Narsaq – Greenland
There are few greater sights in the world than flying over Greenland and watching the mountains on the coast disappear under an ocean of ice. It isn’t a rare thing to witness for many North America flights pass over Greenland, however on this occasion we would be landing on this enormous and mesmerising island for the purpose of a bit of kayaking. Actually, landing in Narsarsuaq is an experience in itself with the flight delayed by over four hours because of bad weather although by the time we appeared on the horizon the cloud had lifted enough to reveal an incredibly scenic approach to landing. Narsarsuaq is nothing more than an airport with a café and a little museum for good measure. The customs lady would cast an eye over us with her loyal working dog beside her as we collected our luggage but as soon as the arrival hall emptied, she hopped on her push bike and pedalled off into the unknown. Why a dog was needed I have no idea as the plane was full of people loaded to the eyeballs with winter gear in search of somewhere a little more exciting than Iceland, and with a total population of 56,000 I would imagine the market for illicit goods is quite small. Next up for us was a one-hour ride on a RIB boat that would deliver us to the small town of Narsaq with a population of 1,300, a hostel, a hotel, a shop, a restaurant, and one bar. Although completely open to the elements, RIB boats are exceedingly good fun and wrapped up in a heavy winter coat, hat and gloves, I got comfortable sat on the side of the boat and began to process where I was. We had gone from some of the busiest places on earth to one of the quietest and you may be asking why? Well, why not? Have you ever watched Frozen Planet? The poles have gripped me ever since watching that programme and when a tour that involved a 100km of kayaking on the coast of Greenland came to my attention I knew it was something I had to do.
The following day a RIB boat took us past an increasing number of icebergs and delivered us to a windswept island where our kayaks were waiting for us. Here is where we learnt to pack our double kayak with all the food, camping gear and personal kit we would need for the next 6 days as our trip would be unsupported and camping in the wild. The day had started sunny but deteriorated pretty much as soon as we hit the water after lunch. Once we arrived at our first stunning wild camp for the evening the race was on to get the tents up without getting everything wet through. The following morning, we were met with warm sunshine that allowed everything to be dried out and this is how the rest of the week panned out regarding the weather. Changeable would be the adjective. When it rained, we were largely cold and miserable, not bitterly cold, I doubt the temperature got lower than 5oC for the whole week, but it wasn’t pleasant having to unzip the dry suit in order to have a pee during a downpour. The dry suits were incredible at keeping us warm and dry on the water but getting in and out of them was far from speedy or elegant. When the sun shone, the whole group were so intoxicated that all of a sudden everyone was moving to Greenland to be able to kayak into eternity. In the sunshine the icebergs would glow colours ranging from pure white through to blue and clear glass, the latter known as black ice and dangerous to the RIB boats thanks to its inconspicuous appearance. Lunch and dinner could be spent sat out with glorious views of mountains, glaciers, ice bergs and the fjords, and at times it could all be done with little more than trousers and a t-shirt.
Two nights were spent camping above a rocky beach sat in front of a glacier. No place have I slept that is more beautiful and no place has there been with a colder bath. With the tents pitched, the sun out, and a glacier in the background, it was only right to throw on the swim shorts and go for a dip. I won’t lie, I cautiously jumped in, got the photo and promptly got back out! The closer we got to the glaciers and the ice cap the less green stuff we saw, and this campsite was no exception with little else other than rocks, not that it mattered because just like a desert, rugged beauty is quite often the best. The noise coming from the glacier was continuous and unnerving filling the air with rumbles of thunder as the ice jostled for position. Often there would be an explosion, yet nothing could be seen. We kayaked close to the glacier and this phenomenon revealed itself. Grasping a sense of scale in the fjords of Greenland is impossible and as we got closer to the glacier we could see birds flying in front of it that were completely dwarfed by the ice. When a small piece of ice fell from the face of the glacier the sound emitted appeared disproportionately loud compared to the size of ice. Some of the most spectacular things we saw was when an iceberg would rupture, releasing a loud bang and an explosion of ice before rolling over, sometimes a full 180 degrees, sometimes a little wobble before finding a new position.
A day was spent kayaking across to a different glacier. Known as dead ice, the glacier was no longer feeding into the sea with the remaining ice retreating up the rocky mountain as it melted away. This glacier used to be part of a much larger glacier only 30 years ago, but it has since split in two with both now technically dead. What’s incredible is when approaching the glaciers, a huge wall of white can be seen sitting above them and from distance it is hard to see if it is cloud or ice. Remarkably it’s ice and after hiking up one of the glaciers a little way we managed to get a view of the ice cap that stretched 2000km north across Greenland from the point we were standing. The ice cap is up to 3,000 meters deep, covers 80% of the country and would cause global sea level to rise by seven metres if it all melted. Obviously this will not happen any time soon, but it is melting, fast. Seeing the ice cap first-hand is a sobering and startling experience. It is clear to see the speed of the retreat because large areas of land are bare due to there being so little time for plants to take hold. The ice that remains isn’t a long flowing glacier anymore constrained by the tough granite valleys, it’s simply the ice cap itself, an astonishing mass of solid ice that is getting itchy feet since its coastal brakes have eroded away.
Around every corner the fjords threw out something new, partly because the environment changed so quickly with the weather. When it rained the waterfalls flowing off the mountains intensified. When it was sunny the sea was flatter than tea in a mug, the wake of the kayak perfectly carved in a sheet of turquoise that reflected anything in its path such as clouds and icebergs. Icebergs never got boring, ranging from the tiny (yet bone crunching if struck by the kayak) to the enormous, rounded to cube shaped, windswept smooth to knobbly. When we retreated from the glaciers rock turned to green with some islands even attempting to grow bushes. On the odd occasion we would see a RIB boat far off in the distance and as with the ice, the sound of the motor would give away its presence before we were able to identify the tiny spot moving in the distance. On the odd occasion we would see seals swimming in the distance, an arctic fox made an appearance but apart from numerous birds, wildlife was limited. The only downside were the squadrons of midges and mosquitos that although down on numbers compared to the early summer appeared particularly ravenous. On our penultimate day, we set up camp in warm sunshine in a bay full of beautiful icebergs and trekked up a decent sized, lush and green hill. What we found at the top was breath-taking. Behind us lay the dots of our tents, ahead rose a high mountain range with its peaks capped in ice and snow, in front lay a fjord rammed with icebergs, to our right lay one of the large open waterways stretching out to the open ocean and to our left rose the hills that whipped in behind our campsite. Returning to the campsite we braved the cold waters one final time, not in the sea but the river that flowed past the tents. It was marginally warmer than the ice filled sea and I was able to endure a bit of a bath. This could be described as a perfect day, but I think it will take a long time for the experience of this tour to really sink in. Whatever happens, why it happens, when it happens, the bottom line is simple; wouldn’t it be sad if there was no longer the option to have such an experience?
See the tour here