Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Greenland 2010 - Reflections

This summer I had the privilege of joining a team of sea kayakers who were venturing out to East Greenland under the guidance of Martin Rickard - Sea Kayak Adventures, Shetland. Martin has several years of experience leading expeditions to this area including a 600 mile unsupported trip down the uninhabited and wild coast between Scoresbysund and Tasiilaq - you can read more about that experience here. It gave me the chance to return to a much loved part of the world as well as furthering my PhD research in observing the sort of dynamics that occur on expedition.

East Greenland is one of the most remotely inhabited places in the world. Along the 2,600 kilometres of coastline you’ll only encounter two towns and 7 small settlements, populated by a little more than 3,500 people. There is a natural reason for this very sparse settlement - East Greenland is situated between the polar sea ice and the Greenlandic Icecap, and is only accessible with supply ships 5 months a year. An awesome wilderness of more than 1,457,000 km².

Flying into Kulusuk from Iceland, looking across to Ammassalik, a person can’t help but feel a sense of wonderment at East Greenland’s exceptional beauty, and at being in one of the world’s most stunning and unspoiled arctic regions. The land is a mosaic of steep, dramatic mountains, glaciers, waterfalls and green valleys as well as ice filled fjords. Ammassalik radiates purity, which can be both overwhelming and fascinating in equal measure when you are amongst it all in a sea kayak.

A boat trip from Kulusk takes you to Tasiilaq, which is located on Ammassalik Island just, and where Martin begins his expeditions. Tasiilaq boasts long hours of daylight in the summer, and the splendour of the northern lights in the winter. Colourful wooden houses fill the hillsides around the harbour, which is beautifully situated by King Oscar Fjord and surrounded by high mountains. Tasiilaq is very much a modern community with many of the amenities one would come to expect. At the same time traditional Greenlandic culture is present in many layers of the society, making an interesting co-existence of old and new.

The main occupation for many people here is still hunting, where seal, narwhal and polar bear are the primary sources of food and income. Old traditions associated with the division of the catch are still observed in East Greenland. For example, the skin of the polar bear is given to the person who first sighted the animal rather than the hunter who actually killed it, who will get the scull, some ribs and one of the behind legs.

Outside of Tasiilaq and the other five settlements in the region (Kulusk, Kuummiut, Tiniteqilaaq, Sermiligaaq and Isortoq) a visitor to this area will come across very few signs of active habitation, though the Greenlanders have been around for centuries. This is evident in the archeological sites that we came across on our journey. Fallen stone structures, remains of turf huts, abandoned villages from more recent times, and hunting huts used currently by locals are dotted along the coast. Due to the climate and landscape there is no infrastructure outside Tasiilaq and the settlements. In the wintertime the local transportation is by helicopter, skidoos and dogsleds. In the summertime, it's by motorboat and helicopter.

As the group set off to circumnavigate Ammassalik Island – initially paddling up Angmagssalik fjord, then through the long and narrow Ikasartivaq fjord, to reach Tiniteqilaaq (Tinit) – vast gneiss spires and ridges overshadowed us as we paddled along. Kayaking underneath these mountains was a special experience in itself as the scale of them is simply amazing. From Tinit we chose to cross Sermilik Fjord in an attempt to reach Umiagtuartivit, the site of an abandoned settlement, as well explore Sermilik's upper regions as far as Fangsthus. There are 3 enormous glaciers calving icebergs into the waters at its head, creating a waterway always full of vast quantities of ice, and so presenting a sea kayaker with numerous issues.

In order to cross Sermilik Fjord, we had to carefully pick our way through a maze of pack ice, which was in contrast to other, more open fjords that in some cases had only large icebergs stranded on the seabed.  We discovered that the ice dampens down any swell, but also presents a unique set of challenges.  Martin advised us to always shape a wide course around any icebergs as their unpredictable nature and sudden collapse could bring a rapid end to someones trip.

The group also developed the routine of pulling the boats up high each night, as breakaway ice can cause sizable waves. This was also true of calving tide-water glaciers, in which case a secure tent location is also paramount! In heavy pack-ice conditions, we found that narrow fjords, especially those feeding into Sermilik, created 'chokes' where tide and wind had constricted the ice causing us to adapt our passage plans.

As the group continued to round Ammassalik Island, we entered a bay and landed at Ikateq, a village that has been abandoned since 1999. Martin explained that hunters do occasionally come back, but it was very empty and it appeared the people left in a hurry. The school and church displayed things that were left behind - books, maps, markers without lids, glue sticks, and numbers for song books. This community of only 30 people was moved to Tasiilaq, where they would have running water and electricity. The atmosphere of the place felt quite strange and as as such the group choose to move on further down the coast.

At this stage we had the completion of the circumnavigation within our grasp, having paddled over 250 kilometres. Not even a change in the weather or the sea state were able to deter the desire of the team to return to Tasiilaq for showers and a beer. The southern end of Ammassalik provided a contrasting landscape, leading the climbers in the team to gaze in awe at the sheer sided cliffs and ridges, perhaps planning a few ascents in their minds eye!

After taking a time out and re-supply, the expedition continued on to Kulusuk and explored aspects of Apusiajiik Island with its vast tide-water glacier and the surrounding series of skerries. One of the really special aspects of paddling in this region of East Greenland are the wonderful camps that are established each night with views of the iceberg-studded fjords, mountains and the hidden gems that can be found with a little leg stretching on land. Knowing that few have placed footsteps here before.

Throughout the 15 days on the water, we were blessed with pretty stable weather, which meant that as well as enjoying sublime sea kayaking each day we were also treated to breathtaking vistas and sunsets when camping. Even the overcast days, and the occasional rain showers, enhanced the dramatic atmosphere that enveloped us.

The wildlife was also wonderful too – cheeky arctic foxes, broaching whales and birds of many varieties. Though no polar bears on this outing! One occasion saw the group camped near to where two waterways merge, causing upsurges of plankton that minke and fin whales congregate to feed on. Once again affirming what a wild and special, as well as starkly beautiful, place we were in.

If you are a keen paddler looking for the ultimate sea kayaking experience, East Greenland has to be top of your list. I would recommend contacting Martin Rickard without delay as these trips are very popular and book up early. Martin is very knowledgeable about the region as well Gino Watkins, a key figure connected with exploration in East Greenland. Martin maintains a fleet of Rockpool and Valley boats for use on expedition, and provides a professional as well as flexible service for those paddlers who want to join a small like-minded group of people looking for a definitive sea kayaking experience while exploring this incredible and magical area.

As with many ventures of this nature, I was fortunate enough to have support from Kokatat in my role as one of their ambassadors. On this trip I took a number of items including my Kokatat TecTour Anorak, an Orbit Tour buoyancy aid, a pair of Nomad paddling boots, along with an inner core top and paddling pants.

One aspect of expedition life is that the clothes you wear and the equipment you use receives above average use and abuse. I'm glad to say that all the items I took stood up to the test of being in Greenland. A big thank you to Kokatat for making such great gear.

More pictures of the expedition can be found here and here

1 comment:

carin said...

Lovely story. I had many similar experiences this summer when leading a Swedish group on the western side (the Uummannaaq-area north of Disco Bay). Greenland now holds a special place in my heart.