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Greenland: Kayaking in west Greenland
Markus Ziebell

Author: Markus Ziebell, Photos: Markus Ziebell
Translated  by: Carmen Chaplin
This trip was made in July/August 2001

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Kayaking in west Greenland

A 23-day solo kayak tour through the icy world of the icebergs of Disko Bay.

Padddling heats you up and, despite a water temperature of just six degrees Celsius, you are able to take a short bath between the chunks of ice.
However, you are soon driven back to the shore by foot cramps.

The Scandinavian Airlines >Dash 7< is getting ready to land at Ilulissat at about 22.30 p.m. It is the beginning of July and, since we are about 300 kilometers north of the polar circle, there is a glorious midnight sun, so I’m able to savour the first glimpse of the Isfjord as it appears below me. The Kangerdluaq glacier is one of the astest glaciers of the northern hemisphere, it advances about 30 meters a day. Thus, huge amounts of large and small icebergs are formed which fill the whole fjord and eventually drift into Disko Bay. From there, they slowly travel south on the ocean current. Some of these icebergs drift across the ocean for up to 20 years and reach regions as far south as New York. Even the iceberg that was rammed by the Titanic in 1912 probably originated from this bay and once started out as innocent snow on an ice sheet here.

I am picked up at the airport by Silver, an Italian, who moved here many years ago and who runs the travel agency >Tourist Nature<, and he takes me to a camp site south of Ilulissat that's only meters away from the Isfjord. There, I revel in the indescribable view of Disko Bay and its many icebergs until long after midnight.

  Due to an offshore shoal, the icebergs pile up in the Isfjord until they have thawed enough in order to start their long journey.

Silver and I spend the next day planning my exact route, buying food supplies and visiting the town. Ilulissat, with its approx. 4000 inhabitants the third largest town in the country, depends on fishing and, more than most other towns, tourism. But even though modern technology has entered every area of life here, the traditional ways of the Inuit are nevertheless still present everywhere. That's made most obvious by the many sled dogs that are chained up in every open space. Due to the odd stray dog here and there, I have to keep an eye on my food supplies, which I store in waterproof bags right next to my tent. Silver and I have arranged for a motorboat to take me to Ata the next day, 60 kilometers north from here. There is a small camp up there with some kayaks, one of which is reserved for me.

Stranded in the Mudderbugten - The next morning, there is dense fog. I still pack my bags early and meet Silver for an 8 a.m. breakfast in a small cafe. Naturally, a crossing is out of the question in this weather. So we have some time and he tells me about their problems with fog. Disko Bay may be one of the sunniest and warmest places in Greenland, but as there's so much ice here, fog develops very quickly when rain-bearing air masses move in from the sea. Normally, it only stays for a short while, but a few years ago, Silver's business suffered badly when the fog didn't lift for 3 long weeks in July, the high season.


Luckily, today the fog lifts after just two hours, so Jens, a tall, lean Inuit, and I are able to load the small boat and put to sea at noon. The visibility is excellent again, and I make myself comfortable lying down between my bags. With great skill and speed, Jens steers a zigzag course between the icebergs. Several times, seals appear in front of us and quickly disappear into the depths again. Half an hour later, we reach virtually open water. At such high speed, the boat crashes into every wave and the bags and I are thrown into the air each time, only to drop down hard an instant later. I desperately try to cling on to something. Jens, however, seems to rather enjoy the constant bouncing. After a short while, he slows down the boat, not because that might make me feel better, but because the motor is in trouble and finally sputters to a halt. It starts again after several attempts, but that only lasts for a few hundred meters and the motor soon packs up again. We take out the spark plugs to dry them, let the motor spin and put everything back together again. Without success. We repeat this game several times. Finally, we manage to get the motor to work, although it doesn't run properly and won't accept the petrol normally. We carry on at a snail's pace. Two more times the motor stops, and two more times we take everything apart and get it to work again. We are riding along the shallow coast by the time the motor goes dead for the last time, and now it won't spin anymore. Possibly due to piston seizure. We drop the little anchor and use it to pull ourselves towards the shore bit by bit for the last 200 meters. Jens tries to make radio contact with the station in Ata. Without luck.

  Today, the old, abandoned settlement of Ata serves as a base for many outdoor activities in the region, and it's the starting point of my trip.

Jens points out an antenna on a hilltop just a few kilometers away. That's where we might find the station, so we set off for it on foot. A few minutes later, we see a fisherman pass by in his motorboat in the distance. We wave our coats to attract his attention and he actually sees us and comes over. I glean from the conversation that we have completely lost our way. Ata Station is on another island, around 40 kilometers east of here. The fisherman is willing to tow our boat to the Mudderbugt, which offers more shelter. Then he takes us to the southern tip of Arve Prinsens Ejland, where Silver, who happens to be in the vicinity with a bigger boat when he receives our radio call, is going to meet us. Around midnight, twelve hours after having started, we finally arrive at Camp Ata, the point of departure for my kayak trip. It's been an eventful day.

Eqip Sermia - The next morning, I'm up early in anticipation and arrange my gear on the beach. As an alternative to a Hazle Explorer (single), Silver offers me a double by Prijon, as he thinks a narrow single probably won't be big enough to accommodate all of my gear. But apart from the slightly bulky sleeping bag, which ends up in a waterproof bag at the stern, I manage to stow everything in the lockable hatches. Silver is a little concerned because nobody has been away this long with one of his boats before. Especially not on their own. So we agree that I will phone from one of the Inuit settlements. And when I have fitted out my cockpit with a GPS, a compass, a radio set and a shipping radio set, he is quite surprised that I'm so well-equipped and seems reassured.

As soon as I have heaved the kayak, which by now weighs a hefty 100 kilograms, into the water, and have taken my seat in the comfortable boat, the indescribable feeling of freedom and joyful anticipation that I often get at the beginning of a trip, slowly grows inside of me. Thanks to its weight, the narrow boat is very stable in the water, and so I am able to enjoy the sun, which is being reflected in the water, right from the start.

When the ice breaks off from the glacier's edge, most of it splinters into small floes. But although paddling is laborious here, it's problem-free.

On my first day, I decide to cover the 30 kilometers to the Eqip glacier. From the outset, I come across small icebergs which drift towards me in bizarre shapes, and a few hours later, I reach the first fields of ice. To begin with, there are only scattered fragments and the odd larger floe, but they soon form a dense blanket, so that I end up having to cut a channel through the ice with my boat.

Again and again, I see areas of open water with numerous stretches of broken ice in between. I land at a large floe to get a better view. The white colossus may look like snow, but its surface turns out to be so hard and slippery that I am forced to crawl on all fours. I tie the boat to an ice screw, which I carry with me in case I need it to secure the tent in an emergency. But there is no chance of calmness during this break, as even this chunk, which measures about 20 meters, rolls alarmingly, and as a result, I only stay a few minutes and am soon on my way. Even before, I had noticed that these icebergs and chunks of ice are in constant danger of breaking up and may turn at any time. In contrast to frozen sea ice, which has an even thickness, these masses are made up of unevenly formed ice, of which only a seventh is visible. The ice slowly thaws above as well as below the water, and the centre of gravity shifts with time until the iceberg tips over. Unfortunately, I'm not able to predict when this might happen.

It's quite obvious that the ice is being carried off by a current that emerges from underneath the glacier.

Having paddled for seven hours, I reach a sandy beach east of the glacier's breakoff edge. I had originally planned to enter the sheltered lagoon, but since I'm faced with a strong current that's coming at me with the outgoing tide, I pull the boat onto the beach, which is strewn with chunks of ice. I pitch my tent above a rocky cliff among some low shrubs. From now on, every time I land, I will have to unload the boat and carry it to a safe place, where it can't be flooded.

The next day, I investigate the ridge of hills that rise up as high as 600 meters right on the edge of the glacier. There, I am treated to breathtaking views across the glacier, the bay and the distant islands.

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