Mirja and I got there by speedboat. A Quicksilver 3000 Classic bounced us across choppy water, under a lowering gray, 70 kilometers from Ilullisat to Ataa. Its pilot, Jergen, with his broad, expansive head, buzz cut and ready smile, was Greenland Man.
The wind kicked up. We spied the spray of a finback whale, spun around and saw him dive, and in the spinning spotted a seal.
Jergen pounded the Quicksilver’s butt into the tiny harbor at Ataa, where Silva bobbed aboard a zodiac, perched uncertainly and growling. He wore the only clothes we ever saw him in, Nikes and a running suit.
Silva’s own hand, improbably, built the yellow plyboard breakfast and general headquarters shack where we warmed up over coffee. It perched on rocks some few meters from freezing, lapping waters.
His sister Lilliana and her husband Filita were visiting from Florence, original Home of All Culture, and I suspect just maybe they might have considered Silva a bloody wide open, straight ahead idjit.
Loud and fifty, soft-hearted, quick to take a stand and quick to back away from it, Silva, with an impossibly full graying moustache and tousled hair, was a real piece of work, with eight bambinos - four in Italia and four in Ilullisat.
Silva shuffled about the kitchen, singing, whistling, posing, acting like supervising his sister Lilliana, who did all the cooking. What would he do when she went home to Italy?
Silva got caught up in the drama of the changing weather. We’d been there half an hour. Eyes widening, palms spread wide, he told us, “We cannot risk our lives to take you back if the weather is worse tomorrow!”
We sipped our coffee and watched him realize that since we’d just arrived he might be getting off on the wrong foot. He retreated behind his hand and allowed as how on the other hand his sister had to fly to Denmark on the same flight as us. When you can sit and watch a man think, his is a disarming guilelessness.
Mirja and I hiked up along a steep ridge to see the mouth of a glacier called Kangilerngata Sermia, forty speedboat minutes away. We traced the side of desolate Kangerdlo Bay to the north and scaled the western ridge to walk back along Lake Taserssuaq. Up on the ridge Mirja played with a bird, a tiny handful of brown that followed us just for the novelty.
Mirja set out to pick mushrooms. When she found a little brown-capped thing she declared, “Greenlandic people say there are no poisonous mushrooms in Greenland and I believe them. If I die in Greenland, it is my destiny,” and she ate it and she didn’t die.
The world felt constrained, all gray and closed in around the edges. We walked just several meters below the cloud line that hugged the mountain, kicking tiny, bell-shaped, yellow-rimmed flowers called lavender lapland cassiope. Truth be known, this was more slog, slowed by bog and marsh, than wilderness adventure.
From the ridge you could see an old collapsed shack, fallen in on itself, from Ataa’s trading post days.
“We keep it as a museum,” Silva grinned.
The building next door had “119” painted on its roof. Before radar was sophisticated, the “119” marking helped U.S. pilots along their way north to a DEWS (Distant Early Warning System for ICBMs) base up north at Thule. It showed supply planes where to parachute in supplies.
We asked Silva for water to take on our hike and drew a stone-cold blank look of surprise. He rummaged around and came back with a bottle with Coca-Cola still rolling around inside it, and told us to take it down to the creek to wash it out and fill it up because the water here is completely clean.
When we left to hike up the hill, he promised us home cooked caribou for dinner and there sure was, caribou and potatoes and smoked halibut, whipped up by Lilliana and Filita, and it was outstanding.
A crowd of Germans had sailed in, and we had a rollicking good time in Greenlandic, English, German, Danish and Italian. Everybody understood a little bit of what everybody else said, and there was lively Italian style family cooking, Silva and Lilliana humming and puttering and feeling at home.
But then came an astonishing knock at the door. We all sat up to welcome three people who needed petrol for a boat around the bay. Their boat was the Nosy Be and that perked up Mirja and me, because Nosy Be is a resort town in Madagascar. Some years ago a few thousand dollars were charged to our American Express card from a resort there we’ve never visited.
Before the end of dinner, Silva developed a mischievous grin.
“Beeel, are you tired?”
“After eight beers and caribou I will be,” I reckoned.
Silva grew reticent. “Then I will suggest nothing.” But he couldn’t contain himself and the next thing you knew we were tearing across the bay in a speedboat and Silva, behind the wheel, was screaming, “It’s not coooollllddd!”
It must’ve been 9:30, might have been ten. “Wanna see some seals?” he had twinkled, and off we went, toward the mouth of a fjord called Kangerdluarssuk.
“How far is it over there, Silva?”
“Ten kilometers,” he shouted. A waffling hand. “Twelve.”
Glassy smooth, no chop, my thermometer read 46, but try sitting centimeters over water in air that’s 46 degrees, tearing across the sea in Greenland at night. It’s cold.
“We have to know the icebergs,” Silva was shouting. “That one is sick ice. Cannot go close.”
We trolled the coast and we didn’t find any seals.
“We are worried,” he told us with a twist of the mustache, maybe because he was a sage conservationist, maybe because his camp promised seal safaris.
After a good effort, Silva flat out raced back across the water, singing uproarious Italian nationalist songs or whistling Copland or humming a Brit march. There were no life vests. Just Silva, Mirja, me and the bare white bottom of the boat.
The south wind set in - an evil wind, pulling the wet up around the mountains behind Ataa, at the north end of the bay. Warmth whipped away on the wind.
Silva assigned us to a barracks with four rooms (each with bunk beds), a common room and a biological toilet. It was just for us.
But Silva came into the bunker around midnight. He would sleep there too. Eyes fired with the prospect of deals, earnestly, eye to eye, he told us of his plans for world kayak competitions and an international dive center right here, and ice golf in Iliminaq.
Greenland is to the Kingdom of Denmark as Tahiti is to France. There’s considerable home rule, with a 27 seat parliament. Copenhagen is suzerain, maintains the courts and subsidizes prices. It’s cheaper than Iceland (where I once drank beer at a hotel bar for ten dollars a glass), and the only convenient access is via SAS from Copenhagen.