When it’s unlikely that I’ll get to a place, I search for information about it. That’s why I just finished Gretel Ehrlich’s fine book This Cold Heaven. Equal parts stark, factual detail and soaring poetic description, this gripping read was first published in 2001 and came out in paperback in 2003. Both new and used copies are available on Amazon. If there’s an electronic version, I don’t know about it.
Author of a dozen books, Gretel Ehrlich’s chosen subtitle for This Cold Heaven was Seven Seasons in Greenland. She first visited in summer, 1993, and returned several times over the next 7 years. This book about her experiences, her dogsled journeys, and the natives and outsiders, mostly Danes, she bonded with is often a difficult but never dull read. She intersperses trips in different seasons with the experiences of Greenland’s most noted explorer, Knud Rasmussen, who led 7 Arctic expeditions between 1902 and 1933.
Greenland has always fascinated me. I’ve been to its neighbor, Iceland, 3 times and love it. In a completely factual world, Greenland would have been named Iceland and Iceland Greenland. The world’s largest island, Greenland’s 840,000 square miles are mostly continental ice sheet. Siorapaluk, Greenland, is the northernmost continuously inhabited village in the world. About 56,400 humans, mostly Inuit, live in Greenland. According to This Cold Heaven, their lives are far from easy. Summer finally arrives in July and last about 3 weeks.
As I read each evening, I would often share passages with Ruth. She would consistently react with horror. Here are some examples.
p. 135. Peter Freuchen, A Rasmussen friend, was caught in a storm. “When his hands started to freeze, he took a piece of sealskin, wound it tight, spit on it, and when the spit froze he used it as a digging tool. In the process, his beard froze to the side of the sled. When he finally had the strength to pull it away, much of the skin on his chin went with it.”
p. 146. Thule Air Base was having an especially harsh winter with wind gusting up to 152 miles per hour. In one storm a guy was going hand over hand on a rope between buildings. The rope went slack. “He blew away and was never seen again.”
p. 176. In 1968 a B-52 carrying 4 nuclear weapons crashed just southwest of Thule. Released plutonium affected humans like Niels. When in 1997 Gretel asked him if anyone had done a medical survey and follow-up, he shrugged and told her that no one had contacted him about it. His skin was still peeling off.
p. 192. An old hunter who could not provide for himself would sometimes ask his oldest son to throw a party. At its height the son would put a rope around his father’s neck and “hoist him to his death.”
p. 201. Sneaking up on caribou with snow creaking under feet was hard, so hungry men would stalk a herd barefoot–in midwinter! Often they “went completely naked so as not to make any noise”.
If you want more, read Gretel’s fascinating book. In doing research, I learned that she was struck by lightning in 1991. Maybe that explains why she found it so easy to fall in love with Greenland. Her latest book, 2013’s Facing the Wave, is about a tsunami. No surprise there.
air greenland flies out of Ottawa, Canada, and Copenhagen, Denmark. The picture above of Greenland’s capital Nuuk is from its website. Maybe I’ll make it there. If so, look for my book called Three Weeks in Summer.