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.
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.
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.
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.
The last but one day on my trips in Disko Bay have always been memorable because the distances have always been short, there is the chance for a few pleasant snacks at lunch time and the evening meal is in one of the nicest restaurants I know, anywhere. The H8.
I really enjoy the drop in pace, it allows you to adjust gradually back into “normal” life following several weeks out in the field. Rodebay a small village, to the north of Ilulissat, was the focus of today’s activities with lunch purchased at the shop and the evening meal taken in the restaurant. It was really nice to be joined by Kampe who made the journey north from Ilulissat, in the evening, in his small boat.
Late in the evening we sat on the slabs, just to the south of the village, trying to come to terms with the awe inspiring view across Disko Bay, to the west, whilst realizing that this was likely to be our last night in the wilderness for some time. This was a time to savour the experiences, as opposed to rush back to the “delights” of Ilulissat at full speed.
Paddling towards Rodebay in almost perfect conditions. We just needed to hope that the restaurant was taking bookings!
I have always tended to use this narrow inlet on the southern side of town. Landing was always slightly spoilt by the large quantities of broken glass which littered the beach.
Toby in front of the kayaks. The village shop is visible behind.
The buildings in the village are quite spread out, it is alwaysquite pleasant to wander around the village whilst taking in the superb views to the west.
Eric made friends with the local wildlife.
He was quite a delightful dog who seemed quite happy to pass the afternoon in our company.
Every now and again whilst walking around the villages you will across some surprising discoveries which provide a link to the past.
Kampe joined us for the meal in the evening. Coming up from Ilulissat in his trusty boat.
Camp site just to the south of Rodebay.
After a meal at the H8 restaurant it is always an emotional moment sitting on the slabs looking out across Disko Bay, knowing that this will be your last night in the wilderness for quite some time.