Chasing the Midnight Sun [30]

By Larry Gray

Pittarak is a familiar word in these columns. Norm Sanders is always (half) joking about Pittaraks nearly killing him. But how many of you know that it took a near-death experience to create the kayak in the first place?

In 1986, I completed an expedition to Greenland, an experience so powerful that it remains with me today. I nearly lost my life three times in two weeks. The first in an iceberg avalanche when I was trapped under a sheet of ice blocks with only a single breath. I managed to escape only with cuts and bruises and had just a handful of nuts and sultanas a day to eat, no stove and only a busted tent for shelter. The third time our large steel ketch was bowled over , after being b low n sideways for (42 hours in 280 kilometres of wind. The captain cracked his back, we had no power, sail, rudder or VHF radio, and the ocean was in a fury. In the darkness of night, the yacht felt like a floating chapel with all the silent praying going on.

Strange things emerge from disaster. When I got home, I had this overpowering urge to design a kayak that would handle the most severe conditions an ocean can spit out. I could think of no better name for it than the wind I had experienced. Over there it’s known as Piteraq. I Australianised the spelling but the name pays homage to this extraordinary phenomena.

Imagine a warm wind that drops off the ice cap, roars around 280 km/h, can last up to a week or more, yet is localised to only 20 kilometres off shore. To a kayak hunter this was absolutely terrifying. Driven by desperation to kill a whale, narwhal or a seal of two, they often spent 72 hours in the ocean in one sitting. They would read sky signs to determine when the wind was coming. Life’s so on the edge there that if a hunter never returned his wife would fling the children off a cliff one at a time, then herself. This was less cruel than watching them starve, freeze then die.

These stories are still very close to the locals. I made an instant friend with a man named Dikker. He comes from a lineage of great kayakers, the most reputable hunter and skilful kayakers known on the east coast. He taught me how to recognise the sky patterns to predetermine this wind. He spoke of the many names and qualities of ice. I still don’t fully understand but I remember mostly what directly related to me for the kayak journey we were about to undertake. It was a risky winter dash of 1200 km, days shortening noticeably, fjord and ocean freezing up around us as we travelled south as quickly as the sudden arctic storms which appeared from nowhere .

That expedition left me with an indelible, impression of the Arctic. So imagine how I felt as I departed once more last year -10 years on – knowing this time most of my kayaking would be solo. The purpose of the second journey was to make a film of Eric Philips and Ben Galbraith crossing the ice-cap. My partner, Mary, and I named this Chasing he Midnight Sun. I was to be the guide down the coast to a glacier called Bugbear Bank. Wade Fairley was the cameraman, Mary the co-producer and co-ordinator and Michael Balson the director.

Once the crossing was underway, my mission was to access stories to cut into the overall pictur. So I set out on a series of small expeditions. Being alone in the arctic, especially East Coast Greenland, is overwhelmingly scary, dramatic, historic – all those plus more. I can hardly describe such a s sensation. Humbled by absolute silence in a huge visual landscape. Then the sudden cracking roar of a collapsing iceberg. By 3pm, the fog pours over valleys between enormous rocky mountains, spilling sometimes hundreds of metres vertically into fjords.

There’s no escape, no beaches, only questionable rock landings once in a while. Most passages are totally committing and it’s very easy to mistake one fjord for another. Icebergs obstruct most line-of-sight landmarks and mysteriously shift position. They are like rudderless ships adrift. Thus a sense of, humbled pride, knowing that for 4,000 rears the Inuit masters must have travelled exactly through these routes. many lost their lives yet all of them were better kayakers; than we will ever imagine.

That was obvious to me on arrival at Isortoq, a village huddled on a pile of boulders. A local pulled out his seal-skin kayak. We couldn’t speak but we communicated through kayak language. People gathered around – hunters, huskies, kids everywhere. I thought if this were a competition I didn’t want to be involved! It turned out to be more of a comparison of skills. We were both scared of each other’s paddles as we swapped and changed. He rolled – then I would follow.

The first thought was “Oh Christ. this water is cold.” It felt like a steel band tightening around my forehead. Then he’d apply another type of roll. Even with my thermals and very best dry top jacket and shortie wet-suit underneath I couldn’t compete with his sealskin anorak, gloves and hood combination. The deer sinews laced through the hood of his jacket adjustable with seal vertebrae out-stripped all modem Goretex gear. He was totally dry.

He levered his splashcover over the cockpit rim with a special tool made from bone, one of the many tools a Greenland kayaker carries. It took him 20 minutes to gear up before he even pushed off. The kayak fitted like a precision shoe. He couldn’t get out in less than two minutes. He couldn’t swim, he never learned. There’s no point. You are dead in minutes in these waters. I learnt two new rolls out of this session. I am told there are over 60 ways to roll a kayak. I know only 10 or so. These people learnt to kayak firstly through rope gymnastics, an arrangement of stretched dried seal gut and tendons to gain balance on dry land before venturing offshore.

I left Isortoq and travelled through tight ice the size of bricks, pancakes and kitchen-tables cubed. It’s amazing how easily a kayak just parts this and slips through. The clunks, banging, scraping and rattling scratched the gelcoat and hull of my kayak. I thought back to two days after I made my boat in Sydney. A fax arrived from Greenland Air, stating “Sorry, sorry, sorry but mistake. Your Pittarak won’t fit on the aircraft. It’s too long.” It meant I that 24 hours before departure I had to take to my new double-skin 18oz Kevlar Pittarak with a hacksaw and cut it in two. I quickly made a double bulkhead arrangement to bolt it together, sandwiched in silicone.

My biggest worry was that I hadn’t tested it, let alone rammed it through pack ice. As a benchtest, jumped on the overhanging nose on shore and applied all my weight at various angles. That seemed good enough and was all I had time for.

This Arctic summer was exceptional. Mostly sunny days with a crisp bite in the air. I’m constantly amazed by the clarity of vision caused by that monstrous ice cap constantly sucking the moisture out of the air. It’s so deceptive that you can see such minute detail in distant headlands. I ventured inland up Sermalik Fjord to film thick clusters of ice blocks. I mounted my lipstick camera to the hull of my boat, relaying to the main camera fixed in my cockpit. This meant I could see underwater as well as above. Convinced I had shot some good stuff, I headed back to a small village, Tinitiqilaq. Mary was waiting there for my arrival. We pitched the tent in an old rock winter hut, collapsed by a century of Arctic storms. That night we wandered into the village and we were surrounded by a mob of hunters – one trying desperately to buy Mary.As he tried to forcefully walk her off into the dark, he threw money over his shoulder in my direction. His mate had his face half ripped off, I presume by a nano or ice bear. What features he had were immobilised and incapable of any expression. These hunters had dried blood on their clothes from various kills during the summer days. It’s a town where guns, knives and spears are a day-to-day sight. I don’t know how we managed to dissuade his advances, as he threw still more money to me. By this time, that side of it was starting to look okay.

At another village another hunter wanted to swap a complete bear, minus the insides, for my kayak. The thought of a modern kayak with pump and made from fibreglass seemed to really excite him. Arriving back in Angmagssalik, our base, time had slipped on three months, just time for one last excursion. As I punched south down the coast, I sensed a mood change in the sea. There was an energy, an ominous and familiar feeling with echoes of 1986. Pittarak meets Piteraq?