Greenland: A Polar Narnia

Kate Waite

17 Oct 2018

NWS Kate's reflections on her first voyage to Greenland

Greenland is Svalbard on steroids. A gateway to a polar Narnia. Its scale is incomprehensible; rugged, wild and vast. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to explore it on a journey exploring the vast Scoresby Sund fjord system.

Day 1

After a grey day the M/S Freya is bathed in light as we board and set sail for Greenland. During dinner our guides tell us stories of what we might find ahead as we start our passage across the Denmark Strait; we are heading into the vast wilderness of Scoresby Sund, a world of towering cliffs, vast icebergs striated with sediment, and the silence of being alone in the world, away from civilisation.

Our expedition team are excited. Hadleigh has travelled extensively around the polar regions, a career that followed stints of working or studying fine art, medical genetics and stockbrokerage; he switches to Mandarin, revealing he spent time in Beijing. Yet it is East Greenland that ignites him, and his passion for the part of the world we are journeying to is contagious.

Dinner discussions are interrupted as a call from the bridge goes out. We are surrounded by a pod of dolphins putting on an acrobatic display and our plates are abandoned.

Outside it gets better; gannets are riding the waves to the port, dolphins are leaping high out of the water to the stern and humpback whales are at the front showing off their beautiful tails as they fluke close to the boat. Beautiful light on the mountains behind us completes the 360-degree show the natural world is putting on for us tonight.

Day 2

Waking I find that the gentle motion of the ship has rocked me into another world. Thick fog envelops us, we are alone in the world in our own little bubble, the sea dead calm. Today is a day at sea for safety briefings and planning.

Most trips barely scratch the surface of the vast Scoresby Sund network; this huge fjord system is around 75% of the size of Iceland. Deep within its mysterious waterways are landing sites our expedition leader Beau describes as being of myth and folklore that even he hasn’t visited, with most expeditions only having the time to visit the better-known landings nearer the entrance of the fiord. We listen to plans and pore over maps. We talk about hiking, although there are no paths. This is true wilderness.

Early evening we finally see land. The dense fog we have journeyed through remains with us, ribbons of grey shrouding the view. We scout for bears unsuccessfully, hampered by lack of visibility. There is a fleeting glimpse as one disappears up a gully, but the fog is hiding them from us today. We have yet to reach the mouth of Scoresby Sund, so motor on in anticipation of clearer skies in the morning.

Day 3

We awake to the gentle crashing of ice as the Freya navigates a frozen channel. Dark basalt cliffs 1,800m high plunging into the sea, mountains striated with snow in every direction we turn. A bear is spotted high on the mountainside, and then another is spotted, asleep on the shoreline.

We launch into zodiacs and stealthily creep toward it, silent. Nobody dares speak. We get close and he awakes but is unfazed, getting up for a walk along the shore, the sheer cliff face behind him a geometric backdrop. He enters the water and swims towards us; we furiously click at our cameras. He changes course and gradually heads away from us. It’s considered lucky if you see bears in Greenland and even luckier to see them with the naked eye. This has been an exceptional encounter; even our expedition leader is shaking at the excitement of such a close and prolonged experience with a bear in this part of the world.

We’d only just finished lunch before being told to get back to the zodiacs; another bear was on the fast ice in front of us. Cruising quietly past the jagged, towering, black basalt teeth alongside us we reached the pack ice of Viking Fjord. Seals were scattered across the ice; one popped his head up through a breathing hole as we sat and watched. Ahead a male polar bear lumbered across the ice. We were of no interest to him as he journeyed through his frozen world.

Day 4

Some of us were out on deck at 03:30 this morning; while there is 24/7 daylight the sun does dip, giving a sunrise and sunset, just without the inky darkness of night in between. Monolithic icebergs were lit up by the early-morning sun, the ambience switching from moody blue to glowing white as we passed through the channel running between the towering mountains.

Later we make our first landing. Mountains reach above us 2,100m high, their lower slopes covered in creeping plants dotted with flowers, gullies of water snaking down their sides. We climb up, slowly approaching muskox who are skittish, eyeing us up and keeping their distance as they graze. Below us the bay is spectacular; huge ice sculptures blown in towards the beach and floating on the milky turquoise sea, our ship a tiny dot on the scene below. Again we are reminded of the vast scale of the landscape we are in.

We relocate and one of our guides takes us back in time. In a small bay in an upper northwest fjord the desolate and raw hillside is scattered with a wealth of ancient remains; there is a strong sense of human history here. We pause at several Thule winter houses, perhaps 500-800 years old. There are various tools and artifacts scattered around.

As I crouch at a burial mound a nearby glacier calves, sounding like thunder. I’m staring straight at a human skull.

There has never been an archaeological dig here. Very few know of the site, and even fewer have had the opportunity to visit it. We are privileged.

After a BBQ on deck we headed out for the third time today at 22:00, to watch the sunset over the glacier at the end of the largest fjord in the world.

Day 5

Having viewed the glacier at sunset yesterday, today we decided to try and reach it. 336km from the entrance to Scoresby Sund, miles away from any other ship let alone civilisation. This is not a place people visit. It’s breathtaking and vast. I’ve been to both Svalbard and Antarctica but I’ve never felt such a raw beauty as this place. The Captain announces we are at the end of the world; we shut off the engines and float with the ice popping, cracking and thundering around us. In the Captain’s words, this is not a cruise, it’s an adventure; both for passengers and crew.

After lunch we are in uncharted territory; literally. We are pushing into a fjord in the far northwest where no commercial vessel and no tourists have ever been.

“It’s just a crazy bunch of Homo sapiens in this fjord, nobody else for many many kilometres,” states our Captain as we creep down this unnamed branch at the furthest reaches of Scoresby Sund. We are here to lay claim to it; Freya Fjord, named after our ship. There is no information about this branch and the Captain keeps an eye on the depth as we edge forward. Just us and the ice. Even in Antarctica you may see other ships and evidence of other tourists through the tracks left behind in the snow. Here we are in a place that nobody else has even been to, only accessible in a small ship with a spirited Captain keen to explore.

Later we are just heading to bed when muskox are spotted on shore. We move out on zodiacs just after midnight, creeping up silently. It never gets dark but the light is low as we watch them graze. We land on a beach and in silence climb the steep hillside, lying on the hard rock. They peek over the ridge at us before slowly moving away, undisturbed by our presence.

Day 6

The sky was striated in reds and oranges around 2:30am this morning. While it never gets fully dark (I haven’t needed to turn the light on in my cabin at all), there is a sunrise and sunset. Alone on deck I watch the colours streak across the sky as the Freya journeys to our next location.

This morning we land on a small island. It is one of, if not the most beautiful, places I have been. Covered in vegetation and dwarf birch, there are small clumps of wildflowers everywhere – blues, pinks, yellows, reds. Some of us opt to climb a steep hill, taking about an hour to reach our highest point. It’s surprisingly warm in the sun and the route is more technical than anticipated – we are using hands as well as feet as we scramble to the top. Below, stretched out as far as the eye can see, is a vast ice field. Huge monolithic icebergs in a 360-degree view; the scale is immense.

Returning to the shore we encounter an Arctic fox, quickly darting out of view. Exceptionally well-preserved examples of Thule winter houses are found on the slopes near the beach, while stone rings from their summer camps are evident near our landing site. This is a remarkable place.

The afternoon is spent cruising down a fjord; having made it so far north we have a lot of ground to cover. It’s a stunning journey once again.

Late evening we head to shore to find muskox. We split into two groups and soon find ourselves scrambling up a steep hill, carefully stalking a group of grazing muskox. We keep downwind and with a slow approach get close. They snort and graze, bathed in evening light, unperturbed by our presence. It’s a great encounter.

Day 7

We landed alongside a glacier this morning, walking up the steep hill to the top of the ridge where the glacier made its way down alongside us, huge folds of pressurised ice crushed and twisted as it slowly edges down to the sea. We return to our zodiacs and cruise along the face of the glacier, the ice cracking and thundering from the pressures within.

Later we land at Red Island, on a soft pink beach; it's rosy, powdery sand looks like something out of a fantasy. We climb the red sandstone hill, glowing in the evening sun to a lookout point over an iceberg graveyard. Frozen monoliths choking up the narrow channel in this vast landscape; the scale is overwhelming.

Day 8

I was woken by a knock at the door; there is a mother polar bear and her cubs out on the ice. I grabbed my camera, which was set up ready to go, and headed out. A little distance in front of the ship was a polar bear with her two cubs feasting on a seal kill. The family group were a little way off but visible to the naked eye. We watched them feed on the seal before the mother nursed her cubs. They wandered along the ice, the cubs playing. The mother was curious and stood on her hind legs to get a better look but never came any closer, keeping her distance before plunging into the water and swimming away, ushering her cubs into the hills behind the fast ice to sleep off their meal while we went in search of ours.

We spent the rest of the day exploring the ice along the shore, spotting multiple bears. Bears high on mountains making their way along sheer sides, just white dots against dark moraine. Another bear seemed to be joyfully sliding in the snow down a steep hillside leaving a sled-like trail behind him, while we spotted other bears sleeping on the fast ice. As the day drew to an end the sky turned a rose pink, casting a beautiful light over the icebergs, turning both them and the surface of the water gold; a scene impossible to fully capture on camera, just a moment in time etched on the memory forever.

Day 9

Our journey reaching its end, we found ourselves back near the entrance to Scorseby Sund this morning and back to civilisation of sorts. The town of Ittoqqortoormiit is home to fewer than 400 people and we had permission to land and explore this small settlement, so far from anywhere else.

Back on the Freya we set sail for open seas once more, slipping into the waters of the Denmark Strait to start our journey back to Iceland. Numerous whales were spotted from the deck of the ship; humpback, fin and pilot whales passing by as the rugged coast of Greenland and black basalt mountains that so resembled teeth disappeared from sight, but not from memory.

Epilogue

Tidying up my trip notes almost two months later my memories and overwhelming love for Greenland haven’t been dulled by time nor other trips (I’ve been to five different countries since returning). It doesn’t compare to Antarctica or Svalbard; it’s incredibly different despite combining features of both. As a destination it brings together everything I love in one place; true remoteness, rugged wilderness on an incomprehensible scale, a frozen landscape dominated by ice and beautiful wildlife living in a tough environment. It’s a place I have a feeling I will return to many times.

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