Sailing the Fjords of Greenland

A Saturn ring around the sun

A first glimpse of Greenland…..

Just above the Denmark Strait, north of Iceland, lies the entrance to Scoresby Sund.   This remote area is one of the largest fjord systems in the world, situated in the virtually unpopulated Eastern Coast of Greenland. For 8 days in August I explored this waterway with 12 other photographers.  Seeing this fascinating part of our planet firsthand, I felt compelled to share it with my readers.  If Greenland is on your bucket list, or you’re just curious about it, I hope this post will be informative and interesting. 

Map of Scorsby Sound

Map of Scorsby Sound

As we circled around to land at Constable Point I caught my first glimpse of this wild, breathtakingly beautiful country. Our pilot floated us onto the compacted red earth runway of tiny Nerlerit Inaat, tucked against the base of a granite mountain. The runway seemed a bit too short to land on, as the end of it rolled abruptly into the Greenland Sea, but we made it. Just beyond the runway, crystalline waters dotted with small chunks of Arctic blue ice spread out before me. Further in the distance, I could see our sailing ship, the 100 year old Donna Wood, as she gently bobbed on the calm surface of the bay awaiting our arrival.

Our sailing ship the Donna Wood

Our sailing ship the Donna Wood

Excited to begin the adventure, we all disembarked quickly and were met by our efficient crew from North Sailing Charter. Our bags and gear were quickly loaded onto the flatbed of a workhorse diesel truck, and sent to the ship. Well, no frills here! We then headed off on foot for a short mile hike to the sturdy zodiacs which would ferry us out to our ship. Along the path we passed a large kennel housing 2 beautiful Greenland huskies who met us with bouncing whoops. Curious, I had to ask why they were way out at the end of the runway.  The answer was startling, ” they are our Polar Bear alarm”, no joke. My first thought to that response was, ‘we are not in Kansas anymore Dorothy’!

 

As I stepped from the hard skin of the solid black rubber Zodiak up onto the rope ladder, which dangled precariously from the side of the ship, I wasn’t sure what to expect from this latest adventure. Would I embarrass myself and turn green with sea sickness? Would I have fun with my fellow passengers and crew? Eight days on a smallish ship can be challenging if personalities prove less then compatible.  I would find out soon enough.

We were shuttled aboard in shifts, 12 guests in all, plus 5 crew.  Being one of the first aboard, I took the time to quickly explore the ship, all 120 feet of her. A serious wave of weak knees and impending claustrophobia washed over me as I peeked down the vertical ladder into the dim region below decks, where the cabins were located. Thankfully, once I popped down there and had a look, I was pleasantly surprised. While it was by no means a large space, it was well laid out.  A center corridor ran the length of the ship, with guest cabins on each side, flanked on either end by a shared bathroom.  Hundred year old, 12″ square, solid oak timbers made up her hull. Varnished, original wood paneling and doors set with vintage polished brass hardware set the tone for a true sailing adventure on the seas in this vintage beauty. Originally built a lighthouse boat back in 1918, she protected ships from colliding with the ever moving icebergs in these Northern waters. A few decades later she was repurposed and converted into a sailing ship with 3 massive oak masts. 

Settling in…..

We all settled quickly into our efficient, albeit ‘cozy’ cabins, each fitted with 2 very comfortable small bunks, a sink and tiny closet. There were 6 cabins in all for the guests, and a few more smaller cabins for crew.  A small skylight about 5″ x 12″ in the ceiling of each cabin let in a bit of welcome natural light for a claustrophobic’s peace of mind. As the week progressed the cozy little cabin actually grew on me.  Here I found a bit of quiet sanctuary for a nap or a little reading and note taking.

The main deck housed a spacious salon where we all gathered for meals, socializing, working on photographs, etc. and a good sized galley for meal prep. From the first introductory gathering of passengers and crew any trepidation I had felt dissipated immediately. Everyone turned out to be a total delight. Personalities ranged from funny, irreverent, gruff dry humor, to silly, witty and hilarious impressionists. Laughter can be so therapeutic, and this proved to be a week of therapy!

Beautiful brass porthole windows lined the walls of the salon. Each framed an alternating view of ice capped basalt mountains, towering glacier walls, skyscraper sized icebergs or miles of a shimmering pristine sea. The surface of the waters was ever changing from white capped rollers, to mirror calm placid glass as the days passed.

Captivating views

Captivating views

Being transported to a place that is so remote and “other worldly” heightened all of my senses. The quality of light at this latitude had an almost eery cast to it during the long 19 hour days of sunlight. After sunset, the night sky never grew fully dark at the end of August. Sadly, the Aurora Bourealis/Northern Lights eluded us as the night skies were too bright to allow the magic of the light show to be seen. 

A slushy sunrise

A slushy sunrise

However, the light of my first sunrise over this sea was a site to behold. As I stood at the deck rail, in front of me a glowing crimson sun slowly emerged along the horizon.  Very gradually a warm pink light began to dance over the slushy, near frozen surface of the water sending up tiny swirls of steam. Then rapidly her light shot like a like a star off the edge of a towering iceberg.  

The razor sharp cold of early morning air filled my lungs and felt simultaneously bracing and invigorating.  A peaceful quiet loomed, occasionally broken by the booming percussion of the glacier sloughing huge sheets of her crust, sending new icebergs into the frigid arctic water. I felt the sensory delight of the frigid air emanating off of the face of the blue/green glacier wall at my back, the faint but growing warmth of the sun on my face as dawn broke that first morning.

glacier face at sunrise

glacier face at sunrise

With the exception of the one night spent making a long run across some wide choppy water (where many us us shared a bit of that green pallor I was worried about) we were lucky with favorable weather. The better part of each day was spent on the deck watching this isolated world go by and attempting to capture in a photograph that which will not be possessed.

A Saturn ring around the sun

A Saturn ring around the sun

Each new day was met with the challenge……

of photographing the beautiful light as it played on the varied surfaces of the icebergs. Some were smooth as glass, others had a rippled, undulating surface. Each one so unique as a result of freezing and melting over and over, or wind and sea water eroding it into wild patterns. Shades of Arctic blues, greens, turquoise and white swam between the sea, the ice and the sky, daring us to capture the beauty within our camera lens.

iceberg

iceberg

Due to calm winds for most of the week we were not able to sail, relying on our motor only.  Luckily the crew was kind enough to raise all the sails and allow us to photograph this lovely ship from the zodiacs with a massive glacier as her backdrop. She’s a proud beauty that Donna Wood.  As is her Captain,  Sunn. 75 years old, slight in build but and as strong as a bridge cable. He’s been on the sea since he was 13 and had set foot on nearly every country in the world. His gruff exterior belied his dry humor, but not a man to mess with. Frankly, just who you want to have at the helm when negotiating massive icebergs 24/7 in and area where there is no chance of rescue should something go awry.

The Donna Wood Sailing Ship

The Donna Wood Sailing Ship

Stepping out of the comfort zone…..

One crisp and clear afternoon, as we motored between 2000’ granite cliffs in a narrow fjord, I had the thrilling experience of climbing the mast’s rope rigging up to its 50’ peak.  My heart raced as I stepped into a harness  (which would prevent my fall from grace into the fridge waters below) and began to climb using carabiners to advance up the rigging. The feeling of freedom at the top was like nothing I had ever experienced.  I quietly muttered to myself, “ Holy Sh*^t I am at the top of a 50 foot mast on a fjord in Greenland!”  That was a moment  I’ll not soon forget. All thanks to my hubby and his love of adventurous travel!

climbing the rigging

Up Up & Away

Ittoqqortoormiit Village

Ittoqqortoormiit Village

We ended our trip with a short visit to the only village on Greenland’s Eastern coast IItooqqoortoomitt, its population a mere 500. The name translated means “ those who live in big houses”.  The village was settled by a small group of native Inuits in 1925. Fatalistic, calm and optimistic in nature, they struggle to live their traditional way of life hunting and fishing for Musk Ox, Polar Bear Seals, Arctic Fox and Halibut.  During the short summer months the ice on the bay melts, preventing them from using their dog sleds to cross the wide bay to more distant hunting grounds, isolating them even further.

From our ship the village appeared charming. Small colorfully painted wooden houses dotted the hilly banks of the bay, each roof steeply peeked to prevent damage from winter’s heavy snowfall.  A few dirt roads circle though the village, the only roads on this side of the country. We walked up the hill from the quay to get a sense of life in one of the most remote settlements on earth. At one end of the village a tall wooden platform had been constructed by the hunters of the village.  Here they cured, for many months, the hides of their hunt. That day there were two hides drying in the sun, a Polar Bear and a Musk Ox, the sustenance for several families. 

On this trip I learned that Greenland is a Territory of Denmark. Up until now,  I had always assumed it was a country. We also learned this small village is in danger of being relocated to the more populated West Coast of Greenland by the Danish government. The reason due to the high costs of supplementing the village’s needed health and educational services. Our understanding was that the village would be able to vote on the issue.  However, when I asked a resident they seemed to feel relocation would not happen. Was that their optimistic nature at work?

Musk Ox or Mutton…..

The unofficial mayor and his wife very graciously invited us to join them for a traditional dinner prepared in the village. Musk Ox was on the menu. I was very curious to sample this traditional Inuit cuisine. It was braised with onions and tasted very much like lamb, as it is in the sheep family oddly enough. This surprised me.  I thought they resembled buffalo a bit. Their appearance was deceiving though. Their long wooly coats made them look like a wooly mammoth, but they were spry like sheep.

drying platform for hides

drying platform for hides

Musk Ox, Umimmak, in the native Inuit language, means ‘long bearded one’. The bulls can reach up to 800 lbs and provide much needed meat, warm skins and wool for clothing for the villagers. Calm grazers of the tundra, they will move away from you when they see you from a distance.  However, we learned from our guide, that if you came over a rise and surprised them they would trample you most certainly. Hence, whenever we went ashore our guide donned her trusty rifle to prevent any unwelcome interactions between us and an annoyed Polar Bear or Musk Ox.

Watching out for those pesky Polar Bears

Our guide watching out for those pesky Polar Bears

In this frozen world wild life in general was few and far between.  Hoping to see Polar Bear, Walrus, Arctic Fox, Lemmings or Whales, which do live here, this week we came up nearly empty. We had  just a few sitings of Musk Ox in the distance and an occasional seal. Nonetheless, this was truly an adventure and an experience I will treasure. Not only was the scenery spectacular to behold, our photographs will help us to savor this memory and allow us to revisit this magnificent wild country in the future. I only hope that our world population can at some point come to understand the important responsibility we all have to ensure this splendid wilderness is able to continue to exist.

 

 

 

SIDE NOTE:

Countries around the world have many Mythological Legends for the Aurora Borealis (click the link to read the myths) to explain the phenomenon. In Reykjavik, Iceland there is a very interesting interactive exhibit, Aurora Reykjavik explaining the Aurora. Most flights to Greenland originate from that city so a visit to the exhibit is well worth your time.

October 6, 2017

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