In The Arctic Circle, The Sun Will Come Up After 58 Tomorrows

Jan 25, 2016
Originally published on April 22, 2016 1:08 pm

On Nov. 24, the sun set in the tiny Greenlandic town of Ittoqqortoormiit. When I arrived in mid-January, it had yet to rise again.

Even for Greenland, Ittoqqortoormiit is isolated. It's considerably colder and darker than the capital, Nuuk.

"I remember my first Christmas on the west coast [of Greenland]," says Mette Barselajsen, who was born here and is raising her four kids in town. "I remember I was surprised we had the sun at Christmas. Like, too light!"

But Barselajsen insists there are no particular tricks for dealing with the dark. It's just a normal part of life.

There must be something, though, to keep a person happy without the sun. Right?

Barselajsen smiles. "I haven't seen them," she begins. "But I heard you can buy a lamp." She's talking about lamps that are supposed to provide something close to natural daylight, and she's making fun of them.

"We will not have it," she says, laughing. "It will be like, why should we stare at it? We don't need that."

That's pretty much the local mindset: How do we deal with it? We just do! Polar people don't mind!

Barselajsen acknowledges it can be depressing, especially for people who weren't born here. "I think it is very hard for them," she says. Especially in December.

"You will bring your children to school in the dark, work in the dark, pick them up in the dark," she says.

Being outside is a big part of life here, and an important part of the normal rhythms of the town. Even in the darkest, coldest part of December, the town gathers outside to celebrate the Advent and light a Christmas tree flown in from Iceland or Denmark.

A few days before the sun is due to rise, the moon is pink at noon. It's reflecting the red light of the sun, now just a few degrees below the horizon. I go to the only store, looking for something to eat. Bananas are $9 each. The milk is past its sell-by date. I buy some peanuts for $2.50 and leave. Resupply ships can make it into the fjord only twice a year, between July and September. Most food spends the long winter in deep freeze. Inevitably, June finds the shelves mostly bare.

But the meat is fresh all year round. The snowy expanses around Ittoqqortoormiit are home to musk ox, polar bears, narwhals, walruses, sea birds and seals. Even before the sun returns, 60-year-old Isak Pike takes his dog team out.

In the dark months, some hunters leave the dogs and walk out onto the frozen ocean, lone figures against an endless white backdrop, looking for the breathing holes of seals. I see them in the early morning, standing motionless with their rifles, staring down through the ice.

As the sun prepares to rise again in late January, the hunters and the polar bears both move out toward the open ocean. The day before the sun is supposed to rise in Ittoqqortoormiit, the town is full of barking as hunters load up their sleds and head out onto the ice.

And then, it's Jan. 20: the first sunrise in 58 days.

Just before noon, all the kids in town put on their snowsuits and mittens, and climb up a nearby hill. The younger ones are carrying cardboard cutouts of the sun, decorated with marker and construction paper.

At the top of the hill, they gather in a circle and sing a song for the sun. The lyrics go, "Welcome back, my dear friend. Welcome back the sun."

From this day on, each day will have 15 minutes more sunlight than the last. In two short months, the days will be 12 hours long. Ittoqqortoormiit and the rest of the Arctic are speeding away from complete darkness toward endless daylight.

Rebecca Hersher is reporting from Greenland as NPR's Above the Fray Fellow, which is sponsored by the John Alexander Project.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Above the Arctic Circle, the sun is coming up. And that's something that doesn't happen every day. This is the time of the year when the sun rises for the first time in months. Reporter Rebecca Hersher visited a town in Greenland to find out what that moment means.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Only 398 people live in the town of Ittoqqortoormiit. Every year, they spend about 58 days without the sun. When I arrived, the darkness didn't take long to get to me.

All right, it's really cold and very dark. I've been here two days, and I can't wait for it to come up. It's like 3 o'clock, but it seems like the only thing to do is eat dinner (laughter).

For locals, the dark months have their charm. One of them, Mette Barselajsen, seemed surprised I kept bringing up the darkness.

HERSHER: Are their tricks, though, for keeping yourself happy when it's so dark?

METTE BARSELAJSEN: Some people - I haven't seen them, but I heard you can buy lamp, not big lamp, like...

HERSHER: It takes me a few seconds, but I realize she's talking about sunlamps.

BARSELAJSEN: Locally, we will not have it (laughter). It would be like - why should we stare at it (laughter)?

HERSHER: It seems a little silly?

BARSELAJSEN: Yeah because we don't need that.

HERSHER: Instead of sunlamps and vitamin D pills, people just try to do things for fun. They drink, play cards, do dangerous stuff on their snowmobiles.

One morning, 60-year-old Isak Pike is taking me out dogsledding. Sunrise is still a few days away. The dogs are ready to run.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOGS BARKING)

HERSHER: Pike hunts seals, walrus, polar bears, everything.

ISAK PIKE: Look.

HERSHER: As soon as we take off over the pack ice, he's smiling. It's not pitch black outside. There is a faint red light over the mountains. The moon is pink. For a moment, I almost don't miss the sun.

(CROSSTALK)

HERSHER: And then a few days later, it's the big day, the first sunrise in 58 days. The mood in town is like a minor holiday. Just before noon, all the kids put on their snowsuits and mittens and climb up a hill and then...

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing in foreign language).

HERSHER: ...They gather in a circle and sing a song for the sun, even though it's so cloudy you can't even see the horizon.

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing in foreign language).

HERSHER: They sing welcome back, my dear friend. Welcome back the sun.

For NPR News, I'm Rebecca Hersher.

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing in foreign language).

SIEGEL: Rebecca Hersher is reporting from Greenland on an NPR Above the Fray Fellowship, which is sponsored by the John Alexander Project. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.