Saturday, September 17, 2011

A Road to Nowhere

However you slice it, Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, site of the Polar Circle Marathon, is remote. Located at the end of a long, narrow fjord near the island's southwest coast, the town is more than 100 miles from Sisimiut, its nearest neighbor, and there are no roads connecting the two. Getting out of town by boat means a long and treacherous sea journey. Stir crazy residents could fly out, as the town boasts an international airport, but flights to Nuuk, the capital, and other local towns, or to Copenhagen are infrequent, and there is no Southwest Airlines offering wanna-get-away fares. If by some quirk you find yourself marooned in Kangerlussuaq for an extended period, I suggest you subscribe to the deluxe package from the local satellite TV provider.

Originally, Kangerlussuaq was an American Air Force base called Bluie West Eight. It was built in World War II under the supervision of Bernt Balchen, a pioneering Norwegian aviator who served as an American colonel during the war. The base later became a northerly outpost in the Cold War. (One can imagine U.S. servicemen stationed there in the '70s begging for transfers to Viet Nam.) After the Berlin Wall fell, the base's importance declined and the U.S. government gave it to the Greenlanders in 1992.

That was nearly the kiss of death for Kangerlussuaqers. Without well paying American jobs, the population dropped below 300. It became hard to find canasta partners on Saturday night. However, two things happened that sparked a revival in the town's fortunes. First, reindeer and muskoxen were reintroduced to the area and that led to a mini-boom in tourism and hunting.
Secondly, Volkswagen took an interest in the place. The German automaker wanted to build a test track to evaluate cars under extreme conditions and Kangerlussuaq, with its flat-as-a-pancake topography, windless environment and dependably cold temperatures, fit the bill. In 2000, a 19-mile gravel road was built. It proved to be a better idea in theory than in practice. German engineers found that they preferred conducting cold weather computer simulations from the comfort of Bavaria. So, after just a few years, Volkswagen pulled out.

But the road was there. And it just happened to lead to the base of the Greenland Ice Sheet, making Kangerlussuaq the only place in the entire northern hemisphere where it is possible to visit an ice sheet without traveling by helicopter. That transformed Kangerlussuaq into a Mecca for Arctic tourists. (Okay, "Mecca" may be too strong a word.) In addition, a few enterprising locals determined that by adding a short scamper across the ice sheet itself, the road could be formed into a 26.2 mile course for mentally unstable runners. In 2001, 130 frigid athletes with unpronounceable Scandinavian names ran the first Polar Circle Marathon.

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