A rare glimpse of a cold, desolate coast

The south of Greenland and its receding ice cap.

We are flying at 40,000 feet on an arc over that vast empty desert of an ocean called the North Atlantic.  It is August 20, midafternoon, and every window in the plane’s cabin is shuttered so tired eyes can rest on this 9 1/2 hour daylight flight from Munich to Philadelphia.  Then suddenly the pilot’s excited voice is on the intercom.

“It’s an unusually clear day,” he is saying, “and if you look out the right side you’ll be able to catch a rare view of Greenland.”

Nearly every shuttered window pops open and many rush to take a gander at this giant northern island that is more than three times the size of Texas.  There is probably nothing so large on earth that is seen so little.

Greenland’s rugged southwest coast laced with fjords.

As large as it is it takes a moment or two for my eyes to register it.  At first I see only a formless blob of blueish-gray.  Then some of it turns white, recognizeable now as snow, and then some tinges of purple, the coast.  And at last there it is, a breath-taking composite of this cold, desolate land that so few actually see first hand.

I estimate we are about 50 to 100 miles south of  the island’s southernmost tip, Cape Farewell, and for about 15 minutes, from 2:13 to 2:29 local time, I sit there, camera in hand, enraptured by it all, as we graze Greenland and gaze out at the humongous ice cap that dominates the island’s center with high peaks rising out of it.  Fjords, glaciers, the brilliant blue sea with the white dots I think at first are boats but which actually are ice bergs.

White dots in the sea are ice bergs.

Ultimately this vision comes to a climax.  We cross past the starkly beautiful southwest corner where lying there indistinguishable is the Isua Greenstone Belt, home to some of the oldest-known rocks on earth.

This is how it happens sometimes.  Life’s biggest treats come when you least expect them.  Here I am suddenly thrust as close as I will likely ever come to the Arctic Circle on the clearest of days in a cloudy part of the globe.  To see this magnificent island, which among the world’s many alien places can honestly say it is virtually untouched, well, it buckles the soul.

It leaves me happy and firmly attached to a memory I know will never go away.


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