Agnes Heragnes, French kayak coach & guide, called us before Christmas. Would we be interested in joining her and 4 friends for some relaxed expeditioning in Ilulissat Greenland? Spaces were available the first 3 weeks of July. Our flights were booked within the week!
Ilulissat is the principle settlement in the Disko Bay area of west Greenland. Famous for its ice fjord and a UNESCO heritage site. Well north of the Arctic Circle at around 70ºN, a patchwork of islands and fjords with very active glaciers carving into the fjords. The sea used to reliably freeze, but the permanent pack ice is a long way further north due to warm currents running up the west coast. Nearly all of the ice is freshwater glacier ice. The ‘warm’ northerly current is a conveyor belt moving any bears away. No need for a gun or night watch. By contrast East Greenland has a cold southerly flowing current and lots of sea ice, transporting bears all the way down to Kap Farvel.
Greenland is not at all how I imagined it; a mountainous country with glaciers descending to the sea somehow connected to the ice ages. In fact, ice started accumulating well before the ice ages about 19 million years ago when plate tectonics moved the island far enough north and the 3.5 km thick ice cap has depressed most of Greenland below sea level. This bowl is surrounded by mountains around 1500-2000m high with a few channels leading below sea level out through these to the coast all the way from the centre. Disko bay has several of these hidden drains which is why about 50 cubic km of ice breaks off the local glaciers every year. As the ice thins from melting above and below it eventually floats out on the sea, still 2000m thick, until slices break off and float on their sides. There is also an enormous quantity of meltwater, calculated as greater than the combined total of all the rivers in the British Isles running into the sea below and through the ice, much of the fjord water is not very salty and the current mostly flows out whatever the tide is doing. Before 2004 when there was major melting of the Kujalleq glacier, the floating ice tongue 15km long and 2000m thick regularly grounded on spring tides with earth tremors as the massive weight deformed the earths crust. It is all on a huge scale, Disko Island looks small on the map, but is the size of Corsica and would take a month of good progress to circumnavigate.
A rapidly growing town of 4,500 people and you can buy almost anything. It has a fish processing factory specialising in halibut and an attractive small port.We stayed at the ‘Youth Hostel’ a cheap and characterful place the first night. Next morning we went down to the boats to meet Kampe who was instrumental in re-invigorating traditional kayaking in Greenland and acts as a caretaker for boats left near the kayak club. The Rainbow Lasers needed to be unwrapped, most of the year they will lie safely under the snow near the shore. Mid afternoon with 3 weeks food on board we were on our way, although we planned to reach Qeqertaq on the north side of the Bay, where we knew there was a shop to restock, but ice conditions might spoil our plans.
3 rules or maybe 4...
Kampe had given us 3 rules to prosper in the ice:
Stay as far away as possible, or if not, paddle past fast, ice can topple or break up at any moment
Never paddle over ice shelves, blue milky underwater shelves often extend far beyond the visible iceberg or between apparently separate bergs and can break off and surface like a submarine at any moment.
When you start to think you can predict how the ice will behave it is time to go home – you cannot!
His fourth rule was about stopping. Always move the boats far above the sea and then some more, a tsunami like wave can come at any moment. We met only a few rogue waves despite hearing the thunderous crashes of falling ice continuously at some times, especially as the falling tide puts huge strain on the grounded bergs.
We did hear some horror stories from the professional guides, but there is no record of an actual fatality. If the once in a hundred year 20m wave comes along you are obviously finished unless well out in deep water, but even a 5m wave would run a long way up the shore. An innocent enough 2m wave from a berg that had parked itself a few hundred metres offshore washed our campfire away one night.
Like Greenland, the icebergs were not as I expected. They come in all sizes: from an ice cube to a large island. The larger ones draw 200-400m so ground from time to time as most of Disko bay is around the 300m mark and very uneven. They only float in their 1000-2000m deep fjords. If several ground nearby they form an archipelago stopping the tide and creating eddies. The tidal range is about 3m on springs with quite fast and totally unpredictable flows according to the ice upstream or downstream. The very smallest bits move with wind and tide but the larger bits of a few hundred or thousand tonnes take time to get moving. The large ones make their own weather of fog and cold conditions and have the equivalent of a large river melting from them all the time, the cold water falling straight to the bottom so that in-rushing surface currents tend to draw you towards them. Sometimes you can feel the ice around the corner before you see it. The effect of climate change has been more ice release, but fewer very big icebergs, they no longer menace Atlantic shipping. However, the little pieces weighing hundreds or thousands of tonnes are still big compared to a kayak.
The ice comes and goes very fast, a few ice cubes suddenly becomes a sea jammed with big blocks, by morning they may all have vanished again. Once the ice does start moving it is time to get off the water -fast! We were only just in time on one occasion when a change of tide or the movement of a big iceberg somewhere in the jigsaw suddenly set the ice circling and smashing together, currents and counter-currents. Strawberry jam time if we had lingered. On another occasion the ice crowded us in when an onshore F6 suddenly blew up from nowhere, we quickly found a way out to clearer water but then had trouble finding an ice free landing to escape the rapidly building sea.
Near Ilulissat it can be very busy with motorboats, in summer the land is very inaccessible so Greenlanders go out for the day in their boats. People go to inland lakes to fish etc on their skis and sledges in winter. Once we were a few miles away it was very quiet, the occasional fishing boat. We also met 2 other groups of kayakers on guided tours, the guides only planned to do about 5-7 miles a day, but did go to some adventurous places for beginners.
The weather is usually sunny, 6-10ºC, but feels warmer due to the dry air, typically 35% humidity. We had some cloud and even light rain, but when this happens it warms up as it is air from the south. The dry cold air is falling off the ice cap and leads to sudden local winds, we met some very sharp gusts, but it is mostly light winds. The ice breaks the sea and wind so paddling conditions are usually good. We were only really cold if paddling in the shade of cliffs for any length of time. Although any spray from water at 1-2ºC tends to cool you down. No-one fell in, but even in a drysuit useful activity would be measured in minutes. The dry air allows the suits to really breathe so we were never damp. A useful benefit was being able to wear the same clothes; paddling, hiking and sleeping. Well wrapped up it always felt warm. Our only problem was fissures and cracks in our fingers, very painful and Sudocrem didn’t help, we could have done with Lotil or another specialist product.
The season is very short and changed completely during our month from spring to summer then autumn. The sun was high in the sky day and night when we arrived so nights were as warm as day, plenty of snow still lying. The snow rapidly melted and the flowers bloomed, but by the end of July the first night came, only 1/2 an hour but already chilly. By mid August it is back to frosts at night.
We paddled 15-20 miles a day and always found great places to camp, although a good tent pitching spot could be some distance away on the steep slopes of rock interspersed with wild flower meadows of small shrubs, the low growing arctic birch and willows made a springy aromatic bed. Each day the scenery was better than the last; ice in all sizes and fantastically eroded into amazing shapes, arches, filigree, blocks and spires. Snowy mountains with massive cliffs a constant backdrop. Gravel beaches are few and far between so landing was mostly on steep or even near vertical granite slabs. The stability of the Rainbows was a godsend for getting out and back in. You could sort of jump to land your bottom in the seat of the floating boat and then get your legs in once you were clear.
The camping and hiking was as good as the paddling, in fact I would do more hiking using the kayak as a means of getting to inaccessible spots if we went again. Untrodden steep rough mountains, glaciers and moraines; just the way I like it. Our week of backpacking after the paddling was tough going with all we needed and all our food on our backs, but very rewarding. The mosquitoes seemed a nuisance at first but are nothing to a veteran of Scotland and we soon managed to ignore them. However, it is worth thinking about mosquito proof clothing as they easily bite through thick clothing. Layers which move against one another like pertex layers interleaved with filling are particularly mosquito proof.
The Greenlanders are rightly concerned by climate change with huge changes in the last few years. As well as the obvious retreat of the ice cap and glaciers, the permafrost is melting and has produced some very distorted buildings in Ilulissat and all sorts of odd boils and humps in the ground. Unreliable sea ice interferes with halibut fishing through holes in the ice, meaning that only those with an expensive fishing boat can take part in this profitable trade. Their whole way of life is under threat. The melting of the permafrost has dried out the ground, good for camping and hiking, but on the other hand makes finding water more difficult once the snow patches have melted.
We were cooking together and our French friends demanded more luxury than we would have taken, leaving us short of food. Luckily we did reach Qeqertaq, but even so foraged most days to augment our diet with fish, the plentiful wild mushrooms, seaweed and on low water springs, mussels. Despite this we lost a stone each in 3 weeks. The others who were very dubious about butter on my porridge and peanut butter in general were soon demanding porridge lathered in butter and eating peanut butter off the knife.
The plan had been to rely mainly on an Optimus Fuel stove and a pressure cooker. The pressure cooker was a great idea, but the Optimus immediately failed on the poor quality local petrol. My Edelrid multifuel which we had as a backup needed a full strip down every day but at least kept running. Eventually we were mainly using the Trangia and a Kuenzi wood burner bought by Jean-Marc and Josee ‘just in case’.
We always found a few fragments of wood along the shore during the day. Alcohol was available as it is used at 10% in the petrol in winter. Adding 10% to the petrol did help the Edelrid burn better. Kevin had given me a teepee to take out with the spraydecks and buoyancy aids as extra baggage. We never needed the teepee, but looking at the weather, by August it would be essential for cooking and sitting around once the sun drops low in the sky.
Humpbacks and gyrfalcons
We met quite a few humpback whales some at close quarters, fantastic! We also met two probable fin whales, a few seals and vast numbers of gulls, especially kittiwakes on spectacular bird cliffs. Resident land animals are limited to arctic foxes and arctic hares and we saw several of each, plus some large tracks, maybe a wolverine which had come over the sea ice in the spring. Snow and lapland buntings sung and fed their chicks near the tents, an occasional flypast by a gyrfalcon caused them total panic. Inland lakes had longtailed ducks and pairs of canoodling great northern divers. Ravens kept an eye on us and might well have stolen the porridge spoon while our backs were turned. At this time of year with an abundance of food, based on the vast shoals of capelin, everything is fattening up for the winter.
People of few words and a dry sense of humour. Greenlandic is hard to pronounce with every other letter a ‘q’ sounding like the arabic ‘qaf’. Since Danish is the main second language communication can be difficult. It appeared that all the businesses, hotels and tourist excursion operators are run by Danes with profits going straight back to Denmark. Minke whales, seals and sea birds are still hunted. Europeans having nearly exterminated the whales and seals and fished the seas dry. The Greenlanders take Danish and EU exhortations not to hunt seabirds with wry disregard.
Great paddling, great camping, great country, good company, with luck we will end up there again.
Club trip anyone?