Greenland Ghosts

My shipmates gathered in the lounge of the National Geographic Explorer as Greenland's granite-armored coast scrolled past the portholes. We were on Lindblad Expeditions' "Viking Saga" voyage, and I was standing before passengers and crew to lead a sort of mutiny. I wanted the captain and expedition leader to change course. I wanted to make a landing in a nearby fjord to visit the lost Western Settlement. But that wasn't on our itinerary. In fact, it wasn't on any cruise ship's itinerary.

The fate of the Western Settlement — 1,500 Vikings who vanished suddenly in the 14th century — fascinated me. It was a gothic horror story — a remote outpost cut off from civilization, a supernatural terror lurking at the gates and a bumbling rescue mission with less-than-heroic motives. The only clue was a sinister passage in an obscure Viking archive.

So I stood at the podium to tell my ghost story, and I saved the best for last. A Norwegian sheriff-priest, Ivar Bardarson, came to find out why the colony had stopped paying taxes to the Norwegian king. As an iceberg drifted past the windows like a phantom longboat in the fog, I read Ivar's account aloud: "On their arrival, they found no men, either Christians or heathens, only some wild cattle and sheep. ... The Skrælings have taken the whole of the western settlement."

The response was unanimous. How soon can we go? What will we see? And what the hell is a Skræling? As it turned out, convincing everyone was the easy part. Greenland, we would soon discover, doesn't give up her ghosts without a fight.

Maybe it was the lure of adventure that drew the first Norse from Iceland to Greenland more than a thousand years ago. Their deforested homeland had become overcrowded with sheep and cattle farms, and second-born sons saw their chances for fortune dwindling. When Erik the Red, the outlaw Viking, invited settlers to follow him to Greenland, he filled 25 boats. Barely half would complete the crossing.

Whatever siren song called the Norse to the world's largest island, their hearts must have sunk when they saw it. Braced against the railing on a blustery morning two days out of Iceland, Vinnie Butler, a 40-something archaeologist, pointed to ice-bound cliffs on the horizon. "That's the first corner of Greenland the Vikings saw," he said. "I bet they weren't too pleased."

He has spent much of his life roaming the Norse realm studying their history. Who were the Vikings, really, I asked. "Young 19- and 21-year-old kids," Vinnie said. "These were seamen looking for summer work. It was like getting a job at McDonald's, but instead of flipping patties, you were killing people."

Vikings originated in Scandinavia toward the end of the eighth century, he told me, and raided most of the known world all the way from the Caspian Sea to Labrador. "They had these marvelous ships, the longboats, that were sleek and fast and could travel up rivers only three feet deep." Vinnie's homeland was a favorite target. "They were the worst tourists we ever had in Ireland."

We made our first landing on Greenland in the tiny Inuit town of Tasiilaq. The Inuit make up most of the 58,000 inhabitants of Greenland. Our guide was Jes Harfeld, a Danish naturalist accompanying the voyage. Tall, with green eyes and a red beard, he looked like a modern-day Viking.

Since the 18th century, Greenland has been a Danish -colony, he explained. It is now under home rule. As we walked along the dirt roads past boxy, brightly painted homes, Jes explained the strict municipal color-code system. "Police -stations are green, hospitals and clinics yellow, administrative buildings red," he said, "so you can identify them quickly."

Shaggy sled dogs rose on stiff legs, howling and wagging their tails as we approached. "They're working animals, not pets," Jes said. When a woman ignored his warning and reached to pat one, he added, "You only get to pat a Greenlandic dog twice — once with your right hand and once with your left."

When the Norse first arrived in Greenland, it was uninhabited. But advances in dog-sled technology soon made it possible for the ancestors of the Inuit to make their way from Canada's Ellesmere Island across the frozen strait to northwest Greenland. They soon moved south along the coast at the same time the Norse were creeping north. It was a disastrous collision. The Norse called them "skrælings," a derogatory word for wretch. On the first recorded encounter, the Norse killed one just to see if he would bleed. The Inuit launched reprisal raids. In 1379, they attacked the Eastern Settlement, killing 18 men and taking a woman and two boys as slaves.

Despite these battles, archaeologists have found little evidence of mass murder around the vanished Western Settlement. But there may have been a more powerful force at work.

Steve Maclean, a trim retired professor from the University of Alaska and an old Arctic hand, joined me on a hike the next morning up an empty valley full of blooming arctic poppies. Lindblad expedition leader Tim Soper came along, a Springfield rifle slung over his shoulder, "in case of polar bears." Steep granite cliffs rose around us, and wrinkled glaciers peered down like ice-cream crocodiles on a riverbank. Our odds of encountering a polar bear were slim. Each summer the sea ice retreats farther north and with it the bears' main food source, seals. Some scientists believe polar bears will go extinct in our lifetime.

Global climate change might also have impacted the Vikings, Steve said. "The climate we're experiencing today is roughly the same as what the Vikings experienced. But beginning in the 1300s, there was a gradual cooling that scientists call the Little Ice Age. Supply and trade ships had trouble getting into the ice-choked fjords of Greenland," he said. "They weren't able to reach the Viking settlements, sometimes for years."

A sound like a cannon shot detonated in the clear air and stopped us in our tracks. An ice column the size of a grain silo exploded down nearby cliffs. The glaciers were melting.

Could climate change have doomed the Western Settlement? Steve shook his head. "The Little Ice Age was coincidental with the vanishing of the Norse colonies," he said. "It might have contributed to it, but I don't believe it caused it."

Later that afternoon, we rounded the southernmost tip of Greenland and landed at Nanortalik, known as "Place of the Bears." Here, 2,200 Inuit today live much as their ancestors did, hunting seal and caribou, fishing for arctic char. How is it, I wondered, that the Inuit managed to survive here while the Norse disappeared?

The answer could have to do with their diets. Inuit men and women in shimmering sealskin parkas greeted us on a dock piled with crab pots. Speaking through an interpreter, they led us on a tour through the old part of town, past the wooden church built in 1916, past sod houses with whale-jaw gates, past the faded gray skeletons of kayaks, down to a rocky beach where they were cooking over an open fire.

A tin pot of seal blood, seawater and white bits of blubber boiled among the stones. A boy in a nylon tracksuit joined us. He took his iPod earphones out and begged his mother for a sip. She ladled the brown broth with a mussel shell. I tried a mouthful too. It tasted like fishy beef.

Jes didn't buy the argument that the Norse failed to adapt from their traditional farm-based culture endangered by colder summers to the Inuit's successful fishing and hunting model. "After 500 years of living on the edge of the inhabited world, the Vikings died out because they couldn't adapt?" He gnawed on a juicy cube of seal. "I don't think so."

"From the bone fragments that have been found, and the newest work in isotope research, they have actually found a high percentage of marine mammals in the Norse diet. They were taking up hunting, fishing. They probably weren't experts," he said, "but they were learning."

On a still morning a few days later, we pulled into a wide green fjord flanked by low hills rippling with waist-high meadows. The Eastern Settlement was the largest Viking colony in Greenland. They left behind a remarkable monument. Near the edge of the water rose Hvalsey Church, a stone chapel built by Europeans in North America 500 years before Columbus bumped into the Americas.

Tim let me zodiac ashore early. I hiked alone to the church and lay down on the grassy floor. Granite blocks still sealed with lime mortar and spackled with pumpkin-colored lichen rose to a rectangle of hard blue sky. A pair of snow buntings flitted past. A vaulted window that might have once held French stained glass purchased with narwhal tusks poured the sunshine down onto my face.

It was right here on Sept. 14, 1408 — nearly 60 years after the Western Settlement vanished — that Sigrid Bjornsdatter married Thorstein Olafsen. Two priests officiated and guests arrived from as far away as Iceland. They toasted the couple with mead and feasted on broiled mutton for three weeks. The account of their happy wedding is the last written record of the Norse Greenlanders. After that, they fade away, eventually migrating back to Iceland or Norway, their foray into the New World remembered only in the sagas.

Meanwhile on board, our expedition to the lost colony was running into trouble. The captain didn't have the right nautical charts. He'd radioed ahead to Nuuk, Greenland's capital and the closest port to the Western Settlement. No luck.

Tim agreed to Plan B. We'd dock at Nuuk and launch the zodiacs. It would take us nearly eight hours to make the 80-mile run. It would be wet, cold and bumpy, but we could do it.

Greenland had other plans. By the time we reached Nuuk, a storm was brewing. Gray waves smashed into the Explorer like Thor's hammer; clouds moved low and fast. Tim joined me on the heaving deck as red and blue houses and gray apartment blocks materialized through the rain. He didn't have to tell me an open-boat journey in rough seas up a fjord without maps was a bad idea. I resigned myself to a day exploring the city.

Back at the ship's bar that afternoon, I was nursing my second Scotch with Chris, a former mountain-climbing ranger from Colorado, when Tim strode up smiling.

"The captain was able to photocopy a chart from one of the fishing boats," he said. "We're taking the Explorer up the fjord!"

Chris cracked into laughter. "Do you realize that Lindblad is turning a multimillion-dollar cruise ship around and using a photocopied fishing chart to sail up the second-largest fjord system in the world just so you can chase dead Vikings?"

He tossed back two fingers of Glenlivet, ice rattling in the glass. "Now this," he said, "is going to be a real expedition."

We weren't expecting anything like the ruins at Hvalsey when later that afternoon the captain swung the Explorer's bow into the storm's jaws and left the pages of Lindblad's neatly printed itinerary behind. When the ship entered the narrow fjord, I ran up to the catwalk above the bow, my windbreaker zipped tightly against the wind. We were going off-piste, and I was intoxicated with the buzz of adventure, something I never expected to feel aboard a cruise ship.

Two hours later we dropped anchor at Qorqut Fjord. As a red arctic sun scalded the shattered peaks, Jes, Vinnie and I scrambled into the first zodiac. Soon we were skipping over the water, other zodiacs loaded with passengers in close pursuit.

We disembarked and broke into groups. It was already late in the summer evening, and the captain had given us until twilight before he needed to make his way out of the maze. Vinnie gave a quick archaeological briefing. "You're looking for anything unusual," he said, "any vegetation that looks out of place. But remember, it's been six centuries, so the stones will probably be long buried under tundra."

Vinnie moved like a foxhound in a race against the dark. I ran to keep up with his long strides. A half-hour later I spotted a series of rocks sticking out of the dwarf willows like a row of tombstones. My heart was pounding with the thrill of an archaeological discovery. "Over here!" I shouted. Vinnie jogged over.

He gave the stone a kick and shook his head. "Too big, my friend. We're looking for slabs, two or three of them. The stones will be thinner." Radios crackled as groups reported other finds, all false alarms. As the hours rolled by, the expedition lost passengers to the ship's bar and beds.

I took a water break on a Chevy-size boulder and drank in the vastness of the arctic landscape, the cold splinter of fjord piercing the ancient halls of stone. It didn't matter to me that we hadn't yet found any tangible sign of the lost colony. What mattered was that we had come here at all. A group of ordinary tourists had refused to accept that discovery was the domain of explorers and scientists.

Suddenly Vinnie's radio crackled with shouting. It was Jes. Judging from his voice, he was excited. He'd found something big. I hoped it wasn't polar bear big. Nobody had brought a rifle. "Where are you, Jes?" Vinnie hollered back. Up on the mountainside near a waterfall came the reply. But in the twilight, landmarks were useless. "Fire the flash on your camera," Vinnie yelled.

We scanned the dusky mountain. Nothing. Then a silver spark flashed higher up than we'd been looking. And another. We were off like sprinters, sluicing through the willows, hurdling boggy creeks. Twenty minutes — and several warnings from the captain — later, we reached Jes. There, embedded in the tundra were rows of granite blocks the size of sofa cushions.

"It could have been a longhouse," Vinnie clapped happily as he walked around the foundation. "It could have been a farm." He circled again, rubbing his chin and summoning the ghostly structure from the earth with his imagination. "This stone would have been here ... this was a corner here ... the door probably would have been here."

But something was nagging at him. Why, he wondered aloud, was the structure so high up the slope? "Maybe they were afraid of something," he said. "Maybe raids by other Vikings."

Or maybe something more familiar scared them. Standing up there on the mountain, something I'd read came back to me. In 1261, the previously free men of Greenland came under the yoke of Norway. Ivar wasn't just sent to save the colony from Skræling raids; he was also sent to collect overdue taxes.

The colonists would have spotted Ivar's armada coming from a long way off. Marauding Vikings or royal IRS agents? Was there a difference? An alarm would have gone up, and the people might have hidden in the high alpine valleys.

Gazing down at the twinkling lights of the Explorer moored in the fjord, I remembered what happened after Ivar landed. Spooked by the empty settlement and believing it cursed, the Norwegians quickly slaughtered the livestock and sailed away, never to return.

But had the Western Settlement really disappeared? Or were they there hiding all along? Maybe the ruin was a clue. Perhaps following Ivar's "rescue" the settlers moved away from the sea to protect themselves from further raids, not realizing that to the rest of the world they were already dead.

There is a curious footnote to the story. In 1540, Jon Greenlander, an Icelandic sailor, sought shelter here from a storm. He reported Icelandic-style farms and boatsheds high in the hills. On a beach he discovered the corpse of a man dressed in wool and sealskin, a worn iron knife tucked in his belt. Could this have been the last of the lost Vikings? Could the settlement have survived in peaceful obscurity for another two centuries after Ivar's raid only to dwindle slowly until no one survived to bury the last to fall?

My thoughts were broken by another insistent radio call from the captain. We could leave — right now — or he could pick us up next summer.

Jes grabbed his pack and headed down. Vinnie and I paused. Twilight was gone, and the aurora borealis glowed in green gossamer curtains above the mountain cirque. To the Inuit, the northern lights were the spirits of the dead playing in heaven. "Can you feel them?" Vinnie asked, gazing up at the electric rain. "They're still here; they're all around us."

Before I could answer, he gave a Celtic smile and put a finger to his lips. "Let them be, my friend. Let them be. Otherwise, the mystery is over and you know all the answers."