Cold Country Cruising [65]

Soft Paddles Above The Arctic Circle

By Terence Uren

In August this year, a group of Canberra-based paddlers travelled to Longyearbyen in Norway’s Svalbard Archipelago where they boarded the Russian ship Polar Pioneer.

Using the ship as a base, they spent two weeks paddling on the west coast of Spitsbergen and the east coast of Greenland before disembarking in Iceland.

Thursday 17 August

Longyearbyen

Longyearbyen (78°13’N) is everything you’d expect of an Arctic frontier town – lots of mud, not many women, six gun shops and a glacier at the end of the main street.

It’s after 10pm before our port authority clearances are completed and we can head out into Isfjorden. As Polar Pioneer cruises south to Bellsund, we are fitted for the bulky and uncomfortable dry suits that will be our hypothermia barriers for the next two weeks.

Friday 18 August

Bellsund/Bamsebu

The day starts with the thrill of our first polar bear sighting – a fully grown adult male, loping along the shoreline at a reasonable pace. His presence means that our first paddle will be along the opposite shore in the opposite direction. Our kayaks (a mix of Prijon “Expedition” doubles and “Seayak” singles) are lowered to the water from the ship’s third deck and entered via a rope ladder and attendant Zodiac – a reasonable challenge in this morning’s lumpy sea. We spend a couple of hours becoming familiar with the kayaks and getting a feel for how many layers of clothing we need to keep warm.

Paddling is at first slow and noisy through brash ice but once into open water we move more quickly and quietly and get a better look at some of the ringed seals that are keen to check us out. We paddle past our first glacier. Its face has been shaped by glacial melt and is smooth and marble-like, coloured from white to blue and grained in places with moraine silt. At times, wind against tide produces small standing waves that break over the front deck and give our faces a good feel for just how cold the water is.

In the afternoon we cruise to nearby Bamsebu, a site of significant whaling activity until about 1970. On the beach are eleven heaps of bones, each representing a season’s catch and containing the remains of an estimated 5000 beluga whales. Nearby is the rotting carcase of a beached juvenile sperm whale, where polar bears were seen feeding a few days earlier. The bears are still there but they have obviously had their fill. They are sleeping it off on the hills to the back of the beach and the carcase has been handed over to those lower down the food chain – glaucous gulls, ivory gulls, fulmars and kittywakes.

Saturday 19 August

NyLondon/Krossfjorden

The chart shows NyLondon as a prominent knob of land connected to the rest of Spitsbergen by a narrow ice bridge but there is speculation that glacial retreat has turned it into an island. Even though it is snowing, it doesn’t take much to convince us to attempt a circumnavigation. The first few kilometres throw up caves to paddle into, arches to paddle under and rock gardens to paddle through. Our enthusiasm is only tempered by the need to be alert to possible polar bear ambush points. No sightings, fortunately, but plenty of other land mammals, including a couple of Arctic fox cubs nipping the heels of a small herd of Svalbard reindeer. At about the two hour mark, we confirm that NyLondon is an island. The face of the retreating glacier that had once connected it to the main island is a steep, jumbled confusion of crags and crevasses. The adjacent peaks are lightly dusted with fresh snow and crowned with mist. It’s stirring stuff and hard not to be moved.

Over lunch, Polar Pioneer moves around the corner to Krossfjorden and the afternoon is spent in a gentle paddle along the fjord’s sea cliffs. Every cliff ledge is crammed with guillemots, fulmars, Atlantic puffins, glaucous gulls or kittiwakes, and bearded seals occupy many of the fjord’s ice floes. It’s the sort of wildlife encounter you never want to end but it’s cold, windy and raining and by around 4pm we are chilled through and happy to return to the ship. Once on board, we set sail for Greenland.

Sunday 20 August

At sea

A day for sleeping, eating and reading and simply standing on the bridge watching the world go by. Lots of glaucous gulls, fulmars, puffins and auks; a pod of Minke whales; two Fin whale sightings; our first encounter with serious sea ice; the crossing of 0o longitude; and our last day on which the sun does not set.

Monday 21 August

At sea

Zero degrees, zero wind, zero visibility. Slow progress with a dogleg change of course to avoid heavier than expected pack ice. Our expected time of arrival at Eskimonaes in East Greenland has slipped from late afternoon to early tomorrow morning. By the middle of the day, even this is looking unlikely. Our speed drops from 10 knots to 2 knots as the helmsman looks for leads through the ice or steadies us to crash through the larger floes that block our way. Painstaking stuff but fascinating to watch and much time is spent on deck sucking it in. Eventually the mist lifts and there are dramatic afternoon ice haloes off the starboard side of the ship.

Tuesday 22 August

At sea/Myggebugten

A long projecting tongue of dense pack ice has forced Polar Pioneer to head south east rather than west for much of the night and we are now further from East Greenland than we were when we went to bed. The ice in front of us is small and brashy, although the ship’s radar shows dense pack to the north west. Our course for Eskimonaes is abandoned and we head for the mouth of Kaiser Franz Josef Fjord instead. We finally sight land around 6pm and gobble down a quick meal before setting off for a three hour paddle. We’re grumpy and irritable after three days of overeating and underexercising and the landfall at Myggebugten (Mosquito Bay) is less than inspiring – a jetsam-littered moraine flat reached through thick sea fog that keeps the views close.

Wednesday 23 August

Kaiser Franz Josef Fjord

Fabulous, fabulous day. Not quite perfect, for the cloud hangs low and obscures the peaks that the chart shows rise to around 2300m within a couple of kilometres of the shoreline. We paddle with a lot more purpose and a much improved rhythm.

The morning is an out-and-back paddle from Blomsterbugden (Flower Bay) with numerous musk ox sightings and plenty of ice bergs. There are lumps the size of office buildings, aircraft hangers and city blocks. One tabular berg is longer than an aircraft landing strip.

The afternoon is a one-way paddle from Nanortalik. It’s my turn for a single kayak and great to paddle at my own cadence for a change. While the others follow the shoreline, I power down the middle of Antarctic Sund in benign conditions with a light tail wind. The cloud begins to lift and the tops of the peaks on Geographical Society Island are clearly visible. After about three hours, we regroup and radio the ship for a mid-fjord pickup.

Thursday 24 August

Kong Oscar Fjord (Alpenfjord)

Weather is bleak with low clouds and fresh snow on the fjord slopes. It’s raining at sea level and, when we rise at 6am, the wind is already over 10 knots. There’s a reasonable chop running by the time we launch and we take on a bit of water getting into the kayaks. Nothing like starting the day sitting in a puddle of iced water! The wind is behind us for the first half of the paddle and we drift past the face of a small but active glacier, only really needing to paddle when we can’t avoid the brash ice. We keep well back from the obviously unstable face but the only activity in the area is the unexpected tipping of a small floe. The return leg is a real slog. The wind is around 20 knots with a steep close chop. The body is warm but the hands are wet and freezing and we all cop facefuls of spray. We take regular breaks by rafting up in the lee of small bergs, moraine islands and rocky promontories whenever we can but are exhausted by the time we scramble up the rope ladder at the end of the paddle.

Friday 25 August

Ittoqqortoormiit

No kayaking today as we take time out to visit the Inuit community of Ittoqqortoormiit, East Greenland’s most northerly settlement. From the water it’s an attractive place but close up there’s evidence of many of the problems endemic to small isolated communities – boredom, high unemployment, substance abuse and the loss of the community’s best and brightest to more attractive and vibrant places. For those who cling to a traditional way of life, the hunting is good. Ringed seals and walruses winter here; polar bears pass through in spring; and lesser rorqual, harp seals, hooded seals and narwhales are plentiful in summer. Most of the land hunting is still done with dog sleds and one of the more positive memories I take away is of the obvious pride with which some of the town’s young men show their dog teams to us. Open water hunting though is now done from power boats and the community’s only kayak hangs on a wall in the town museum.

Saturday 26 August

Harefjord

No wind, clear skies, 3oC. Hats and gloves can be tucked in the day hatches. The back side of Harefjord’s Rode Ø (Red Island) is where the ice bergs park and the parking lot is full. At times we glide through still water but often it’s hard work as we push through the brash debris of an active berg field. It’s not always possible to keep as far from these monsters as we’d like and there are ominous cracks and thunderings as ice drops into the water somewhere behind us. Suddenly we are in the midst of it all. One of the bergs drops tonnes of ice. The resulting wave passes underneath us to collide with another berg, leading to another ice drop, another wave, another collision and another drop. The spectacular chain reaction has us all gobsmacked. A couple of the taller bergs start tilting, rocking backwards and forwards to expose ice shelves that generate more waves and more ice falls. It takes about thirty minutes before some sort of equilibrium is reached and the show ends.

The afternoon is equally satisfying. No showy calvings but plenty of time to take in the landscape’s subtle detail – the grey-green hues of the moraine slopes; the rust reds of the sandstone gullies; and the ochres, olives, ambers and bronzes of the tundra. We paddle to a small silt delta a couple of kilometres from the ship and climb to an Inuit archaeological site – a ring of stones that would have been used to weight the perimeter of a summer camp’s skin tent. The camp was probably last used in the 17th century, although on such a sunny, still afternoon it’s hard to imagine why anyone would want to move on from this beautiful, beautiful valley.

Sunday 27 August

Scoresby Sund (Bjorne Øer)

Another day where too many superlatives are barely enough. An overcast beginning but no wind and plenty of sun from mid-morning onwards. We spend the day exploring Bjorne Øer (Bear Islands), a group of twelve large and a similar number of smaller islands at the northern end of Scoresby Sund. Most of the islands are low lying but a couple of the longer narrower ones rise steeply to 600m high razorback ridges. The backdrop to all this is the snow covered ranges of Renland and Milne Land, which rise to over 2200m, and the big bergs of Scoresby Sund, some of them more than a kilometre long and sculpted into the most bizarre and fanciful shapes. It is a paddle of great contrasts. Often we are tightly confined, aware only of the closest islands, at other times we are awed by towering cliffs of Renland or exposed to the open water of Scoresby Sund. Thanks to the wonder that is Global Positioning, we rendezvous successfully with Polar Pioneer on this open water and are plucked from the sea to hot showers and warm beds.

Monday 28 August

Rømer Fjord

Last paddle of the trip, at the end of which we will stow the kayaks in the ship’s hold in preparation for a roughish crossing of the Denmark Strait on our way to Kevlavik.

After the vastness of Scoresby Sund (38,000km2 and 50km wide in places), Rømer Fjord is a minor dent in the coastline with no glaciers, not much ice and its fringing peaks too low to hold snow at this time of year. As we paddle to some modest thermal springs, loose talk about how much fun it would be to finish with a celebratory roll somehow turns into a commitment to provide a rolling demonstration for the ship’s company. The risk of failure is high with a large audience, an unfamiliar kayak and the possibility of panic on hitting the cold water. Fortunately, it all comes together and I’m absolutely delighted to join the elite group of paddlers who have successfully rolled a kayak north of the Arctic Circle. As best I can determine, there is no record of anyone having rolled both north of the Arctic and south of the Antarctic Circle so the challenge now is to become possibly the world’s first bi-polar roller.

As we cruise out of Rømer Fjord, we end as we began – with a polar bear sighting. This time it’s a female and two cubs feeding on fresh kill. We head for Iceland overwhelmed by the way we have been utterly charmed by the Arctic.

The total distance paddled was around 150km. The longest single paddle was around 30km.

Polar Pioneer is chartered by Aurora Expeditons for a small number of trips in the High Arctic each year. Up to 12 places on each trip are reserved for sea kayakers. For more information, visit www.auroraexpeditions.com.au.

Kayak guide, kayaks and kayaking equipment were provided by Southern Sea Ventures. For more information, visit www.southernseaventures.com.

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