Kangerlussuaq is a town of 500 people in western Greenland and is an odd yet fascinating place. For a start, it only exists because of World War II. Let me go back a little…
During the Nazi occupation of much of Europe, including Denmark, in the early 1940s, the Danish ambassador to the USA, disobeying orders from back home, convinced the US they should do something about Greenland to help maintain its neutrality before the risk of Nazi occupation became reality. As part of the US support, the military built an airfield and a small base and Kangerlussuaq came into being.
Kangerlussuaq remained a US military base until 1992 and is now a small town split in two by an international airport. When I say international airport, Air Greenland runs a daily Airbus 330 to Copenhagen, that’s it. However, until the runways at Nuuk and Ilulissat are expanded, Kangerlussuaq remains the main international route into Greenland and is the hub for destinations across the country.
Kangerlussuaq is both the coldest (-40°C) and warmest (20°C) inhabited place in Greenland. It has little precipitation and is technically a desert. It has around 300 clear nights a year and its airport is one of the most reliable in the world. Kangerlussuaq is effectively an airport with a small town attached. Most of the residents (80%) are employed by the airport in some capacity.
There is a very limited choice in accommodation and places to eat, even things to do in general unless you’re there to enjoy the great outdoors. I stayed at the Hotel Kangerlussuaq, didn’t have to leave the terminal building to get to my room and ate each meal in the hotel at the airport canteen. That’s the setup.
Other aspects of Kangerlussuaq are fascinating. It has one of Greenland’s two forests, planted as an experiment a few decades ago. This is a collection of trees taken from other Arctic regions, totaling maybe 100 trees still living, the tallest of which is only a few feet high. The town has the most northerly 18-hole golf course in the world, opened by the US military to keep soldiers occupied in the summer months and playable over summer.
Kangerlussuaq also has Greenland’s longest road, which stretches from the town to the ice cap. This is unique in a country which doesn’t have road networks between towns and where your choice to get around is to sled, fly or sail (weather permitting). The first few kilometres of the road was built by the US military to provide access to Sugarloaf mountain where they had stationed a transmitter. The remaining distance to the ice cap was built by Volkswagen, who wanted to be able to test some of their cars on the ice cap and hence needed easy access. This route opened up the area to more tourism by providing easy access to some incredibly scenic areas for people who don’t fancy the hike.
Everywhere around Kangerlussuaq there seems to be another story. Not far past the golf course is a crashed US military plane, which hit the ground in 1968 after the pilot bailed in bad weather. There are ‘no go’ areas which may contain live military weaponry following the failed attempt to blow up remaining munition after the base closed. And there’s the wildlife: reindeer, musk oxen and arctic hare.
The historic geological activity means the surrounding area is more rolling hills than imposing peaks. This makes it ideal for hiking (beware the mosquitos in the summer, which, quite amazingly, survive through the Arctic winter). For the more adventurous there is the option to hike across and camp on the ice cap or hike/sled to Sisimiut to the west.
I had three days in Kangerlussuaq in March 2016 which felt like the right amount of time given it was too cold to hike longer distances and I needed the warmth of the hotel each night. The temperature dropped to -22°C but it’s all relative, and maybe it does feel competitively warm when your winter months are 20 degrees colder.
In those three days I saw reindeer and arctic hare, glaciers, walked on the ice cap, took a dog sled ride which mixed a tranquil, slow pace along the fjord with the up-and-down roller coaster along paths connecting the frozen lakes, and saw a spectacular Northern Lights show in the freezing night time.
Kangerlussuaq was not the Greenland I was expecting (Ilulissat was) but it is a fascinating, friendly and incredibly scenic place to visit.
Kangerlussuaq – the town
Kangerlussuaq – outside of town
Greenlandic ice cap
The start of hundreds of miles of nothing but ice.