Paddling through a Sea of Ice in Greenland45 days of paddling off Greenland’s north-western coast, in endless summer days of midnight sun. This is the adventure experienced by four outdoor enthusiasts who were overwhelmed by the light on the icebergs and the blow of the whales.

The sun is low on the horizon, the sea is calm. Soon the village of Uummannaq with its heart shaped mountain disappears behind us. 
Our sea kayaks point towards the massive island of Storøen, eight km away. 

Its fieryred lighted cliff drops 1,000 meters vertically into the sea and attracts us like a magnet.

We are at latitude 70o 40’, far north of the Arctic Circle. Here, far away from the rush of human civilization, we have all the time in the world to observe the magical spectacle of nature. Under the midnight sun the sea changes colour to crimson-blue, and its surface becomes so glassy that everything is reflected as in a mirror. Mountain sides light up in powerful reds, shadows lengthen, and the icebergs seem to be under a giant spotlight.

Paddling through a Sea of Ice in GreenlandDaily life on the kayak trip in Greenland 

Little by little we get used to the icebergs and are better able to estimate the distance to them. From these floating mountains that appear so calm, large blocks of ice make a thunderous racket as they crash into the sea all around us. Falling from several metres in height, these ice masses create breaking waves, full of giant lumps of ice. Much later we watch a huge ice-break create a wave over three metres high.

The fact that the summer 
days last for 24 hours does not disturb our sleep. We find a rhythm and make steady progress of 10-40 kilometres each day. We can maintain a speed of six/seven kilometres an hour when the wind or the current are not against us, which, unfortunately, they often are. 

The wind generally blows from the north, but when the sun has warmed the land for several days, the thermal wind coming off the inland ice, can reach Beaufort 8!

Numerous towering cliffs dropping abruptly into the sea, often prevent us from going ashore to make camp. 
There are many days when we have to go several kilometres further on, before finding a campsite. Every evening (when it’s not each morning), we make camp in some little terrestrial paradise that is only marred by the presence of those satanic mosquitoes! We fish and bake our own bread. If necessary, we melt ice for drinking water. While we sleep, we recharge the batteries of our satellite phone, VHF, GPS and walkie-talkies, with the help of our solar panel.

Paddling through a Sea of Ice in GreenlandWhen a site seduces us, we sometimes decide to stay for several days. We then explore the region on foot. Our long walks are always rewarded with amazing views of walls of glaciers falling down into the sea and fjords full of icebergs. On the horizon the white surface of the inland ice stretches endlessly.

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. We keep a journal and take notes of the GPS points of each campsite and the distances paddled.

We sometimes observe the spurts of whales, backlit by the midnight sun and glowing from afar. Other times, we locate the whales from the sound of their blows, which can sometimes propel the water spurt more than 10 metres in the air. This characteristic sound echoes over the sea, and we hear it from a distance of more than five kilometres away!

Curiously there are much fewer fin whales compared to our first expedition in this region in 2005. We think this is due to the large amount of ice this year.

Paddling through a Sea of Ice in GreenlandThe whims of nature in Greenland

On day 14, we enter the narrow fjord of Inukavsait. The sky is filled with heavy clouds, exhibiting a full range of greys. The rain carried by the wind is whipping my face. I pull energetically on the shaft of my paddle while staring at the dark horizon filled with small tufts of white foam. 

A gull passes in front of my kayak before rising with break-neck speed, its cry choked by the wind. 

The clouds are lifting and shortly we have a view of steep cliffs, a mountainous chain with bizarre shapes, some glacier tongues flowing to the sea and an arch perfectly sculpted in the middle of a huge iceberg. A multi-faceted landscape appears before us!

The atmosphere is surreal and we want to stay a moment observing the whims of nature, but we listen to our instinct, this small inner voice that warns of danger and dictates caution. 

On our left, the cliffs drop abruptly into the sea and give us no possibility getting ashore. We have 30 km behind us and large plates of pack ice block our way at the exit of the fjord. In this labyrinth of ice we paddle as a group and stay as close as possible to the shore as we don’t want to be smashed between moving ice plates. 

On several occasions the coastal ice is too thick to pass through and we have to pull our kayaks for several metres to reach the next open water channel. The rain is now changing to snow and the wind drops. After 40 km we finally find a place to camp. We don’t have the strength anymore to cook and instead improvise a meal. This evening we fall asleep within se
conds. Yes, it was a hard day. One of those days that makes you feel alive!

Paddling through a Sea of Ice in GreenlandRemy the bear

After we have been forced to wait more than two days on the island of Qingussaat for the end of a storm that cleared the sea of the pack ice, we set a course for the village of Nuugaa tsiaq. As we arrive, the inhabitants of this small village of 80 souls, gather around us and admire our sea kayaks, shining in the low sun.

We ask them if a guy named Remy, a contact that Pierre, a friend at Uummannaq gave us, is living in the village. An old man points his finger at a little green house at the end of the settlement. In front of the house some pieces of seal are drying in the sun.

Remy, a smiling person, kindly opens the door for us. This Dane, responsible for the power generator in the village, settled here 30 years ago after turning his back on his native home to follow his wife, who unfortunately died recently.

We enter his home. The walls are hung with fox furs, horns of musk oxen and a bad-quality picture showing his 18 year old son with a polar bear he killed. 

Remy offers us a beer, the first one since we left Uummannaq three weeks earlier. He starts to tell in quiet, good French some funny stories from his daily life. For example, about his 12 year old son who had fished in the winter on the pack ice, catching six sharks and pulling them alone back to the village. He also explains that the best technique for hunting seals is to frighten them, by passing all their breathing holes at full speed with the dog sled, because Remy is waiting without moving at the last hole with the rifle.

Then Remy stands up and acts out a close encounter with a musk-ox when he was on the toilet at his hunting cabin in the winter with his pants down. 

And finally, he talks about the famous day in 1990 when the generator worked for the first time in Nûgâtsiaq and the scared villagers ran away when Remy started the vacuum cleaner for the first time.

Dry fish

Some beers later and after we have tested different sorts of dry fish that Remy generously offered us, we say bye to this likeable person and get back to our kayaks. To our amazement, many villagers are gathered around two hunters who have caught two huge seals. We look at them with respect as they take the skin off these superb mammals. 

As we prepare to leave, one of the hunters proposes that we cut up one of the animals. Rafic takes a big knife and confidently cuts the abdomen from the top to bottom, being careful not to damage the inner parts of the body. Then one of the hunters takes the liver out of the seal and offers it to us for degustation. We accept the present and appreciate this delicacy, understanding that this source of vitamins allowed the Inuit population to survive for thousands of years without fruits and vegetables.

In spite of the kindness of our hosts, the thirst for adventure gets to us, and we feel the desire to paddle and get back to nature. Our minds full of strong impressions, we take our leave, happy to be on the water again but also happy to have met Remy, his family and the friendly inhabitants of this remote village, who welcomed us with open arms.

Paddling through a Sea of Ice in GreenlandUp hills - in Greenland

The entrance of the Ukkusissat fjord is now only 15 km away, a distance that we have to paddle in open water. After a good dinner we walk to the top of the island to check the crossing for the next day. We are surprised to discover once more that large plates of ice are blocking our way. This makes us think that the end of the fjord may still be frozen.

Next morning we decide to give it a go and paddle around the plates of ice where seals are resting. After almost three hours we reach the entrance of the fjord without too much difficulty, but get stuck 500 metres later because of very dense pack-ice. The wind starts to blow and a little rain starts. We go to sleep and are not sure if it will be possible to go on tomorrow.

Early in the morning we are pleased to see that while we were sleeping the wind blew all the ice out and a cloudless blue sky took place of the rain.

The dream of paddling to the end of the 100 km fjord after crossing the land of J.P. Koch on foot seems to be an impossible feat.

We are entering the inner fjord. We are the first this year to enter into this almost unknown territory and we enjoy the pristine nature. Clear water streams coming from the snowy mountains fall into the sea where countless numbers of seals seam to want to follow us on our adventure.

Paddling through a Sea of Ice in GreenlandWe need three days to reach the end of the fjord where a marshy zone awaits us and which we must cross before reaching the mainland five km away.

We wait for high tide and start to go up the river. After one km we are forced to give up the battle because the current is too strong. We then pull our kayaks through the windings of the river in 3oC water that often comes up to our hips. And we have to react fast because of quick sand.

We reach the mainland around midnight, exhausted, but also happy to have reached the end of the fjord, where some ducks and geese are staying for the summer.

Next day we decide to take a day off and explore the region before starting the long 40 km crossing pulling the kayaks to get to Upernavik further north.

We climb onto a flat mountain above our campsite and find two musk oxen grazing on the grass in front of us. They don’t see us and we observe these animals, impressive because of their size, power and calm. We hide behind a large stone, a bit intimidated and not sure how to react. 20 minutes later they notice us and run away down the hill.

Paddling through a Sea of Ice in GreenlandOver cliffs and frozen lakes in Greenland

After a good night we start the four-day crossing that will always stay in our minds. We form two 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 open-water 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.

Paddling through a Sea of Ice in GreenlandOn day four 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.

Paddling through a Sea of Ice in GreenlandThe Inuit, the arctic people

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.

Paddling through a Sea of Ice in GreenlandUpernavik, a small village in North Greenland

It’s 18 o’clock when we pass the north point of the small Island of Nunarssuaq.

Only 30 km now separate us from the village of Upernavik. One more time, the weather is perfect. A light breeze pushes us to the south. A group of guillemots are flying above us. We paddle slowly and enjoy every second. After 10 km, we find nice, big slabs of stone on which we decide to camp.

On the following day, the fog that had been blocked by the surrounding islands has put its white shroud around our campsite. Visibility is reduced to 100 meters. 

We paddle along the coast of the Karrat Island and after some kilometres the sky clears up and gives place to a cloudless blue sky. There is just time to take a short break and eat something before the mist comes back. This time we navigate with the GPS. The five km crossing to the island of Upernavik is a slalom run. We pass icebergs, sometimes on the left, sometimes on the right, so that we can keep approximately on the right course.

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.

Paddling through a Sea of Ice in GreenlandFacts

The kayak and the dog sled were two means of transportation and hunting originally developed by the Inuit people. Without the kayak it would have been impossible for the Inuit people to survive in the harsh climate of the Arctic. The framework was made of driftwood and covered with tightly stretched sealskins. In the 20th century, motor boats started to replace the kayaks. For some years, the Greenlandic traditional kayak has experienced a revival as a sport. Clubs around Greenland try to preserve old building techniques.

From June to July the sun never settles in North Greenland. 

Temperatures can be 
15-20oC in the afternoon. At midnight around 0oC. The weather is subject to fast changes!

The team

Jean-Luc & Sylvain Grossmann, Rafic Mecattaf, Thomas Truninger.

Paddling through a Sea of Ice in GreenlandTravel info

Where: This expedition took place on the north-west coast of Greenland between Uummannaq and Upernavik
Travel: By plane from Copenhagen to Kangerlussuaq, then northwards – serviced by Air Greenland 
Route: The Expedition started from Uummannaq and paddled northwards passing the small villages of Ukkusissat, Nuugaatsiaq and Aappilattoq, finishing in Upernavik. The team did not take the route around the Svartenhuk Peninsula but crossed overland, using an ancient Inuit trail at the end of the long Ukkusi ssat Fjord pulling the sea kayaks on a 40 km stretch of land to reach the Region of Upernavik.

Equipment

Security: Iridium, personal locator beacon, VHF, flares, GPS.
On the water: Kodiak sea kayak, life vest with paddle jacket and neoprene suit.
Outdoor: Venus II Extreme Tents with Swan WB sleeping bag and Sim Light 3.8 Mat, Platypus bottles, DragonFly and XGK fuel stoves, Baja dry bags.