Story: Greenland Sea Kayak Expedition
Photography & words: Jean-Luc Grossmann
Place: North West Greenland
Language: Full story available in English, German, French and Danish
Early in our six-week, 360-mile expedition into the fjords and ice fields of Greenland’s northwest coast, Thomas Truninger, Rafic Mecattaf, my brother Sylvain and I paddled into the Uvkusigssat Fjord. We didn’t know then whether our planned 25-mile land crossing at the far end was even possible, nor could we be certain the 60 mile-long fjord was ice-free.
The Inuit would often answer our questions with the word ‘imaqa’, meaning maybe.
On day 14, we enter the narrow fjord of Inukavsait under a sky of leaden clouds. The snowflakes, carried by the wind, whip my face. I pull energetically on the shaft of my paddle, staring into the dark horizon. A gull passes in front of my kayak before rising at vertiginous speed, her cry choked by the wind. In the distance steep cliffs border a mountainous chain of bizarre shapes – glacier tongues flow to the sea and an arch perfectly sculpted amidst the entrails of a huge iceberg.
The atmosphere is surreal and we wish to stay a moment, observing the whims of nature, but we listen to our instincts, the small inner voice that warns of danger and demands care and action.
Three quarters of the way through the great 40 km channel the cliffs still plummet to the sea, offering no opportunity to land. Huge, freshly formed, plates of pack ice threaten to block the way. In this labyrinth of moving ice we paddle as a group and stay close to one another and the shore. On several occasions the coastal ice is too thick to pass through and we have to pull our kayaks to the next ice-free channel. Exhausted, we finally find a place to camp. We don’t have the energy to cook and improvise a meal before quickly falling into a deep sleep.
Yes, it was a hard day … One of those days that makes you feel alive!
For two days pack ice kept us from reaching the small village of Nuqatsiaq. This photo was taken on the third day, after a storm had dispersed the ice blockade so that we could paddle through it, becoming the first people that summer to reach Nuqatsiaq from the sea.
The first thing we would do after setting camp each evening was to go fishing. We sometimes covered the fillets in herbs and kept them in plastic bags in the bottom of our kayaks. It’s like a fridge down there, and the technique gave a good consistency and taste to the fish. We ate like kings, often cooking mussels for starters, or snacked on raw sea urchins.
We wash in seawater and where possible, we rinse ourselves in the clear freezing water of some small stream following a ritual we named for fun »the full body wash«. The climatic conditions allow such a ceremony only every week.
After a good night we start the 4-day crossing that will always stay in our minds. We form 2 teams, each pulling one of the kayaks along the ground with a harness. Then we go back to take the next kayak. Each of our kayaks weighs 100 kg. We pull like crazy for 10 hours a day and try to stay on a grassy, less rocky ground. The effort is intense and the food is rationed because we do not know exactly how long it will take us to reach the next village. Each of us has to push himself to his physical and mental limits. We cross 3 almost-frozen lakes. From far away the second lake seems impassable, but when we get closer we notice a narrow openwater channel. We get into it without loosing time as we don’t want it to close in front of us. The points of our kayaks split some small ice plates, making a noise like a million crystal bells ringing.
On the third day we reach 400 m above sea level and start to go down to the sea on the other side. We are now fine-tuned and move forward fast. We feel that the sea is close.
On day 4 we reach the river we hoped to kayak down, but we find a wild stream with a huge amount of water. To get in this would be pure suicide! Even though we are exhausted, we decide to keep going. The banks of the river are hilly. We have been pulling for 12 hours straight now. The plain and the hills are passing by. Suddenly, at the top of a small hill, I see Sylvain raising his arms in the air and shouting. I join him. An intense joy pervades me and within seconds all my pains have disappeared. There, finally: is the sea! An imposing landscape is presented to us. The glittering curves of Laksefjord contrast with the surrounding islands like a monochrome photograph. Soon, Rafic and Thomas join us.
For a long moment, we stay here, side by side, our eyes fixed on the sea and we realise what we have lived through.
While canoeing on the sea, there is plenty of time to think and my thoughts often go the Inuit. This arctic people have lived for thousands and thousands of years in this extreme environment. Their survival is a wonderful example of human adaptability to such conditions.
The Inuit’s contact with the modern world has brought a change to their traditional way of living, but even so, they have understood how to keep and preserve their values.
Now, we live in a world which moves faster and faster, where our own interests prevail when we should look at the example of these generous and jovial people. Despite the immense size of their country, everybody knows everybody. The Inuit like to meet, to tell each other tales, or sing and laugh together. For them, mutual aid and sharing are essential values. Often, during our adventure we notice that the real warmth within the ice of Greenland resides in the friendliness of the locals.
The Inuit also live on the sea’s bounty. Rafic had the honour of cutting into the belly of a seal after it had been skinned. The villagers then offered us raw blubber and still-warm pieces of the liver. In the three small villages we visited, seal meat is still the basic food for the Inuit people. They also hunt whale, walrus and polar bear for food, but there is a quota on these species.
The low arctic sun illuminated this lost iceberg’s strange cell formation. In summer the icebergs become vast floating sculptures, setting off on a long and uncertain voyage with only the wind and the current to steer them. It’s from our sea kayaks that we got a true demonstration of their size as they towered high above us, and when the sun shone on these icy behemoths, their beauty was breathtaking.
Suddenly the horizon gets darker and the coast appears through the fog. In a couple of days our adventure will come to an end and a feeling of melancholy overcomes us. We have travelled a total of 600 kilometres and taken over 350,000 paddle strokes.
More importantly, we lived for 45 days, away from the rush of human civilization, and we witnessed the incredible power and beauty of our natural world, as we lived an intense and unforgettable adventure, navigating a sea of ice.