Kayaking in Greenland in the trail of the hunters
The light current in Kong Oscar Fjord steadily pulls my kayak towards the iceberg. Seen through a wide angle lens it appears to be calm. But suddenly the water changes colour. Dark blue, green, light green... already 30 metres from the iceberg I can see the blue of the iceberg’s base in the depths under my »nutshell«. What is it they say about the tip of an iceberg? Is it 2/3 or ¾ that is under water? For a few seconds I get goose bumps under my wetsuit. If the iceberg tips over or a large chunk of it falls down... I’ll be gone!
Already in the aircraft from Iceland to Greenland I am aware of the difference between this tour and my other tours. This is not a normal trekking adventure.
There is no-one in the aircraft who reads newspapers or is bored. All heads have been pressed against the small windows in the DASH 7 aircraft since we saw the first icebergs just below the Arctic Circle.
The runway is a small strip of land that resembles an all too short gravel road in front of a wall of dark brown, spiked peaks.
The international airport in Kulusuk consists of a handful of ugly metal containers. The only decoration in the terminal is an enormous polar bear and a sign that says »Tikilluaritsi« (Welcome).
With our luggage over our shoulders we walk down to the harbour where local hunters bid us welcome. And then we are already off again, this time at 70 kilometres per hour across the water along the rugged coast.
In a »giant slalom« we sail between icebergs the size of apartment blocks. We feel like James Bond, but are slightly less cool and we hang on to the gunwale.
Our destination is Tasiilaq in East Greenland. We have established our base camp on a promontory with a 360 degree panorama view.
The red house
Robert Peroni, an equally famous and charismatic South Tyrolean, introduces himself and the tour for us. The 65 year old gentleman has a chequered past, with medicine studies, philosophy and psychology. He was one of the first professional mountain climbers and back in the 70s he skied down the steep mountain faces of the Himalayas.
Almost 30 years ago he crossed Greenland’s inland ice with an expedition and his fate was sealed. For 16 years he has lived in Tasiilaq, where his travel agency »Red House« primarily uses the local hunters as guides.
Robert sees himself as a builder of bridges between the tourists and the local population. He wants the money to stay in the town so he gives people a chance to assist with the work. Together with Daniel Kraus, director for Viking Travel who is himself both a fan of Greenland and an enthusiastic kayaker, Robert Peroni had the ingenious and simple idea of letting the tourists follow in the footsteps of a hunter.
The basic element of the tour is to paddle with a kayak (a vessel which was invented and named by the Inuit) to hunts along the coast. The tour will take us past a series of natural beauty spots and it is an expedition-style adventure.
Robert shows us the route on the map and we are delighted about the many super choices. All 14 participants react with shining eyes, increased adrenaline production and a light flutter in our stomachs.
At 22.00 hrs we end the meeting. Outside it is still as light as day, here at the beginning of July. At the Arctic Circle the sun is in the sky until 23.40 hrs – and 40 minutes later, it rises again. It never gets really dark.
Our first tour takes us up one of the few trails in East Greenland and later we walk on moss, lichen and boulders to a mountain peak with a view of the town. The drop-shaped bay is the perfect natural harbour and with the snow-covered peaks that surround it, it resembles a breathtakingly huge coliseum.
Back in town we eat freshly-baked cakes in Pilersuisoq, the Greenlandic supermarket chain. Here, in addition to detergents and motor oil they also have an arsenal of hunting weapons. It is understandable in a hunting community, although there are not normally polar bears in the summer because it is too warm on the coast. But after the winter’s sleep, hunger sometimes forces the polar bears to move close to the human settlements.
In the afternoon we test the kayaks in the calm Kong Oscar Fjord, to familiarize ourselves with sailing close to icebergs.
Tasiilaq has around 1500 inhabitants and it is the biggest town in East Greenland, with a total population of about 3500 people.
With a heliport, a container terminal at the harbour and a couple of dozen cars, the town is quite modern. The colourful houses cling to the surrounding hills. Fish hang on the roofs to dry and washing is blowing in the wind on the washing lines.
The first impression is idyllic. But even though the young people listen to i-pods and watch MTV via satellite dishes on the houses, it is possible to feel the sharp transition from traditional hunting community to the present, modern lifestyle. And in many front yards there are both parts and abandoned vehicles that are falling apart.
Peter, our guide has his »polar bear prop« – rifle – fastened to the boat when we are at sea. In Ikavartisaq Fjord we paddle in super weather to Uivpak and we make camp in Paarnartivartik.
The steep, huge mountain up to the 1,500 metre mark seems almost insurmountable. After a few steps we realise that trekking in Greenland is something exclusive, but also indefinable. There is no road, no shelter and definitely no cabin to stop at. Nothing. Even the mobile phones lost their signal on the outskirts of Tasiilaq.
So every tour feels like the first ascent. But Peter has a satellite phone. It is our only connection to Robert’s »Red House« and the outside world.
We paddle across the fjord to Tiniteqilaq, a small village with 120 people. We trudge through the hunting village in wetsuits and trekking sandals. Although we feel like strangers, the Greenlanders don’t take any notice of us. Only the many sled dogs tell that we are coming. We stop at a vantage point where we stiffen in awe at the sight that meets us.
Sermilik Fjord is fed 30 kilometres north of here by six huge glaciers. Icebergs sail past like huge passenger liners. And the ice is working non-stop. There is a constant creaking from the mountainous peaks.
Fortunately we have a hunter to escort us. He guides us through the labyrinth of ice in his boat. The icebergs, with their shapes and vibrant colours, are as exciting as they are frightening. We keep our distance. I have never felt as small and vulnerable as in this world of ice.
Two buttons for eyes and a funny moustache – a seal watches us with suspicion. The hunter in his boat is immediately ready with his rifle. The seal was, and still is, the most important source of food for the Inuit in these parts.
We, who usually get our meat ready-packed from the supermarket, quickly feel the dilemma. We hear a couple of shots … and shortly afterwards we sail further west.
We spend the night on the north-eastern coast of Stoklund Fjord. After dinner we can still walk and clamber across rough sheets of rock on the almost 500 metre high Hoessly’s Mountain. The view from the top across Sermilik Fjord is magical. No high-voltage cables, no contrails in the sky, absolute silence. In addition, the full moon shines for hours and it looks very dramatic together with the endless sunset.
In the narrow fjords our kayaks glide like torpedoes through the water. The temperatures change while we sit each in our own »neoprene sauna«. For every stroke of the paddle about one litre of sweat runs out of our sleeves. Or at least that’s how it feels. But the Neoprene is a must. If you fall into the water, you will die in 10 minutes. In water that is two degrees the blood circulation stops. With the neoprene suits we have a half an hour in which to be rescued.
We move with strong strokes of the paddles through the end of the fjord. Our next »camp site« lies in the middle of a beautiful, green paradise. There are dandelions, buttercups and Arctic fireweed. It was these huge expanses of grass that Icelander Eirikur Thorvaldsson – called Erik the Red – found in the year 982. Although other Norsemen were already there before him, it was his optimistic picture of Greenland that gave the country its name.
The only drawback is the mosquitoes. They swarm in myriads from the puddles in the short Greenlandic summer. Without wind, they are a nuisance. The smell of blood-filled hikers sends them into ecstasy. They fly directly into eyes, noses and mouths. The only solution is mosquito net and stoicism. You cannot run away from them.
On to more ice. Spongy meadows are replaced by rough rock. Small streams, where the water is painfully cold, are crossed in bare feet. Finally, from a small mountain top we can see the endless expanses of the inland ice. It is the greatest plateau in the world – up to 3500 metres thick – and so heavy that the land mass has sunk 800 metres because of the pressure. It contains about 10 per cent of the earth’s fresh water reserves.
The way back from Hunden Fjord is tough and requires plenty of juice. The passage to Johan Petersen Fjord is full of ice. But then the hunters turn up out of the blue in their speedboats. They have sensed how the situation is, and guide us through the ice labyrinth, pushing smaller ice floes aside for us.
On the south beach of the fjord we put the kitchen tent up first. Soon our mashed potatoes are simmering and the sausages are sizzling in the pans. The smell is tempting. An Arctic fox in dark brown summer colours prowls around the camp with its nose twitching.
Here we find the first signs of human existence. Our predecessors have built a protected latrine with large sheets of stone. A good idea, because when the wind gets going here, it can even blow away a five o’clock shadow.
The forces of nature
The next morning we stand as if sedated and frozen in front of the tents. The wind and tide have pushed icebergs the size of football pitches together in the fjord. They lie practically in high stacks.
»No hunters are coming through here in their speed boats. We have to wait«, says Peter briefly.
Fortunately we have planned three reserve days. We go trekking without a goal, but there are masses of wonderful walks. We could hang around here like this for weeks.
Then we try to go up towards »Pingertuit« at an elevation of 1200 metres- But when we cross the boundary of the top of the plateau we have to abandon the tour. The wind blows at our jackets and forces us together, while our backpacks feel as though they are being lifted off.
Sabine Barth write in her travel guide to Greenland: »On the east coast it is usual with a cold storm. Cold air flows from the inland ice up over the mountains and drops down over the coast like a waterfall. It can lead to storms with wind speeds of up to 250 kilometres an hour«.
We creep together behind the rocks. In the wake of the storm the sun comes out. Hann, Brückner and Helm Glaciers stretch their tongues down towards us. The inland ice sparkles in the background. Muesli bars and warm tea sweeten the pause.
From the top we can see Johan Petersen Fjord, which is like a train station on Ecstasy, where the icebergs are the trains. They drift around and bump into each other. The tide, wind and currents create a total ice chaos. Not even a nuclear icebreaker would be able to get through, let alone a kayak.
On the way down we climb over slippery rocks on the dangerous part of the coast along the Hann Glacier where the ice abruptly breaks off, feeding new icebergs into the fjord.
Late in the evening it looks as though the weather is changing. The edge of the inland ice glows a golden red. The icebergs are mirrored in the sea, while a low mist and black clouds billow just above the water line near »Quertartivatsiaq« Island off the coast. It is a scene that would be appropriate for »The Lord of the Rings«.
We enjoy the last rum, whiskey and gin in our tea together with the impression of this incredible Greenlandic open air cinema in XXL format.
The next morning the adventure is over. Three coloured specks wind towards us, as the hunters find their way through the sea of ice. They invite us to follow them back to our kayaks.
Back in Tasiilaq everyone is out and about, because there is a match and a party on the football pitch - folksy and lots of fun.
Robert Peroni invites us to a farewell dinner at Red House. For beginners there is Matak – whale skin from a humpback whale. It tastes a bit salty and has the same consistency as stone hard liquorice. There are some questions as to the »political correctness« of eating whale.
- The Inuit have lived in Greenland for about 4000 years eating whales, seals and polar bears without ever disturbing the ecological balance, explains Robert Peroni.
- But even Greenpeace loses its sense of proportion when it come to Greenland and demands a general ban on whaling, he says.
He hopes that green tourism or tours this like can help to maintain the hunters’ cultural identity. Wow, I think, this gives people another good reason to take part and in my mind, I give the tour one more star.
- German photographer and travel writer
- Studied cultural anthropology in Munich and in London
- Crazy about outdoors photography
- Focus on mountain biking, kite surfing and Ski Touring
- Wild about sea kayaking and Greenland
- Trekking is medium difficulty
- No need for vaccinations
- The time difference is GMT minus 4 hours
- Best time is middle of June – end of August
- Day temperatures +11 to +23, Celsius
- Night temperatures -3 to +3, Celsius
- Sabine Barth: Greenland, DuMont Paperback, German.
- Etain O’Carroll, Mark Elliott: Greenland and the Arctic, from Lonely Planet, English.
- The museum in Ammassalik is impressive
- Sleep mask
- Dry suit
- Neoprene socks
- Trekking sandals
- Sun screen, factor 30-50
- Mosquito net and wide-brimmed hat
- Trekking trousers
- Mosquito repellent
- Camera batteries