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Category Archives: Greenland
This morning we awoke to a strange new sound … and when you are living on a yacht in the arctic new sounds take on a new significance. The thing is, life aboard a yacht is never quite quiet. You become attuned to all the range of creaks, groans, tappings, whistles and gurgles that are the boat talking to you – and they are all sending you a message. The wind is increasing, the waves are building, there is a loose rope that needs to be tightened … you end up learning to know the language of the ship and what she wants you to do when she wakes you from your sleep with a whisper in your ear (or a scream as sometimes happens). This morning however, we awoke to a bizarre gurgling, scraping, grinding sound that was enough to raise the hairs on the back of the neck.
Needless to say such a strange sound caused a surge of adrenalin through the system and before you could say “hungry polar bear” I was up on deck in my long johns trying to decipher this cryptic new message from our yacht “Widdershins”. The vision that greeted my eyes was a new one for me: the entire bay that we had anchored in overnight had been transformed from a calm oasis with gently lapping waves into a solid sheet of ice that had formed overnight. The view was completed by the heads of a couple of ringed seals popping out from the occasional lead to peer at the strange apparition that was gurgling and grinding away to break the tranquillity of a perfect arctic dawn.
The gurgling, scraping noise, as it turns out, was caused by the ice drifting past the hull as it was carried out of the bay with the outgoing tide. The wind was dead calm and thus grinding of the ice caressing our hull as it sought escape was the only sound apart from the occasional snort of the bemused seals looking on with sceptical eyes. The grinding ice was doing no damage to the hull of course as it was only about 1 cm thick, yet I was a little worried about the sharp edges sawing through the rope anchor line that was holding us stationary in relation to the ice. A bit of quick thinking and I had a boat hook wrapped around the rope to take the brunt of the abrasion and we could relax. I was free to take in this novel experience with a hot cup of coffee.
As I sat on deck with my hands wrapped around the mug it was again time to reflect that the season was coming to a close. The winter is fast approaching and before long this bay will be permanently encapsulated in sea ice. Definitely time to head south along with the continuous flights of barnacle geese winging overhead. We just have to wait out the next storm system passing through tomorrow and we will raise the anchor and head on.
First up, apologies for the scarcity of blogs of late but it turns out the satellite reception here on the remote east coast of Greenland is somewhat occluded by the towering peaks and icecaps that surround us. Nether-the-less we have been busy exploring the region …. In the water, along the coast and inland!
Once settled into the picturesque anchorage of Ittoqqortoormiit we quickly donned the dry suits and plunged into the water which our dive computers quickly pointed out was somewhere in the range of 0-3°C! Despite the slight ice-cream headache experienced upon slipping into the clear waters the life here is far more varied and colourful than we have seen elsewhere in the Arctic. Here we started seeing larger fish in amidst the waving fronds of kelp and an array of shrimps, brittle stars, nudibranchs, ascidians and other life to provide distraction from the cold. There is also an interesting array of bottles, bullet clips, china and other refuse lining the underwater landscape to stand as testimony to the almost 100 years of human occupation in this remote outpost.
Once dried out we headed further into Scoresbysund, the largest fjord system in the world, and ultimately anchored in the deep ford named Hurry Inlet by Scoresby. The aim here was to find the elusive musk oxen that roam these hills. After twenty kilometres of stumbling over varied terrain that included sandy desert, arctic tundra, rocky scree, swampy moorland and jagged boulder fields we had found plenty of signs of the beasts, such as prints, errant tufts of hair, droppings and the odd skull left by a more successful tracker than us … but still no ox! Regardless of this failure we had perhaps one of the most pleasant walks of the trip thus far.
Our stroll included some fantastic wildlife sightings such as a pair of bright white arctic hares bounding over the rock fields, small pippits playfully dogging our footsteps and the Greenlandic white morph of the gyrfalcon circling overhead. After Leonie expressed her doubts about any polar bears possibly heading this far into the fjord we also stumbled over a long line of fresh polar bear prints ambling along the shoreline! The vegetation also caught our eye. Colourful flowers still nodded on the slopes of the hill; however the fields of dwarf birch and other vegetation displayed hues of red and orange to flag the rapidly approaching end of summer. Clearly the season here is drawing to a close and it is time for us to head south in the wake of the many flights of geese winging overhead … next stop Iceland!
Last night the fog that had been shrouding our passage across the Greenland Sea lifted to display a bright sun in a glorious blue sky. The horizon was punctuated by the first icebergs of the passage lined up like the teeth of the world. As the sun lowered towards the west we found ourselves skirting towers of ice reaching with craggy fingers towards the heavens. However, the new experience of night at these latitudes promised a scary new adventure – sailing through ice in the dark! As it turned out we had pretty clear seas for most of the night with only the occasional berg glowing white in the gloom. It wasn’t until the darkest hour of the night that we finally found our nerves a little frayed as we suddenly hit bands of dense fog…and those scattered dots on the radar … waves or ice? Oh …. ice ….. lots of it!
I have to admit my nerve failed me …. Rather than steering blindly through an unknown field of ice I dropped the sails, did an about turn to steer around the nearest few bergs and then settled down to drift amongst the ice until the light returned. It turned out to be a good choice. The scattered bergs we stumbled across were actually the outliers of quite a substantial band of sea ice that it took quite a few hours of twisting and turning to get though. The ice here is very different to Antarctica where generally you encounter single year sea-ice that is low and flat in profile. Here the sea ice is ridged and hummocked from the immense pressures of the drifting ice pack of the pole. Occasionally towering chunks of multi-year ice stand like monsters amidst the other flows and our poor little Widdershins looked like a toy boat amidst the splendid and scary sight of the Arctic pack ice.
Luckily dodging ice was only a limited diversion and soon clear waters opened up with only the occasional majestic berg bobbing on a horizon that was now clear and crisp. Passing the band of ice seemed to be like crossing a barrier into the true arctic – suddenly the temperature plummeted below zero, there was ice on the rigging and when the sails clapped in a gust of wind they sendt plates of ice crashing to the deck. We had also passed into whale territory – soon after the sea-ice slipped behind in our wake we were seeing the occasional blow of a whale on the horizon and soon we had the tails of humpback whales gracefully tipping up beside the boat as the beasts slipped into the depths. We encountered several; groups of humpbacks, some of which circled the boat very closely to cast a curious eye at us, as we in turn ran euphorically backwards and forward watching these beautiful animals.
Regardless of the spectacular end to the passage these weary sailors were looking forward to a rest, and the sight of the settlement of Ittoqqortoormiit (more pronounceabely known as Scoresbysund) was a welcome relief. Against the forbidding backdrop of bare rock and a distant ice cap, this small settlement is a small island of humanity in a rugged, icy land. However, it is also a community like nothing else we have encountered. Here subsistence hunting is the general rule – with only 2 supply ships bringing fresh provisions each year the local people rely very much upon harvesting seal, muskox, ducks and polar bear to provide the nutrition they need. Hanging up beside the drying clothes in front of the houses it is a common sight to see the shaggy pelt of an musk ox, or the white hide of a bear sending its rank odour into the breeze.
After a short period of awkward glances and shy hellos the people here have provided a warm welcome to us – in fact we can barely walk down the street without being accosted by children attacking us with imaginary guns or other inventive games of “tourist baiting”. It is another world here, but it a world that offers serenity and a pace of life that allows the community to develop its own unique identity. Here people count the seasons not the hours and there is no rushing. In fact it will be a hard place to leave.