It was all so straightforward. Paddle out of Pakitsoq, camp on the slabs at Anoritoq, have an evening meal in Oqaatsut and been in Ilulissat in time for lunch. It just about went to plan apart from the evening meal bit.
There was no rush in the morning as our calculations indicated that the best time to pass through the narrows was at around 10.30, on this particular morning high water at Ilulissat was at 09.38. It turned out that our calculations were pretty accurate and although we needed to do a bit of ferry gliding we escaped into the outer part of the fjord with very little effort.
Our campsite for the evening was close to the slabs at Anoritoq, which is probably my favourite place to stay along this section of coast. An easy landing, plenty of flat space for tents, a great stream and a never ending range of glacial features to explore.
The following morning the wind was blowing offshore and packing up was put on a temporary hold. A temporary hold, which stretched in 22 hours. Bit by bit the wind increased in strength until it was blowing offshore at about 50 mph. There was clearly no way we were paddling in those conditions.
The consequence was that we had to miss out on our stop in Oqaatsut, and were still quite concerned about the possibility of strong winds but when we got up at 05.00 the storm of the day before had abated, so in perfectly calm conditions we headed south for the 13 miles back to Ilulissat.
Landing just after 11.00, we unloaded our kayaks for the final time, we had been out for 19 days. At times strong winds created challenging conditions but our journey through northern Disko Bay had been truly memorable.
After the winds of the day before it was a pleasure to wake to a calm morning. Breakfast was a very pleasant affair as we knew that we would be heading south, towards Pakitsoq, after the delays of the last 24 hours and could start to relax, with a good forecast for the next few days. We were quickly underway and our first stop for the day was Kugssuaq, where we knew that there was an easy landing and a good stream.
I have crossed Pakitsoq 13 times in the last few years and on every single occasion have seen whales. This year was no exception, although the views were rather distant. The first indication of whales in the vicinity is when you heard their breathing or saw the spray from their breath rising above the surface of the sea. Our focus though was ensuring that we managed to enter Pakitsoq safely, through the tidal narrows.
I have always found that the safest way to enter Pakitsoq is to arrive at the narrows early, whilst he tide is still pouring out. Then either sit and wait or play in the tide race, until the outgoing flow has slackened enough to enable you to paddle through the narrows with a degree of control and in relative safety. We managed to enter, with a bit of uphill paddling at 17.30, this was on a day when high water at Ilulissat was at 21.05 and low water was at 14.18. The tide times are available here.
Once you are inside Pakitsoq a totally different world is revealed. The biggest difference is that there are no icebergs, so camping and moving the kayaks is much easier. There is no longer the need to have the kayaks 10 metres above the high water mark, just in case a large berg should roll over. Just as no bergs will make it through the gap because of the narrow water and the tides the same probably applies to large marine mammals so don’t expect to see whales swimming around in here.
One thing to take into account is that the two daily tides are unequal in height. The evening tide is normally quite a bit bigger than the morning one, so take this into account when deciding how far to lift the kayaks up, the last line of wet seaweed is probably not far enough. On the day we entered the evening tide had a height of 2.6 metres, which seems to equate to a Spring, whilst the morning high water was only 1.8 metres.
Once inside there are a number of options available but we chose to paddle the southern arm, which is much narrower and to explore some of the small islands scattered around the bay. Last time we had been in this area we camped at the head of the inlet, which allowed us to walk and see an amazing glacial landscape.
Overall a very enjoyable day and made that much easier by the fact we didn’t to pack and unpack the kayaks. A day paddling an empty kayak is almost like having a rest day. The evening was spent relaxing around the campsite, admiring the view and rejoicing in the fact that there were no insects to bother us. The only negative feeling was a growing realization that in the next couple of days the trip would be over. Greenland was once again casting its spell as a truly special sea kayaking destination.
The east coast of Arve Prinsens Ejland is a truly spectacular stretch of coast but it requires detailed examination of the maps to truly appreciate the height of the cliffs. Usually they are viewed from the coast opposite when heading north from Ilulissat. In places they rise almost vertically for about 2,000 feet, a feature which is clearly going to attract kayakers. At first the cliffs were not unlike other areas that we have paddled, in size, but as we headed north the scale shifted significantly. The size of the cliffs alters your perception so at times you thought I’ll just nip across this inlet. That inlet could be several miles across so if you are not careful you find yourself paddling offshore for an hour or so, rather than exploring the base of the cliffs, which was the focus for the day.
I had only paddled these cliffs once before, late one afternoon about 9 years ago, it was memorable but not like this time. Paddling them in the morning ensured that the sun was in the perfect position for highlighting the physical features and accentuating the texture of the rock. We considered stopping for lunch at the base of the cliffs but there was no protection from any potential stone fall, so we took the sensible option and paddled the 3 miles across to the mainland.
The lunch spot turned out to be rather pleasant and so we decided to stay there the night, something we were really grateful for as the wind increased significantly overnight and we ended up remaining there the following day. I have visited Greenland regularly in the last 25 years but this summer was without doubt the most unsettled weather wise. We lost 2 whole days due to strong winds plus had several late starts or early finishes. Other years I have been able to complete a 3 week kayaking trip without having to modify our plans because of unsettled weather.
Although today’s paddling had been spectacular it had been rather short, about 13 miles and so after lunch I took advantage of the sheltered bay to practice some rolling. Although we didn’t see any other kayakers this year on previous trips we had always seen other paddlers and I was amazed to see people not wearing dry suits. Many of the French, in particular, seem to avoid wearing dry suits, something which I consider to be rather irresponsible considering the water temperature and potential survival times. I did one roll, no problem, on my second roll I exclaimed about the pain in my head and after my third roll I was unable to speak and needed to hold my head. It was difficult to understand just what it would be like if you were in the water for any length of time. Once I had warmed my head and hands I thought a re-entry and roll would be a good idea, I am not sure anybody else thought it was. I was pretty quick and wearing a dry suit but I still found it rather challenging temperature wise, swimming after a capsize without wearing a dry suit just doesn’t bear thinking about.
For me the highlight of the campsite was a father friendly Arctic Fox cub, it didn’t seem in the least bit concerned by our presence. Returning several times during the time we spent at the campsite, clearly ignoring the advice of its parents who were calling from the hillside above. I just hope that he makes it through its first winter.
The following morning the calm of the previous day had been replaced by a significant wind blowing from the south, we clearly weren’t going anywhere soon. One of the tings that has improved in the last few years off the west coast of Greenland has been the mobile phone coverage. Although rarely have a signal when you land, walk uphill a bit and you can be quite lucky. Just remember to brief friends or relatives about what information you need in a forecast before you leave.
A half mile walk put us in a position where we could get a faint signal and the information that we received back was all very positive. Light winds, no rain and reasonable temperatures until we arrived back in Ilulissat. As we settled do we for the night little did we realise just how wrong that forecast was to be.
The hoped for settled weather failed to materialise and we woke to a day virtually without colour. Low grey skies, settled on a the grey screen covered hillsides and were reflected in the grey sea. Somehow packing in those conditions seems to take longer but we still managed to be on the water just before 09.00.
Heading out from the shelter of the islands we picked up a slight northerly wind, which certainly assisted our journey south. The ice bergs were largely offshore so we were able to relax. At one point we did have a couple of whales submerge about 100 metres directly ahead of us only to resurface behind, you hope that they are aware of your presence but I am never too sure.
Landings along this section of coast are few and far between so we didn’t have lunch until we had finished at the end of the day. The relatively early finish meant that we were able to make full use of the substantial stream to wash both ourselves and equipment before having time to walk up the large valley behind the campsite.
There is something exciting about wandering across terminal moraines, identifying a roche moutonnee and pointing out hanging valleys. Having a basic understanding of glacial processes can only add to the enjoyment of your time in such a spectacular environment. The wind was still blowing relatively briskly which meant that all of these activities were an insect free experience. Something which had been all too rare so far on the trip.
We woke to find that the grey skies of the day before had been replaced by a virtually cloudless sky, unfortunately the wind had increased somewhat and the waters on the outside of the bay were flecked with white horses. We obviously weren’t going anywhere straight away, so we had an enforced, relaxing morning waiting for the wind drop, which it did just after lunch.
Soon we were heading south before rounding the southern tip of the island. The plan was to paddle under the huge cliffs of the east coast the following day. A couple of miles along the east coast we found some ideal slabs, suitable for landing on with flat land for camping on behind. Perfect. The only thing that could make it better was a couple of whales, whilst we ate our evening meal. As it was we only had one humpback whale but what a spectacle we experienced for over an hour. It is evenings and days like this that make you realise why sea kayaking in Greenland is such a special experience.
Arve Prinsens Ejland is a large island, which dominates the views of north east Disko Bay and offers some fascinating kayaking. Although we only had a short day planned there was plenty of variety, with a number of stops planned.
Our first target was a small Bay where I know that there is some excellent evidence of a former settlement. We had first camped here in 2008 and it was here that I really thought about the similarities of modern recreational kayaker and generations of former Greenlanders. We travel through the environment at the same speed as the Greenlanders did hundreds of years ago and our needs are almost identical. An easy place to land a kayak, a flat area for tents and a stream for water. As soon as I realised that we had identical needs and knew what to look for almost everywhere we camped we could identify signs of former human use.
As we approached the small bay it was clear that there were quite a few local fishermen in residence and it looked like most were still in bed, so we avoided landing there. We carried on pottering along the coast with the next target an area where Brunnich’s Guillemots nested. En route we passed a couple of very confident White Rumped Sandpipers. Quite an amazing bird, which is one of the greatest long distant migrants in the world, some individuals traveling from northern Canada to Patagonia. On their way north to breed they are thought to undertake non-stop flights up to 2,600 miles in length.
Brunnich’s Guillemots are a species which you are likely to encounter in the U.K., as they spend their lives in areas where the sea temperature remains below 8 degrees Celsius. So it’s always a pleasure to seem them on their breeding grounds. We weren’t disappointed today with quite a few individuals flying around in addition to variety of other species.
Our destination for today was just to the north of the abandoned settlement of Agpat, which is on a small island just off the west coast of Arve Prinsens Ejland. It is somewhere, which is always worth exploring. After landing Louis, headed back out to test his new fishing kit. As he headed back to shore it seemed that he was making hard work of what should have been a short paddle, it was only as he entered shallow water that we realised he was towing 4 Greenlandic cod, each of which would provide enough food for 7 people. 3 were delicately released whilst the unlucky 4th fish was on an open fire with 10 minutes of leaving the water. It doesn’t get much fresher than that.
The evening was spent exploring the old settlement. This was my 6th visit and it is sad to see how the buildings are deteriorating over the years. Amazingly it was also the first time that we haven’t seen other people there. Some of us carried on exploring the village whilst several decided to walk to the highest point on the island, which was marked by a substantial cairn.
A great day but we went to bed in the knowledge that the following day we were heading south along quite an exposed section of Arve Prinsens Ejland. All we needed was weather like we have had for the 6 days and life would be great.
The day after we were forced to change our route in northern Disko Bay we headed west along the north coast of Arve-Prinsens Ejland. Passing between the ice to the north and the cliffs to the south, there was no real prospect of an easy landing, I always think that this a challenging stretch of water.
As we passed through the narrow gap to the west of Arve Prinsens Ejland we caught a glimpse of our first Arctic Fox. This is one of two land mammals that you might see whilst paddling in this area. The other is the Arctic Hare, which we encountered a couple of days later.
Once inside the gap it is advisable to stop, there is a nice sheltered beach and its probably been at least 3 hours since you have been able to have a toilet stop.
After lunch a quick scramble up the slopes behind the beach gives you a good view across to the small settlement of Qeqertaq and it is possible to assess the ice conditions for the crossing of the fjord. More importantly there is a really good mobile phone signal, which is great for checking in with home after 7 days out but also enables you to get a reasonable weather forecast. We have used Weather Underground, on recent trips and have found it to be pretty accurate.
Oqaatsoq, is the smaller island to the west of Arve Prinsens Ejland, and there is delightful campsite in a small bay on the south east corner of the island. There are some dramatic bird cliffs on the opposite side of the bay to the camp and we have seen whales on a regular basis. What better place to pass some time.
We camped for two nights, with some of us paddling the 13 nm around the island, with empty kayaks. A real pleasure. What we saw to the north though didn’t inspire confidence for the future, substantial numbers of large bergs appeared to be blocking the route to Saqqaq, where we planned to replenish our food supplies. The future looked uncertain but there was nothing we could do as we retreated to the tents with a possible storm approaching across Disko Bay.
After a couple of days on any trip you start to settle into a daily routine. The start of our day had the simple mantra “7-8-9”. Up at 07.00, breakfast at 08.00 and on the water by 09.00. By the time we had arrived in northern Disko Bay, the routine was well established and most mornings we were away early.
Entering the waters of entering these waters is always an unknown, as regards ice. It is possible to obtain sea ice charts from the Danish Meteorological Institute but by the time you have kayaked to northern Disko Bay from Ilulissat they are likely to be out of date. If you encounter open water no problem but if there is ice it is matter of feeling your way forward and this may involve getting of the kayaks at times, climbing to higher viewpoint to scout for leads in the ice.
In the northern part of Disko Bay there are a number of glaciers which discharge into the fjords so it is impossible to predict how much ice there will be. What is important is to ensure that you maintain a safe distance between yourself and the ice front. The closest we approached was 3 nautical miles and we didn’t hang about!
On our journey through the area there were some significant areas of open water but in one place our intended route was blocked so we took a more southerly route. This actually worked out really well as we ended up camping in a delightful spot at the rear of sheltered bay. Our only concern was that in the distance we could see a number of really large bergs, which might have an impact on our need to reach Saqqaq, where we planned to replenish our supplies.
There are 2 small settlements in the northern part of Disko Bay, Saqqaq and Qeqertaq, both of which provide the opportunity to buy food, what was uncertain was which one it would be. As with any sea kayaking in Disko Bay there is a need to remain flexible due to the variations in the weather and ice.
July, saw a return visit to Greenland for 19 days kayaking with the Jersey Canoe Club. The Club is fortunate that it has 8 kayaks in Ilulissat, the main town in Disko Bay, on the west coast. This means that the logistics of paddling in this area are relatively straightforward. Book a flight, go to the supermarket in Ilulissat and start part paddling. What a complete contrast to my first visit to Greenland when we had to ship the kayaks out months in advance, plus boxes of food etc. That felt like an expedition, nowadays we go on holiday.
On our arrival at the hostel in Ilulissat we met Peter and Sue Bisset, who had used the kayaks before us. Peter runs the “Paddles with an Anas Acuta” blog and it was interesting to hear his description of their 4 weeks out kayaking. The weather had clearly been far more unsettled than normal, which had resulted in some exciting conditions. They experienced several days of snow, which is very unusual for July. It was good to catch up though and to hear of their experiences.
Within 24 hours of arriving in Greenland, we had sorted out the equipment, bought food and were heading north. Unfortunately as we headed away from Ilulissat the wind started to increase, which was to become a feature of our paddle north. The first day we had to cut short because of an increasing headwind, although we did manage to do some slightly longer paddles in the following days, which put us back on some sort of schedule.
For various reasons over the last few months I just haven’t had the time to update the content on the site, partly because I have been fortunate enough to be out kayaking, several times each week. Things are changing and hopefully I will be able to add content on a more regular basis. In addition I have moved the content from the blog into a new format, which should give more flexibility with the updates.
It has certainly been a busy few months with sea kayaking in Jersey’s waters taking place on a regular basis. I have also been fortunate enough to visit some amazing paddling destinations which I am planning to write about over the next few weeks and months.
Greenland has featured again in our paddling adventures but so have some new areas such as Spain and Mauritius, both of which offered kayaking of a surprisingly high standard, with delightfully warm weather and water.
One of the biggest changes is that retirement has arrived which allows for significantly more time to explore Jersey’s local waters. It wasn’t until I finished work that I realized just how good the weather is during the week, enabling visits to our favourite reef, the Ecrehous to take place on the quieter days during the week. My finishing work has coincided with a number of other people coming to the end of their careers, which has meant that there is always somebody to go paddling or coasteering with.
Over the coming months there will be updates with useful information for those who wish to kayak in the Channel Islands, with suggestions of great paddling destinations further afield.
Other photographs of our more recent kayaking trips can be seen here.
Your final day on a long trip is always a time of conflicting emotions. We had taken part in a really memorable paddle through some stunning scenery. There was far more ice around than I had experienced on my 5 previous trips in Greenland, which at times had presented a significant challenge and even up until the last we weren’t sure how things were going to go. The French paddlers we had seen a few days earlier had taken 2 days to get out of Ilulissat because of the ice, if we took two days to get in then we would miss our flights home.
There was quite a special feeling, this was the conclusion of a project which had started over 2 years earlier. At the Scottish Sea Kayak Symposium in 2013 we came under some pressure to run another event in Jersey in 2014. It was eventually agreed that we would go ahead with the event but the aim was to raise enough funds to be able to buy a number of sea kayaks to place in Greenland, which would be available for the participants at the event to use. Effectively we were aiming to re-invest in the sport.
2015 was the first year that the kayaks were available and they were used for 40 days, which was a successful year from the Jersey Canoe Club’s perspective. We already have bookings for 2016 as well as tentative inquiries for 2017. A successful legacy from the Jersey Sea Kayak Symposium, which will hopefully allow more paddlers to experience the memorable kayaking off the west coast of Greenland.
The final morning. We had lifted the kayaks up quite a distance the night before as there were a number of large bergs just offshore and we didn’t want to risk losing the kayaks on the final night.
Eric heading south through the ice towards Ilulissat.
Our first glimpse of Ilulissat. We were still concerned about whether we would be able to reach the town. There was a significant amount of ice, the only indicator which gave us hope were the number of small boats going past. They had clearly been able to force their way out of the harbour.
The last few hundred metres and there was a hint of open water between the ice floes.
The final slabs on which we pulled the kayaks. At this point we knew that in 36 hours time we would be on the flights home.