Christian Engelke shares his experience of the world's largest island - Greenland
Christian is one of PolarQuest's very knowledgeable and popular expedition leaders with extensive experience from our polar regions. Christian has spent many years in most places around Greenland and is one of our foremost experts on Greenland. He was born in Germany, works full time as a guide and lives with his family in Norway. We caught up with him between two expeditions and took the chance to ask him a few questions about Greenland.
What was your first impression of Greenland like?
I came to Tasiilaq in East Greenland in 2010. It was grand. After all, I had studied in Svalbard for two years and had an idea of what Greenland would be like, but it was even bigger, fiercer and wilder. Like Svalbard on steroids. Bigger mountains, deeper fjords, and the feeling of a very remote part of the world. Nature had incredible dimensions.
It’s been more than ten years now. You have been back every year and led more than 20 expeditions in Greenland. Do you know Greenland today?
Greenland is the largest island in the world so it’s impossible to know the whole country. But my job as a guide is to show different parts of the country and share my personal experiences.
Can you tell us a little bit of the Greenlandic way of life?
It is difficult to get a one hundred percent accurate idea of how the people in Greenland live because you are a tourist yourself after all. But from the beginning people lived in gathering and hunting societies and hunting is still a large part of the culture. The challenge is that large parts of the hunting rights have been taken away from the population, which has led to a lack of employment. Alcohol abuse is widespread, but there is hope. There are driven entrepreneurs who manage to make some money from tourism. The Greenlandic lifestyle is to live in the moment. They find it difficult to plan ahead and, for example, schedule a meeting. At the same time, you can learn a lot from their mentality, working with nature instead of against it, with the weather instead of against it.
Have you enjoyed the Greenlandic food?
I am a vegetarian, but I have no problem eating meat from animals that have had a good life. I have tasted typical Greenlandic food such as boiled seal, narwhal skin, whale blubber and reindeer stew. On one occasion when I was on an expedition cruise, we met a local hunter in the company of a film crew. It turned out that the team was happy to exchange muskox meat for petrol, cigarettes, or toilet paper. So, we traded toilet paper and got musk ox meat. Delicious!
What usually surprises the guests when visiting Greenland?
First of all the rawness.The first impression when you come to a small settlement may be signs of hunting and blood on the ground. A newly clubbed seal on the ice and sled dogs feasting on parts of the animal. The hunting culture is very visible, and you must be mentally prepared for that. It is important to respect the Greenlanders way of life.
What sometimes surprises people is the rather limited numbers of wildlife. In Svalbard you can get closer to curious animals, but in Greenland the animals have learned that humans are dangerous and therefore keep their distance. Also, not many people are prepared to social problems, such as alcoholism.
Rumor has it that there are wolves in Greenland, is that correct?
It’s true, but the chance of seeing a wolf is like winning the jackpot in a lottery. Nobody knows for sure, but there may be one or two herds in the Northeast Greenland National Park - it's a million kilometers in size. I've seen wolf tracks, but that's the closest I've come to wolves in all my years in Greenland.
Can you tell us about your most memorable wildlife encounter in Greenland?
This year I saw narwhals for the first time. It was super special for me personally, but I don't think the guests really understood how unusual it is to spot narwhals. I will also never forget the first time I saw a bowhead whale. Initially I thought it was a humpback whale, but as I slowly paddled towards it I saw that it was in fact a sleeping bowhead whale. With a kayak, you travel in silence, you are one with nature and can get very close. It was a super cool experience. I mean, man has nearly exterminated this prehistoric animal. The whale never noticed us and that felt nice too.
Which part of Greenland do you like best and why?
In East Greenland, it is easier to find places where no other human has ever been before. The mountains are steeper and the settlements are fewer. I have previously arranged my own two-week kayak trips with tents and brought a maximum of seven guests. During those trips, I have woken up in the middle of the night to the sound of a whale blowing air on the fjord. It is an indescribable feeling. Like cruising in a fjord full of ice. The last time I was in Greenland we had worked hard to get a special permit to drive into a certain fjord in a part of the East Greenland National Park. I had told the guests that this is something very special that very few tourists get to experience. We zigzagged between the icebergs and when we came ashore we first noticed a tent, then even more. I thought "Oh no, I who have promised my guests such a unique experience". But it turned out that the tents did not belong to other tourists but to a film crew from National Geographic Disney+. An old friend from Svalbard whom I hadn't seen since my student days was a researcher in the team that belonged to a multi-million dollar production. So, I was right after all. It was a very special place we were in.
Christian EngelkeGuide & Expedition Leader
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Experience Greenland’s untamed wilderness with the elegant 12-passenger ship M/S Balto, designed to explore the most remote fjord systems, visit isolated Inuit settlements and take you to secret anchorages. Greenland’s spectacular coastline offers some of the most remarkable nature experiences. The Arctic landscape is dominated by ice-filled fjords, majestic peaks and vast tundra.