Saturday, December 18, 2010

Day 18 - sailing in the light of Sermitsiaq. Part II

I had seen a lot of Capelin during the previous weeks on the water and it was interesting to see them drying in Niaqornat. Quite often I came across a small island where Capelin were laid out to dry in the sun. You can only do that when there are no dogs around to eat them though!

The sledges were not needed much this winter as the sea ice never really came. I left my own sledge behind in Uummannaq as it could not come with us to Qaanaaq. There is something special about sledges waiting patiently for the ice to come each year, and something even more special in hearing the creak of the runners across the ice. These sledges were quite still despite the wind blowing through the netting.

I did not need to sleep on the school house floor as I pitched my tent on the black sands of Niaqornat's beaches instead. I did meet a colleague of mine in the settlement and enjoyed catching up on Nuka's news from the summer.

Hanging on this rack you can see Lumpsucker, the lighter fish drying on the left and what I think is shark meat drying on the right. The dried lumpsucker is pretty damn good ... tastes like chicken!

I didn't take many photos of people during the expedition as I really didn't want to intrude on people's lives. These two kids were some of the few exceptions. It was the mohawk that got me!

On the other hand, I took loads of photos of dogs and these two pups play-fighting caught my attention.

I didn't see any other kayaks on the water but my own. I think there were others around but no Greenlandic kayakers that I was aware of. Having now moved to Qaanaaq I can see how much the use of kayaks has become limited to recreation and competition in the Uummannaq area. It has been ten years or so for some hunters since they last caught a narwhal from a kayak in Uummannaq. In Qaanaaq, however, kayaks are lashed to boats and ready to be used whenever whales are sighted. They have to hunt from kayaks up here and it makes for a totally different role that the kayak plays in the more traditional hunting communities.

Musk oxen are pretty eh? And this one was pretty dead too!

Having parked the kayak I then moved all my gear over to one of the more amazing campsites I found during the expedition. Climbing up a thin, slippery, wooden staircase I walked up and over a little knoll before finding a black beach, all for myself.

As the rain continued and the wind blasted the waves and bergs into the shore I set up the tent and set about finding some ice for my coffee, food and water supply.

The waves had washed many bergy bits up onto the sand and it was a simple matter of collecting them to thaw out later.

Wet as it was I couldn't resist wandering up and down the beach, exploring. It was an overcast day and yet full of exciting sights and revelations, not least the area I was sleeping in. For once my tent was clean and I crawled in to sleep ... for quite some time.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Day 18 - sailing in the light of Sermitsiaq. Part I

From my diary:

I just realised, had I gone ahead with my original plan I would have met this weather in Illorsuit. I would have been severly screwed and stranded as no jolle (dinghy) would risk running me over to Niaqornat in this. I would also have been very committed to the crossing when the weather calmed down. Not good. Funny how fate/decisions/uncommon good luck play a role, for the good this time, in our lives. Thank god I made the decisions regarding the sat phone!

These thoughts were lazily drifting through my mind as we ploughed through, up and over the waves in the hotel boat sailing to Niaqornat. Arne had arranged for me to sail with the TeleGreenland charter and my boat and gear was stowed amongst their drills, rigging equipment and assorted strong-boxes. We sat inside and chatted while I wondered if I was indeed going to throw up any time soon. It was a little rough out.

Arriving in Niaqornat a few hours later, I couldn't have planned a better introduction. It wasn't all that normal for the TeleGreenland guys to unload a kayak so we started to draw a little attention. As the boat sailed away we started to haul gear around. As the helicopter had been cancelled due to the winds it seemed likely that all the gear, including new receiving dishes for the mast, would have to be man-hauled up the mountainside. I volunteered to help, it was the least I could do.

My first impressions of Niaqornat were thus obscured a little as I got involved with moving stuff. I was aware though that several fisherman were curious about my boat and they chatted around it before several of them agreed to help move stuff up the mountain. They were paid to do so.

On the way up to the mast one must first pass through the settlement cemetary. Although I can't imgaine how tough it would be to carry one's loved-one in a coffin up the side of a mountain, nor can I imagine a more beautiful resting place; close to nature and with a good view of whales, icebergs, and activity on the water and ice.

The mast was a little further up the hill. On reaching it I was given a wonderful bird's-eye-view of the settlement and could really begin to appreciate how different it was to any of the other settlements in Uummannaq. Click on the picture below to get a bigger image of Niaqornat!

The water on both sides of the settlement has previously caused problems with flooding, but it makes very interesting geography!

While the TeleGreenland crew worked on the mast I gave my thanks and left them to it. They were more than a bit concerned that I was going to paddle back through the weather and wanted me to consider coming back on the boat with them. I assured them i would give it some thought. Back in Niaqornat I chatted with three of the local fishermen. In my pidgin Greenlandic, amid a lot of smiles, we talked about the weather and my journey. They made it clear that it would not be smart to paddle and I wholeheartedly agreed. They suggested I could get a more recent weather update from the Post Office.

Here my Greenlandic was put to the test, or rather, my Greenlandic was interpreted, correctly, with a heavy dose of common sense thrown in. I introduced myself to the lady behind the counter and asked for a weather report. Instead of this, after a good deal of conversation that I didn't follow, I realised she was organising for me to sleep on the school house floor. Clearly, nobody thought I was going anywhere this day! The nice thing was that she was so very accommodating and had anticipated my needs.

At that moment a European woman entered the Post Office and we got talking. I just thought she must be a teacher but it turned out that she and her colleague were artists in residence spending a few months in Niaqornat. I was quickly invited in for coffee and made to feel very welcome. I was wondering over my very positive reception in Niaqornat and realised, on seeing the laptop in their house, that the Sermitsiaq article had been seen by more than a few people and I was "known" to be paddling in the area. Sabine and Malene were working with the medium of film and natural resources and it was very cosy to be drinking coffee out of the wind and rain surrounded by interesting art projects made of bones, seaweed, skulls and stones. It was also from the kitchen table in their house that I saw my first and only glimpse of a pod of whales swimming past the settlement. Malene's work can be seen here.

After a few hours of chatting I decided I had to make some decisions. With the offer of yet another floor to sleep on I returned to the weather to explore a bit more with my camera. I was bumping into kids I knew and hunters I had seen several times in Uummannaq. One guy was keen for me to move my kayak. He explained that the dogs would be able to get at it as long as it was on the ground, so he helped me heave it up onto the plastic fishing bins full of nets and gear. I was really pleased at the amount I was communicating and I began to feel very much at ease in Niaqornat, that and an overwhelming sense of the expedition finally coming to life and achieving the goals I had hoped for. Here I was, conversing purely in Greenlandic, being understood and, more to the point, being helped by the locals.

As I wandered about the settlement I found the usual hunting and fishing paraphernalia and yet I looked at the sledges and nets, outboards and buoys with fresh eyes. The down-time in Uummannaq had done me good and the lift up to Niaqornat had lifted the weight of "timing" from my mind. I could afford to spend a few days in the settlement, giving the weather time to blow itself out.

Like all the other settlements there are plenty of Greenlandic dogs dotted about the place. One unfortunate puppy had been enjoying a carton of tomato juice stolen from the dump. He had his head so far into it that he could not pull it off. Muffled cries of distress could be heard as he bumped into oil drums and stuff in his desperation. I took hold of the carton and pulled it off his head, not realising just how tight it was his whole body lifted a foot off the ground before he promptly returned to earth, free of his ketchupy burden.

Still chuckling I spent the next few hours sitting on the beach cracking open stones in my search for fossils.

Yeah, life was good.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Day 17 - windbound!

Hanging around in Uummannaq I spent some quality time with different people that I knew from work, not least Makkak and Sammu.  Invited for pre-holidays kaffemik (a Greenlandic party to celebrate birthdays, confirmations, weddings and other things) I quickly accepted knowing that the brilliant cakes and coffee would prepare me for the next leg of the expedition.  Between coffees, Saamu told me that I was in Sermitsiaq, one of two national newspapers in Greenland.  A journalist had seemingly found the expedition Facebook page and published an article on Sermitsiaq's web page.  Curious, I checked it out on the internet.  It was interesting that they focused on my change of plans - a tiny bit of drama perhaps - but little did I realise how much this one article was going to change the shape of the expedition from that point on.

The following day, the 12th of July, I found myself in familiar surroundings, Hr. Mortensen's café, psyching myself up with a hot meal before paddling off towards Qaarsut, the next settlement on my journey.  I took the time to write in my journal while the Philipino and Thai staff served the basic meal of the day.  Hr. Mortensens is a popular place to eat for fisherman etc..  I'd eaten here many times before and after finishing yet another coffee, decided I couldn't delay any longer.

Having repacked and streamlined the boat I set off for what I thought would be a straightforward crossing.  Sure, it was a bit breezy but only when I poked my nose out beyond the point of Spraglebugten did I get hit with the full force of the wind and start to encounter interesting waves.  For 35 minutes I battled against the wind heading for the shelter of Uummannaq harbour.  It was a bouncy and wet paddle to say the least.  The Folbot Kodiak handled it well, as usual, and I pulled into the harbour to be met by Arne of Hotel Uummannaq, a little surprised to see me return so soon - the waves and wind were almost non-existent inside the harbour.

Arne mentioned that his boat was being chartered to Niaqornat early the following morning and that I could hitch a lift.  It would mean leapfrogging Qaarsut and going straight to my ultimate destination: the settlement of Niaqornat.  It sounded like a good plan, and would be as if I had arrived from Illorsuit - as per my original intention.

Things were turning out well and as the wind picked up I was hearing reports of friends who had also dropped Illorsuit from their itinerary due to bad weather - and they were in boats.  I could risk being stuck in Niaqornat for a few days, but it was a risk worth taking - of all the settlements in Uummannaq fjord, Niaqornat was the only one I had never visited.

Having packed everything I quickly needed a place to sleep and was very grateful to sleep in a real bed in Birthe's guest room.  Birthe, a colleague of Jane's at the hospital, had been following the expedition with interest and it was great to chat over even more coffee and shower one last time!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Anonymous wrote ...

Your claim: The expedition will focus on Greenlandic culture and nature

I find this to be an extremely boring and self-serving expedition. Can't believe you got sponsored for this, can't believe that you have been living in Greenland, yet you provide practically no cultural background on the towns, and certainly nothing on the 'nature' you encounter. Surely you could do some research before embarking, so that you might have a grasp of the most fundamental natural history of the area. I didn't learn a thing from your blog. You don't even know a Dwarf Fireweed, the ubiquitous pink flower? 

Dear Anonymous

I appreciate your comment.  I have, in fact, considered the same points you have raised in the course of writing the blog.  I have published your comment but have also chosen to address it in this post.
I had high hopes for the expedition.  I intended to delve into the culture of Greenland and explore the nature but in many respects I failed to do so, greatly in the eyes of some including yourself.  Throughout the course of writing entries for this blog I have noticed a difficulty in defining the expedition.  At various times I use the words “journey” or “trip” instead.  The word “expedition” always seemed rather too grand for what I was undertaking and yet, given the egotistical nature of the outdoor explorer, I was keen to call it what I hoped it was and thus the expedition was born.

Benedict Alan once said that if you want to look around the corner then you are an explorer.  He said it better than I have written it, but by that definition I was exploring, both the area and my own self.  I would never compare myself to Benedict Alan but I have been inspired by his sense of exploration.  Once again my ego took over and the “expedition” became a personal journey, a test to see if I could cope out there on my own and come back safely.  I did that, and this weblog is the diary of that personal journey.  It is not an expedition report, nor is it particularly factual.  The diary is written from a personal point of view and, lacking a deeper scientific background or interest, flowers are pretty, sand is soft to sleep on and the wildlife is engaging, whatever its scientific or common name.

Regarding the exploration of the culture, just as I am no scientist, nor am I an anthropologist.  As the expedition developed I also realised that I was more or less a tourist with relatively little access to life in the settlements, no more so than what a real tourist might have.  However, living and working in Uummannaq placed me in another position, that of resident.  Whereas an anthropologist might be more willing to write about the people and its culture from an objective standpoint, I felt I was less in a position to do so as I knew many of the people I met, or had at least taught their children or relatives.  I did not want to change that relationship and become an observer when I had otherwise been accepted into the community.  For the same reason there are very few pictures of people.  By rights, and I am glad you brought attention to this point, I should change the expedition goals.  I did, however, enjoy trying to speak Greenlandic whenever the opportunity presented itself.

In terms of sponsorship and why I was sponsored then I think it is important to look at what was being achieved.  My sponsors did not provide me any terms of sponsorship beyond wishing to see their product being used and tested in Greenland.  In fact, I think my kayak sponsors were more than happy with the previous summers’ video of their product being paddled by the side of a humpback whale.  I met no whales during the summer of 2010 and I am therefore pleased, from a sponsorship point of view, that I was able to catch the whale on video the year before.  The experience itself was beyond description.  My relationship with my sponsors has been positive and has resulted in putting their products in a challenging environment and proving that they are up to the task.

In rounding off, I hope you appreciate that I have published your comment and addressed it here.  You are right on some points and perhaps missing the point on others.  If you were misled by the description of the expedition, and I believe you were, then I accept that I have not provided the information you had anticipated.  If, however, you are interested in seeing lots of photos from the Uummannaq area and reading about what I personally experienced and the personal decisions I made, then please read on.

This is a diary of my expedition.  It has evolved into a far more personal journey than one of cultural or natural exploration.  I have not hidden that fact in previous posts.  It is what it has become.


Saturday, November 6, 2010

Day 16 - a pause for thought

I needed to rethink my strategy and decided to recoup in Uummannaq while organizing my gear for the next leg of  my journey.  I had decided to paddle on to Qaarsut and then further to Niaqornat.  I would paddle the same route back again and aimed to be back in Uummannaq on the 19th of July.

Having had way too much gear with me on the previous leg of the journey I was pleased to be able to ditch  the unneccessary weight.  Spending a few days in Uummannaq also allowed me to repair some gear and post some entries on the blog.

The day started out gloomy, as the icebergs loomed in out of the low fog.  Sledges blistering in the sun reminded me of the ice-less winter and caused me to reflect on the changes affecting hunters in the Arctic.  Climate change is the buzz-word slung around with wild abandon by journalists, politicians, explorers and activists alike.  It often strikes me as odd though that the majority of banner-waving climate activists are from the huge polluting nations, my own among them.  Are we so focused on the Arctic because we truly are sorry that the hunting way of life is so threatened, or are we just trying to absolve our own collective guilt for living a life of luxury? 

Whilst the media-houses of the polluting world are sending hordes of camera-toting journalists northward bound to capture the quintessential image of the last hunter, facing the uncertain prospects of hunting in a changing environment, governments are doing the same.  Politicians, their aides and groupies are piling into planes and blasting in and out of Greenland to see climate change in action.  At the same time, the representatives of each political party, anchormen and women of television news and newspaper columnists spout authoratative statements, basking in the glory of their rivals' carbon footprints.  It makes me sick.  Just like I wanted to throw up over Hopenhagen COP15.  Sorry, but as I have said before, climate change has been a hot topic since I was in primary school.  Greenhouse gasses wafted over the television screen and tainted the newspaper print thirty-odd years ago.

One thing I learned while paddling in the weeks before I returned to Uummannaq was the total acceptance of mother nature.  She decides, not me.  We have to bend; we need to stop pushing.  The Inuit have developed a spontaneous nature, as I have learned through experience and have been told by colleagues, as a result of being in tune with nature.  You can't arrange to visit someone in a settlement on Tuesday at four o'clock when you can't know what the weather will be like on that day.  Better to sail now, Monday at seven o'clock as the weather is calm and the visibility is good.  I had days when I decided not to paddle, and other days when I could not paddle because of the weather.  Equally, I had mega-paddling days when the conditions were too good to miss.

I guess what I am trying to say is that the more we try to change the climate the further we distance ourselves from it.  We in the Western world are typically far removed from mother nature, we will never fully understand her.  We watch the weather on the news and plan our weekend outing based upon the scientific model "some guy" told us on the evening news.  During the epic focus upon climate change we now have a whole army of guys and girls telling us what is going to happen.  But I tell you, having paddled for two weeks alone in the Arctic, I have been blissfully ignorant of what anybody has to tell me about the climate and the nature of the area I am paddling in.  I learned to stick my head out of the tent and take a good look at the sky, listen for the activity of the birds and, as Karl-Ole told me, look at the dark band of water far out at sea to determine the direction and strength of the coming wind.

So, as I spent a few days in Uummannaq collecting my thoughts, food and gear for the next leg of my journey, I relished the fact that I was in the thick of nature, living and breathing the very atoms of climate change and I was doing it all by myself.

Day 15 - a shower, a chat and an evening meal!

It was hot, again.  The hot Arctic had returned and deprived me of sleep after my lengthy paddle through the night.  Back on my home stomping grounds I decided I could sleep later and promptly made myself semi-decent in order to walk around the mountain and into town. 

Passing my old house - I had moved out the day I started paddling - I was surprised to see it already occupied.  It was not far from my house to Ditte and Peter's where I was well-received and gratefully given a towel and pointed in the direction of the shower.  Who was more grateful I can't say, but several layers of grime later I was feeling much better.

Ditte provided cake, coffee and gossip!  I felt starved of conversation having chatted mostly to myself for about two weeks.  After a few hours I made my way over to the Police station to let Jacob know I was still alive but changing plans.  He was very supportive as ever and genuinely interested in the expedition.  Keeping the Police sweet was always high on my agenda and made the whole solo-paddling more palatable for both parties.

Wandering around town I bumped into Makkak and was promptly invited to dinner.  Makkak and I had worked together for four years and I was delighted to come for dinner especially as it was my last chance to see Aviaq, her daughter, before she left for Minnesota.  There was masses of food and plenty of guests as Makkak and family prepared for their coming summer holidays.

With a full belly and hours of fun conversation filling the void, the scurge of the solo paddler, I made my way back through the mountainside to my tent overlooking the bay. 

Day 14 - numb nuts, teeth and bergs: a spontaneous paddlathon! Part II

On a small island, pop. 3 dogs, outside Saattut, I decided to go for Uummannaq.  The conditions were really good.  Too good.  Leaving that island I paddled to the next to call Jane and tell her my plans.  An iceberg calved about one kilometre away just as I had finished my call and was about to get into the kayak.  It made for a bit of a nerve-wracking time as the surge continued with quite some power behind it.  The kayak lifted up and was pushed over the low outcrop of the island pulling at my arms as my lower body was immersed in water, only to leave me standing high and dry on the rock as the kayak was pulled in the opposite direction as the sea retreated.  With no sign of the water abating I decided to go for it, timing my "wet entry" and paddling off the rock as the surge retreated.  All flustered, I paddled on to the only island before Uummannaq.

There was a lone dog on this last island before Uummannaq and I contemplated stopping as the wind was picking up and I had another five hours ahead of me with no opportunities to go into land of any kind.  I turned my back on the dog to make some soup while I thought about my next more.

Sipping my lukewarm soup I suddenly felt a nudge on the back of my legs and turned to see at least twelve dogs who proceeded to try and crawl into and onto the kayak looking for food - they could smell the empty chocolate wrappers I had in my deckbag.  That was it .. I couldn't stay here!  I performed a very difficult peeing manouvre as I didn't want to strip out of my drysuit entirely with all these dogs around.  Turning my back on the pack I made quite a picture peeing out of the suit - there is no fly zip on this model!  I then turned to shoo the dogs away from the boat just as they started to battle for dominance over their new found prize.

I jumped into the kayak and then began the next leg of a very loooong paddle!  I reached Uummannaq island after 4+ hours and then realized that if I wanted to camp within walking distance of the town I would have to paddle even further!  It took ages.  On the way I encountered angry gulls that spent the next twenty minutes dive bombing the boat.  Leaving their area - do they really need so much space? - I rounded yet another point and battled into the teeth of wind and waves determined to make me pay for every paddle stroke.  I was not amused.

To cap it all, Spraglebugten, the bay in which I was to camp, was completely devoid of flat camping sites.  Stony rocks, broken glass, tummocky grass, there was little respite to be found on shore.  Only when I beached and walked up towards higher ground did I by chance spy a flat, shingle terrace with a fine view, just made for me and my tent.  I promptly scrambled down to claim it, although the competition for such a fine site was, admittedly, non-existent.  The yacht moored across the bay had all the comforts of home without needing to share my space.  

I was finally in my tent eating pasta a little after 07:00.  I had started paddling at 18:40 (on the water) the previous night.  My paddlathon was over and I was in back in familiar waters.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Day 13 - numb nuts, teeth and bergs: a spontaneous paddlathon! Part I

The weather was simply perfect.  I was eager to move on and there was nothing to stop me this time.  I embarked on what was to become a twelve-hour paddlathon, from the previously dubbed "white sands" campsite all the way to Spraglebugten: a bay on the otherside of Uummannaq island.  I was heading home!  I did not, however, realise that I was going to be paddling quite so far when I set out, it just turned out that way.

Of course, I was slow to start as usual.  I took plenty of photos to document what was likely to be the last time I camped in this beautiful place.  I also wanted to try to emulate the photos taken by kayakers I admire like the team from Adventure Philosophy in New Zealand.  Whereas I wasn't paddling in the extremes that they experienced in the Antarctic and around South Georgia, I did meet Graham Charles in Uummannaq and enjoyed paddling with him a few times. 

The water, when I was finally to get on it, was crystal clear with hardly a ripple to be seen.  The icebergs were behaving - in this area anyway - and I was good to go.

I blasted straight across the fjord, heading for the point from which I could then see Saattut.  Why oh why there is always another point I do not know, but it is sadly often the case.  I began to feel as though the paddle to Saattut would take forever.  My bum and various appendages were becoming hot, sweaty and numb.  Lovely!

The icebergs were a welcome distraction though.  As usual, they made good way-points to break up the long paddle.  I still had not realised just how far I would paddle this night but as the hours passed and I approached the late evening I began to think that the weather could not get any better.  Rounding the point I spied Saattut and the tiny islands before it.

Whereas the population of the settlements might be small the population of the tiny islands that surround them, especially Saattut, are both small and furry.  How friendly they were was disputable.  These tiny islands though were going to be my lifesaver in terms of getting out of the boat and stretching my legs.  Whereas I might have wanted to spend a bit more time walking around, the number of dogs on each island quickly determined how long I would stay.

As the sun moved behind the mountain my new-found canine buddies and I took leave of each other and I paddled on, racing to get back into the sun to warm up.  Saattut was still tantalizingly out of reach and I began to contemplate where I would be spending the night, or if I would paddle through it as the sun moved around me.  I made my decision on the next island, and nearly lost my boat as an iceberg calved before me.