The Most Spectacular Place You’ll Never See

Unless you look out the window.

When I did that on 4 November 2007, halfway between London and Denver, I saw this:

baffin Best I could tell at the time, this was Greenland. That’s how I labeled it in this album on Flickr. For years after that, I kept looking at Greenland maps, trying to find where, exactly, these glaciers and mountains…


While I’m sure there are good maps of Greenland somewhere (Nuuk? Denmark?), Google, Bing and the rest are no help. Nor are the fat world atlases. Here’s an island the size of a continent, with lots of Fjords and islands and glaciers and mountains and stuff, many of which were surely named by the natives or visitors, and there ain’t much.

But:::: good news.

There, out my dirty and frosty window over the trailing edge of the wing, was the same long deep valley I had seen seven years before. Only now I was equipped to learn what was what, and where. My GPS and the plane’s map — there on a screen mounted in the back of the seat in front of me — agreed: we flying over the Cumberland Peninsula of Baffin Island, an Arctic landform almost twice the size of New Zealand, in Nunavut, Canada’s newest, most arctic and least populated territory.

The valley, I discovered on the ground, is called Akshayuk Pass. It connects the North and South Pangnirtung Fjords, bisecting the peninsula. Imagine a Yosemite Valley with a floor of glaciers draining into Arctic rivers, flanked for seventy miles by dozens of Half Domes and El Capitans — crossing the Arctic Circle, through an island where the last Ice Age still hasn’t ended.

On the west side of the pass is the Penny Ice Cap, a mini-Greenland inside the forbidding and spectacular Auyuittuq National Park. Wikipedia explains, “In Inuktitut (the language of Nunavut‘s aboriginal people, the Inuit), Auyuittuq (current spelling: ᐊᐅᔪᐃᑦᑐᖅ aujuittuq) means ‘the land that never melts.'” Nobody lives there. Hiking across it ranges from difficult to impossible. The only way to fully take it in is from the sky above, like I found myself doing right then. It was thrilling.

On the first flight over, I became fascinated by a mountain, just south of the Penny Ice Cap, that looked like an old tooth with fillings that had fallen out. It’s in the lower left side of this shot here from the 2007 trip:

asgard So I recognized it instantly when I saw it again two days ago. Here’s how it looked this time:

agard2 Now that I could research the scenery, I found it was Mt. Asgard, named after the realm of Norse gods. From below it looks the part. (That link is to amazing photos by Artur Stanisz, shot from Turner Glacier, which Asgard overlooks in the shot above. Fun fact: one of the great James Bond ski chase stunts was shot here. See this video explaining it. Start at about 1:33.)

So now we have all these albums:

Which join these others on Flickr:

A digression on the subject of aviation…

A bit before I started shooting these scenes, a flight attendant asked me to shade my window, so others on the plane could sleep or watch their movies. Note that this was in the middle of a daytime flight, not a red-eye. When I told her I booked a window seat to look and shoot out the window, she was surprised but supportive. “That is pretty out there,” she said.

Later, when we were over Hudson Bay and the view was all clouds, I got up to visit the loo and count how many other windows had shades raised. There were very few: maybe eight, out of dozens of windows in the economy cabin of our Boeing 777. Everybody was watching a movie, eating, sleeping or otherwise paying no attention to the scenery outside.

No wonder a cynical term used by airline people to label passengers is “walking freight.” The romance and thrill of flying has given way to rolling passengers on and off, and filling them with bad food and failed movies.

Progress is how the miraculous becomes mundane. Many of our ancestors would have given limbs for the privilege of seeing what’s on the other side of our window shades in the sky. Glad all we need is to give up our cynicism about flying.

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10 Responses to The Most Spectacular Place You’ll Never See

  1. Rick Ladd says:

    As I began reading, I was fearful I would find the entire scene was now free of snow and ice. Happy to discover that wasn’t the case. I love looking out the window when flying, though I am reasonably jaded enough to stoically accept the constraints of an aisle seat when necessary.

  2. Doc Searls says:

    Thanks, Rick. As I recall, some of my shots of Greenland have accompanied reports (such as this one) on shrinkage of glaciers and ice fields there. I should look at the two Baffin Island series shot 7 years apart to see if shrinkage is visible there. According to this report, it’s happening.

  3. Hanan Cohen says:

    Reminds me of something I sometimes say – “Look out the window. The graphics are amazing!”

  4. Beautiful photos and beautiful essay Doc.

    Electricity and the light bulb have made almost everything we take for granted today possible. But they have also taken away the nightly possibility of viewing the very Milky Way Galaxy in which we live.

    Are our lives bigger? Or smaller?

  5. Eric Likness says:

    As Louis C.K. has said in his standup routine, you’re in a chair,… IN THE SKY. I love sitting near the window just to watch see all the noises I’m hearing as the flaps are pulled in, pushed out, the plane rotates for takeoff. All that stuff that I don’t do because I’m not the pilot I get to pretend doing by looking out that window. I love it and wish I could always get a window seat.

  6. Alex T says:

    Beautiful observations. But surely the real irony in all this, not mentioned at all, is that in emitting 2 whole tons of CO2 during that long-haul flight, equivalent to a year of driving, the author made an estimable contribution to the warming that is destroying those stunning glaciers. As many thousands of others do every day.

  7. Alex T says:

    I am not certain you are aware of just how damaging air travel is, on a per-capita basis. The issues are explored thoroughly in this article by a renowned climatologist who has decided to start living up to this own declared principles.

    I do not own a car and have not taken a plane for nearly 11 years. Clearly that makes me insufferably sanctimonious to many, but it does allow me to complain about disappearing glaciers and coral reefs without being an egregious hypocrite. Still, I eat too much meat, so ultimately I am a hypocrite like almost every other Westerner.

    This was not meant as a personal attack, just a highly necessary addendum to your post.

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