By Wayne Busby
For the many of you who won’t recognise my name, I have had the pleasure of paddling with some of your sea kayaking members on occasions over recent years. I’ve been invited to share with you some of my experiences on a recent kayaking trip in the fjords of southwest Greenland.
Greenland. I’m sure most of us have heard the tale of how Erik the Red gave it that name to mislead and attract Norse settlers, when actually it is a frozen land of snow and ice. Well, yes and no. Although the country is three-quarters covered in permanent ice, in the summer the snow and sea ice melt in the coastal areas of southern Greenland. This reveals a very green land full of wildflowers, fauna and waterfalls. The short summer climate is a mild coastal one, with a mixture of sun, mist, rain and wind, and when I was there in August there was more sun than rain.
Getting there is pretty straight forward, but there are no direct flights from the UK. I chose to fly to Iceland, overnighting in Reykjavik, and then got an Icelandair flight to Narsarsuaq, in Greenland. Other travel options are to fly via Copenhagen or the eastern United States.
Greenland is sparsely populated (about 57,000 people total), with large distances between towns and settlements. There is no road or rail network. Unless it is one of the few towns with an airfield, all settlements are accessed by boat or helicopter. For me, the perfect setting for a kayaking trip!
Having never been to Greenland and not exactly knowing what to expect, I opted to join a guided trip.
I wanted to kayak amongst icebergs and in a variety of conditions. I didn’t want it to be all about distance covered though, and how gnarly of a sea-state I could get myself into; I can do that in the UK. I wanted to be able to get out and see a little piece of Greenland too, do some hiking, find some great views and maybe try my hand at catching a cod or salmon. The kayak was to be my mode of transport for access to these things.
I decided on a company called Tasermiut, owned by Spanish adventurer Ramon Larramendi. They offer a twelve day kayaking and trekking expedition during the summer months, at what I considered a reasonable price. The trip is open to people of all kayaking abilities, the condition being that those with little or no experience share a double-kayak.
I admit that I had some reservations. Would this trip offer what I was looking for? Well, nothing ventured, nothing gained.
The trip blurb did clearly state the activities and distances involved, that participants were to be of a reasonable fitness level, and that it was an ‘expedition’ style trip with regards to wild camping and carrying all of the food and equipment from the outset. So, I was hoping that it would attract similar minded people suited to all of those things.
(For an idea of scale: Ikersuaq Fjord is 3 km wide)
All I can say is that all of my apprehensions amounted to nothing. The staff, the people in my group, the trip and the experience as a whole, definitely lived up to my expectations. There were eleven in the group, consisting of six women and five men. I was the only Brit, the rest being Spanish (or Catalonian, as some insisted), French, Italian and Danish. The Dane, Adam, and I were in single kayaks. The rest in doubles. Our guide, Curro, and his assistant, Raul, were both Spanish. Communication was never a real problem though. With the mixed language ability of the group providing some interpreting, some sign language and a smile, we all got on very well. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the mixed gender and nationalities enhanced the group.
We were met at Narsarsuaq airport, donned in parkas and lifejackets, and shown to an awaiting RIB just a short walk away. How’s that for an airport taxi? Within an hour of arriving in Greenland I was in a boat and speeding up a fjord to where our trip was to begin, 50 km away in Narsaq. The sun was shining and my adventure was off to a very good start!
We were housed in the company’s hostel for the first night. The ‘trip proper’ began the following morning. Twelve days kayaking, wild camping and hiking, with a final clean-up and rest day at the end.
The quality of the equipment, overall, was good. The kayaks were new or well maintained. The singles were plastic Prijon Kodiaks; great for loading up and going in straight lines, especially in wind. I didn’t use the rudder and found edging and paddling techniques adequate enough to coax some manoeuvrability out of it. It was comfortable and I had become quite attached to it after two weeks.
The doubles were extremely stable Prijon Poseidons.
Drysuits, PFDs, wellies, neoprene poggies, spraydecks and paddles were provided. As were a couple of 20/ 30 ltr dry bags each and a good quality 2-man expedition tent, shared between two people.
My only criticism would be of the dry suits and paddles. The dry suit’s neoprene seals had seen better days. With hindsight, I would have sacrificed some non-essential items in by baggage allowance and taken my own suit. The paddle was an aluminium shaft, high feather-angle touring paddle. After my trusty composite Werner, it took a days paddling to get used to it. It wasn’t the end of the world though.
As well as the basic kayaking safety equipment, Curro had satellite comms in the form of a Delorme Inreach text messenger for weather and a Sat-phone for emergencies.
All of the food and cooking equipment for the twelve days was split amongst the group. It was accepted practice to strap bags and equipment to the top of the kayaks. I could understand why, as the double kayaks were very stable and using large dry bags, which they did, limited the efficient use of compartment space. It was obviously a tried and tested method for them and it worked.I wasn’t so keen to follow the practice with my single kayak though and was glad that I had brought my own selection of smaller size dry bags. Our communal tipi-tent, for eating and cooking, was the only thing I allowed on my aft deck but it packed fairly flat and only weighed about 5 kg.
There are two very active glaciers in the area, which calve into the larger fjords, and there were plenty of icebergs about.
They weren’t in all of the areas that we went but paddling amongst icebergs, bergy bits and growlers is AMAZING. Even more so in mist, as it amplifies the senses.As well as the unique shapes, sizes and hazards, and the variety of vivid whites and blues….it’s the sound. Imagine the noise a mouthful of ‘Space Dust’ makes (if you’re old enough to remember!). Amongst bergy bits and growlers, that sound is constant.
No matter how much I tried to make myself expect it, when a nearby iceberg cracked, like a gunshot, it always made me jump. Then add dripping water, streams of melt water running, and the sound of thunder rolling up the fjords where a distant glacier had calved into the sea. Yet, despite all of this, I was still very aware of the silence of vast remoteness.
The total distance covered by kayak in the twelve days was 170 km, so nothing record breaking. Some days we didn’t paddle and others just for the morning out of a base camp. The longest distance covered in a day was around 25 km.
Time off of the water was spent hiking to points of interest or spectacular views. One day was spent scrambling and hiking on a glacier in glorious sunshine; crampons and crevasses included.
We were lucky with the weather. It did rain, at one stage for two and a half days non-stop. Some days, particularly on the outer edges of the fjords nearer the sea, it was misty. But the sun also came out, hot enough, often enough and for long enough that it raised the spirits, made you forget the morning’s cold, wet paddle and enabled all the kit to dry out.
What we didn’t have to contend with much was the wind; something that our guide frequently told us was the bugbear of kayaking in Greenland. As well as the wind from the sea, there is the wind from the ice-covered interior, including sudden katabatics. He told us about another group he had led earlier in the summer who had suffered eight days of strong winds, requiring the planned route to be altered, paddling days to be reduced and the total trip distance covered to be shortened.
You can’t control the tides. You can’t control the weather.
There were a couple of days when the mercury reached a tropical 26°C (yes, really!) and others when I had to don my poggies and pull down my earflaps. The temperature didn’t drop below 4°C during the night.
Most of the kayaking was done in a network of fjords, as opposed to open sea. This was interspersed with some open crossing of up to 4 or 5 km. All of the water was tidal and the effect
of the current was noticeable at times. Half way through the trip we were exposed to the swell of the open sea in places, as well as plenty of mist. One morning we got up at first light, had breakfast, and broke camp by 6 o’clock so that we could get across a wide fjord mouth before the tide began to ebb and any local winds thought of making an appearance. So, I would say that for the overall ability of the group, the conditions were varied and at times challenging. There were places that would have been even more challenging for some of the group had the wind picked up.
Whilst out on the trip the food was basic, but sufficient. After all, it was an ‘expedition’. The perfect trip if you wanted to lose a few pounds. Considering we had to carry everything, I think a pretty good job was done to provide us with some variety.
Breakfast was cereal, bread, chocolate spread (a favourite with the women for some reason??), honey and jam. The milk was always powdered. The bread ran out after a few days and was substituted with Rivita.
Lunch was always Rivita, small portions of fatty sliced meat (such as salami) and tinned fish, ‘trail mix’ and an energy bar. On cold days we would also have a packet soup. By week two, I was getting pretty hungry by the end of a days paddling or hiking.
Dinner was, in my opinion, always good. Usually with a Spanish theme (not surprising, as the guide cooked it), it was pasta, rice, lentils or couscous with herbs, sauce, freeze-dried vegetables, maybe some tinned sausages – and more Rivita. We would share a large tin of peach halves or similar for pudding. We got all of our water from fresh water streams and filtering was unnecessary.
Adam and I were the only ones who took fishing rods. I had hopes of landing a few monster salmon, but didn’t. We were successful with smaller cod and trout though, to the delight of the rest of the group. Fresh food! They began to look to us as their hunter-gatherers when conditions were good for fishing.
There was also an abundance of mussel beds in some areas. They went down very well as an evening meal starter. Top tip – don’t drink all of your limited supply of alcohol during the initial evenings of socialising and making new friends. Save some for the mussels.
Wild blueberries, about the size of a pea, grow everywhere in that part of Greenland. They were a refreshing snack on a warm days hike.
There are wild mushrooms too, though I’m sure you will agree that unless you really know what you are picking it’s not worth the risk. There was only one variety we found that we all agreed on to be ok to eat. Hey, I’m still alive and writing this.
There is a lot of wildlife in Greenland, but you have to look for it because it doesn’t hang around for long. I suppose it comes from all those years of being hunted for food.
If you abhor hunting, particularly hunting for sport, Greenland may not be your choice of places to go. It’s not in your face, but it’s there. Hunting is still a way of life for some locals and a source of food.
‘Tourist’ hunting is big business. We very rarely saw another person during the twelve days, but we did come across the occasional hunter, or could hear them shooting seal or caribou.
Anyway, I saw arctic foxes, arctic hares, caribou and seals. Whale sightings are apparently common, especially Humpbacks in the larger fjords, but we didn’t see any.
Sorry, I haven’t got any polar bear stories. They are extremely rare in this part of Greenland and haven’t been seen (or shot) for years. I was lucky enough, after getting up early one morning, to be able to watch an eagle hunting for fish in a river. A special moment for me, as I had found a dead salmon in the shallows the previous day and had presented it on a high rock for an eagle I had noticed flying in the valley. The following morning the salmon was gone, and I like to think that seeing the eagle up fairly close and hunting was my thank you.
Yeah, I know – just humour me.
Mosquitoes? Yep. Not everywhere, but when they were about they liked to fly up your nose, in you ears and bounce off of your eye lashes. They didn’t seem to bite too bad, but that 99p head net that I threw in my bag at the last minute was golden.
From mid-August the Aurora Borealis begins to show its night-time dance. It still doesn’t get dark till about 11 o’clock and then light again at around 4. Although I did see the Northern Lights for a few minutes one night out, the others were too cloudy or I was fast asleep after a long day of fresh air.
If you’re interested in geology, or seeing the effects of glaciers and the Ice Age, Greenland is just one big live geography lesson! The different types of rock, different formations, their colours and textures, I found fascinating. Rising above the greenery, the evidence of massive upheaval and natural destruction is everywhere. Watching the power of a calving glacier is riveting.
Our guide also explained and showed us how much the glaciers we saw had retreated, due to climate change, in the 9 years he had been working there. We’re not talking metres, but kilometres.
We ended the trip a day early. The mist was back and getting lower and thicker, and it was forecast to rain that evening. Curro gave us a choice – one more nights camping in the rain and a final paddle in probable mist, or turn right towards where the hostel staff were telling us that the weather was clearer, put a few extra kilometres in and finish the day with a hot shower and a beer. Tough choice.
There is a micro-brewery in Narsaq. ‘Qajaq’ beer is sold on draught in the Café Inuggssuk, an old harbour storage barn that has been converted into a pub. I’m not sure if I preferred the pale or the dark beer, but they both had the same effect. It’s been a while since I appreciated a cold beer that much.
I wonder how long it will be before it’s available in the Churchill Tap?
On our penultimate day, after a somewhat fuzzy clean-up morning, we climbed the 700m high mountain behind Narsaq. The sun was out again and at the top we were treated to spectacular views of the area we had just spent two weeks exploring, with the permanent icecap in the distance. What a great conclusion to my trip!
Tasermiut had one more treat in store for us. Another large group was due to arrive at the hostel and the beds were needed. On what would have been our clean-up day, but was now a complete rest day, we were asked to get our kit together and meet at the quayside. We were going to be taken to another hostel at a sheep farm settlement about 20 km nearer to the airport. I’ll let you look at the photo and decide which group got the better deal…….
There are several companies and operators that offer guided trips in southern Greenland. There are also operators who offer kayak rental, along with logistical and comms support, should you want to organise your own self-guided trip. This trip was also a bit of a recce for me. Now that I have a better idea of what to expect, I may well go back.
Greenland is a truly adventurous sea-kayaking destination, relatively unspoilt by too much commercialism and tourism. Yet, I believe that it has a lot to offer for paddlers of all abilities. It’s not just snow and ice. Maybe some of you will go and see it for yourselves.