Approaching Disko Island by boat feels like heading toward Skull Island in search of the great ape, King Kong. A prehistoric land looms as the sea succumbs to unforgiving terrain — craggy, jagged and mountainous.
Forged by fire, the island is a few hours boat ride from the icy mainland of Greenland. Its landscape is completely different from the rest of the Arctic country because a volcanic past gave Disko black sand beaches and rugged landscape.
But its most striking features are huge, red flattop mountains that locals call the Grand Canyon. They tower over Qeqertarsuaq, the island’s only settlement. It’s a small town of colorful houses where people never fail to wave hello and smile to anyone passing them on the street
Qeqertarsuaq is home to about 1,800 people, including a lone taxi driver who, surprisingly, is called Steve. “My parents really liked Steve McQueen movies,” he says with a wry shrug.
Steve and his taxi are pretty much all the tourism infrastructure there is on Disko. Anyone wanting to see the island’s beauty will need the help of a local fisherman or at least someone who owns a boat.
That could all change if Mark Mølgaard gets his way.
“My dream is to build a huge hotel here and have boats and an airstrip so more tourists can come here,” says Mølgaard, a local who takes visitors on informal boat tours.
“Have you ever seen whales? You’ll see some today,” he says as we climb aboard his boat. “We see whales every day, mostly humpback and fin whales.”
They may be easy to find, but Mølgaard says building a hotel on the black beach just outside of town would make it even easier. But, for the time being, that remains just a dream.
“The whales feed very close to the coast there and they jump in the air,” he says. “Before they jump, the small fish, the capelin, run for their lives and suddenly the humpback whales come up from the water, and we can see the whole of the body. They jump and land on the water and then splash!
“It will be maybe the only hotel in the world that has a view from the bed to whales only 50 meters (about 165 feet) from them.”
Heading east from the black beach, glacial melt water sends little waterfalls over coastal cliffs. Farther on, basalt columns — natural formations of rock that look completely unnatural — rise out of the water.
“They look like LEGO,” says Mølgaard. “Like someone has cut them into layers.”
Exploring this terrain requires a jump from the boat onto a relatively safe piece of rock and a scramble up the side of one of the basalt cliffs. It’s worth the effort.
Atop the cliffs is a stunning landscape that transforms from black rock into a lush land of streams and angelica plants. The plants, known locally as kuannit, give this part of the island its name.
“You can just take them and pick them up and eat them,” Mølgaard says. “They taste like gin.”
The streams on the island can be drunk from directly. It’s some of the tastiest and freshest water on the planet.
Continuing east by boat, huge stone arches big enough to sail through appear from the water. One, sacred to the Greenlandic people, was where fishermen would traditionally offer an animal sacrifice to the Mother of the Sea before heading out to hunt.
As the boat navigates past icebergs that shimmer in the sun, giant canyons that resemble the landscape of the Colorado River open up. It becomes clear why locals call these mountains the Grand Canyon of Disko Island.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Mølgaard says, smiling.
Hike to the waterfalls
Eventually we arrive at a green valley, split by blue rivers, sandwiched between red mountains. Mølgaard moors the boat on a black beach so pristine it feels like no one has ever left a footprint on it. The prehistoric appearance is so intense, it wouldn’t feel out of place to see a dinosaur.
This valley is why Mølgaard has brought us here.
“To the waterfalls it’s a 20-minute hike,” he says, leading the way along rivers lined on either bank by Greenland’s national flower, a pink fireweed.
The flower’s local name means “young girl,” after the legend of a child who died suddenly. She was buried, winter came, and when the snow melted, her grave was covered in these beautiful pink blooms.
As the hike continues on soft, spongy moss, the rivers converge into one. A waterfall’s roar announces its presence long before it comes into view. The moss gives way to rocks that vibrate from the power of the falls. It’s a tremor that you can feel in your chest.
Then they appear — huge twin waterfalls about 100 feet tall. They’re breathtaking. And when the sun hits them just right, they produce an amazing rainbow.
“I don’t know how I feel when I see them because I have never felt this feeling before,” Mølgaard says. “It’s magic, spectacular and there’s a rainbow. People from all over the world should come here because this is the most beautiful nature I’ve seen.”
The winter freeze
In the winter, this island of fire is covered with ice and the sea freezes over, making boat trips impossible.
That doesn’t mean Disko Island is just for the warmer months. On the contrary, it might get even more spectacular during winter.
Last winter, it was possible to dog sled the 55 miles from Qeqertarsuaq to its closest mainland neighbor, Illulissat, a two to three-hour boat ride in the summer.
“We’ve seen polar bears, narwhals, belugas, bowhead whales and seals from our living room,” Mølgaard says. “There were two polar bears inside the town last winter. It’s the first time since 1972 we had a polar bear in the town.”
Timooq Mølgaard, chairman of the local ski club (and no relation to Mark Mølgaard), said locals are trying to do as much as they can to encourage visitors during winter.
“We can feel there is growing tourism interest because numbers of visitors are growing,” he says. “Our part is to make activities available for this growing tourism.”
And the “Grand Canyon” — perfect for hiking and camping in the summer — transforms itself into one of the world’s most pristine ski slopes when the snow arrives. The town has hired German company Mountain Planning to install a chair lift and explore the possibility of building a ski village with hotels.
“It could be very popular,” says Armand Windisch, Mountain Planning’s managing director. “The nature is beautiful in summer there, it’s fantastic. And for the winter we made a master plan for the ski center.”
The center would include both slope and cross-country skiing in addition to dog sled tours, which are currently available all year round.
The plans also include heli-skiing. Disko doesn’t have its own airport, and the only way to reach the island in winter — for those not enticed by a 55-mile dog sled ride — is by helicopter.
So heli-skiing makes perfect sense, Windisch says.
“There must be a helicopter anyway so why not start with this?”