Where winter is cold, dark and beautiful

Iceberg off Ilulissat Image copyright Thinkstock

In Greenland the shortest day of the year can have little more than three hours of sunlight - but although the winter is long, cold and dark, it can also be a thing of beauty, writes Antonia Quirke.

In the coastal town of Ilulissat, western Greenland, winter beckons. Soon much of Disko Bay will be frozen and the men will take to their husky-drawn sleds, cutting holes in the ice for fish and seal. But while the sea is still slush, the gigantic icebergs move, and they are spoken of with the most evocative Greenlandic words. Siku for ice. qaqaq for mountainous.

They are the largest objects afloat in the northern hemisphere and moving in a boat among them, the view is as complex as a jungle. Some seem ash-flecked like fur, some like spilled cream in valleys. Some are as blue as a powerful detergent - ice this far north can be blue or white or black or diamond-sheer.

Image copyright Science Photo Library

It can be one year old or 250,000 years old, moulded like coral or mushrooms or apple crumble. There are icebergs like citadels, ramparts and sky-scraping spires - whole islands the texture of pearl or obsidian, many times bigger underneath the water, stretching deep into another dimension.

When the great Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen wrote about his pioneering crossing of Greenland in 1888, he noted that these wondrous, unorthodox creations made him think of fairyland and childhood - but also, death.

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Melancholy is intrinsically wound into this landscape. Close to the ice cap, at the remote Eqi glacier a few days later, I find the base camp hut built by the French polar expedition in 1948 - still standing on its black rock (although barely) and still littered with remnants of cooking equipment.

Image copyright Antonia Quirke

The walls bear original graffiti that speaks of the surprising sorrow at finding oneself on this far northern shore. "Oh I am a useless burden," somebody has scratched into the wood. "Here. In the middle of the ice. 1949."

Outside, the glacier itself creaks and groans - it haemorrhages ice, the sound is perplexing and continuous - distant thuds and explosions like dynamite or the weapons of an approaching army.

The sky finally declines into a season-long bruised purple - the endless night. "Don't you get depressed?" I ask people. There is a Greenlandic word for this feeling. Perlerorneq meaning the burden.

My young friend Nikolena scoffs. "The sun is boring," she says. She loves the winter, huddling with her teenage neighbours for 10-hour-long horror movie marathons. Or swapping stories about the Qivitoq, humans banished for one reason or another into the wilderness, where out of rage and desperation they have learned to shape-shift. Nikolena says she once saw a ragged old man standing among stampeding reindeer, and he suddenly leapt, but in the form of an arctic hare.

Image copyright Science Photo Library

I wonder if the fishermen, out solo on their sleds, ever fear the Qivitoq? Twenty-nine-year-old Fari shakes his head, gesturing to his favourite dog Malesornia, lupine and half wild, snarlingly protective of his master.

Last year, when Fari's sled fell right through the ice far from home, Malesornia pulled him out, dragging him to safety… and then, soaked and numb for eight hours in the dark, Fari still laid out his lines for halibut. The tenacity. Greenlanders think Europeans flap too much. So much talk, they reprimand me, so much noise! Even the Greenlandic language doesn't hold with fuss or exaggeration. Numbers only go up to 12. After that it's just a pragmatic and untheatrical "many".

"What's the strangest thing you have ever seen through a hole you've cut in the ice?" I ask, hoping Fari might say a Narwhal, with a spiral tusk protruding from its upper jaw that the Vikings once believed came from a unicorn trapped in its stomach. Fari thinks for a while, skewering baby pollock onto hooks. On the ground by his feet are four severed seal flippers. "A man," he nods after a while. "A frozen man. He must have fallen from a fishing boat."

And Fari just shrugs. To the sagacious Greenlander, that's fair balance. You hunt, you take life, and one day you might very well give your own. So, Fari left the man in his ice grave without a second glance, and took his sled elsewhere, north of the great glacier, all thoughts of town and company falling away. Nothing on his mind for days but fish, and Malesornia, and the long polar night.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption A fisherman in Ilulissat

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