Moving on from our city break in Copenhagen, we flew from Kastrup to Narsarsuaq in Southern Greenland, to begin our much anticipated sea kayaking trip around the fjords and glaciers of the area. This is our much shortened story of the time spent there.
On approach to Narsarsuaq airport our plane endured a rough handling at the mercy of the local winds. We suffered sudden stomach-churning drops and rag-doll twists as we descended over green oceans awash with icebergs. We were glad to be back on terra firma, not least for the eerie beauty of the misty mountains now surrounding us. With our stomachs just about settled, we faced a choppy one hour rib boat ride to the town of Narsaq. Wild, rough and exhilarating, with occasional big hits on rogue waves, we passed quickly through Tunulliarfik fjord. My fingers gripped tight to the rib’s guide ropes as a slightly salty spray hit my smiling, joyous face as I struggled to take it in the landscape. Enormous granite crags appeared menacingly out of a cool low mist, slowly revealing the vast scale of the local geography.
Mooring up in Narsaq town was followed by a walking city tour and the interesting personal history of our young local guide. We learned of everyday life on the island, the old stone turf houses, local religious beliefs and shamans, saw the new school building, museum, shop and hospital. Houses are all small detached, brightly coloured boxes, with no fencing as there is officially no private land ownership. The paint colours chosen must resemble a colour found in nature and shown to be from a specific plant or berry. Modernisation under Danish instruction has been underway since the 1950s, with many locals now taking up sheep farming rather than the traditional fishing. We saw one aspect of this with the centrally placed abattoir near the local harbour. All goods are for purely domestic use, there is no export economy.
Of the local legends we heard, a few are worth repeating. The northern lights dance in the sky as ancestor spirits rip the skull from a walrus to play soccer – but many children suggest that if you go outside and whistle during the Northern Lights display the spirits will come down and remove your head for their macabre game. The infamous qivitoqs are people shunned by their villages and sent to exile, to live alone and separate in the wilderness. The exiles turn into powerful spirits in order to survive the harsh climate. They are occasionally spotted by pilots out running on hilltops many miles from any settlement, dressed in robust seal skin clothes, so their myth still persists in modern folklore.
We organised our gear for leaving the following morning, then enjoyed a relaxing night walk on a local beach, overlooking the misty bay, through sculptured ice stranded by the receding tide. Our first day in Narsaq was certainly eye-opening.
We packed up all food and equipment for six days in the wild and moved to nearby Qingaarsuup island, twenty minutes by rib boat, then formed a human chain to unload it all near to our awaiting kayaks. We selected our kayaks and considered how they’d be packed. A rather frustrating day due to persistent cloud, rain and wind, and we’re afforded no time on the water as planned. We set up camp using large stones to pin down the tent edges. We climbed a nearby hillside and sat a while enjoying the vista of icebergs in the bay. We followed this with a quick visit to an inland lake across soft mossy bogs, before a late dinner and an early night. Sleep was slow to come as the high winds battered our flimsy tent and we heard the calving of ice from nearby glaciers, like distant thunder or gunshots.
We broke camp slowly after a night of intermittent sleep. We had a picnic breakfast of dried cereal, banana and hard wasa bread, a multigrain crispbread not universally enjoyed, with butter and jam. This morning the weather was perfect; stillness and sunshine, although the calmness now allowed a plethora of mosquitos to gather. Everyone was animated and impatient to get into the kayaks for the first time now the previously rough sea was mirror flat. We packed up and got mobile, and Nicky couldn’t stop smiling as we glided past floating icebergs under a cloudless sky.
All was stillness in sky and sea, like a silent prelude to our upcoming travels. The wind had disappeared entirely, the only sounds those of sporadic iceberg collapses. The punctuated abruptness of these explosions contrasted sharply with the bluey quiet. Fragments of broken ice, myriad of shapes and colours floated gently on the mirrored surface. Not a breath of wind and only the smallest of sea swells gently rocked our heavily laden kayaks. Despite the cool air, the sun was strong in the clear sky and we warmed quickly, donning shades and sun hats for protection.
11km on we stopped for lunch in a beautiful sheltered bay with mineral-rich turquoise water. There were caribou on the slopes behind and we watched in awe as an eagle got chased off by squawking and dive-bombing terns, protective parents whose full nest was deemed under threat. A few of us collected drinking water from a nearby glacial stream.
Despite being warned by our guide to be wary of unstable ‘bergs, when getting back in the water after lunch and awaiting the group, I approached a small bus-sized lump of ice and it suddenly, heart-stoppingly, decided to break up and flip right by my floating kayak. With barely time to react or control my sudden panic I readied to brace, but the resultant wave proved small and rolled harmlessly over my bow, to great relief. Lesson learned.
Some kilometres on we entered a protected bay surrounded by high mountains, a calm watery cul-de-sac where our night’s campsite formed the northern end. We beached and decanted our gear and chose a prominent pitch, with a wide view back down our secret bay, where we could watch the partial sunset from the comfort of our sleeping bags.
We awoke to a mirror flat sea reflecting the surrounding cliffs and to tranquil silence; a stunning spot. We packed up and readied to leave, but had to brave both dark swarms of mosquitoes and the rigorous effort to drag loaded kayaks over 50 metres through knee-deep sticky grey mud, left behind like a trap in the shallow bay by the retreating tide. Once underway, we paddled the pristine calm waters, staying close to the coast, passing nesting birds. Black guillemots clung precariously to the fault lines in the shear granite cliffs, nestling into almost imperceptible crevices.
Time is a strange thing when it slips by measured by the length of a paddle stroke. The soft, melodic rasp of jacket rubbing on buoyancy aid accompanied each movement, while the slow drips of sea water from the paddles provided background percussion. Magical, quiet stillness was enveloped by bright blue skies above and the deep turquoise waters of the fjord below. The occasional thunderous crack of a larger berg, breaking inside and turning violently as its centre of gravity searches for stability, was the only discernible sound.
We took short breaks in small bays with caribou warily watching us from the hills behind. A few hours after lunch we turned a corner to be greeted with the majestic view of the Greenland icecap, huge on the horizon yet still many kilometres away. We paddled slowly towards the carving face enjoying the drama and noise of the huge breaking ice. We entered a protected side bay, filled with expelled floating ice, seemingly so close but still 3km or so from the glacier face. We exited our kayaks, set up camp on a small hill near a fresh water stream and relaxed to wonder at the view. We had dinner and a beach explore through all sizes of marooned ice. A deep red sunset accompanied the reflective ice and glacial backdrop, creating a wonderfully intense visual spectacle that was quite unforgettable.
Two nights camping in the same location allowed a slower morning pace, with much less packing. We struggled with a long portage, carrying all the group’s kayaks out to the low waterline, before heading across the ice strewn bay to the glacier front. We watched closely for large portions of the ice face collapsing and marvelled at the patterns of wedding cake seracs decorating the top, towering 200 metres above us.
We approached as close as we dared, around 500 metres away, as a large carving could potentially swamp us with huge waves. We paddled parallel across the face, through wide running currents of small ice particles. We felt insignificant before the grand size and power of nature, yet this was only one small tongue of many on the periphery of a glacial icecap covering over 1.7 million square kilometres. That’s over seven times the size of the UK, an incomprehensible expanse.
Icebergs comprising of the dark, vibrant blue of old ice, compacted for many years deep within the glacier’s heart, stood out most prominently as we passed. Translucent, almost glowing as if internally lit, they drew the greater portion of our attention for both their exceptional colours and relative rarity. The ice is potentially older than recorded history, formed in natural processes much older than our species, yet slowly disappearing one drip at a time, like the seconds in a lifetime. The timescales involved played on the mind, making one feel both small and insignificant yet a vital part of some unfathomable grandness.
We paddled on around a bare headland to a second glacier tongue, this one not currently active so we were able to approach much closer. We had lunch on a stone peninsula near the left corner of the glacier, soaking up the views and the afternoon sun. After lunch we took a short trek on the tension zone of the glacier, past stable crevasses and rippled seracs. Gaining height quickly this walk offered yet another perspective on the immense extent of the ice cap. Returning to our kayaks, we noted the waterline was only a few metres away and our rocky lunch spot was fully submerged, so it was fortunate we carried the kayaks a lot higher above the waterline before beginning the trek. We returned to camp via a similar route, covering 18.5km on the round trip. Later, we climbed up behind the camp to a large crater at the back of the abandoned moraine. At dinner we found out it was Mic’s 62nd birthday. We performed limited shadow puppetry on the tent wall to the amusement of the gang inside. We heard that Vincent was to leave us, as the kayaking and camp setting was proving too strenuous for him. A rib boat was dispatched from base to collect and return him, after warm goodbyes, to Narsaq.
We packed up from our stunning glacier view and readied for the next camp. We left through choppy floes of ice driven by currents and wind. We paddled just a short 1km before our guide Adrian decided, for safety, we needed to ground the kayaks and await a change in the weather as the racing ice floes were too dangerous to cross. We beached up and waited for the winds to abate. To check out the ice build-up and to stretch our legs, we trekked up the mountain behind to take in a wide overview and were rewarded with exceptional views over both the glacier and the adjacent fjords.
After three hours the ice floes had sufficiently broken up and the wind abated, so we started out again following the coast south. One short stop in another beautiful bay with a warm fresh water lake behind, then on to our final campsite. We moved slowly, each paddle stroke leaving tiny whirlpools of spinning bubbles that trailed the stern and got lost in the turbulence of the kayak’s wake. We became acutely aware of the intricacies and simplicities of flat water paddling; the soaring reflections, the surge of the bow wake with each forward stroke, the fluidity of muscles under effort. There was no pitching or twisting of the kayak, no waves or further weather concerns; just the steady reach and pull with each blade slicing into the cold mirrored sky.
After the sweaty work of hauling gear and setting up tents, a few of us decided to cool off with a very quick dip in the icy water; shocked and breathless, we sat chilled in the sun after, feeling brave and very refreshed. Post dinner we climbed a local hill and watched the roaming icebergs, looking out for some violent crashes or collapses. A small local inlet was home to two small ‘bergs, the currents pushing them against the rocks. We climbed down and tested their weight to see if we could move them, and managed to initiate a full collapse and flip with a tiny push. Again, the inherent and unknowable instability of floating ice astounded, superficially so solid.
This was our final morning awaking in our tents, so we soaked up every possible detail of this grand wilderness. We demolished a hearty breakfast before packing up for our final day’s paddle, closing the loop back to Qingaarsuup island. Choppier seas and a wide fjord crossing made our last day of paddling a more concerted effort, more challenging and unnerving, but welcome for the additional experience. Arrival back at base brought on a mix of feelings; satisfaction at completing such a wondrous trip; sadness for it ending; longing for a shower and home comforts. Overall, we covered around 85km in our kayaks.
This trip was everything we wished for before we left; challenging, rewarding, eye-opening, feeding muscles and thoughtful reflection equally. Before we began, we’d made the decision to live life in a more simple way, as free and unencumbered as possible. To be more conscious of every passing day, with adventure becoming the mainstay, not the exception. Remaining conscious of each event slows the seconds, and appreciating moments as they pass creates a deeper perception of time lingering, expanding like a rubber band, allowing more memories and experiences to be encapsulated within the same portion of stretched bandwidth. This trip was an important step in us understanding the practical application of these principles we hope to fully embrace going forward.
Today we returned by the same rib boat to Narsarsuaq airport for our return flight to Copenhagen, full of thoughts and memories. The terrain looked more familiar as we passed through the straits of Tunulliarfik fjord for the final time. The traveller is always saying ‘goodbye’; to many it can seem adventurous or romantic, but it can also be a lonely feeling, difficult to get used to. A paradox in movement, the deep excitement of moving on to new adventures contrasted with the real reality that the current shores and company may never be seen again. It brings a happy kind of sadness, a welcome melancholy.