Yesterday was a rather special day. We had the opportunity to see a part of Greenland that not many visitors have been to yet. Sarfannguit is a town accessible only by boat ride through a choppy fjord cutting inland from Sisimiut. As a part of Greenland Science Week, we joined a small group of other professionals to share projects about Greenlandic heritage with the citizens of Sarfannguit.
Sitting about 35 km from the city of Sisimiut, the settlement of Sarfannguit is located inside the new UNESCO World Heritage area. Back in summer of 2018, UNESCO inscribed the Aasivissuit-Nipisat cultural landscape. This Inuit hunting ground has been shaped by human activity for over 4,200 years. From the ice cap to the sea, the landscape is the newest of three UNESCO sites in Greenland. It is only in beginning stages of being ready for visitors. Being a living community inside the site gives inhabitants of Sarfannguit a unique position. It also means they should be involved in the development of cultural heritage associated with their home. Currently, work to develop sustainable and responsible tourism is underway. One plan is to reroute the Arctic Circle Trail, a legendary 160km (~100 miles) backcountry trail that the adventurous sort love to hike. Slight changes in the trail will bring visitors into the UNESCO World Heritage area and to Sarfannguit. It also may allow travel by all-terrain vehicles. In a few years, this small community without a single place to spend the night may look much different.
The day was perfect for water travel. The sun was shining and the wind was calm. We boarded a small boat and powered through the fjord. Its not a ride for those easily sea-sick, but it also wasn’t particularly horrible. The only uncomfortable moment came when the boat started beeping angrily….and then stopped. Those driving it huddled around the control panel, scratching their heads. My stomach sank, as I look around and saw nothing but icy waves and desolate mountains. I didn’t have the chance for full panic to set in, as it took only a couple of minutes to start the boat back up. But it did make me very aware of how much bigger of a concern something like boat engine trouble can be here. I can’t even imagine what its like if you’re out when an unexpected storm rolls in. You are more at the mercy of nature here in Greenland.
As the boat pulled up to Sarfannguit, we were greeted with an incredible site. A gathering of colorful houses belonging to roughly 90 inhabitants were perched on rock formations. There is not a spot in town lacking the breathtaking view. Flocks of seagulls sunned themselves on the rock outcrops and little fishing boats bobbed up and down in the calm waves. We carefully unloaded onto the icy dock and were thankful to see someone had come down to the shore with an ATV to ferry up equipment. From the boat launch, it was a steep climb up to the main part of town, but each step brought a new aspect of the unforgettable views into focus.
We set up the 3D workshop in the town's schoolhouse but only had a few visitors. We rather expected this, since we were there during the day on Friday. I did have the opportunity the get a quick interview with three different people I'm looking forward to sharing in a “Meeting the People of Greenland” post coming up.
After our workshop, we headed over to another community room where other researchers we traveled with were sharing their work with a small group from the community over coffee and sweets. Before we were due to board the boat back to Sisimiut, Alice and I took a walk to the top of the settlement. Up there we found the community burial ground, a helicopter pad, and a stunning art installation. The Qaammat Pavilion was constructed by Arcitect Konstantin Ikonomidis in 2019 to be part of the UNESCO landscape. The glass structure is made up of 5 tons of glass bricks and is placed in a spot that welcomes visitors arriving from that side of the fjord.
As the sun went down, we had to board the boat back to Sisimiut around 5:30. By then, night had fallen and we made our way down to the dock in darkness. As the boat pulled away, the settlement was barely visible, receding into its mountainous backdrop. We flew through the fjord back to Sisimiut. Halfway through the trip, we were rewarded with something Alice and I have been hoping for: an appearance of the northern lights. The sunny, clear day had procured perfect conditions for sighting the legendary phenomenon that lights up the northern world in winter months. As we journeyed through the fjord, green coils of lights moved through the sky. The boat captain graciously stopped when they were at their brightest, encouraging us to venture out of the warm cabin onto the back deck. The legend here in Greenland is that the dancing Northern Lights are football [soccer] players using severed human heads to play their game. You are warned never to whistle when the lights are out, least you invite the spirits down to collect your head. Needless to say, as we sat in wonder at the Aurora Borealis (and fiddled with our phones to see if capturing them was actually feasible), we were silent. No whistling to tempt fate that night.
This visit to Sarfannguit and my first experience with the new UNESCO World Heritage site left me with so many thoughts and so many questions. What is it like to grow up in such a small settlement, so physically distant from other communities? What will Sarfannguit be like in a few years, as the UNESCO site becomes more developed? How many tourists will come? Can Greenland protect this place and still share it with the world? How might the quickly changing climate affect the Inuit hunting ground? How might it impact the citizens of Sarfannguit? What challenges do all UNESCO World Heritage sites face, in their work to preserve human and natural history? Which of those challenges will be most pronounced for Greenlanders? Everything we talked about in my Applying Anthropology class about cultural heritage and public archaeology came rushing back. But teaching it as an abstract concept versus standing in it are two different experiences. Suddenly, the questions I always ask my students about protecting these unparalleled places of human and natural history felt so much more complex. And I don't have any answers.
11/6/2021 08:28:23 am
Wow the views continue to stun me everyday, these are amazing! I’m glad that your boat began to work and you weren’t stranded amongst the water for too long, I too would’ve been pretty uneasy in this situation! I wonder what they would’ve done or how long it would’ve taken for someone to reach you in such a small town! I wonder what they do in emergencies or in certain situations or I also wonder what it’s like to grow up in such a small area or settlement.
11/6/2021 12:22:30 pm
I have similar questions about the challenges involved with protecting and preserving World Heritage sites in Greenland if more tourists decide to visit. The success of preservation will depend heavily upon the ability of facilitators to diligently control and monitor the experience of tourists. In order for preservation to remain sustainable, the number people visiting would need to stay on the lower side unless effective solutions are developed. This question brings to mind another benefit of our virtual field trip experience, By sending only a handful of people who are able to share with larger groups of students and other interested members of the public, the visitor count of Greenland remains low and things are more reasonable to manage.
11/6/2021 02:10:05 pm
your picture of the northern lights is outstanding
11/6/2021 08:15:32 pm
I hope once the UNESCO site is set up that they are able to properly preserve it when tourists inevitably start to arrive. From the looks of it the site is near a small community and I hope that if the site becomes a popular destination they aren't overwhelmed.
11/7/2021 08:44:48 pm
The images are as ever beautiful as always. Greenland really is such a scenic place. There really are a lot of questions about being a UNESCO site that you just can't really know the answer for till it happens which really isn't fun cause its always gonna be in the back of your head till you see the answer years later. I really hope that its all set up well and that there's not many issues or challenges.
11/8/2021 03:45:17 pm
Part of it has to do with the fact that they move, like in waves through the sky. They can speed up and slow down. So you can see how they almost take on human-like qualities as they 'run around' playing in the sky :)
11/7/2021 08:56:15 pm
Very excited to hear more from the local Greenlanders! Also, I have similar concerns/questions about protecting world heritage sites, including this one in Greenland. While doing research on the Taj Mahal for our Applying Anthropology class I came across an article that discussed limiting the amount of people and vehicle traffic due to it potentially harming the site, since it gets a very large amount of visitors each year. It's a hard question to answer because it's important for the world to see these sites, but at the same time they need to be protected and regulated.
11/7/2021 10:21:12 pm
Glad you got a chance to see the northern lights and posted them. your heart must of been racing on the boat haha, I know I would lose my mind and be so dramatic.
Brianna N Novotny
11/8/2021 10:24:17 am
I have never heard of Sarfannguit before. Traveling to a place like Greenland can help you answer some questions, but can also leave you with many. Hopefully more answers will come as the journey in Greenland goes on. Enjoy the beautiful view!
11/13/2021 05:52:56 pm
I'm glad you didn't whistle! I'm familiar with other explanations for the northern lights, most of them having to do with peaceful spirits rather than committed athletes, but I like this explanation best. I've noticed that the houses in Arctic communities are painted in contrasting colors to those found in the natural environment, why is that?
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I am an anthropology professor, writer, researcher and global traveler. In fall of 2021, I led an experiential eLearning project connecting US students (and others) with the people, places, and industries of Greenland. I redesigned a research trip into a virtual field trip for my students who didn't have any Study Abroad options. All of the videos, photos, interviews, and storytelling are still here to enjoy!