The Other Arctic Circle Cruise – Kayaking Among Icebergs

Arctic neighbourhood. Ilulissat is Greenland’s third-largest settlement.

Author: Jens Notroff
Vagabonds Log

It’s been three years. Three years of kayaking in more local waters, like Germany’s rivers and Sweden’s skerries. All great destinations and exciting adventures on their own. But still. Somehow something was missing. A desire nagging deep inside. There was nothing to argue. Of course, it was only a question of time. We had to return. And so, one early July morning in 2011 we find ourselves at Copenhagen Airport – boarding that red airplane, Air Greenland’s pride and joy. Again. Destination: Greenland.

In the summer of 2008, we already had taken on the challenge of some Arctic kayak adventure. The fun of it: paddling at the very cradle of the kayak itself (“qajaq” as the Inuit of the Arctic call their narrow hunting boats). Three weeks, a summer of ice, we were following Viking footprints at the southern coast of Greenland back then. But this time we wanted to go farther north. We wanted to cross the Arctic Circle. We wanted to go where the sun won’t set all night.

It only takes you about four and a half hours from Copenhagen to the mighty ice sheet covering the world’s largest island there, up in the north, but upon arriving at Kangerlussuaq Airport – Air Greenland’s international hub and one of only two Greenlandic airports large enough for this kind of traffic (the other one’s Narsarsuaq, just in case you wanted to know) – our journey is not yet completed. While indeed situated at the Polar Circle, Kangerlussuaq cannot be considered exactly close to the coast. It takes another flight with some mighty noisy prop-plane to reach Ilulissat, still a bit further to the north-west – and with a population of about 4,500 Greenland’s third-largest settlement. Closer to the sea. Closer to the ice. Ilulissat (which, by the way, translates to “icebergs” and is filled with the barking and howling noise of bored sled dogs in summer) is situated at an impressing icefjord bearing the same name (Ilulissat Kangerlua, declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2004), the glacier at its eastern end being the most productive one in the Northern Hemisphere. Rumour has it, that the iceberg which sank the RMS Titanic in 1912 (I’ll bet you know the story; haven’t seen that movie?) came right from here. While I am not sure, how much of this may be true, the view across this dense field of subtly moving ice – glittering mountains, bizarre floes, bright rubble – does indeed leave a silent awe and the feeling of nature’s magnitude and dignity. About 20 billion tons of icebergs are calving off the glacier every year, floating through the fjord towards the sea. 20 billion tons! An impressing thought and surely breathtaking sight, but this is not the time to dedicate ourselves to such humble feelings as we – still – are not our destination.

Where the sun doesn’t set. Greenland, past midnight.

With the help of a local fisherman and his small boat, we could finally proceed towards Ataa, an abandoned tiny settlement in Disko Bay (which got its 15 minutes of fame as backdrop in the 1997 movie adaption of “Smilla’s Sense of Snow”). It is late at night, past 1 a.m., when we drop our bits and pieces to the shore and disembark, but looking at the clouded yet light sky, it could have been any other hour of the day as well. The only infallible sign of the sun staying low is the piercing frostiness which drives us into cozy sleeping bags and tents apace.

The next morning is a warmer one. Some significant change in temperature, which was also noticed by the infamous Greenlandic mosquitoes. An insidious breed not caring for your poor European repellent and strictly aiming for eyes, ears and mouth. But honestly – coming that far, you’re not giving in to some humming critters, do you. We are determined and the kayaks wait at the water already, the fjords lying ahead. With this kind of transportation, travelling light is a basic requirement, but still – stuffing even the reduced lightweight equipment and freeze-dried food into the narrow boats and small compartments is a pretty enervating and fiddly task (one we should learned to master over the days of constantly unpacking and packing upon every arrival and departure; reducing the supplies every day also helped, naturally). Finally, all is set. Well, we’re no beginners when it comes to kayaking. Not even when it comes to kayaking in Greenland. But this morning, with the new and unfamiliar boats …well. Our travel companions are just a bit too energetic by entering their kayak. They’re capsizing; while still at the beach. Which is quite lucky under the circumstance, actually. With 4°C water temperature you would not want to recapitulate this out there at sea. Forget all that stuff you read about the famous ‘Eskimo Roll’, which might (or might not) work with an empty single kayak – but with a double one, crammed from top to bottom … not the ghost of a chance. We’re a bit bewildered after that stunt, to say the least. But again, coming that far doesn’t get you to surrender so easily. A moment of silence and contemplation. Another one of discussion. A first timid attempt to bring the kayaks back to water and test their as well as our abilities and limits. A bit shaky (both), unquestionably, but also becoming more and more secure with each paddle stroke. Heck, yes – we’re doing this!

Among icebergs

Slowly our small boats are floating through the water. Silent; only the gurgling echo of our paddles dipping into the water is heard. Ice in the water. The clear air a fresh breeze. Cautiously we are progressing, paddle stroke by paddle stroke. And there it is again: this sudden feeling of solitude. Freedom. The fjord is opening before us and more and more confident we are pushing into Arctic waters shined on by a never setting pale northern sun.

Arctic wilderness. Setting up camp for the night.

Every morning, after a breakfast of hot tea and salty instant soup (from the same cup, successively), camp is raised and packed and stuffed into the kayaks. Again and again. Paddling itself soon develops an own ‘daily routine’ over the following days and weeks. A routine of carefully circumnavigating creaking icebergs towering up like surreal frozen fairy tale castles in icy white and frosty blue. A routine all about finding a suitable spot to make new camp farther ahead at the end of the day (of course, all our stuff needs to be unloaded from the boats first) – shallow enough to disembark, dry and flat enough to get the tents up and with enough fresh water to get by (frozen water in form of eon-old glacial ice does count too).

Tale of a whale. Examining the few remains of an old whale skeleton.

This life may appear a bit more modest, but it’s also a bit more intense (let alone that not having a mobile signal is a rare luxury in our times I assume). The days on the water are filled with wonder and amazement. Cheerful seals curiously peering at us from a distance; majestic whales passing, waving a last graceful ‘Goodbye’ with their fluke before descending into the depth – and leaving us speechless in awe once again. Surely, threading through dense fields of ice, withstanding wind and rain, paddling through sometimes troubled waters could be an arduous venture. But this is an effort paying off! We are water-wandering a pristine landscape of primeval and almost mythic beauty. Rough mountains growing up to both edges of the fjord: rugged, steep, shadowy. Ice-covered summits, twinkling waterfalls and lakes with the color of polished opals are engaging the urge to discover every day anew. And while not facing a single living soul out there, except the occasionally rare fisherman in his boat, we do find forgotten traces of former human presence here deep in the Arctic wilderness: flat barrows of erstwhile Eskimo dwellings and stone-framed circles of their old burial grounds. People were living here once. The notion of a barren, hostile landscape is only half true, fitting for the frozen hinterland probably. However, Erik the Red did not lie to his fellow Vikings when advertising this newly discovered land as a Green-land. There is a thin narrow strip of fertile and habitable land just in front of the towering perpetual ice. In particular in the south-western part of the island, were also most of today’s settlements concentrate. But that landscape, that habitat is changing. The ice is retreating.

If nothing else (well, except the fun in sharing the adventure itself of course), here’s hoping that these few lines and pictures may spark some curiosity for the Arctic’s beauty. Some veneration. Some appreciation. This is a very special landscape on our planet, of a unique nature. It is a living environment after all. One worth protecting. Climate change is happening, and nature does not care if we believe this or not, if  we only discuss this over and over again. In our kayaks we went up to 69° North. We have seen that change; it is becoming impressively visible. Alarmingly visible. Melting glaciers leaving nothing but polished rock surfaces and rising sea levels, whole fjords suddenly becoming clear of ice. People were talking about their winter up there, ‘White Christmas’ not even in Greenland granted anymore these days.

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***Since I’m in Antarctica without internet access for 22 consecutive days, I’ve selected a few articles from other great bloggers to share with you. I’ll be back on February 3rd, 2015 with loads of fantastic adventures from Antarctica to share. Chat soon.***

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30 thoughts on “The Other Arctic Circle Cruise – Kayaking Among Icebergs

    • Thank you! Definitely worth the journey. Actually, I’m not under the impression, flights are more expensive than to other destinations. Depending on there you are based, checking Air Greenland’s offers could be worth a thought (in particular from the US it should not be that much more expensive than the trip to Iceland, I’d like to think). Sure, once there life could be a bit more expensive then at home, but since we didn’t need much more transport (kayak), accomodation (tent) or supplies (freeze-dried stuff), I could not say it was a peculiar expensive trip. So – that would be my budget tip: do as much as possible on your own. 😉

      Oh, and I’m pretty sure you won’t be disappointed from Iceland. What a setting! Try to get a glimpse of Snæfellsjökull (that iced up volcanoe where Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Centre of the Earth” adventure starts – hiking up there’s definitley on my list 😉 ).

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks a lot! There are actually a few more impressions from our first kayak expedition to Greenland in Viking footsteps a few years earlier. And still more to come from last year’s trip there. Admitting – it’s addictive. 😉

      Liked by 2 people

  1. Pingback: Return to the ice – with kayak and paddle in western Greenland | Vagabond's Log

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