A Sea Kayaking and Photography Adventure
"We haven't had any problems with polar bears for over fifty years!"
Niels, my local helper in Nanortalik, the southernmost town in Greenland, tries to reassure me. He looks at me a little too understandingly, smiles a little too mildly. I'm already starting to feel stupid with my question about where I should buy a rifle in Greenland. The answer is always the same: in the supermarket, but you don't need it, because: no problems for fifty years. All right, so I got the gun license for nothing but on the other hand that means one less problematic piece of equipment in my luggage.
Which is perfectly fine with me, because I already have a lot of equipment for my project: three weeks of solo sea kayaking in the Tasermiut Fjord to photograph the landscape.
Narrow and deep, the fjord cuts inland from the Labrador Sea a good seventy kilometres to the northeast. On its sides, mountains of black cliffs rise over two thousand meters into the cloud-covered sky. Some of the valleys between them are rock and ice, whilst others are silvery green with unruly bushes, gnarled little trees, and tough lichens. Crystal-clear streams gush everywhere and plunge as waterfalls into the cold sea.
If one wants to access this lonely wilderness by oneself the only way is over water, and the sea kayak is the obvious means of transportation. After all, this is its original home! It allows one to reach places that are otherwise difficult to access without disturbing nature all that much. At the same time it can handle the inhospitable conditions and offers enough space for the equipment. One can hardly get closer to the water, the icebergs and the wildlife.
The weather has a particularly moody character. Within a few hours, fog-shrouded depression, sunny cheerfulness and snarling fury alternate without giving much notice. Parents who have experience with teenagers are at an advantage. Even more irritating are the fjord winds themselves, seemingly random and amplified by all sorts of jet effects. Different wind directions in one spot at the same time?
Since I have no experience with comparable conditions I prepare for this adventure with special care. I consider good preparation to be a sensible thing in other respects, too, and particularly if I want to expose myself to this wilderness by myself without support. There is the consideration of the climatic, geographic and nautical particulars of the region. The safety issues. The configuration of the equipment and the stowage plan for the sea kayak. The provisioning by means of dried foods - homemade, as demanded by my pride. The already mentioned handling of large caliber rifles. Strength and endurance training, of course. Last but not least: studying the expected light and landscape conditions and the compilation of my photo equipment: several cameras, lenses, a drone, the tripod, accessories, batteries, battery banks,... as much as necessary, as little as possible - but that is, of course, debatable.
A final equipment rehearsal in Croatian waters turns out to be, well, instructive. In a dry suit at more than forty degrees Celsius in the shade I learn that the rolling behaviour of my sea kayak changes decidedly when fully loaded including a huge pack on the aft deck. After a prolonged moment of consternation underwater, however, I get the hang of rolling the boat, which boosts my much-needed confidence and leaves some beach-goers probably wondering what the heck it is I am doing in full arctic gear on a scorching hot July day in the Adriatic sea.
After a lengthy yet unproblematic journey, I finally arrive in Nanortalik. A night in the hostel, last errands, equipment and weather check. From a container full of sea kayaks, which some failed tour operator once left here, I choose the one that seems to me the least critically damaged and start the process of loading according to the plan. I don’t want to lose the opportunity of a fairly favourable weather window and case of that same afternoon. I readily admit: with a queasy set of feelings, a mix of excited anticipation and mighty respect for that wilderness which I am about to immerse myself in.
Right after the first kilometres shortly before entering the fjord, whales appear not far from me and my sea kayak. Seals are constant and carefully distant companions, for a while I may observe an arctic fox.
Within this first day I have to discover that my already critically loaded boat is taking on a lot of water. In the stern section about twenty liters of arctic seawater slosh between the packs of equipment. This was not provided for in the stowage plan. And I don't even want to know what that means for rolling the boat. I can't pinpoint the cause with the best of my efforts, so the motto is: take more frequent breaks for bilge pumping - and capsizing is simply no longer an option.
After a particularly long and cold day of paddling, a musk ox suddenly appears on the shore and robs me of my desire to land and set up camp here. I already have a lot of respect for dairy cows and this is something like the Hell's Angels version of it. In general, I see a polar bear in every slightly larger boulder on shore. All the mantra-like appeasements that I repeat to myself help very little: For fifty years ...
The demands of this trip are not so much in the paddling itself: the waves are usually not very high since the wind lacks the run-up to build any major seas, and also currents do not play much of a role in the fjord. But the combination of cold wind and splashing water becomes a problem for me. Despite neoprene pogies, it will be months after this adventure before the feeling in my fingertips is fully restored.
The tidal range of up to three meters means quite a grind to get the boat and equipment ashore at landing points with shallow sandbanks. Still in my dry suit, I load the equipment into the tried-and-tested blue furniture store bags and haul everything to camp. After that: quickly change clothes, set up the tent, cook food. Only then do I get to work photographically - if it's not raining which it does a lot. By now also increasingly inside: the ultra-light tent has evidently reached its limits.
As have I, I realize. I started the whole thing too fast. So I slow down. Once I have decided to stay longer than planned at one location I begin to truly arrive. I take my time to explore the landscape photographically, catch some fish and write my travel diary. Only after a few days at the same spot I break camp and continue my tour.
A little bemused I meet an old acquaintance: a familiar superstition that always creeps onto me when I expose myself to the wilderness for a longer time, particularly by myself. I involuntarily begin to personify the natural phenomena around me and convince myself that I can influence the elements through my behaviour. I find myself negotiating with the wind over its direction and strength, thanking the waves for their moderation at a cape or apologizing to a plant if I have stepped on it carelessly. I don’t really mind my odd mumblings since there’s no-one around to witness this anyway. Or maybe there is. Who really knows for certain.
The highlight of this occurs as I approach the turning point of my sea kayaking journey, the glacier at the very end of the fjord. The first glimpse of this scene actually makes me pause mid paddle-stroke. In the distance, the mighty black mountain peaks are suddenly surmounted by an even mightier white mass, as if an entirely new world were looming over this old one. From a thousand and four hundred meters above the sea, the inland ice pushes down through the gray cloud cover to the fjord like a frozen doomsday tsunami, shimmering blueish at its apex from the sun above.
I was not anticipating this. The closer I get to the glacier, the stronger the downdrafts it throws at me. I take this very personally and, whilst apologizing for the disturbance, I feel I have somewhat earned the right for a short stop. The glacier continues to hiss from above, but allows me to take a few photographs with clammy fingers after landing on a sandbank. As I start my retreat, I take extra care to express my gratitude to the glacial forces that may or may not be, just to be on the safe side.
After a few hours of rather exhausting paddling, a single ray of sunlight extending from the gray cloud cover illuminates the next suitable camp site.
The return legs of the journey become a rather sportive affair, to say the least. The weather finally shows its teeth. Fierce fjord winds from the west build up small but steep waves and I have to fight with wetness, cold and headwind. At the exit of the fjord, after eight hours of drudgery and only a few kilometers before my destination, a dense fog bank pushes from the south in my direction. I don't like that at all. Just as a bitter pang of worry builds up in me, a whale appears not twenty meters to port, stays abeam for a few moments, blows, and then dives off again in complete and utter calm. For me again reason enough to feel reassured and, lo and behold, the fog stays where it is and I reach Nanortalik exhausted, but also very happy.
The remaining days until my departure I let myself drift in Nanortalik:
On a surprisingly sunny day a hike up the local mountain Qaqqarsuasik offers a magnificent view of a steel-blue sea full of glistening icebergs.
I devote myself photographically to the small town itself, where a strange discrepancy between tradition and modernity can be seen and experienced. In a little store I chat with the friendly owners, who find my attempts to get the Greenlandic pronunciation right rather hilarious. They are among the few who stay here and do not want to move to the next bigger city or even Denmark, as many do.
One afternoon, gunshots make me sit up and take notice: an armada of small fishing boats notifies everyone from afar that the whale hunt has been successful, causing the otherwise sleepy town to awaken to a flurry of activity. The hero hunter, an experienced Greenland Inuk, generously agrees to take me fishing the following day, a real privilege.
At the end of my time here I am granted another splendid sunny day, I take the sea kayak one last time out into the bay to play around some icebergs before I return it, pack my things and say goodbye.
It is now that I learn that two weeks ago a polar bear warning was issued by official sources. Eight predators are said to have been sighted in the immediate vicinity.
Hasn’t happened for the past fifty years.