Some Like it Cold: An East Greenland Expedition

Liz Stagg

27 Sep 2018

NWS client Liz recounts her experiences in remote East Greenland

I have always had a love of wild places, where I can feel the emptiness and the enormous scale of the landscapes. But until recent years, I travelled only to the mountains for my encounters with wildlife – the Himalayas, Patagonia, even the Simien Highlands of Ethiopia – or to the vast open plains of Sub-Saharan Africa.

That said, I am always looking for my next adventure, and a pioneering journey to explore a tiny bit of Greenland seemed sufficiently intrepid and wild. I loved the idea that I would be going on a “never been done before” voyage.

A motley collection of adventurers made their way to Akureyri in northern Iceland to board the M/S Freya and sail northwest, across the Denmark Strait toward the eastern shores of Greenland. We came from all four corners of the globe and shared a love of travel.

Through the mist and murk the Denmark Strait gave us a taste of the ocean swell and rocked me to sleep. Once across the strait, inside the fjords and cruising along the steep cliffs of Volquartboons Kyst, a shout of ‘polar bear’ went up, and we all rushed to don warm gear and climb into zodiacs to get a closer look.

The scale of Scoresby Sund is enormous, with tall cliffs cascading down to the sea, as well as glaciers – jagged and pitted with crevasses – which rumble and scrape their way to the water’s edge, and the ice cap which dominates the high horizon. I spent many hours up on the forecastle just watching in wonderment at the textures of rocks and icebergs. Your impression is of a predominantly blue, white and grey seascape, but then you take to zodiacs to land ashore and you suddenly appreciate the red rocks, soft green and orange lichens, and tiny purple alpine plants forging a life “on the edge”.

The journey was positioned as ‘Remote, Authentic, Wild’, and it was certainly that. It featured majestic, empty landscapes, untouched by modern man, with traces of historical Thule settlements showing how human beings carved out an existence, surviving by hunting Arctic fox, seals, muskox and polar bear, using every bit of the animal to make snow knives, spearheads, clothes and umiaks (open boats covered in seal or walrus skin).

I watched in awe as giant cliffs and glaciers went by; I thought they were close, but the clear air made them look so much closer – in fact they were miles away. We did zodiac cruises and landed on the shore to climb the hills in search of wildlife, artifacts, ruins and vistas.

Primarily the trip was about ‘big skies and wild landscapes’ and not about wildlife. Despite that we had some fantastic sightings, including:

  • Dolphins leaping in Iceland’s Eyjafjörður as we sailed away from civilisation
  • Puffins in flight, taking sand eels back to their chicks
  • Arctic skuas and gannets following the wake
  • A muskox family munching on dwarf willow
  • A male and female muskox, ambling along the ridge in the sunlight as we crawled through the scrub on all fours, hiding behind a large rock so as not to spook them
  • Humpback and fin whales doing deep dives
  • A barnacle goose, anxious to rejoin his mate, yelping across the valley
  • A laidback young male polar bear at the foot of the cliffs, who got into the water and swam towards us
  • A lone seal, swimming ahead of the zodiac
  • A red-throated diver with her two fluffy chicks in the late evening light, gliding across a ‘glacial tarn’ which looked as though Monet had painted it. (Our expedition leader Beau learned a new word – ‘tarn’ is a northern English word, used mostly in the Lake District). We were searching for muskox but this sighting touched me deeply.

  • A mother bear and her two cubs, devouring a seal on the pack ice. They entertained us for ages – one cub throwing a leftover piece of seal gut above him, just like a baby elephant does its trunk. One moment which will stay etched in my memory was when the cub launched his plaything into the air, pranced after it – not noticing the large breathing hole ahead – and disappeared into the “pond” in the pack ice. His mother looked back, seemingly with an expression of “boys will be boys”.

    A little while later the mother sat on her haunches, called to her cubs and they came to suckle her fat-rich milk. My photos are rubbish – the bears were so far away – but we took it in turns to observe their behaviour through the spotting scope, set up on the bow of the ship, parked silently at the edge of the pack ice.

Our captain Bengt and our three very knowledgeable guides – Beau, Hadleigh and Jens – were as excited as we were to venture into Scoresby Sund and to navigate further into the fjord system than any other commercial vessel had ever managed. We even christened an unnamed fjord in the most northerly and westerly reaches of the 350km-wide inlet ‘Freya Fjord’ after our plucky little ship.

I feel privileged to have journeyed aboard Freya into a wilderness of enormous beauty with intrepid adventurers – clients, crew, and our guides. Words and images don’t convey the magnitude of what we experienced, and I am left with the challenge: “Where next to top that?”



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