Saturday, September 25, 2010

Day 10 - the first taste of fog

Leaving the white sands of the previous campsite, I stole along the coastline, heading up the fjord towards the next settlement of Ukkusissat.

The photographs I would loved to have included in this blog post are just not good enough to show you the three tiny Arctic Fox cubs I found playing among the boulders a kilometre or so beyond my campsite. The small camera I had in my buoyancy aid just couldn't capture them. I contemplated pulling into shore and taking photos with the larger DSLR but didn't want to disturb them. I contented myself with observing them from a few metres distance as I bobbed among the icy debris from calving icebergs.

After spending so much time over the rifle I had found, cleaned up and put back in its proper place, I was paddling into the morning on this lonely stretch of my journey. After a short break on a beach, enjoying the last of my year-old Starbars, a present from Hilary and family, I put into the water again. Once firmly back in the seat and getting into a rhythm, I noticed the icebergs in the distance were being swallowed, whole, by the fog. Around 2 am I began to feel more than a little threatened by the encroaching blanket of white.

I have not paddled much in fog. I had never, up to this point, paddled in fog around icebergs. My worst nightmares were coming all too true. I could hear calvings in the near distance, but I could neither see the iceberg nor the direction in which the wave and debris was heading. It felt a little like playing Greenlandic Roulette with several thousand tonnes of ice that I couldn't see. I was more than a little on edge.

Infuriatingly, as my world became smaller, more intense, I was illuminated by a light orange glow from the midnight sun, somewhere above me. I don't think the fog was more than 10 metres or so high, but it was not evaporating any time soon. I considered pulling into the shore but I was not heartened by the steep-sided cliff faces and lack of suitable parking places. After a few more minutes of bobbing undecided about, I figured it was safer to crack on and not worry too much about what lay ahead. I would deal with that as and when it became necessary.

The first potential campsite I found around the point I vetoed on account of it not being close enough to Ukkusissat. I did want to get off the water as I could not see anything beyond the wall of fog, but I wanted to find a decent spot to camp. Then, shrouded in mist, "my" beach appeared and I headed straight for it. The usual camping routine was a welcome relief to the stress of being alone at sea with the bergs.

Well into the early morning I crawled into my tent and fell promptly asleep only to realise, a little later, that I had pitched the tent side on to the sun. As the fog burned away I was at once forced out of my sleeping bag and into the bright morning of a new day. There are some downsides to paddling through the night in the Arctic.

Knackered, but happy, I found little to complain about regarding my new view.

Ready for my first junk food of the trip I decided to walk into town, never mind how tired I was. I also needed water if I was going to keep up with my serious camp-coffee addiction. I found water, lots of it, but that was part of the problem. It might sound ridiculous but there was no way I was going to cross this raging Arctic river. I did walk up and down the sides looking for a suitable crossing point but I found nothing that wasn't going to require me wading through metre-deep icy water gushing down from the mountains above. On another day it might have been different. Recently, however, Greenlanders and Norwegians alike have closely followed the story of three Norwegians believed drowned in a river around Kangerlussuaq. I was not aware of this but I decided to return to my new camp anyway.

The settlement of Ukkusissat could wait a day and I decided to paddle in following a good night's sleep. Filling up my MSR water bladder - a seriously good bit of kit - I plodded back home, stumbling a few times out of tiredness.

Concerning camp abolutions I am reminded of a quote about which I can neither remember the author nor the exact words. It wasn't Edward Abbey, although he has plenty of excellent words to describe the wilderness. However, several cups of coffee later and I was reminded, not for the first time, of a few lines of particular aptness that I would like to paraphrase for you all now:

"If you are going to take a shit in the wild, choose a John with a view."

Several cups of coffee and a hot camp meal later and I was ready to choose my John with a view. The timing is critical. Too late and it is too cold to enjoy the moment as the sun has moved behind the tallest peaks. Too soon and it is hot enough for the mosquitoes and friends to make life miserable, or at least cause one to rush over the latest edition of the Financial Times.

In true Abbey-style, that night I got it just right!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Day 9 - blissed out and gunned up! Part II

It has taken a while to get back into the blog.  Several hotel rooms, numerous planes and one big boat later and I am ready to catch up on my kayak adventures of the summer.  As I sit in this hotel room in Ilulissat, the smoke from the chimney of Knud Rasmussen’s house creeping through the window, the sun playing on the icebergs in the bay, I think back to another time and place, not so very far from here.

I signed off the last blog entry with a quote from Capone about kind words and a gun getting you further in life than kind words alone.  Well, I found a gun at this campsite and I spent a lot of time pondering over what to do with it.  I was curious about the hunters’ tent and amazed that it was an English brand, the same as my own.  What amazed me more was finding a Savage .22 rifle, rusting on the rocks not two metres from the tent door.  I sat down and played with the bolt, trying to free it.  Gradually, I worked it free and found an empty casing in the chamber.  The rifle was missing its magazine and the rust rubbed off on my fingers as I sighted icebergs and birds through the otherwise intact scope.  I found it hard to believe that the rifle was just lying there, abandoned.  The knives and other hunting material lying about were a common sight now, something I had grown used to during my four years in Uummannaq.  But a rifle, well, that was something new.

I finally decided that I would take the rifle with me, clean it up and make it work.  In the back of my mind I realized that I had no way of knowing how damaged the rifle was, nor if it would ever be safe to fire, but I was determined.  Back inside my tent I stripped the rifle, removed the bolt and scope, packaged everything in watertight combinations of gaffa tape and pastic bags, and then began to break camp.

As I piled all my gear up I was still questioning my actions, remembering Frederick’s comments about good hunters not stealing food from others.  I also considered that it was quite likely that a hunter would return one day, pick up the rifle, chamber a new round and shoot a seal, before discarding the rifle again.  I thought too how the hunters’ camp was no different than a boat moored in the harbour, full of gear, ready and waiting to go.  Could I really just take the rifle?

I argued with myself – there was no one else in the neighbourhood – about how dangerous it was to just leave a gun lying around for anyone to find, about what might happen if some kids found it, etc.  I tossed the question back and forth, remembering that these waters were the stomping grounds of a hunting society, that the camp was no different from the boat, that my views on firearms and safety were different than a hunter’s views.  I spent quite a while on this when suddenly another Arctic Fox announced his arrival. 
This was all the distraction I needed as the fox and I played tag over several hundred metres.  As I gave up trying to catch the fox with my lense I walked back to the camp, clear in my mid about what I must do next.

It took me ages to remove all the protective waterproofing tape and plastic.  It took another while to screw the rusted scope back onto the rifle.  More time was wasted trying to remove what little grease there was from my hands.  I then plodded back over to the hunters’ tent, paced out two metres from the tent entrance and laid the rifle on the rocks, all the while conscious of the fox watching me from on high.

Two hours later than planned, I paddled on up the fjord.