Gino Watkins – “Northern Lights”

Numerous books have been written either about Gino Watkins or concerning his exploits in the 1920’s and early 1930’s prior to his untimely death in the waters of eastern Greenland, an area which very few modern paddlers complete with the equipment of the 21st Century venture into.  How much more demanding must have these travels been when undertaken in the equipment of the day?
Watkins is credited with being the first English man to be able to roll his kayak.  A  skill which he thought was essential to master if the aim was to supplement the food supplies with locally caught species.  It was this desire to live off the land which probably cost Watkins his life, although no body was ever found his kayak was recovered and is preserved today at the Royal Geographical Society in London.
The book, which is probably easiest to acquire today, is simply called “Gino Watkins” by J M Scott.  It seems that most second hand bookshops, which are searched, will reveal a copy of this book.
A less common title is “Northern Lights” by Spencer Chapman.  It was the official record of the expedition in the 1930’s, which was trying to find an air route from Europe to North America.  I had been looking for a copy for several years when, in the mid 1990’s, I came across a copy at a bookseller in London.  The fact that it was store in a locked glass cabinet should have been enough of a signal that this was a book, which was out of my price range, but curiosity got the better of me and I needed to see exactly what it was like.  Once I had regained my composure after seeing the price, it cost more than some of the cars I have bought in the past, I was able to savour the delights within.  It was a joy to behold and as I opened the covers it only got better.  The author Spencer Chapman had signed it, but more importantly it contained the original cutting from The London Times announcing the death of Watkins.  This was before the contents of the book were reached.  I knew that this was an important volume but one that I was unable to justify buying without discussing at home.  Marriages have probably fallen apart for a lesser sum!

Northern Lights

I reluctantly placed the book back in the hands of the shop assistant and left with his card in my hand and hope in my heart.  After discussion at home it was decided that there could be no better Christmas present for the paddling bibliophile than this particular volume, “Northern Lights”.  It was with some relief that I was able to order the book over the telephone a few days later.  Today it occupies pride of place on my paddling bookshelf.

Northern Lights
The inscription inside the front cover written by F. Spencer Chapman plus the cutting from The Times newspaper of the 7th September 1932.

Inuit Hunter

In 1993 we paddled over 300 miles along the west coast of Greenland, from Sisimiut to Ilulissat.  After several weeks paddling we called in at Qasigiannguit, in the south east corner of Disko Bay.  Formerly known as Christianshab, the town was established in 1734, making it the second oldest town in Greenland.
It is situated in the heart of a rich archaeological region so not surprisingly there is an interesting museum.  At the museum there was a traditional kayak and in conversation with the curator we asked if there were still any people hunting in the traditional fashion.  He replied that possibly there were still traditional hunters around Thule, in the far north, but certainly not in the area that we were paddling in.
It came as a complete surprise, therefore to encounter this Greenland hunter two days later in the ice, on the southern side of Ilulissat icefjord.  He was paddling up into the ice and then drifting back on the melt water current occasionally shooting a seal.  This is a scene from 1993 which I doubt exists today, certainly in visits to the area since 2008 there have been no similar encounters.

Inuit hunter
A hunter paddling among the ice on the southern side of Ilulissat Icefjord

Some more aerial photographs

It has been a while since I have posted some aerial photos taken from commercial flights so here are a few from the last few years. They show some potentially great kayaking destinations from above. With views like these it is hard to understand why anybody would book an aisle seat!

 Passing over Calshot when heading south towards Jersey.  The site of the BCU Sea Touring Committee Symposiums in the early 1990’s.
 Greenland West Coast.  The island on the right is Uummannaq and the larger Salliaruseq to the left.  The cliffs and the larger islands are over 1,000 metres high.  This post documents the day we paddled between the two islands.  This was taken whilst flying from Heathrow to Seattle, some years ago.
 Final approach into Stockholm.  It looked like a kayaking paradise.  Little did we realize the frustration which was to follow after we landed
 Take off from Jersey on a beautiful summers day.  The aircraft is banking north over St Ouen’s Bay.
 Sunrise over the Thames estuary.  The south coast of Essex is clearly visible, just minutes after leaving Heathrow.
 A few hours later the Essex coast had been replaced by the Turkish coast to the west of Istanbul.
Approaching Heathrow.  The rectangular shaped water directly in front of the engine is the location of Tower Hamlets Canoe Club, an area we have visited regularly over the years as members of the Jersey Canoe Club paddling with kayakers from London.

Polishing your kayak

This is an updated version of an article I wrote in 2005 regarding the use of shoe polish to improve the look of my 1980’s vintage Nordkapp HM.

Polishing your Kayak
 Always one for the soft touch as I walked around the London Boat Show I was convinced, along with a couple of companions, that I really needed some leather balsam for protecting my shoes.  I parted with my £10.00 and walked on my way.  Some time later I stumbled across some fibre glass polish, now this was interesting as my 20 year old Nordkapp was starting to show its age.  Whereas £10 seemed a huge amount for shoe polish I was far more willing to part with £40 to protect my beloved sea kayak.
I returned home with two types of polish with the aim of writing a review of the one for fibre glass.  I followed the instructions and sat back to review my handy work.  With my hand on my heart I felt unable to write a review as I didn’t want you, dear reader, to make the same mistake as me and part with their hard earned cash.  The fibre glass polish was really disappointing.
Each week I used the leather balsam on my shoes never realizing that I held in my hand the key to restoring my kayak to some of its former glory.  That is until Chris said, “Have you tried the shoe polish on your kayak?”  Somewhat sceptically I applied the polish, it was quick and easy to do and the impact was amazing.  Almost instantly scratches appeared to disappear and the colours were restored.

Polish

A photograph taken in 2005, which clearly illustrates the difference an application of         Renapur polish can make to the appearance of a kayak.

Once the kayak was on the water the droplets glistened in the sunlight, it was just like paddling a new kayak.  The great thing is that it only takes a matter of minutes to re-apply the polish, therefore it can be repeated on a regular basis ensuring that your precious kayak maintains its perfect looks.

Kayak polish

Paddling around Nordkapp in August 1986. At this point the kayak was just over 12 months old. There has been a lot of water under the hull since then.

Kayak Polish

The Nordkapp on a beach in Greenland in 1993, still looking pretty good.

Polish

The freshly polished front deck. Unfortunately it wasn’t sunny, if it had been the water droplets would be sparkling.  This was taken today returning to Jersey from the Ecrehous.

The product is “Renapur Leather Balsam”.  Forget your shoes apply it to your kayak!

Contact www.renapur.com for further details.

Some Greenland Kayaking Advice

Having visited Greenland on a number of occasions and paddled close to 1,500 nautical miles along the west coast, there are a few bits of pertinent information, which I have picked up along the way and might prove useful to anybody contemplating a visit to these northern waters.
Food
Buy all of your food when you arrive.  It is a waste of time and money shipping food.  Even the smallest villages have a shop where you are able to buy anything from cream cheese to a sewing machine.  Ilulissat has a number of well stocked supermarkets, which can meet all your needs prior to heading out kayaking.
Shop in Saqqaq, northern Disko Bay.
Mosquito Net
Take a spare in case you mis-place your first one.  Have it ready to put on as soon as you get off the water.  You may not need it but like a good Boy Scout be prepared.  Remember to remove it when cooking in case the stove flares up, the molten material could make a real mess of somebodies face.
Some people use a complete bug suit, not just a head net.
Tipi
Although it can be a bit of a pain to carry they are a great piece of group equipment.  Perfect for those rare days when the weather isn’t good enough to sit outside and ideal for providing some relief when the insects are particularly troublesome.  You can end up spending a significant amount of money on a tipi but I bought a cheaper version in 2009 and it is still going strong.  It can have a significant impact on your luggage allowance so I have left mine in Ilulissat, ready for my next visit.
Pressure Cooker
Perfect for helping with fuel economy, bring the rice to the boil and then take it off the flame for between 8 and 10 minutes.  The rice will be cooked to perfection.  They are Ideal for most meals.  It takes a bit of searching to find one with small enough handles that it goes into a kayak hatch, we eventually found a suitable one in a back street in Istanbul.
 Nets off when cooking
 Granite slabs
Look for the those slabs which have been scoured by the ice, close to the waters edge.  They are perfect at lunch time for relaxing on and hopefully there will be no standing water nearby, which will reduce the insect menace.
Learning to relax on granite slabs is an essential skill for paddling in the Arctic.
Down jacket
The absolute essential item of dry land equipment.  Don’t leave home without one.
Relaxing after a good days paddle along the Vaigat
Campsites
Don’t always paddle to the rear of the bay, when kayaking in Greenland.  Think about collecting  plenty of water during the course of the day and camp on a low headland.  The location may be more exposed to wind, which will keep the insects down and the views are likely to be far more spectacular.  This was something which Greenlanders have known about for hundreds of years because quite a few of the low headlands we stopped at had indications of previous habitation.
A memorable campsite just the north of the abandoned village of Agpat.  There was no standing water nearby and we had a relatively insect free evening.

Ilulissat – the final day

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.

Pakitsoq
Leaving the inner part of Pakitsoq. It was pretty important to make sure that we left around slack water.

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.

Iceberg
There were a few intermediate size icebergs around but very little in the way of small ice, which might impede our paddling.
Arch
This large arch caused some concern as it looked pretty unstable.
Collapsed arch
Although there had been a few indications that the arch was unstable it still came as a complete shock when it collapsed. There is no doubt that if you had been paddling underneath it you would have been killed. Total proof that those pictures where you see kayaker’s sitting underneath an arch are completely foolhardy.

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.

Cooking
Sheltering from the wind whilst preparing food. eventually we had to move as the wind increased significantly in speed.
Solar chargers
One of the significant developments in recent years has been the use of more electrical equipment whilst out on trips but the current range of solar chargers means that keeping things topped up is pretty simple. All you need is sunshine.

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.

Heading to Ilulissat
On the final day of our 19 day trip we woke to calm conditions and limited ice so we made quick progress towards our final destination, 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.

Pakitsoq – sunshine and tide races

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.

Iceberg
After the winds of the day before it was a pleasure to paddle in such calm conditions.
Beach
Always a pleasant place to stop for lunch, the beach at Kugssuaq.
Washing hair
In addition to being an ideal lunch spot Kugssuaq is a great place to wash your hair.

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.

Pakitsoq
Looking into the narrows which lead into the inner part of Pakitsoq. It was just a matter of waiting for the tide to rise and the outgoing stream to slow down.
Pakitsoq
taken a couple of years ago this shows the quantity of moving water in the narrows

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.

Pakitsoq
This was the furthest we could paddle into Pakitsoq. The icecap wasn’t to far away. Wind blown deposits were gradually smothering the vegetation. This felt a very bleak spot.
Pakitsoq
Some of the group felt the inner parts of Pakitsoq to be claustrophobic and felt happier as we headed back towards more open water.
Pakitsoq
There is always a desire to climb to the top of the island and this was no exception. Great views alround. Note everybody is wearing Crocs the perfect footwear for kayaking in the Arctic.
Pakitsoq
Paddling away from one of the islands inside Pakitsoq. The water is coloured by the small particles which have been carried into the bay by the glacial meltwater streams.

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.

Camping
Just inside and on the southern shore of Pakitsup ilordlia is a perfect camping spot. Great views and no worrying about icebergs, because there aren’t any.

Tall cliffs and Arctic Foxes

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.

High cliffs
At first the cliffs were more like slabs, but still 1,000 feet high.
Bergs
Although we had come to paddle the cliffs we still had a few bergs to navigate around

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.

High cliffs
The kayaker gives some idea of the scale of the cliffs
High cliffs
Approaching the highest point of the cliffs, around 2,000 feet high
High cliffs
Moving offshore the true scale of the cliffs becomes apparent

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.

Arctic Fox
This fox was quite happy sitting close by and scratching himself
Arctic Fox
The fox was close I had to move back so that the camera could focus.

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.

Sitting on the rocks
The sun might be shining but it was still a cold evening meal.

Grey skies and blue seas

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.

Low cloud
As we set off from Agpat there was very little colour in the landscape.

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.

Kayak
Louis looking as if he might have left his kayak behind. The slight chop was produced by a following wind so we made excellent progress south.
Rachel and berg
As we paddled south there were a few small icebergs but they didn”t really pose a challenge to navigation.

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.

Beach
This probably the best landing on the west coast of Arve Prinsens Ejland. Gently shelving beach, a swift flowing stream and a good campsite.
Glacial features
Walking up the valley behind the camp site allowed us to see a whole range of glacial features.

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.

Evening meal
The rocky slabs are a great place for lunches and evening meals. Easy to land on and generally with less insects.
Whale
A whale surfacing in the bay, it provided a real distraction to the evening meal.
Breaching whale
The whale was feeding so it kept breaching mouth first. A really spectacular sight.

Arve Prinsens Ejland – West Coast

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.

Brunnich's Guillemots
We were heading towards these cliffs to see Brunnich’s Guillemots although there were thousands of birds of different 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.

Cod
Cod on the open fire within minutes having been caught. Delicious.

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.

Agpat
Looking at the main buildings of the village from offshore.
School house
Some evidence of the use of the building. The cheque is dated February 1985 and some of the graffiti is dated 2004.
Cairn
Angus and Kate at the high point on the island. I always wonder about the history of such a large and significant landmark. Looking at the lichen’s growing on the rocks we assumed it was pretty old.