Saturday, March 12, 2011

TSS2010 blog entries by date

The Seven Settlements  Kayak Expedition 2010

26th June - 19th July 2010 (24 days, alone on the water)

Here is the list and links to entries from the expedition:

Day 24 - the only way out is through

In the beginning of the blog, and probably in the midst of many subsequent posts, I have written about all the factors that made for a bad start to the expedition. I never wrote about how I was ready to give it up a few weeks before starting. 

A very dear friend, my "second mother", passed away about a week and a half before I was set to dip my paddle in the water. She had fought for more than a year against a failing body and could sadly fight no more. Her passing had a huge impact upon me and my family, incredibly so for my mother, and on the brink of setting off on my own adventures, I realised that I might be needed elsewhere. The uncertainty of my own adventures and the risks involved did not encourage a parent struggling through the loss of a dear friend. I started to check out flights to Britain.

However, the sense of adventure and "sucking the marrow out of life" was instilled in me from an early age and I have my mother and "H" to thank for that. Between them they gave their children such encouragement and ambition that we three suddenly found ourselves living as far abroad as New Zealand, USA and Greenland, and the parents, all four of them, started to wonder what they had done wrong. The answer was "nothing", unless of course they had hoped we would live around the corner and work in our home town for the rest of our lives. 

My mum and I agreed that I would continue, I would just be careful, and careful I was. I just don't think I can take all the credit. There's this little thing, a nagging, wonderful feeling, that I wasn't alone. The raven was with me. 

Ravens are Arctic birds, I realised that as soon as I landed in Uummannaq. They have a huge vocal range that penetrates the Arctic night and frolics under the midnight sun. I once chose my Native American totems with the help of a friend and a pack of totem cards one night in Indiana, USA. Whether we did it right or not is not so important for me, I just remember it being a powerful experience. Having chosen eight totems I had one remaining. I remember thinking that I really wanted the wolf, the teacher, he who only comes if requested. It was a tense moment. There were two cards on the hardwood floor before me. I wanted the wolf, but I remember thinking that I would be honoured if the raven chose to come instead. I turned the card over and was elated to see the wolf staring back at me. The other card, yes, it was the raven.

I wrote them down on a piece of yellow legal paper that night, they have been folded up alongside my driver's licence ever since. Whereas the teachings of the wolf have supported me in my career and personal life, the raven was waiting. But he is a trickster, I have seen the raven steal food from my sledge dogs, fish from my drying rack, and never has he been so cheeky as when he has flown off at the last minute when I have tried to take a photo of him. Or perhaps her? After four years with no success, returning to camp after my last trip into Qaarsut on the 19th of July, a raven stopped me in my tracks. It was, I like to imagine, the same raven that had watched me pitch camp that night I arrived in Qaarsut. With my camera in hand I wondered how close I could come. The answer was very close indeed. The raven simply eyed me as I took photograph after photograph within but a few metres of this tough old Arctic hand. 

I don't remember how long I spent with the raven, but after four years of trying, I finally had some great photos of this incredible bird. I wondered then; I wondered if there was some element of "someone watching over me" and that this someone had come in the shape of a raven? Spiritual nonsense or a comforting yet completely natural coincidence? I don't know. This world is bigger than me, and tulugaq, the raven, was another mystery. Tulugaq's arrival though was timely, I was forced to wait in camp for several hours as the fog of the morning stayed long through the day. Patience is just as important as having a guardian angel in the Arctic. It was my patience that prevented me from paddling the last few kilometres home, though I was eager, and yet, it was the raven that kept me in camp when I wanted to be on the water. 

Of course, on this, the last day of my journey, my patience was beginning to wear thin. As the raven departed, I too chose to get ready, fog be damned, the only way out is through! My attitude to fog had already changed at this point. From the nerve-racking hours I spent negotiating the fogged-in coastline near Ukkusissat, I had grown and learned to deal with this otherwise unpleasant element. My only concern was the size of the monster bergs hidden in the fog that so often ply the waters in and around Uummannaq. I would paddle as far as I could see and so I took off along the coastline with the intention of stopping should the visibility deteriorate further.

Patience, or lack of it, got the better of me though. I wanted to finish this journey and the thought of eating my first proper meal with Jane that night was too much of a temptation. I turned a sharp left and paddled into the fog. Without a GPS - I am not a fan - I took a compass bearing and pointed my bow in the direction of where Uummannaq island should be and decided to hope for the best.

Predictably, the visibility deteriorated. Typical, my last day on the water and I was running one of the greater risks of the expedition. This thought was confirmed when I heard several loud reports in the fog around me. Too sharp and short to be an iceberg calving, I realised that hunters were out shooting for seals. Marvellous! My raven was nowhere to be seen, I was nowhere to be seen. It could soon be open season on English kayakers!

As the fog lifted in between though, the beauty inside the bubble became apparent. As the light from above the fog bank lit the tops of the icebergs, the light was transfused down through the ice. It was magical. Using smaller bergs as way-points I paddled from berg to berg, past the occasional shot from a .22, long past the point of no return. I was halfway across the fjord, about 6-8 kilometres from Uummannaq, if I was pointing in the right direction. Compass needles tend to be a little screwy in the north.
And then, the fog lifted, just for an instant, and my island reared up out of the water. I was on course for Spraglebugten. Life was good. I was making reasonable time and would perhaps even arrive in time for the evening meal at the hotel.

The closer I got to Uummannaq, the more often I heard the growls and barks of sledge dogs anchored on the island. I had met many dogs on my journey, but these mutts were local and a very welcome sound indeed. I was, however, too focused on journey's end to reflect more on my experiences. Like the mantra I have written on the back of Jane's PFD: "just keep paddlin'", I was in the zone and determined to make landfall. It was only a question of time too, the sea was calm and I was beyond the fog bank.

Rounding the "corner" of Uummannaq and on entering the harbour, a hunter and his family cruised past in their boat. In Greenlandic he asked if it was me that had paddled around the settlements? I replied that it was. "Ajunngilaq!" he said. My sentiments entirely, I thought. Smiling broadly, I paddled into the slipway just to the right of the hospital, in front of the qajaq club.

Mario, the uncle of the boy who shot his first seal the day I left, way back in June, was fixing a boat on the shore as I came in. We chatted a little and I felt it was so appropriate that he should be standing here as he was when I left that day. We chatted a little more until Jane arrived and I realised that I had indeed finished, it was done. I was safe and sound and richer for the experience. 

I'd like to say the food was good that night, but it wasn't anything special. I do remember the cola being flat though; out of date. And yet, being out of date, being timeless is also the norm in Greenland, at least it was once. 

Life in Greenland today is very much the same as life in other parts of the world, no matter how much we might wish it otherwise and convince the tourists the same. But timeless it is still, out of date and out of time, for on the water, the date and time, especially in the long summer months, have no meaning. Once embarked on a journey in the timeless zone of rock, ice and water, everything else becomes almost meaningless.

I am not finished, I cannot really reflect on everything I experienced on the water and in camp, in the settlements and in the thick of the fog, I am still thinking it through, pondering slowly. This blog might have reached a conclusion and I should surely round it off with a list of achievements, kilometres, experiences, decisions and justifications. I have done that though, they are within the blog itself. But most of what I have achieved is within me and the ultimate achievement was going solo, and safely. 

I might have paddled solo, but I was not alone and there are many people who made it possible for me to be on the water. 

Folbot provided me with a very seaworthy folding boat, fatter than it's ancestors, but no less striking on the water. The Kodiak is my third Folbot. After four years paddling Arctic water they have yet to let me down.

Lars Gram provided me a wonderful Greenland paddle, and forced me to wonder at the use of my carbon-fibre affair that not once was removed from the deck-bungies during the expedition.

Lars Simonsen was my safety net, link to the outside world and a solid, dependable friend. Thanks mate! I owe you big time.

Thanks to everyone I met along the way, their hospitality, support and encouragement, both on the water, in the settlements and from afar.

Thanks too to you for joining me in this adventure.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Day 23 - glorious ghost town

I couldn't find a suitable spot to camp on my paddle from Ikorfat. Steep-sided seagull hang-outs and all too narrow beaches, though pretty, offered no peace or protection from icebergs or protective birds. I paddled on.

As I approached Qaarsut I began to appreciate just how much a small airport like Qaarsut spreads. Suddenly I was in a large area where jet-fuel was stored in tanks, tractors and graders sat waiting for the first snows of winter and the detritus of a working environment spread lazily about the shore. I was not overly impressed, but neither was I put off by the "mess". Airports are a lifeline in Greenland. The mess was no more or less than one might expect, the difference here was the beauty surrounding it. The whole coastline from Niaqornat down had been full of surprises and natural wonders.

Qaarsut surprised me too. I had only been here once before, arriving in the winter dark on a fishing cutter to be bundled into the back of a goods van for the short journey up to the airport. Qaarsut was new for me then and just as new as I paddled into the bay sometime after midnight.

There was more activity in the very early hours of the morning than during the day when I returned to Qaarsut from my campsite. The midges had driven me inside as soon as I had pitched my tent and sorted the kayak. I was reminded of wet Scottish fells and ravenous bastards - they're "all teeth". This was the worst I had experienced since Scotland. Oh, how I longed for mosquitoes!

Despite the lack of people on the sandy streets, Qaarsut seems to be a hive of industry with plenty of fish, whale, shark and seal drying on small and larger racks built on and around each hunter's gear. The norm seems to be a shed built out of available wood and enlarged or refitted to suit each hunter's needs. The huge drying rack in the picture above, just above the settlement, does not look like it has been used recently, perhaps revealing a decline in the amount being caught or the number of hunters and fishermen working out of the village.

Walking into "town" one is struck by the openness, there is a lot of space between the houses. In Uummannaq, houses are built where possible and the space in-between houses is often occupied by dogs or rocks. Qaarsut had a lot more space and the odd dust-ball floating between the houses or over the top of old foundations gave it a ghost-town like feeling. The lack of people, save the old man sitting on a bench by the wash house, only reinforced the image.

I did find people in the shop as I stocked up on assorted "crap" to eat on the pier where I had landed that night one dark December. The shop was well-stocked compared to what I have sometimes experienced in Uummannaq.

I wandered for a bit, a lonely tourist out of place in a pseudo-western Arctic settlement. All I needed was some spaghetti western music and everything would have clicked into place.

The shoreline was by far the most interesting area with all manner of gear and "stuff" lying about, often where the owner left it to be used again when needed. The most noticeable thing for me in these "industrial" areas is the harmony between boats and sledges. They just fit together, they belong. With sledge dogs often chained in and around the gear, dogs, boats and sledges merge into a blended picture of raw usefulness. There is often nothing particularly pretty about these things: the dogs are war-torn, the boats rusting and the sledges peeling under the 24-hour sun. But all are ready to be used, and if not, fixed from cannibalised outboard motors, bits of wood and twine and even recycled - the dogs might even end up as liners for mukluks and the trim on seal-skin gloves. While modernity is outstripping the traditional Inuit way of life you can still experience it and be happily overwhelmed by the sights, sounds and smells of Arctic stuff. It is all authentic, even the plastic bailers made out of drinks containers.

The pups run free here just like everywhere else in the Uummannaq district, when they are not sheltering from the sun that is.

I am pretty sure that the meat below is shark meat but I have honestly no idea and there was no one to ask. Greenland sharks are becoming increasingly attractive for the hunters and fishermen. I think there might even have been, or is still, a pilot programme researching the viability of shark fishing in Niaqornat. The sharks are an irritation for fishermen, eating the fish from their long-lines. The shark meat itself can be eaten by dogs and is therefore a good source of cheap food, if not dried though it makes them loopy for a while, literally drunk on meat.

As in all the other villages the local water stations are easily recognised, painted blue. It was the yellow sledges that caught my attention here though.

I didn't see one kayak on the water during my journey, but I saw many on racks. I know that the qajaq is used for sport, primarily competitions in West Greenland, but it is not used for hunting any more. (Now living in Qaanaaq, I can appreciate that the qajaq is an important tool used still for hunting whales. This is evident by how many are lashed to small boats and laden with interesting equipment.) They are beautiful to behold and the lines are so sleek compared to my fat, modern imitation. My "fat" boat lets me explore further afield though and I have yet to meet any Greenlanders who enjoy kayak camping. I did however meet one professional Greenlandic kayak guide from Aasiaat a few summers ago - so "hi" to Adam!

I forgot to mention that kayaks are still a part of the hunter's gear and some can be seen parked between the sledges, boats and dogs on the shoreline. The modern age has just superseded their use in traditional hunting, at least here anyway.

With thoughts of building my own qajaq swimming in my mind, I wandered back to camp with my final destination in the background.

On the beach, happily devoid of bugs, I carved another heart in the sand, a ritual I made whenever the sand and surroundings allowed, just to keep me focused on getting home in one piece. It had worked so far.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Day 22 - sun, blood and sand

It doesn't get any better. Waking up to icebergs has to be one of the best things about camping close to the water in Greenland. At this point I had lost all track of time. The sun turned and burned all day long so long as there was good weather.

The icebergs creaked, groaned, spat and exploded, when they were not sitting impassively in the cool Arctic waters. Mid-morning, afternoon or evening, it was time to get up and go exploring.

The ground around the hunting cabin was littered with organic finds. Whale cartilage ...

... bird skulls and various bones, claws and clumps of melting blubber. Lovely. It was like a smorgasbord of souvenirs, all of which deserved a place in the boat for future enjoyment, most of which stayed on the beach or hidden amongst the grasses. 

While previously enjoying the Norwegian and Swedish wilderness areas I have often been tempted to come home with an antler or other "find", but I have never done so. Here, however, bones and "bits" are such commonplace that I did not feel my removing anything would alter anyone's enjoyment of the area. One could imagine that the bones were industrial waste, left behind at the end of a days' work. I was just cleaning up!

The old cabin was a find in itself. With a 180 degree fantastic command of the factory floor, sea and ice, I can see why hunters chose to build here. The beach is ideal for launching kayaks and perfect for dragging whales and seals up onto the sand for butchering. It works well for modern day hunting-motorboats  too.

After a few hours of pottering about among the bones I pulled myself together to slip into the water and paddle on along the coast towards the settlement of Qaarsut.

The day was simply stunning. Difficult to find words to describe the peace of paddling over such placid waters. A huge contrast to the stormy weather and waves I associated with my enforced - but enjoyable - stay in Niaqornat.

I spotted something red on a beach along the ways. It looked vaguely human-shaped and I was intrigued. The beach itself looked like a great spot to stretch my legs and demolish a chocolate bar. No shortage of goodies, I was enjoying myself.

The closer I got to the beach the more I thought I would be finding a discarded boiler suit or some such. Closer still, I was excited to find a butchered seal carcass.

Earlier in the expedition I had been counting the number of seal skins I had seen discarded in the water, on the beaches and between the rocks. In my ignorance I thought it was simply waste. During my short lay up in Uummannaq, I found out that seal skins during the summer months are far less valuable than those during the winter. They are worth little to nothing, even if hunters could sell them. The different bans and anti-sealing campaigns around the globe have affected the price of seal skin dramatically. It is not easy to find seals in the water, even with trained eyes it can take a lot of fuel and man-hours to catch enough seals to cover the cost of fuel and equipment. Seal skins have always been a tradeable commodity, but recent policies within EU countries are threatening this industry.

Not being a hunter myself I find it hard to appreciate just how difficult it is to catch a seal and to make a living from it. I do know, however, how tasty seal meat is, fried with blubber in the outdoors, or roasted with a rasher or two of bacon hidden inside. Seeing the seal carcass so cleanly gutted I was impressed by the skill involved. Foxes will enjoy this carcass, gulls and ravens too.


Seals are the free-range cows of the Arctic. Beautiful in the water, basking on the ice and tasty when eaten. A symbolic and revered mammal in Greenlandic waters. Seeing the drawings in the sand and the many different-sized footprints around the carcass, I know a family has enjoyed the excitement of catching this seal and the barbecue that took place when they brought it into land.

 As I scared up a huge flock of gulls further down the coast, I wanted to give them a heads up about the feast that awaited them on a remote beach along the Nussuaq Peninsula.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Day 21 - fragile earth and Greenlandic chicken

Walking along the black sands I saw many craters in the sand. I could feel my feet pushing through the crust but it took me a while to figure out that ice was the cause of it. Ice that had once detonated from the side of a berg had been washed up and deposited on the beach by the tide. The weight of the ice broke through the hard but thin crust of sand on the beach. Before I saw the clumps of ice I found craters with dark patches; I later realised that this was melt-water where the ice had been.

The midges were rather hungry here and, seeing as it was a beautiful day for a paddle, I saw no reason to linger.

Further along the coast was the hunting camp of Ikorfat. The remains of one cabin, a turf-built and wooden beam construction, took longer to find as I was more than a little preoccupied with the newer cabin with B number 1240 (B for "bolig"). All houses in Uummannaq area are given a B number, including the tiny water stations dotted around the towns and settlements. B-1240 is a classic example of a well-used permanent camping cabin with an all purpose room for cooking and sleeping in. I think they see more use in the winter months as hunters harness their sledge dogs outside, seeking shelter from the elements on the inside. I was also more interested in sleeping inside my tent - we had become well used to one another by now - but the inside of the cabin was worth checking out.  A big stone in front of the door suggested no one was home and that foxes were not welcome!

Time doesn't quite stand still within the cabin. It is possible to move between the ages, back and forth, as one explores the items left behind and some left ready for the next occupants.  Coffee-filter papers had been used to write messages, while the occasional piece of licorice testified to the effectiveness of the stone door-stop. A tea-towel hung over the petroleum stove, the bed boards ready, hunters could arrive any minute and find it just as they left it.

Time had already stopped for me that summer as the sun circled continuously about the horizon and I was quite taken with the alarm clock hanging from the curtain rail, ornamented by the dried curlew (?) head and a small, dried skin bag. Quite taken until I peered out of the window and checked out the front yard. When real-estate agents talk about "location, location, location", I wonder if they were thinking about Ikorfat?

 Back outside, I wandered back and forth for hours. Just wandering, not feeling the need to go anywhere or do anything but wander, look, listen and breathe deep the sea air tempered with the freshness of glacial ice.

I couldn't get enough of this place. It was full of rich finds and stories drifting through the tall grass about the tent, between the cracks in the walls of the cabin and among the pebbles eroded by the sea and tumbling ice. As the icebergs crashed and boomed at incalculable intervals, I wandered some more.

Once, in Uummannaq, I had the chance to buy Greenlandic chicken - seagull, 20,- dkk per gull. I have yet to taste one but imagine they will be a bit ... well, like chicken. This fella had been enjoyed by a fox, perhaps, as his footprints showed where he or she had loitered about the camp.

It was damn fine here and I crawled into my pup-tent and fell asleep to iceberg artillery in the near and far.