.

All in all, Kangerlussuaq is a perfectly decent travel destination for the adventurous traveller.

A Kangerlussuaq Travelog
1 North, East and West Greenland have significant linguistic and historical differences, which are outside the scope of this discussion. Suffice it to say, each one has its own Long Fjord. 2 'Fjord' is originally a Scandinavian word, denoting a deep inlet from the sea. England has no such thing on its coast, so it never developed its own word for this. 3 Because the settled area of Kangerlussuaq is in a valley, it doesn't get all that direct sunlight; one has to hike up one of the hills to get a midnight suntan.

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