Photo Story

Northern Jewels Part 1: Iceland and the Norse Archaeological Sites

© Dennis Minty

Take a tour of this beautiful and seldom-visited region of the Arctic—the southeast coast of Greenland. In this powerful photo story, you’ll see for yourself how such a journey has the power to change your life forever.

In 2002, I made my first expedition with Adventure Canada from Iceland to Greenland exploring coastlines rarely witnessed by even seasoned travellers. The trip changed me and motivated me to return to travel with Adventure Canada every year since. Just like my first Adventure Canada outing, the Iceland to Greenland: In the Wake of the Vikings expedition takes you to some remarkable places. Let’s take a closer look at some of the jewels along the way.

Icelands volcanic landscape

© Dennis Minty

Iceland sits atop the Mid-Atlantic Ridge which steadily pushes new volcanic rock to the earth’s surface, creating some of the freshest bones on earth: dark, almost black basalt.

Iceland geyser

© Dennis Minty

Hot springs and geysers commonly send out steamy tendrils into the cooler air. In fact, the word “geyser” comes from Geysir, a famous geothermal feature in southeastern Iceland. Iceland’s electricity comes largely from this underground powerhouse of heat.

Man in Icelands Blue Lagoon hot spring

© Dennis Minty

If you get a chance, stop by the Blue Lagoon and immerse your travel-weary muscles in the huge, steamy hot spring.

Iceland waterfall Seljalandsfoss

© Dennis Minty

Dramatic landscapes are everywhere with magnificent waterfalls (like Seljalandsfoss pictured here), black sand beaches, glacier-fed rivers, stark mountains, and pastoral valleys.

Iceland river and church

© Dennis Minty

Iceland’s human history is as fascinating as its landscape. An independent commonwealth, it has the world’s oldest parliament, the Althing, dating from 930. Ruled in years past by Norway and then by Denmark, Iceland gained its hard-fought independence in 1918 while still maintaining a strong alliance with Denmark.

Now with a population a little more than 360,000 spread thinly over 130,000 square kilometres, it is Europe’s most sparsely populated country.

Reykjavik street with church and houses

© Dennis Minty

Reykjavík, the world’s northernmost capital and Iceland’s centre of commerce and government, has a population of a little more than 230,000 in the capital region. The word Reykjavík loosely translates to Smokey Cove because of the mists that rise from the geothermal action near the surface.

Energized by this geothermal power, Reykjavík may be the greenest city on earth. The city’s commercial roots were in the cod fishery, but as fisheries have declined globally, commerce has broadened to include finance, IT, art, culture, music, and more.

East Greenlands coast mountains and icebergs

© Dennis Minty

After crossing the Denmark Strait, you see the coast of east Greenland. At first it is just a hazy ribbon, but as you sail closer, it rises darkly above the horizon and touches the clouds.

Greenland glacier icebergs

© Dennis Minty

Almost every valley has a glacial tongue anchored at the icecap and sliding down to the waterline, where icebergs constantly calve and begin their journey afloat. It’s wild and wonderful.

Icebergs in front of houses Tasiilaq Sermersooq Greenland

© Dennis Minty

There’s not a person to be seen until you reach one of the tiny villages scattered along the formidable coast. The houses in primary colours are a signature of Greenlandic communities.

Mountains of Ikerasassuaq Prince Christian Sound

© Dennis Minty

At the southern tip of Greenland, you enter the dramatic, 100-kilometre-long Ikerasassuaq (Prince Christian Sound). The steep cliffs, only 500 metres apart on either side, reach as high as 2,200 metres.

People soaking in Greenland hot springs

© Dennis Minty

Not long after exiting Ikerasassuaq, you come to Uunartoq. Iceland is not the only place with hot springs, and here they are most inviting!

People walking on beach at Uunartoq Greenland

© Dennis Minty

Stop awhile, relax, or take an invigorating hike (or both!), all while absorbing the splendid landscape.

Viking church ruins at Qaqortukulooq Hvalsey Fjord

© Dennis Minty

In 984, Erik Thorvaldsson (Erik the Red) founded the first Norse settlement in Greenland after being banished from Iceland for committing a few murders. Naming it “Greenland” in the hope of attracting more settlers, he established a community of farmers, known as the Eastern Settlement, that lasted about 500 years.

As you travel from east to west, you find the first evidence of the Eastern Settlement tucked deep inside Hvalsey Fjord. Here are Greenland's largest, best-preserved Norse ruins.

Window of Viking church ruins at Qaqortukulooq Hvalsey Fjord

© Dennis Minty

Archaeologists have found two great halls, all built from mortarless stone, as well as evidence of fourteen houses. Qaqortukulooq (Hvalsey) was the site of the last Norse wedding in Greenland in 1408.

Stone archway at Qassiarsuk Brattahlid

© Dennis Minty

Continuing west you come to Gardar and Brattahlíd where Erik established his own farm in what is now the community of Qassiarsuk. Erik’s judgement about the land’s productivity was sound because the area contains some of the best farmland in all of Greenland.

Church at Qassiarsuk Brattahlid in front of iceberg

© Dennis Minty

Erik and his wife, Thjódhild, did not see eye-to-eye when it came to religion. Thjódhild embraced Christianity whereas Erik stuck to his Nordic Gods. This little chapel, a reconstruction, was Thjódhild’s place of worship.

As the story goes, she kept the pressure on Erik to convert to Christianity by withholding sexual relations. I think, when Erik was talking to one of his mates one day, he must have originated the expression, “What ya gonna do!?”

Statue of Leif Erikson TEST

© Dennis Minty

The son of Erik and Thjódhild, Leif was the intrepid Viking that explored further west, eventually establishing the only known Norse settlement in North America: L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland.

Continue reading Dennis Minty’s Northern Jewels photo essay, Part 2: Greenland’s Southwest Coast.

About the Author

Dennis Minty

Dennis Minty

Photographer, Wildlife Biologist

Dennis has been working with Adventure Canada since 2002. Dennis’s path—from his small island roots in Twillingate, Newfoundland to his current career as a photographer and eco-tour leader—has taken him through more than three decades of local and international work.

For him, nature and photography are inseparable. Dennis immerses himself in nature through photography and seeks to inspire in the viewer a deeper connection with the natural world. Dennis has authored nine books on subjects such as environmental science, his home province of Newfoundland and Labrador, and his photography.

To see more of Dennis' work, visit his website.