Greenland July 2010

Posted by Swaledale Outdoor Club on 2011-04-21

This is an account of our sea kayaking trip to East Greenland last year.  Martin Rickard was our guide, and his knowledge was invaluable.  We certainly wouldn’t have been able to achieve anything like this trip in safety without him.  He provided boats, but we all took our own paddling gear and camping gear and food.

The group was Claire Taylor, Johnny Proud, Nick Bulmer, Richard Wormald, Pete Ball, Wendy and Pete Bridgstock, all from SOC, and Stu Gibbon (a Lancashire lad, but none the worse for that!). Most of us have had a hand in putting this write up together. Because its such a long write up, having all the photos load at once would be a bit slow, so the majrity of these have been added at the end in a little gallery you can scroll through.

Chapter 1

It was last year that I first had the call, "Would you like to join our group sea kayaking in Greenland next summer?"  Wow! what an adventure - yes of course I would. But what would I need ? I would have to fare better than on my recent trip with SOC to Ireland, a proper touring top then and new Thermarest. What about food ? We will be ten days away from supplies except for water and ice. The weight limit on the flight to Iceland is 25kg and my pack is still 5kg over. I've packed and re-packed, am down to three sets of underwear, three tee shirts and the rest is warm gear and one spare pair of trousers. We have sent eight wet meals ahead with some kayaks that were being shipped so the food we are carrying is dry, there is a shop at the start of our kayaking trip but we don't really know what they stock so I'm taking 1kg of porridge and some honey for my ten breakfasts and we have loads of noodles to do flask lunches. Last minute shopping on Amazon for everything from a bothy bag to extra batteries for the camera - how could I be this disorganised ? I hadn't even met up with Nick since he had offered to buddy up months ago and now I'm driving to his place after picking up my new paddle top near Leeds. An hour of counting meals and snacks and listing what's needed and a kind of calm is descending as I realise that Nick is very organised and he will probably save my life. He's cooked dinner and Cath arrives home from work, I'm really very grateful that she hasn't wanted to go on this trip and I can borrow her husband. Back in the car for an hour or so and the prospect of final packing doesn't seem so bad. Just as well because we fly two days later.

All eight of us meet at Manchester Airport and the bags don't even get a second look - some are well overweight and they just don't seem bothered. The plane picks up more passengers at Glasgow and we see Martin, our guide, as he gets on - we're all easy to spot I guess. We stay at a hostel in Iceland and enjoy the warm sunshine in Reykjavik. We're up early next day to fly across to Greenland and, as we descend, we see the fringes of Greenland and mountains behind. The water below us is marbled with ice and the locals are pulling out jackets. It doesn't feel that cold when we land but after leaving the airport building it's only the half mile walk carrying our bags down to the small quay that keeps us warm.

We wait to see if our boat is there and eventually we see that it is. There are about a half dozen power boats just off the concrete quay and one of the smaller ones is making its way over to us. There will be extra passengers so some of our bags need to go to another boat. The bags go in one of the bigger, posher boats and we clamber into the one with the canvas roof. It's raining and a long time later a very large couple arrive and get in the boat. Then we wait again. The ice is very thick and it's not that long before we see why our helmsman needed to be in convoy with the other, more powerful, bigger boats as they could hustle their way through the ice and we followed through. Even then we got stuck a few  times and were thankful to see the others had waited for us. Twelve of us and masses of luggage in a small motorboat surrounded by ice - if this wasn't mad then surely sea kayaking would be crazy. But then the fourth boat, the one behind us, is completely open and has a family with kids and now we are in open water now doing 25 knots on the plane with our driver's head poking through a hole in the canvas roof.

We arrive at Kulusuk much later than expected but very relieved to be alive. That journey was way too exciting but at least the large couple had some sweets and entertained us all by accidentally tipping a roof-full of icy water down Johnny's neck. I tried very hard not to laugh.

Tents up, a quick meal, it wasn't cold in the tent and I slept.

Next day saw us collecting boats and equipment from Martin's store (a metal container in a sort of workshop area next to the dump) and carrying them down to the campsite. We're right next to the helicopter base. Helicopters? Oh yes - They fly to the airport in about 20 minutes from here ... Oh really ? I wonder who would want to do that?

We spend a full day collecting boats from various stores and some brand new ones that had been delivered and contained our pre-delivered food parcels. We checked all our equipment and practice packed the boats, filled water and fuel containers. Later that evening we looked at maps and discussed plans and options.

Next morning we slid the sea kayaks down into the water, quietly paddled into the huge natural harbour ..... and our adventure begins.

Pete Ball

Well, it didn’t quite begin there – we had found some neglected faffing which needed attention.  It only involved buying ten litres of heptane stove fuel, but this was complicated by not knowing what the fuel was actually called in Greenland, and the two chaps selling it not having a clue what we were talking about.  Anyway pointing, gesticulating and laughing soon resolved all that, and we were really off.

Fairly quickly we were into ice. Not huge amounts, but enough to get the hang of manoeuvring our heavy boats, and picking a route through the floes. Little did we know how much this would become a feature of the trip! The ice got thicker as we approached a headland, and there looked little chance of making progress round it, so we camped. I took the opportunity for a kip, but was woken by a persistent banging and revving of engines. This turned out to be a couple of boats which had tried to make a shortcut through a channel past the headland, but were hemmed in by the ice.  Much pushing and heaving got the boats through the blockage and away. One thing that had occupied the minds of us all at some stage was polar bear encounters. These come down the east coast on ice floes as the polar ice sheet breaks up. When they come ashore, they are hungry, and never having encountered man, are not afraid. We all carried a pack of noisy flares and a whistle at all times, hoping that in the case of a bear encounter, nine people letting off flares, blowing whistles and generally running around screaming would scare if away. In the event that it didn’t, Martin had brought two shotguns, and took the opportunity now to teach us how to use them.

From the camp, we were able to watch the progress, or rather lack of it, of the supply ship which had been at Tasiilaq when we left.  This was out in the ice, and effectively stuck – what a wonderful portent for our trip.

So off to bed to dream about getting stuck in the ice, and being chased and mauled by a bear.

Breakfast over next day, we headed out to find a way through the ice. We tried the shortcut channel which had proved so difficult for the boats the previous day. Thickening ice saw Martin out of his boat, standing on a floe and directing us through the maze of channels. A lot of concentration is needed to keep the boat under control, and not crash into the floes which are just as solid as rock, so I wasn’t looking much beyond my immediate surroundings. Suddenly, we broke out into much clearer water in Angmassilik Fjord. The views were stunning, with the mountains at the other side of the Fjord, some ten miles or so away, poking out of low lying mist, and with wisps of cloud round their higher slopes, and the sun breaking through the overcast above us.

Now we should be able to make some progress north up the fjord.

Pete Bridgstock

Greenland Chapter 2

Day 3 on the water and we woke again to the sunshine poking over the mountains at around four in the morning. A quick nose out of the tent through the mosquitoes showed the sea to be chock full of ice, so another cup of coffee was called for and more snoozing.

Eventually we were all up and wandering around. Breakfasts were eaten through the mozzie nets then lots of discussions about the plan for the day. All morning we climbed up the hill behind us to view the ice trying to work out routes through. By eleven and many morning lazy coffees later, the decision was made to go for it and battle our way across the fjord to Blokken.

Once decided, that was it, big rush and we were all on the water ten minutes later to continue the paddling-in-lumpy-ice scenario. Martin's experience in the conditions again showed, and I found it quite fun just paddling my small plastic Nordkapp around the tight twisting route. Definitely thought my thick plastic was a better solution than the flimsy fibreglass most of the others were paddling, and I was getting to quite enjoy crashing about the ice.

All too soon we were across and pulled out for lunch and inevitably for me, more coffee to accompany ice watching. Rough plan this time was to head NNE up Ikateq fjord towards the air force base. Memories of this are just the speed of all the ice movement, and the different directions, the outer edges appeared to be flowing out to sea but the main bulk in the centre was flowing into the fjord.

Decision made let’s move before the ice becomes overwhelming. Paddling away from safety it became all too apparent that the gaps were smaller and the ice moving around much quicker. The fun of the morning quickly evaporated to thoughts of ‘why was I here?’ and ‘how did I talk myself into this?’

Everyone knows of the risks of pieces of ice rolling over or chunks falling off but there were other problems to consider as we progressed. Lumps can break off the ice under the water and if you are paddling along too close, they will just bob up from the sea, and these can be sizeable lumps! Also the sea wave action melts the bergs at the water line, causing the tops to  overhang the sea, giving a sort of flat mushroom effect to some ice.

Onward we paddled into the fjord with the ice still tightening around us, trying to keep together in a line. Inevitably we would get split up then regroup later on as the ice moved and squeezed between us. Eventually someone had to get caught out and Claire was the unlucky one. Trying to catch a gap in the ice and follow her leader the gap closed on her. Just in time with a panicked heave she propelled herself out of the narrowing opening, but with a crack in her boat, to remind her of the near miss.

Things were quickly developing into being a little serious and I was starting to feel the cold with the proximity of all this ice. I know Martin was very worried about getting us out onto an ice floe, as we were only wearing wet gear not drysuits, so a dip in the drink was very much to be avoided. Wind and tide were conspiring against us and he made the inevitable decision to get us out of boats and onto a small ice floe.

He picked a spot with little overhang then climbed out himself and dragged his boat up. One became two and two, four then very quickly we were all out and standing shivering on the ice. Out came Duvet jackets, woolly hats and thick gloves, but nothing was going to warm my welly-clad feet. Only a small ice floe, perhaps 20m diameter, and the pictures just don’t do the nervousness and cold justice. Perhaps over an hour we spent stamping feet, looking for clearings in the ice, watching the GPS, and of course avoiding the edges which may just have been inches thick and overhanging. Gradually the speed dropped on our chilly little home from home, from a heady 1.9 knots to zero and the direction changed, the compactness of the ice slackened as rapidly as it had increased.

Rapid decision made again to get back in the boats and a dash for the nearest land. Instead of climbing into boats in the water as is the norm, we decided to seal launch. Basically enter your boat on the ice, fit your deck then slide into the water. Great plan, but it was about a metre drop, and two of our group were virgins at these kinds of entry. The lady virgin, decided to complicate matters further by showing off and doing this backwards. To say she was nervous was an understatement, but I can’t say I was far behind in the nervous stakes, an accumulation of all the unknowns. In the end she made It look easy and the rest of us followed. I was ready - if I went over I was set to roll, no swimming!! But in the end hardly a ripple. The male virgin in the party kept himself till the end and with a helpful push from Pete he slid easily into the water. I think we can safely call them experienced seal launchers now.

Other than the freezing cold feet, the dash to land was uneventful, blocked passages were difficult but the ice was moving and we all made it safely. Admittedly my walking on dry land was somewhat poorer than Martin's, with his bad back, but mine painfully improved when the blood arrived back at my feet.

Afternoon tea and chocolate revived our spirits for yet another planning meeting. Discretion being the better part of valour, we decided on a hasty retreat from the ice and paddle into the bay to the small village of Kumgmiut. That’s after we had a good explore of the tea spot, and photographed the numerous whale bones around the area.

I may be getting confused but I think this was also the stop where we went for a good dig on the old village midden tip. I think it’s safe to say in the two weeks we did a fair old bit of rooting around ruins and tips. By the end I think Richard was crowned king of the rubbish and nicknamed Stig.

This small midden had lots of old seal bones and some whale bones, so we could workout much of the diet of the old Inuits, and Martin came across a nice spear tip made of carved bone.

Free of the tea stop and back on the water again, we paddled across the bay to the village, then squeezed between yet more ice and a fishing boat to enter a small tidal pool with just the perfect campsite and fire area. As anyone who’s being sea paddling knows, its all just a con for us men to go and build a new campfire somewhere different every night. Everything else is just window-dressing.

Food and puddings over with, we all ventured off for our usual evening strolls then retired to sit around the fire. Just before dusk, whilst all sat there, we had an opportunist visitor. An Arctic fox decided to run through our campsite with the remains of a recent kill dangling from its mouth. This was eventful on a couple of counts - quite nice to see a wild mammal that was still alive, and it decided Pete’s canoeing gear was offensively smelly and could only be improved by peeing on it! Wendy got some brill pictures of the critter, and we all took lovely snaps of the sunset as it vanished around the hill with the ever present Greenland ice cap in the background.

Next morning we awoke to the usual early sunshine, to be greeted with a very dry tidal pool. Plans changed yet again to incorporate a leisurely start with visit into the village and wait for the tide to rise.

A well worn path took us over the hill and down into the village to find the store and re-provision on fresh bread etc. A peculiar remote place, and the best description is extremely smelly. On entering the village we were greeted by a rotting seal carcass then numerous boxes with rotting or rendering carcasses inside, just dripping and running down the streets. My thoughts were again around the conflict between the tradition of their old way of life with seal killing, dog sleds etc. and their modern life with mobile phones, guns, satellite dishes and powerful boats.  A little strange this place, but the people again are just so friendly and I’m sure ten years time will show another big cultural leap as the last ten years.

Returning to camp, the tide had flooded our exit and we repacked the boats and set off away from the village in the direction of the airfield.

Johnny Proud

Greenland Chapter 3

Picking up from Kuummiut. What to do next? We had an original aim of reaching two tide-water glaciers at the top of Sermiligaq fjord but with the amount and unpredictability of the ice we needed to discuss our options. We could either; abandon the rest of the trip and catch a supply boat back to Tasiilaq, have another try at getting up the Ikasak channel (our original plan) or take a 'diversion' up to a narrow channel which the US army air corps had blasted out to create a route to the fleshpots of Kuummiut when they built the air base in Ikateq fjord. This was only available at the highest tides and so the passage had to be timed right.

We decided to try this latter route and it was a fine journey up to the narrows. Some of us tried joining the locals in fishing but only Johnny was successful although a pretty fish it wasn't and he threw it back.

We reached the narrows to a fairly fast flowing stream against us, some saw the challenge and paddled up against it although too shallow really, most of us got out and floated the boats on lines from rock to rock. The other side was a perfect lunch stop.

The bay, Tuno fjord and the mountains on the other side of the narrows were fabulous – quite different. The ice structures floating past were superb, they were more exotic in shape, older/clearer ice and as we got further towards the Ikateq fjord the bergs got bigger. We could see one enormous one which looked like it was blocking the end of Ikasak channel and we speculated that this was maybe the reason the ice was so bunched together at the start of the channel, where we had got stuck. We approximated its size to be Durham cathedral!

There was a lot less movement in the ice at this side of the channel and the weather was perfect. Paddling up the Ikateq fjord towards the air base Martin pointed out what looked like a poppy field. He didn't let on what it was but as we got nearer we saw that they were thousands upon thousands of oil drums.

The air base was one of three established across Greenland as weather stations and aircraft refuelling stop-overs when the Americans joined the war after the attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941. The weather stations gave the allies a strategic edge over the Germans in battle planning and provided a decisive factor in D-Day providing a good weather forecast from Greenland.

When the Americans eventually upset the Danish government they were given 24 hours to get out and as an act of environmental stupidity to stop their fuel stores being used by the Danes they put an ice pick through all of the stored barrels leaking the fuel into the nearby lake and fjord. The locals still had fuel for many years though from missed barrels and used the motors from the vehicles in their fishing boats. Furniture was 'recovered' to their villages and the wood was used to build houses (and for our fire that evening). Despite being so incongruous it is a fascinating place and the runway can still be used by small planes.

We decided over the camp fire that night that pressing on to the tidewater glaciers at the head of Sermiligaq fjord was too much of a risk. We didn't know how much ice was still coming through and any delays on the way back would leave us too late for the flights back to Iceland. Next day we turned around and headed back to the narrow channel stopping only to root through the air base dump for spent munitions, intact original coca cola bottles and old jeeps to bring back as souvenirs, the jeep wouldn't fit in the boats.

The journey back past Kuummiut was uneventful; we had to wait alongside some local boats out for a day’s fishing with the families whilst the channel came deep enough.  The weather over these two days had been clear, sunny and calm – perfect paddling conditions.

Nick Bulmer

We seem to spend quite a long afternoon paddling up the Tuno fjord until Kuummiut finally came into sight. The most obvious thing I noticed was a flume of smoke coming from the incinerator, which burned the settlement's waste. Slowly, more and more houses came into view and persons could be seen going about their daily business. The plan was to possibly camp at Kuummiut so Martin could speak to a friend and get a better idea of ice movement up towards Tasiilaq.

We landed at Kuummiut and had a cup of tea while Martin went up to his friend's house. Eventually he returned with news that there is a lot of ice but it should be passable. We had a brief meeting and decided the best option was to paddle west of Kuummiut about 4km where there was known to be a good camp site and a good observation point where we could get a good view of the ice in the bay, which had to cross to get back to Tasiilaq.

We eventually arrived at the camp-site and set our tents up. It was an ideal view point and we could clearly see the large chunks of pack ice and larger icebergs being swept in with the tide. The problem we had was that huge quantity of ice would flow in with the tide until eventually the ice would get stuck at the end of the bay and would cause subsequent ice to back up down the length of the bay. This had the effect of causing a barrier of pack ice being  jammed together, which was moving the whole time. Trying to paddle through it was hazardous, to say the least, which we found out earlier in the trip.

From the camp-site we could clearly see across the bay and there was loads of ice. Initially there seem to be a route through in the early evening, but the various open channels soon disappeared as more and more iced flowed in with the tide.

As we went backwards and forwards it was evident that the gravel was somewhat wobbly. So I decided to jump up and down and very soon broke through the crust of gravel into some wet mud. It was very peculiar: the more you moved in it the quicker you sank and within seconds up to the depth of my wellies. As I tried to pull them out I lost it in the mud and Johnny had to give me hand to actually get out of the mud. I eventually managed to retrieve my welly. After tea I went off in search of water and looked at the ice from a higher view point.

Next morning when we woke up, the first job was to look out into the bay and things had not improved. It still seemed to be very congested with ice, with no clear channels through. We decided to sit the morning out. The tide was due to change at about 11.00am so the ice would begin to flow out of the bay and hopefully provide some clear safe channels across. Overall we had a nice leisurely morning watching the ice, reading books, drinking coffee and generally eating our rations. I had another look at my mud and it was amazing stuff, it had started bubbling overnight and the bubbles had set. There was also a strange skin, which formed over the mud (was there a dragon down there?)

Just after dinner Martin walked up to a higher view point on top of a hill and came down and said the ice has opened up and it was safe to paddle across. We quickly packed the kayaks and heard one of the small Greenlander motor boats making their way across the bay. Martin explained to us that it's important we get across as quickly as possible, therefore he would lead and then the eight of us should buddy up into four groups of two and stick together. We set off at quite a pace. Once we got into the main part of the ice flow the route through was fairly clear and no real problem materialised. We again met a couple of Greenlander motor boat who were going at great speed in their 20 foot fibreglass boat, which gave us more confidence. We eventually found our way to the south entrance of the bay, where we headed south back to Tasiilaq. The rest of the afternoon's paddling was fairly uneventful. We decided to camp near to an old whaling station. All that was left was a couple of old huts but there was load of flat grass. That evening it was Claire's treat and she made vodka jellies in little pastry cases. These were fabulous until we drank the rest of the Vodka (non-jellified), which made certain people unable to walk straight.

The next morning we were on the water fairly early but we had two days in hand, so we decided rather than going into Tasiilaq, we would continue to head south. However, the further we went south, the more the wind increased, so we decided to head back rather than risk getting stuck somewhere and not be able to get back.

We spent the rest of the afternoon paddling past some huge ice bergs. After lunch we set off again and soon found the entrance to Angmassilik Fjord and harbour. We decided to paddle in towards the back of the Fjord. This turned out to be quite an interesting camp-site with a very active footpath being used by the locals for fishing expeditions. But more evident were the flies, which seemed resistant to everything but the midge nets.

Richard Wormald

Greenland Chapter 4

After an amazing time on the water, there was a general feeling that it would be great to climb a hill. Our campsite, just south of the town of Tasiilaq had, conveniently, a hill close by which was certainly calling (though I’m not sure what it was calling!)

So the next morning a group of us set off upwards. It was a great feeling to be out walking, the hill gradually rose from our camp, hence the walk in was short. The weather was very bright, but cold. Unfortunately, we were accompanied by numerous pesky flies. As we climbed, the weather got very warm, in fact by the first stop a number of us were just in short sleeved tops but the flies kept up!

After a bit the hill became quite rocky and more of a scramble, the rock was fabulous to climb and gave a lot of confidence.

Near the summit the ground flattened out leading to what initially looked like a tricky ridge; but wasn’t, then a last push to the top. The views were stunning, there was a great view over to the Atlantic ocean, where there were some massive icebergs seemingly gently floating by. Looking down we could see the town of Tasiilaq, full of colourful wooden houses scattered on the hill side. The name, Tasiilaq, means “like a lake” and refers to the fjord, which is only accessible by a narrow entrance from the sea. This fjord is an inlet of the long Ammassalik fjord.

It was clear from that height why the sea loch got so jammed with ice floes preventing access to the town’s harbour.

On the descent we followed some stream beds where the ground was covered in grass with a number of arctic plants coming into flower. Wendy was very tolerant of being repeatedly asked (Ahh, so pretty, what’s that?) especially by me. One of the species we found was Silene acaulis (Moss Campion) with flowers in bright shades of red-violet. Another was Loiseleuria procumbens (Alpine Azalea) with tiny pink star-flowers and dark-red buds on a background of olive-green leaves.

That evening a few of us walked into the village to “The Bar”. Walking into the town there was a noticeable contrast between the traditional Inuit way of life and the trappings of the modern day. Leaving the bar, I was shocked to catch sight of myself in the mirror, the first time in a number of days, no wonder some of the locals were staring!

We arrived back at camp to find those who had stayed behind had a camp fire going and a night cap being handed around, making a great end to a fab trip.

Claire Taylor

So, this was the end of our Greenland kayaking trip, all that was left was to be picked up by Lars at 7pm, for a boat trip back to the airport. We were packed and waiting, with our massive bags and rucksacks, on a grassy ledge, about 8 feet above the sea. Seven o’clock came and went, so did 8 o’clock. Johnny got out his fishing kit. 9 o’clock passed. The “sunset” was fantastic.

A collective sigh of relief was heaved when Lars arrived at 10 o’clock.  We were all pretty apprehensive, remembering our arrival, and hoping that the ice wouldn’t be as bad going back.  Speaking to Lars soon had us worried again! The poor guy had been on the go since 5.30am, being continuously thwarted by thick ice.

We were all in awe of his driving skills – it was his boat, after all! The way he manoeuvred around the ice-floes was absolutely incredible. After only 45 minutes we arrived at Kulusuk island. There was too much ice to be dropped off at the jetty, so Lars drove up to a piece of rock and we had to jump for it, forming a human chain for the luggage. Just before he reversed we shouted “Where is the airport?” The other side of that mountain, was the reply. OK!!

We were well and truly on our own – no whistles, flares or guns. This was 11pm, and we were next to the sea, complete with ice-floes, hmmm – how do polar bears get around?? We moved inland a little.

We had one last “treat” and settled down for the last night camping in Greenland. Shortly after settling down there was an incredible amount of rustling and snuffling and an attempt to get into someone’s tent. “Golly gosh” I thought! Richard shouted and whatever it was (hopefully an arctic fox, not a polar bear) ran off.

We were up bright and early next morning for our walk “over the mountain” to the airport. We weren’t disappointed with the view from the campsite, the sea was once again chocked with ice, with cloud forming over the top, and the mountains sticking out above.

Our loins were girded, along with our massive bags, as once more we set off to walk. We were surprised that the walk to the airport only took about 30 minutes. It had looked much further. We even had to hang around outside, getting our breath back, as it wasn’t even open, yet.

Flush toilets and hot water from taps! I quickly made the most of this luxury, before having to check in the massive bag.

All too soon the plane arrived for our departure to Iceland. What an adventure.

Greenland gets under your skin.

Wendy Bridgstock

Most photos are by Pete or Wendy Bridgstock - but a few are by other members of the trip and not all are properly credited yet - we are working on this...

Pete Bridgstock, Pete Ball, Johnny Proud, Nick Bulmer, Richard Wormald, Claire Taylor and Wendy Bridgstock

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