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Ilulissat: A Memorable and Magical Travel Day

Adventure Canada guest Janet Davis is an avid traveller who has seen much of the world—but a trip to Ilulissat is among her most treasured travel memories. In this personal memoir of the day, Janet shares some of her beautiful photos and recalls this special visit in vivid detail.
Ilulissat Sunset Mountains Birds Ice

© Janet Davis

I have been on safari in Africa; I’ve crossed the Andes and walked the streets of Paris, London, Rome, Athens, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Bangkok, and Buenos Aires. But an otherwise-seemingly normal Friday in August was one of the most memorable and magical travel days in my life.

It was a glorious morning as we awakened in Disko Bay off the central coast of West Greenland and gazed out at the massive icebergs littering the calm ocean surface. Overnight, we had sailed north from Sisimiut and navigated around Qeqertarsuaq (Disko Island) and anchored in this bay.

Ilulissat Bird soaring with icebergs

© Janet Davis

The massive white expanse covering most of Greenland (the largest non-continent island in the world) is ice, some 1.71 million square kilometres. Greenland’s ice sheet is second only to the Antarctic ice sheet, which is ten times as big. Together, Greenland and Antarctica contain almost three-quarters of the world’s fresh water.

Greenland has more than one hundred glaciers that flow out through its rocky margins each summer and send icebergs into the sea, but Sermeq Kujalleq, also known as the Jakobshavn glacier, is the biggest, and was the one we were here to see.

Fishing boats were out in the bay, its waters rich in halibut, cod, Atlantic redfish, Arctic char, and wolffish.

Ilulissat Greenland blue yellow red fishing boat

© Janet Davis

Turning towards shore, we saw the town of Ilulissat with its colourful houses arrayed up the rocky hillside under a massive mountain wall. Established as a trading post by Danish merchant Jakob Severin in 1741, it was originally known as Jakobshavn. The third-largest city in Greenland after Nuuk and Sisimiut, Ilulissat now has a population of about 4,600.

Town of Ilulissat Greenland

© Janet Davis

In Kalaallisut, the official language of Greenland, the word for icebergs is Ilulissat! So there was no question why we were here—indeed, this is the town closest to the Ilulissat Icefjord UNESCO World Heritage Site that we were about to visit.

Once arrived safely on shore, we set off on foot to the outskirts of Ilulissat, passing sled dogs on the way. Before long, we arrived at the boardwalk leading to the edge of the icefjord. The boardwalk passes through the Sermermiut valley, which was once an Inuit settlement. At about a kilometre and a half in length, it is a pleasant, easy hike, but one with a spectacular terminus that showcases one of the planet’s most awe-inspiring phenomena.

Hiking group on Ilulissat boardwalk with icebergs

© Janet Davis

It is simply impossible to describe how thrilling it was to walk through this gentle meadow, with its delicate little ecosystems of plants and ancient rock, toward this massive parade of glacial ice slipping, sliding, and booming towards the ocean.

As usual, I was distracted with all the photography opportunities in the meadows flanking the boardwalk, and I had to hurry along to catch up. (Thankfully, my friend Anne snapped this photo of me, something that rarely happens when I travel.) It was so warm that lovely day in the Arctic, I didn’t need the jacket I’d brought along.

Janet davis photo by anne fisher

© Anne Fisher

The calved ice loomed ahead, but I also loved seeing the tapestry of heath plants, blueberries, chickweed, willow, and dwarf birch in the meadow. In the damper spots, mushrooms emerged from luxuriant carpets of moss, while Greenland bellflower grew in drier places. A little Lapland longspur eyed me as it ate a seed and an alpine catchfly showed off its magenta flowers.

Alpine catchfly Lapland longspur

© Janet Davis

The boardwalk took us down near the meadow’s edge, where the sheer majesty of the icefjord was on display. Sometimes the word “spectacular” is just not descriptive enough. Everyone had their cameras out!

Small people big icebergs Ilulissat Greenland

© Janet Davis

There were stairs to a higher location for those who wanted a different vantage point. From up there, I looked down on Adventure Canada’s intrepid photographer, Dennis Minty, whose photos from the various expeditions are simply beautiful.

If we ventured too far down on the rocks, someone would yell: “Move up further. If one of those icebergs cracks and breaks away, the tsunami would wash you away.” Visitors were also warned not to stand on the rocky beach along the fjord.

People on rocky outcrop ilulissat icefjord

© Janet Davis

What we were looking at from our vantage point was the mouth of the glacier with its iceberg-clogged fjord. We couldn’t actually see the ice sheet itself, but it must be something to fly above its massive expanse and gaze down in summer at the meltwater lakes and rivers.

Icebergs with purple sky

© Janet Davis

Returning from the icefjord to town was a little anticlimactic, to say the least, but it was lovely to come down to earth at the museum that was the home of famous Greenland explorer Knud Rasmussen. Then we walked to the top of Ilulissat for a good view of the bay and a quick stroll through the residential neighbourhoods.

Knud Rasmussen Museum

© Janet Davis

After lunch on the ship, it was time to head out on a Zodiac excursion. We got as close as we could to the big calved icebergs. (Given that only 10% of an iceberg is above the water surface, you get an idea here of the size of these monsters.)

Deanna Zodiac Massive iceberg

© Janet Davis

Photographing icebergs is a little addictive! Although I had been warm enough to take off my coat walking down the icefjord boardwalk, being out on the water was definitely cooler.

Janet and Doug Davis Disko Bay

Janet and Doug Davis

After our Zodiac tour and dinner on the ship, we were treated to a dance party by Adventure Canada’s entertainer, Thomas Kovacs. These social events were such fun and the resource staff participated on each occasion, including photographer Dennis Minty (left) and now-retired Adventure Canada founder Matthew Swan (right), whose daughter Cedar Swan is now CEO of the company.

Dennis Tom Matthew Ilulissat Dance Party

© Janet Davis

While I loved hearing them sing, as the skies darkened, I found myself drawn to the quiet of the nearby deck where I was transfixed by the icebergs, now dark mauve in the golden twilight, the seabirds wheeling, the Greenland coastal mountains hulking behind.

Ilulissat Sunset and Ice

© Janet Davis

I felt so privileged to have seen this remarkable place, to have the opportunity to glimpse the setting for one of earth’s most critical and endangered systems, and to expand in a small way my understanding of the Arctic.

About the Author

Janet Davis

Janet Davis

Adventure Canada Guest

Janet Davis is a Toronto-based freelance writer and photographer. Although she focuses primarily on plants and gardens, she also writes about her travels throughout the world, most recently a wine-tasting tour of Chile and Argentina and a botanical adventure to hunt down autumn bulbs in Greece. But her Adventure Canada expedition visiting Nunavut and Greenland was one of her favourite and most educational trips of all. Read more of Janet’s work on her blog.