|Paddling East Greenland: Just Water, Mountains and Ice |
Story and photos by Rick Wiebush
It was way too late to go back when I realized I left my Tevas and fanny-pack on the take-out beach at Sermiligaaq. I was hunkered down in the equipment-cramped “cabin” of a 24 foot fishing boat trying to avoid the penetrating wind and icy rains that were pounding East Greenland. Glimpses of the jagged, snow-capped 2,000 meter peaks flashed by. The Danish ex-patriate skipper (who, by the way, looked exactly like a logo on a can of clam chowder) slalomed a swooping, wake-spraying course through the giant ice floes of the Sermiligaaq fjord, just a few miles south of the Arctic Circle.
Wendy and I were crammed inside the hatch, surrounded by the 20 or so bulging dry bags, one of the Feathercraft doubles, all the cooking stuff, four duffle bags loaded with group equipment and all the other items large and small needed for the 10 day paddling expedition that we had just completed. We were like those last few things that get stuffed and smushed mercilessly into the last available space of a kayak before the hatch cover gets wrestled closed and buckled shut. But, compared to Mike and Gunnar, we had it good. Cramped yes, but relatively warm and dry. The two of them were up on the deck, barely able to open their eyes in the face of the driving, sleety rain. They were shivering constantly during the trip back to Kulusuk, the Inuit village that had been our starting point on 16 July. My somewhat less than halfhearted offers to switch places with them were met with an admirable stoicism. They said they wanted to fully experience this last segment of our trip. I secretly urged them to keep on living life to the fullest, and to stay right where they were. And, not one to push my luck, I decided that any suggestion that we might think about going back to get my sandals would be best left unspoken. Instead, while sharing sips of hot coffee, I replayed some of the events and impressions of the last 10 days in this cold water paddling paradise.
The trip was run by Iceland-based Ultima Thule Expeditions (www.ute.is), who operate year round, primarily in Iceland (paddling, skiing, mountaineering, dog sledding). But they also run about 6 – 8 paddling trips to Greenland each year. Ultima Thule roughly means “exploration at the outer limits” and, in terms of the place, if not the difficulty of the paddling itself, our trip met that definition. East Greenland is definitely at the outer limits of civilization. There are few people, fewer buildings, no roads. It is remote and rugged: just water, mountains and ice. As far as you can see.
There were seven of us – a great mix in terms of nationalities: John-Paul and Marian from the Netherlands, Maria from Sweden, Wendy from Canada, Mike and I from the US, and the guide, Gunnar, from Iceland. We were also a good mix in terms of personalities, and meshed well as a group. Everyone was a strong paddler, so we didn’t have the potential problem of being slowed down by inexperienced or uncertain folks. Everyone spoke English well and we did a lot of laughing, thanks largely to Mike (who had a creative quip for just about every situation), Jean-Paul (who’s command of English is so good that he’s funny even in his second language), and Wendy (who at times seemed to be the reincarnation of Martin Short’s loose-limbed, Pat Sajack obsessed, Ed Grimley character.)
With the exception of that last day of relentless rain and piercing cold, we had great paddling weather. Seven of the 10 days had brilliant sunshine, with sparkling water that produced perfect mirror images of the mountains and icebergs. Typically the day-time temperature was in the 50s, but reached into the 70s for an hour or two on a couple of days. (On the other hand, the temperature dropped significantly the closer our proximity to the glaciers.) Lows most nights were in the 30s. Two of the days were cloudy/foggy and rainy, with highs in the 40s, but the low-lying clouds created spectacular shrouds draped around the flanks of the mountains.
Here was the problem: once we stopped paddling for more than 10-15 minutes, we’d start to get cold (except right at mid-day on the really warm days). This problem was particularly acute at the end of the day, when we were slightly wet, there was a slight breeze and the temperature was dropping into the 40’s. If we didn’t change into dry, warm clothes as soon as we got off the water, we would be deep chilled for the rest of the evening. Of course, I didn’t take this basic step (sometimes because I was going to go back out paddling; usually because I was stupid), and consequently was cold all the time.
It’s true: the sun did not set. It came close, dipping down behind the mountain peaks around 11 PM, but it never got dark. Instead, from 11 until about 4 in the morning, it was a constant state of twilight. If you wanted to, you would be able to sit outside at 2 AM and read a book without using a headlamp. No one in the group ever used a headlamp or flashlight for anything during the whole trip. In fact, I don’t think anybody brought one.
The sea water was extremely cold, just above freezing. If anyone had gone over, they would have had maybe 5 minutes until ……
There was fresh water everywhere due to the snow melt. Spectacular 100 meter waterfalls made exclamation marks on cliff faces. Swollen streams surged through boggy peat and over rocky ledges at every camp site. Just walk over and dip in your Nalgene bottle; no need to worry about having to treat this water.
We used 3 folding Feathercraft doubles and a Feathercraft single. The doubles are pretty amazing boats that hold an extraordinary amount of equipment and supplies, but which can also get up to a pretty good traveling speed, and can withstand the inadvertent scraping encounters with bergy bits and brash ice. But, they are doubles, and the word “agile” is not in their vocabulary or behavioral repertoire.
Gunnar was good about letting people use his single, and it was such a contrast to the doubles that I spent several late afternoons putting in extra miles or just playing around in his boat. What a treat to be able to induce immediate turns by just leaning slightly, and to be able to lay the boat over on its side. Using some doubles is probably important for this kind of trip, but I’d prefer a single any day, just for the sense of responsiveness and control. The idea of a folding boat never really appealed to me until this trip. But to be able to pack up your kayak and take it on a plane to wherever you want to paddle is - now that I’ve seen what they can do - very intriguing. (And the $4,000 USD price for a single isn’t outrageous when you think about glass or Kevlar boats that routinely cost about $3,000.)
This was a 12 day trip, with 2 ½ travel days sandwiching 9 ½ days on the water. We operated in and around 2 major fjords (Angmagssalik and Sermilaaq) and the numerous channels and islands that link them together. The area roughly falls between 65 and 66 degrees north and between 36 and 37 degrees west. The total paddling distance was just 165 kilometers – about 95 miles – but that doesn’t take into account all the wending and backtracking through the leads (and dead-ends) of the pack ice. We spent two days doing this kind of work and my hunch is that that added another 10 or so miles to the trip. (My evening paddles in the single added another 25-30 miles to my total.)
We got late starts – often not getting on the water until 10:15 or 10:30. When it’s light 24 hours a day, there’s not much of a rush to get somewhere before dark.. These late starts translated into late lunches (often around 2 or 3 PM) sometimes late campsite arrivals (a few times around 7 or 8 PM) and always, always late dinners (10 or 11 PM, very European).
In spite of the ruggedness of the terrain and remoteness of the place, the paddling itself wasn’t difficult at all. The two fjord systems are well protected from ocean winds and swells, and the strongest winds we encountered were no more than 15 knots - just enough to create a little whitecapping. And that only happened on two occasions, while we were doing somewhat lengthy and exposed crossings.
Nor were the tides a serious factor. There were fairly substantial tidal shifts (.7 to 2.25 meters) but, either because the area was open enough, or because of the power generated by two people paddling, we never really struggled when going against the tide. That’s not to say that the tides weren’t an issue in other ways. When it was flooding, we had to be very careful about tying the boats up even when taking short breaks or stopping for lunch, since it would easily rise a foot or more in just a half hour. The tidal shifts also required some serious carrying when we camped each night and put in each morning. Particularly in the more shallow areas, getting the boats above the high water mark often meant lugging the kayaks 75-100 meters to make sure they were safe. Since most of the places we camped had extremely rocky beaches, this hauling back and forth was a major pain and there was an ever-present threat of seriously twisting an ankle or knee.
The real paddling story however was the ice. The pack ice, the glaciers, the polar ice, the bergy bits, the growlers, the brash ice – all of it. This was a whole new dimension to paddling for most of us (Wendy and Gunnar excepted), and it was fabulous. In fact, paddling in these icy conditions was the highlight of the entire trip (See “Highlights” below).
Here’s what the basic itinerary and mileage looked like:
Day 1. Kulusuk to the Copacabana club: 7 nautical miles (This was the name we gave to our first camp that was almost due north of Kulusuk on the east side of Angmassalik fjord. It has a real sand beach – the only one we’ll see – and a small hunters’ cabin.) Highlight of the day: introduction to very complicated pack ice.
Day 2. From Copacabana we head almost due east through the Ikasak sound to the west side of Neurniagkat island: 8-9 nautical miles. More pack ice; at one point having to get out of the boats and cross an ice bridge to continue.
Day 3. From Neurniagkat head back east and then due north to the west side of an island just south of Kuummiut:13-15 nm. Our intended route into Sermiligaaq fjord is totally blocked by pack ice, and we have to back track to find clear route. At lunch, temps reach into the 70s. Stunning views of 1,000 meter peaks to northwest of Kuummiut. Camp site has Inuit graves with human heads exposed. 6 mile solo paddle for me.
Day 4. Go northeast to the south end of Tuno bay: 8 nm. Quick stop in village of Kuummiut. Cross an isthmus that is covered only at high tide. When the tide is coming in at this point, it comes from two different directions, creating rapids that flow to the northeast and then switching mid-stream to rapids that flow from the opposite direction. So you are flying with the current one minute and then slamming into the on-coming current the next minute. This type of tidal convergence is a first – and an eye-opener - for all of us.
Day 5. From Tuno camp head northeast through the Ikateq and enter Sermiligaaq fjord at north end:16-18 nm. Stop at an abandoned WW II USAF base. Hundreds of rusted 55 gallon drums covering the hillside. French group in Zodiacs shows up.
Day 6. Seven mile paddle up the fjord and then east toward Kerale Glacier. Set up camp and 6 mile afternoon paddle to the east arm of the glacier. Fog and low lying clouds drift in, blanketing the mountains and giving whole scene a mysterious, Lord of the Rings quality. Rain all night.
Day 7. Stay at this camp. 5 mile hike up to about 800 meter peak with view of entire Sermiligaaq fjord and Rasmussen glacier. Rainy all day. I paddle the single 8-10 miles up to the face of main Kerale glacier and back.. Others hike, others take day off. Rain all night. Ice bergs remain littered across the beach at low tide.
Day 8. Paddle 5 nm to camp just south of Rasmussen glacier, on east side of Sermiligaaq fjord. Stop for an hour right in front of the glacier to watch it calving (another “Highlight”). Rainy all morning, clearing in PM. Paddle the single an additional 10 miles in evening; almost get trapped in accumulated pack ice on return.
Day 9. Paddle 18 nm from Rasmussen camp to Leif’s island, just south of Sermiligaaq village. Huge blocks of polar ice – the first we’ve seen - in Sermiligaaq fjord. Temperature reaches about 70 F for a few hours in afternoon. Spectacular “sunset” of gold and red clouds right after dinner at 1 AM.
Day 10. Pouring and bitter cold in the morning. Paddle 2 miles to Sermiligaaq for pick up by two motorboats. Cold, rainy, windy 1½ - 2 hour ride back to Kulusuk and the hotel, showers and a lot to drink.
The Flora and Fauna
This is an arctic environment: there are no trees; there are no bushes. Few things grow higher than about one inch. But interesting mosses, lichens and delicate grasses were everywhere, and we periodically saw small flowers in bloom. We were also surprised by a few low-slung blueberry bushes.
Given the onset of summer and the breaking up of the ice, we didn’t see many of the usual inhabitants of the area – seals and polar bears – who move northward in summer to stay with the icy environment in which they thrive. We saw one seal, who took one look at us, quickly dove, and took off for parts unknown. Two days later, we heard hunters shoot another one (or the same one?) and saw them throw its carcass to some sled dogs who were being kept on an island for the summer. We saw no whales – they don’t show up until August. Even the birds and gulls were in short supply – we were stunned by how many we didn’t see in this marine environment. An eider duck here; a ptarmigan mom with six chicks there; but not much more. The exception to this was in the immediate area of the Rasmussen glacier. There, about one hundred gulls were hanging out on the blocks of ice lying in the water just below the face of the glacier. Right after sections of the glacier would calve, these guys would all fly up and start swooping in the area of the calving. We couldn’t see exactly what they were doing, since we were 250-300 meters away, but my hypothesis was that the fish in the water would get stunned by the blocks of ice falling off and the birds would sweep down and snatch them. Maybe.
The only animal we saw with any frequency – other than mosquitos - was the arctic fox. These are very small animals (maybe twice the size of most domestic cats) who are very curious and potentially pesky around a camp site. The first night out, I surprised one that was sitting in the front cockpit of one of the beached doubles, looking through the various dry bags, apparently trying to figure out what exactly he wanted to have for dinner that night. A quick shout was enough to send him trotting away, with a somewhat sullen look on his face. Others showed up at other campsites, and we came across one while hiking high up on a ridge. This one followed us and hung around for a mile or two, obviously hoping to score some food.
Ah yes, the mosquitos. The good news is that they were only out for about an hour or so in the morning and again for an hour in the evening. The bad news is that when they were out, they were out big time. They were swarming, sneaky and vicious. At times it seemed there were clouds of them swirling around. But they were thoughtful mosquitos; not the kind that go buzzing around in your ears, flying into your eyes and standing around in your oatmeal. No, these guys were kind of quiet and surreptitious. They could land on you and apparently just sit around for while. You didn’t have a sense of getting bitten every time one (or 200) landed on you. It was only later that you came to the painful realization that they had in fact done their dirty work. They were sneaky in another way too. If you were totally covered – head, arms, legs – and had lots of Deet on your face, ears, hands, etc. they simply went where the protection wasn’t. Namely, they found a way to crawl down your collar and have a feast on your back. This happened to me on the first night out and I had to use a ladle as a back scratcher for the next 5 days. It happened to Gunnar on the next to last night out. He showed us the results by taking off his shirt during dinner at the hotel on the last night – his back was literally covered with red welts. It looked like he had been hit at close range by several blasts of buckshot. Very, very nasty creatures.
Since none of us spoke any Inuit, there wasn’t much communication with the people we ran across in the villages. Mostly nods and “hi’s” as we dragged up the boats or walked around. Much more than that would have been difficult for us since in the Inuit language(s) there apparently are requirements that: 1) each word must contain at least 43 letters; and, 2) you have to pronounce each word as though you had a medium-sized whale bone stuck in your throat. We gave up shortly after our first attempt to say “hi” in Inuit (“arrrghgghammgtgrktimmouldggack”).
One particularly appetizing seal meal is made from the seal’s stomach. They take the stomach and stuff it with little dead birds, tie it up outside on a clothesline-type arrangement, and let it sit for a couple of weeks. Then – I am not making this up - they eat it. We actually saw this stuff hanging from lines in the villages. We didn’t ask if we could have some.
These folks are hunters. They hunt seals and polar bears (and maybe narwhal?). In the summer, it’s done from power boats; in the winter they use sleds and dog teams. It is subsistence-level living and very focused on the here and now. “We need some food for the rest of the week – let’s go hunting.” They go get a seal and then they’re set for the next couple of days. (There’s also a small monthly stipend that every family gets from the government.) Gunnar told the story of a Danish factory that opened up in East Greenland and hired a lot of local folks. They all worked real hard for two weeks, got their pay, and then didn’t show up for work again until the money was gone. Here and now. I think the factory ended up bringing a bunch of Danes over to do the work.
There is a strong communal element to the hunts. It’s not like everyone is on his own and has to catch enough food for his family. Instead, if three guys (and I’m pretty sure it’s only the guys) are out hunting together and get a seal, the one who actually shoots it get half and the other half is divided up among the other two hunters. There’s a slightly different arrangement for polar bear kills. The person who spots the bear in the first place gets half the meat; the person who actually does the killing gets the skin plus one fourth of the meat, and the final fourth is divided up among the villagers. Clearly, the society places a high premium on providing the hunters with the opportunity to get a bear. Any body can kill one – it’s the person who finds one to kill that reaps the biggest benefit. And spotting is an equal opportunity job – it can be a grandmother just looking out the window or, presumably, a kid walking home from school.
Like any paddling trip, there’s a lot of elements that add up to make it a good (or bad) trip. There’s the rhythm of the paddling, the feeling tired at the end of the day, the people in the group, the animals, the campsites, the food, the laughter and all the little day-to-day “events” and scenes. We had all of that. But for me it was the larger context that really made this trip special. Three things stood out for me:
1. The remoteness.
I have never paddled in a place that had so few people, so few boats, so few signs of civilization, and that was so far from anything other than spectacular, extremely rugged wilderness. When North Americans and Europeans hear the word “Greenland”, they generally think “remote”. When most Greenlanders hear the words “East Greenland” , they think “really !@#$% remote” (I think this is translated as: “ansillatseg quinggattsookalot”), and they’re right. Something like 95% of the 55,000 Greenland population lives on the western or southern coasts of Greenland.
The other couple thousand people live in the two “cities” on the east coast – Tasiilaq/Angmagssalik (65 deg 37min N) and Scoresbysund/Ittoggortoormiit (70 deg 48 min N) - or in the Inuit villages spread around the fjords near those towns. We encountered three Inuit villages during our 100 mile trip: Kulusuk, Kuummiut and Sermiligaaq, each of which had approximately 35–40 houses and a few hundred people.
During our ten days on the water we saw: three other kayakers on Day 1 who we never saw again; a dozen French tourists in three Zodiacs on Day 5; 3-4 Inuit motor boats (various days); and, also on Day 5, one supply ship heading to Kunnmiut. That’s it. With these few exceptions (and the villages) we saw no one and heard nothing except the crackling of pack ice, the wrummph of rolling bergs and the thunder of calving glaciers for 10 days. We saw no billboards, no neon (or any other kind of electric lights), no office buildings, no streets, no cars (except on Kulusuk), no pleasure craft, no cigarette boats, no Skidoos; not even any buoys. And, thank God, not one person talking on a cell phone.
Just mountains, water and ice. As far as you could see.
2. The scale.
Everything in East Greenland seems way outsized. Although they aren’t that high (1,000 – 2,000 meters), the mountains rise directly up out of the water, are very craggy, seem to loom over you, and stretch forever into the distance. The Angmagssalik and Sermaliq fjords themselves are big bodies of water, each about 3 miles wide and 10 to 15 miles long. And the size of the main glaciers we encountered (Kerale and Rasmussen) is difficult to comprehend – they are sheets of ice that are at least one mile wide and 80-100 meters high.
You feel the impact of this scale in two ways. First, visually estimating paddling distances is hard – you tend to seriously underestimate how far something is away from you. What looks like 2 miles is actually closer to 8 or 10. Second, the perspective gained when looking at an 18 foot kayak (or a person on land) against the enormous backdrops of mountains, fjords or icebergs drives home the realization that we are but incidental creatures in the grander scheme of things. The only thing in my experience that comes close to matching the scale of East Greenland is the Grand Canyon. I feel real tiny in both places.
3. The ice.
Shapes and Sizes. There is a stunning variety of ice types, shapes and sizes that makes each day of paddling a journey through wonderland. There’s pack ice, which is basically frozen sea water that is breaking up into large flat floes, separated by narrow channels of water. Generally, each floe was about one or two meters thick on top of the water, and another 8-10 meters thick under the water.
There are also “growlers” and “bergy bits”, which are free-floating chunks of ice that have broken off from pack ice, from local calving glaciers, or from larger ice bergs. Growlers are less than a meter high and less than 5 meters long. Bergy bits can range from 1-4 meters in height and from 5 -14 meters in length. We also routinely encountered small icebergs (5 - 15 meters high and 15 – 60 meters long).
The wind and water erode these blocks and can create fantastical shapes that are reminiscent of puffy cumulus clouds, or animals, or some of the turreted and domed rock formations that are seen in the canyons of southern Utah. In sections that have recently been exposed to the sun (typically after the berg has rolled), they cast a striking iridescent blue light, making it look like it has been lit from the inside.
Even jumping out onto land or an ice flow to get a better view may not help, especially when the ice is jammed up for a mile in all directions. You just can’t get enough perspective to see the way through (if in fact there is one). So, you back up, veer to the left or right, always looking for what might take you through, trying this way, then that way, circling back and continuously repeating the process until you (essentially) luck out and find a way through (or in some cases, don’t).
Then there’s polar ice. These are the big boys from out of town, the huge bergs that have drifted down from the glaciers located closer to the North Pole. When paddling, they appear to be entire islands or ocean liners floating by. Many that we saw were classified as “large” icebergs in that they were 125 – 200 meters long (think 2 football fields) and 50-75 meters high (think 15 story building). And that’s just what was above the water.
On that first day, we set off in high spirits into the ice-choked bay behind the Kulusuk hotel. Unfortunately, two hours, multiple probes and two or three looping, confused circles later, we were back within 100 meters of the hotel – an inauspicious start! We were eventually able to spot a way through by getting up on some rocks and tracking the progress of an Inuit motor boat that was nudging its way through the floes.
After paddling into and camping on the wide open Angmagssalik fjord, we turned into Ikasak sound in the afternoon of Day 2. There we soon discovered that the wind had blown in enormous amounts of pack ice that required some very tricky navigation. It got so bad at one point that we had to go up and over an ice bridge to continue our forward progress. We had spent an hour or two successfully making our way through the floes, but reached a point where we simply could see no clear waterway that would take us through. We were dead-ended in a two meter wide channel, but could actually see across the ice blocking our path to open water immediately on the other side.
Although this particular situation worked out fine, dealing with the pack ice obviously requires a lot of flexibility in trip planning and a lot of caution when actually among the floes. There are at least two significant dangers. One is at the micro level and involves the constant movement of the individual floes of pack ice. Especially when negotiating narrow leads and small openings, there is the possibility of getting a hole torn in a boat or worse, crushed if the two bergs suddenly shift and the lead gets closed. This happens very quickly. Mike and I at one point were heading for a small opening that was just wide enough for the kayak to slip through. We had spotted it when we were about 10 meters away. We had been frustrated several times in trying to find ways through this one section and quickly turned our boat to head for this opening. We paddled 3 or 4 strokes and were nearing the small gap, when it suddenly snapped shut. The two huge floes had run together in the space of about 1 minute. Luckily, we were still far enough away when this happened that we had time to put on the brakes and back out of what might have been a very dangerous situation.
The other potential danger is at the macro level. It involves getting trapped in an ice field, not being able to find a way through, not being near land, and having the whole field of ice get blown out to sea. This is not an unrealistic prospect. Having negotiated several of these fields, it is easy to see how a kayaker could get trapped in one. And we saw how the fields get blown in from the sea and back out in a matter of hours. This threat, Gunnar believes, is the single biggest danger of paddling in Greenland.
There I Was…, There I Was…. On Day 8, near Rasmussen glacier, pack ice movement gave me the biggest scare of the trip. We had had a fairly short day, paddling some 5 miles between the camp at Kerale glacier and a new one at Rasmussen. We had also just witnessed a massive calving of the Rasmussen glacier that had added a significant amount of ice to the floes that were already present in the mile-wide bay that the glacier feeds.
I was pretty psyched for some additional paddling so I took off to the south, in the single, through the busy, but very negotiable ice in the bay and out into the open waters of the larger fjord. I went five miles south, took a short break, turned around and paddled four miles back toward camp, enjoying the scenery and the solitude in both directions.
I hit trouble about a mile from the camp. The winds and tide had blown in new ice and pushed all the other ice into what appeared to be a mile-wide and mile-thick impenetrable barrier between me and the camp. The entire bay was shut off. I searched back and forth for leads across the entire mouth of the bay, none of which led anywhere. I sat up as high as I dared in the kayak to see if I was missing anything – I wasn’t. The only choices I had were to try to get the ½ mile to shore (but that way was blocked too) or to push ahead and try to find the points of least resistance through the ice. I choose the latter. Much of the stuff was brash ice, thinner in some spots than in others, and I carefully paddled through the thinnest stuff I could find. Although I was making some headway, the constant bumping into mounds of glacier ice with its sharp edges had me nervous about tearing the skin of the boat. Slowly twisting the kayak this way and that, paddling and pushing forward a few feet at a time, I made it to about the middle of this mess after about half an hour. That’s when I hit the solid stuff and had no where to go except up onto the ice itself.
So that’s what I did – I paddled up onto the ice. (This was shortly after Gunnar had mentioned that the most dangerous thing in Greenland was getting trapped in pack ice and getting blown out to sea. So there was no way I was going to just sit there.) You know that line about being up the creek without a paddle? Well, I had plenty of paddles. What I was desperately short of was water in which to put it. Luckily, I was totally out of the water, sliding along on the ice, for only a few feet before I broke back down into the thinner brash ice. From there, I had to negotiate the whole second half of this ice pack the way I had the first half: just nudging along, looking for thinner, softer stuff, wending my way through the weakest points, trying to avoid the sharp edges of the glacier ice. After what seemed like another 4 hours (actually probably only a half hour) I found open water about 75 meters from the camp site and sailed on in, albeit pretty shaken.
The Glaciers. The big glaciers are huge fields of deeply crevassed ice that are slowly moving their contents toward the fjords and the sea. I had no idea – no idea at all – how big glaciers can be. The ones I’ve seen in Glacier National Park are to the Kerale and Rasmussen glaciers what a sapling is to a mature oak.; what a Mini-Cooper is to a tractor trailer. And these mile-wide, 100 meter thick behemoths are constantly calving multi-ton chunks of ice with splintering cracks that sound just like thunder. (The calving is caused by pressures on the glacier face generated by the constantly changing tides.) We spent two half-days paddling up to and then just sitting in front of the two glaciers, watching and listening to the show. It’s fascinating, but after a while got a little routine – “oh look, there’s another piece the size of a house that just fell off”.
Routine that is, until the big one came down and sent us scattering in a panic. We had been sitting for a while in front of Rasmussen and were almost ready to leave when we noticed a lot of activity in one particular section of the glacier face. A lot of cracking, a lot of minor calving, huge jets of water spouting out from the face . This went on for about 10-15 minutes and then we witnessed a massive calving. (It was, Gunnar later reported, the biggest calving he had seen in 10 years of guiding in Greenland.)
I’m estimating here, but I think I’m close when I say that the piece of ice that came off was at least 50 meters wide and 90-100 meters high and 20 meters thick. It was so massive that it actually appeared to slide gently and slowly down into the bay. After almost completely submerging itself, it then rocketed back to the surface, as though it were an inflated balloon that someone had pushed underwater and then released.
We were elated by this sight ……. until we saw the set of waves that the concussion had created. Suddenly, racing toward us were 3-4 meter high, fairly steep swells that were roughly a quarter mile wide. Our eyes got approximately that big too. My first reaction was; “cool!” My second reaction was: “Holy @#$!” which led immediately to the third: stunned inaction. However, as the initial wave made its way toward us (we were the recommended “safe” 300 meters away from the face of the glacier), I had the sense that these really were just swells that could easily be ridden out. That’s when my partner Mike yelled: “OHMIGODTHEYREGONNABREAK!!!!!” What happened next was pretty comical. We turned that ponderous double 180 degrees in approximately 3.8 seconds. In that momentary panic, it somehow handled like a white water kayak. In retrospect, I imagine that Mike and I looked like we each had 7 or 8 paddles, all simultaneously flashing, digging, flailing. Then - get this – we actually tried to outrun the waves. That lasted all of five seconds, until they caught up to us.
There we were… there we were… And then the first massive wall of water oh so very gently lifted us up over the top and set us just as gently back down the other side. So did the next one, the one after that, and the five more (hey, no problem) that had been generated by this spectacular crashing block of calving ice. Meanwhile, throughout this helter-skelter of activity on the part of the clients, Gunnar sat there with his single facing the on-rushing walls of water, his face sporting a calm, albeit somewhat demonic, grin of delight.
Editors note: We call him whiskers. The dog is cute too!