On Top of the World

13-year-old Bridget Goldberg's reflections on her trip to Greenland. 

Thinking of all the places I have never been to is almost too much to fathom. Every grain of dirt and sand, every ounce of water being thought about at once. You and I look around and see things physically here. If you wanted to, you could lay a hand on these things and feel them beneath your fingers. These objects are real to you. Trying to imagine places on the Earth that you haven’t been to is almost impossible. You might know the names of countries or what the mountains and bodies of water are called. In reality though, you have no real connection with those places.

I have always yearned to experience as many places as I can. See the terrain and feel the ground beneath my feet. I find it hard to know that a place exists and to never at least attempt to get there. This is our Earth, the only planet that we really know. Why not explore as much of it as possible? Some people are stuck in one location, too caught up in modern technology to get out and see their Earth. I am not one of those people.

I knew little about Greenland before I went and that made imagining it very difficult.

I saw only the white landmass that appears on a globe, northeast of Canada and it didn’t have much meaning. My mother, the researcher that she is, described to us the glaciers and the icebergs, and told us how no trees grow in that latitude as it was just too cold. I couldn’t wrap my mind around that. It was only when I saw the first iceberg out the window of the plane that things became real.

We landed in the general area of Kangerlussuaq, Greenland. The landing strip was barely distinguishable from the surrounding earth with its absence of lines. There was no airport to walk out into, just vast empty land with no trees, an endless meadow.

The air was crisp and cool, coming in gusts of wind across land. I turned up my jacket collar to protect myself from the chill. A voice made itself heard over the rustling of grasses and conversation of the passengers. We were warmly welcomed to Greenland and directed towards the ship. There was no time to waste if we were to get in a full ten days of Greenland and the Canadian High Arctic. As soon as the last passenger’s feet were onboard, we were moving towards places that would forever impact my view on the world.

Towards the beginning of the expedition, the ship traveled to the community of Pond Inlet in the Canadian Arctic. As I stepped onto the beach, I remember staring into the eyes of a raven sitting upon the brittle yellow-white bones of a long dead sea mammal. The bird cocked its head as it scrutinized me, and it was hard to tell if it wished to welcome me or send me back onto the ship, far away from the beach and the bones on which it sat. We moved as a group down the beach to meet our local guide, seeing more and more ravens, more and more bones. Huskies lay there too, basking in the warmth of the sun only bothering to perk up a lazy ear in our direction. This was a reservation of Inuit, with families going back for centuries in this community. A nomadic group of people trying to keep ancient customs alive while being forced to stay put and send their children to school at the same time.

Our guide lived in the village. She was a robust older woman that spoke English as well as her village’s language. She moved her hands about as she spoke, giving excitement to everything she said. “I do this to teach you of another culture,” she said, referring to her job guiding visitors. She told us of the village’s history and of their traditions as we ambled down the beach. Her face lit up when she saw a man walking around a small motor boat in the distance, already docked in the sand. “That is a hunter of our village and look!” she said pointing excitedly, “He has caught something!”

When we reached the boat, our guide broke out in a wide smile. “Narwhal!” she said gleefully. The narwhal’s body was hidden from view in the hunter’s boat but with the three foot narwhal tusk on display, the rest of the narwhal was soon forgotten. Beautifully spiraled and with a jagged end where it had been cut from the narwhal's head, it was like nothing I’d ever seen. Our guide was more interested in what the hunter held in his hands. “This,” she explained, hands darting about, “is another part of our culture. We have hunted the narwhal for a long long time.” She picked something out of the hunter’s hand and held it up. I stood on my toes to look over a taller passenger’s shoulder. “Narwhal is also a part of our diet. My personal favorite!” she said, popping the narwhal flesh into her mouth and closing her eyes in delight. She looked back at us, “Anyone want to try some?” Most of the crowd shrank back, including me, but a few walked forward with curious looks. Judging from the looks of the adventurous passengers as they chewed on the blubbery meat, narwhal must be an acquired taste.

We walked down the beach towards a curve in the land. A fire was set up there, with a tea kettle situated atop it. We sat down and tea and dried, salted fish were served by a group of villagers. The tea tasted of the land around us as it was made from the plants growing nearby. The fish was tough, tasting of the fire and ocean and vanished quickly. Stories of the village were shared and we all sat close together, feeling truly warm.

Soon after that, we had walked back to the main village streets. People whizzed past us on either side riding bikes and ATV’s causing our guide to speak louder. At the end of what could be considered Main Street, a large building was situated.

“We like to give all our visitors a special presentation. Sit down and enjoy it,” our guide instructed us as we entered. I surveyed the room seeing the people of the village lined up against one wall holding various objects. An announcement was made and the citizens began to show off cultural values of the village. Some showed competitions involving skill and flexibility, for example, how high can you kick or flip. Others required brute strength, like the game used to settle disputes where two people pull at the other’s cheek until someone yells for the other to stop. One woman came up and sang, performing a traditional ritual involving candles and seal oil. Each demonstration was impressive and unlike anything I had seen before. The village of Pond Inlet gave me a taste of the culture of the Arctic.

We spent a majority of our time on board the ship on the lookout for polar bears. All the naturalists plus at least half the passengers were always at watch. In total, we saw five polar bears, above the average for that trip. The first bear we saw was only visible with binoculars, then not at all. Hardly a countable bear sighting in my opinion.

The next sighting was far more impressive. A mother and her two older cubs were seen shortly after. All three were sleeping almost on top of each other, giving the appearance of one larger bear. Even though we approached very slowly and quietly, they all were awoken by our presence. They didn’t seem surprised to find a hulking mass of metal and glass slowly drifting toward them. One cub yawned, got up and padded towards a pool of melted ice water to drink with his back towards us. The other cub seemed a little more alarmed or at least curious and padded towards the ship. Cameras snapped and flashed all around, but the cub seemed not to hear them. Her mother slowly followed her to stand on the edge of the ice and look up into the human faces covered by scarves and lenses. The cub sat down next to her mother, encouraging another round of clicks and snaps from the passengers. The ship inched closer and closer to the bears, until only 10 feet separated us. The other cub wandered over to his sister and mother, sitting down as well. A few pictures later, the she-cub lay down on her back and rolled in the snow. Her brother was not to be shown up by this picture invoking action and immediately pounced on her starting a round of play-fighting. Maybe half my pictures from the trip were of these bears. Apparently, getting that close and seeing the cubs interactions made for a very rare sighting. A few sightings followed after that, but they were always of a singular bear very far in the distance. One major sighting was more than enough for me, more than most people see in their lifetimes.

To conclude our trip, we visited the Greenland ice sheet, basically the remains of the last Ice Age that makes Greenland white on the globe. The ice was so far inland that we had to ride a bus for an hour to get there. I spent most of my time staring out the window at the miles of tan grasses and following the smooth lines of hills racing by. The bus slowed down every time a hare or caribou was spotted, and the driver pointed them out against the golden grasses along the road. With the smooth movement of the bus and deep orange sunlight filtering in through the wide bus windows, I was almost asleep when we finally reached the ice sheet.

There was still a while to walk before we actually got to the ice. Over and around rocks, we followed a faded path towards the white expanse of ice that we could see peeking out from in between larger boulders. We turned around the last boulder and, all of a sudden, the world was ice, as far out as I could see. The ice was not exactly white, but tinged gray from something in the air or the reflection of the sky. The burbling of water was heard occasionally, emitting from streams flowing under the ice (a sign of global warming). Small mounds of ice rose up from the rough surface creating a beautiful cold landscape. As people meandered around, I found myself staring out on the horizon, thinking about what this looked like from above. We were just touching the edge of a massive expanse of ice. How far could I get if I just started walking? What else was out there? Who else? I would have liked to find out.

This collection of experiences is something that I will hold onto tightly as I walk through life. Greenland gave me a better idea of how diverse this world really is as it is just so different from the rest of the world. While the land is not well populated, the culture that rules these treeless areas is so unique and dynamic. The climates have near to no similarities to any place I have been to, making the plant and animal life so original to each place. It got me thinking, if one place can be so unique, how does the rest of the world compare?

This is why I love to travel. I yearn to immerse myself in all the different cultures, see all the different plants and animals. I guess I just want to know what’s out there and experience everything that I can for myself. So far, I would say I’ve got a good start. Next on my list: Baja.

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