Cruise explores a harsh universe of thinning ice

It's well past midnight, but the sun is still gleaming just behind jagged peaks, washing the sky with a rosy shimmer. A waterfall gushes from a rocky cleft beneath the downy hood of a glacier. Light glints off the ice floes like sequins scattered on the calm water before us.

No one can bear the idea of going to bed.

"It's just amazing," says Martina Becker, a German woman clinging to the endless day. "Everywhere you look there's ice pouring down. I think this is the most beautiful place I've ever seen."

Someone spots a disturbance in the water ahead, and we dash to the front of the glassed-in deck just in time to see black fins roiling the water. A whale, we suspect.

Or maybe not. In this surreal universe north of the Arctic Circle, possibilities seem infinite.

Our seven-day expedition voyage in western Greenland's Disko Bay takes us into a culture where the "grocery" lies beneath the ice and whale hunting is a survival skill. We'll hike atop the oldest of the earth's crusts and trod on its second-largest ice cap. The glories of a fleeting frozen landscape will surround us - yet we'll be snug in the comforts of fluffy duvets, fresh omelets and the friendly staff of Norwegian Coastal Voyage's MS Fram.

What most Americans know about Greenland is simply that it's big (the world's largest non-continental island), cold (largely covered by ice), and home to a U.S. air base. Until the start this summer of direct flight from Baltimore, fewer than 3,000 Americans per year vacationed here.

But if they've read National Geographic or caught Al Gore's Academy Award-winning film, "An Inconvenient Truth," they also know that the ice cap covering 80 percent of Greenland is melting. How much it will diminish - and how quickly - are matters of ongoing scientific debate. Still, nearly every local has a story of warming temps: a noticeably shrinking icecap, shifting fish populations, a dog-sledding season cut short by three months.

This much seems certain: As ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica warm and glaciers worldwide thin, the sea will rise significantly. Coasts will shift.

Worse-case scenario: Greenland melts, South Florida shores flood.

Though it won't happen quickly - not in this lifetime, or perhaps the next - that scenario seems all the more reason to trade in the gas guzzler, change to energy saver light bulbs. And to get to Greenland before the ironically pastoral name bestowed on it by Viking settler Eric the Red becomes too true.

Greenland's international airport at Kangerlussuaq - known to World War II vets as Sondre Stromfjord - is a simple, pre-fab building in view of Greenland's 1.8-mile-thick ice cap. That proximity plus reliable weather, abundant wildlife and its past as a U.S. World War II air base mean the outpost offers a few extras: swimming pool, bowling alley, museum, motels, a couple of small shops and a surprisingly good pizza parlor. The nearby golf course - one of the world's northernmost - is mostly sand.

Population: A few hundred.

It's our first glimpse of what "expedition" means: a foray into a treeless world where the summer season is so short that most houses are pre-fab, Starbucks is unknown and a village of a few thousand people rates as a city.

Most of the 270-plus passengers aboard this July sailing of the MS Fram have come to see the raw nature of a fast-morphing icescape. Yet Greenland's culture and the daily struggle to survive prove just as memorable.

First stop: Sisimiut, Greenland's second largest city with a population of 5,500 - the only port where the dock is large enough for our 370-foot ship. In others, a fleet of eight-man open-air Polar Cirkel boats will zip us ashore.

A few steps off our ship and we're hit with culture shock: freshly skinned seal meat stuffed into plastic, ready for the local fresh market.

"I don't want to see that!" shudders a fellow passenger, moving quickly past.

Traditional Inuit ways are alive here, we quickly learn. Though the Greenlandic people are related to those in other Arctic zones, circumstances aren't always the same. In the tourist-friendly areas of Alaska, for instance, the 1800s gold rush and the more recent armada of cruise ships have brought prosperity. In remote Greenland, people may have TV, cell phones and Internet service, but the demands of a harsh and remote cosmos dominate.

Though tourism officials have upped promotion, now the country gets about 55,000 visitors per year, and in our entire week, we saw only a single tour group and a dozen souvenir shops.

Sisimiut offers a "big city" experience. Houses and apartments painted in gleeful reds, blues, yellows - an antidote to winter doldrums - trickle down rocky hillsides to the harbor. No sight-seeing boats here; it's a working place, filled with small trawlers that dredge for the cold-water shrimp whose bounty fuels the town. The dockside Royal Greenland shrimp factory processed 18,000 tons last year.

A handful of shops line the street leading up the hill: video store, book-and-stationary shop, toy hut. The single supermarket is jammed with canned goods, reindeer steaks, Chilean wines and frilly lace underwear; the seal and shark and dolphin are found at the fresh market next door. As in the other West Greenland towns we'll visit, Sisimiut's European-style town structure dates from the 18th century, and a few historic buildings have been preserved as a museum.

The smaller towns of Qeqertarsuaq, Illulissat, Uummannaq and Ukkusissat seem a bit the same: simple square houses in anti-depression hues, a thriving fishing harbor, working dogs on summer holiday secured on rocky outcrops around the town next to a stack of dog sledges _ a surefire hedge against dangerously unreliable snowmobiles. The most important buildings are church, school and - in bigger towns - a recreation center.

Yet each town is unique - and undeniably genuine.

The gentle slopes near Qeqertarsuaq, on Disko Island, flow with waterfalls and cascades of summer wildflowers - puffy cottongrass, red herb-willow, violet harebells, buttery cinquefoil - growing in the crumble of 4.5-billion-year-old rock. On the black beach edging the town we see our first icebergs: jagged castles in bluish ice dwarfing the odd fishing boat that zips between. A few massive cubes have drifted ashore, and the children from our ship clamber on them until their mothers catch sight, admonishing them to come along.

A strangling fog hides Uummannaq the morning we arrive, and it's noon before it lifts to reveal a magical 3,800-foot double-humped rock massif sheltering the houses perched on stony outcrops above the sweet anchorage. From here we'll pass over the pipes that carry water and sewage to and from the town - in this frozen world, burying pipes underground would be disastrous - and up into the hills for a hike to Santa's Summer Cabin, built courtesy of a Danish television station.

We sail on, landing in the softening sun at the village of Ukkusissat, settled in the shadow of a 4,300-foot granite peak.

The entire town of 180 has come to the dock to meet us. It's a happening; the ship will stop here less than a dozen times all summer, and few if any other tourists will find their way here. Groups of children get to go aboard for their first glimpse of elevators and Sony PlayStation.

One woman handles a small table set up for handicrafts: a few carvings in the local soapstone and one of the intricate beaded collars that are part of a woman's traditional dress here, and still worn at confirmations and holidays. A dead seal lies to the side, brought in by a 12-year-old hunter who has shot more than 30 in his young years.

An informal parade takes us to the small schoolhouse - 26 study here - for a welcome and square-dance-like performance, executed in the summer uniform of jeans and Nike T-shirts. Several homeowners invite passengers for "kaffe," more social occasion than meal, where we nibble on sweet bread amid the family photos of a simple but modern home. Greenlandic rap sounds from the tape player, courtesy of a teenage daughter who will soon go to Denmark for a year's study.

Most of the boys leave school as teenagers to hunt and fish, we're told by Janus Kleist, one of our expedition staff. Last winter he taught in a nearby village even smaller than this one. The boys, he says, see little value in school as they grow older. Yet as fishing schools dwindle and many kids move to cities, some settlements will close - and that lifetime of local knowledge about fishing and hunting will have limited use in an unfamiliar town.

For now, those skills equal endurance.

Down at the dock, the seal has been skinned, to be used for a child's winter jumpsuit or a jacket or the trim on the tall boots that are part of the national costume. Meat has been taken off for cooking. All that remains are the spine and a few entrails - a coveted raw snack for the children lingering nearby.

For those of us who buy our meat vacuum packed and our fish filleted, this earthiness is off-putting, even grotesque. Yet as we witness on a blustery day from the ease of our ship, even in summer the Arctic can be a sadistic mistress. Squeamishness is the luxury of a society that offers take-out.

Some days we spend at sea, chatting with fellow travelers and catching lectures by the ship's knowledgeable expedition staff. For hours we stand on deck, awestruck by the icebergs that drift around us. Towering sculptures pierce the slushy flats: blocky shelves, Frank Gehry-esque twists, Disneyesque castles the size of, well, Cinderella's castle. Some chunks stand as tall as 150 feet. It's mind-boggling to realize that roughly seven-eighths of the ice lies beneath the water. Andrew Marshall, one of the expedition staff, and I figure the math; the larger bergs must be about 10 million cubic meters.

They are miniatures compared to what we see just a few days later, at the icefjord at Illulissat.

If Greenland has a tourism mecca, it's Illulissat, home to a half-dozen souvenir shops and food options ranging from hot dogs to surprisingly yummy pizza to Chinese noodles. The reason isn't the fine historical museum or picturesque waterfront church or history of cod-fishing, diminished since the waters here cooled in the 1960s and the fish fled to Iceland.

The attraction is ice.

Here, the world's most prolific glacier, called the Sermeq Kujalleq or Jakobshavn, slips into the sea at more than 100 feet per day - a rate that has accelerated with global warming. Yet the huge ice chunks that split from it can't sail far; the mouth of the fjord is relatively shallow - only about 650 feet deep - and the bergs back up like SUVs on a Monday morning at the Golden Glades Interchange.

The result is an ice jam of Matterhorns and Space Mountains, amphitheaters and Gibraltar Rocks, Soviet apartment blocks - all curved and swept, carved and etched in ice. The icefjord is so unique that it's been tagged as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

When the massive bergs finally do break loose, the chunks often drift into the Labrador Current and sail south into the Atlantic. The iceberg that felled the Titanic likely originated here.

You can easily hike to part of the ice wall, and we do. The view is staggering _ or so we think, until we sail on a small whale watching boat along the 3.5 miles of a frozen edge of majesty that reaches more than 250 feet tall. The passengers stare and snap - but say little. The words are long gone.

So, too, may be the icebergs. Just 25 years ago, the chunks were a good 60 feet higher, we learn from Frederike Bronny, the geographer on board our Fram sailing.

And the glacier itself is in rapid retreat. One estimate suggests that within 10 years the Kangia will no longer reach the sea. The ice will calve in shards. The massive icebergs will be gone.

It's a somber thought _ nearly unimaginable as we stand in the face of this crystal blue bulwark. Too much, too much, so soon. At least we're here now.



Greenland is the world's biggest non-continental island.

-Area: 836,330 square miles; about three times the size of Texas

-Area under ice: More than 80 percent

-Population: 56,344; 80 percent Inuit

-Sled dogs: 29,000

-Coastal temperature: Summer highs in mid-50s F, winter lows to 3 F

-Language: Greenlandic. English and Danish are widely spoken.

-Government: Part of Denmark, but with "home rule." Receives annual subsidy from Denmark of more than U.S. $500 million.

-Chief industry: Fishing

-Tourists: 55,000 per year