What a wonderful world
As we take off from Reykjavik, even the weather in Iceland seems tolerable. No rain and only light cloud. The last few days have shown us quite clearly what a depression over Iceland is like. Storms and rain. To put it briefly - horrible weather.
During the flight, the pilot gives us the latest weather report - cloudless, sunny, temperature +7°C.
During the approach to Kulusuk, we see the first icebergs. There are so many that we ask ourselves if it will even be possible to get through them with the kayak.
The Fokker 50 touches down on an asphalt runway and comes to a halt before the end of it. When we get out of the plane, we feel that the temperature +7°C that had been reported was far too low. It feels as if it's about 15 - 20°C, accompanied by a deep blue sky and bright sunlight.
At the airport, one side of the arrival area is indicated by the innumerable bottles in the Duty Free Shop while, on the other side, there is the outstretched skin of a polar bear.
We have to wait a few minutes for our luggage. Most of the passengers don't have any luggage, as they are only on a day trip and will fly back to Reykjavik at 14 hours.
Kulusuk airport is situated on an island. There are two ways of getting to Tasiilaq - either by helicopter or by boat. We had chosen to go by boat, but we did not know who would pick us up and what he (or she) looked like. When we had put our rucksacks on and gone into the arrivals area, we looked around very carefully. We couldn't see anyone. Annette wanted to look outside. I looked around once again. An Inuit was standing right by the door. He looked at me and I looked at him. Then he said 'Red House'? That was the password. I said 'yes' and, in this uncomplicated way, we found the man with the boat, which was to take us to Tasiilaq.
First we stowed our gear in the back of a not exactly new 'pickup' vehicle and off we went to the landing stage. As it was low tide, it was not easy to get into the boat with a rucksack. The small boat was rather low, and we had to climb over rocks to get down to it. When everything had been stowed and the boat had cast off, we had time to look around us and to feel that we had really arrived.
The boat slid slowly out into the fjord. At first, the small boat was moving at a very moderate speed. With a surreptitious glance at his passengers, the Inuit slowly but surely increased speed. Boats coming towards us were greeted casually with one hand while, with the other, he guided the boat around lumps of ice and ice floes. More and more often, we had the feeling that he steered the boat round the ice at the very last minute.
I looked at the coastline and asked myself where the entrance to the Kong Oscar Fjord - and thus to Tasiilaq - could be. The boats that we met simply appeared from somewhere on the coast.
Slowly, we approached the mainland. A clear blue sky arched over the sea, the waves on which were only ripples. I looked at the sea from the angle of using a kayak - I felt reassured and contented. Such waves were no problem for us, but I was not sure if Annette would see it the same way. The wind was too strong then for us to be able to discuss the problem.
On entering the Kong Oscar Fjord, the water became smoother. The speed of the boat was a little more leisurely and, to a certain extent, we could get over the effects of the strong wind caused by the speed of the boat. Only when we had got to almost the end of the fjord were there signs of a town. With its 1700 inhabitants, Tasiilaq is the largest town on the East Coast.
Robert Peroni was waiting for us at the landing place and drove us to the Red House. The track up the hillside was steep and the thought of having to carry the six bundles with the parts of our boats, plus all the other equipment, down again made me sweat. However, when I asked, Robert was able to reassure me. The bundles were in the shed, down by where we had just landed. I could now relax for a while. On arrival at the Red House, we met Inge Weber, with whom we had already arranged a lot of things through correspondence. Inge then took us to our Greenland host family, where we were to stay for the first few days.
We had sent our collapsible boats and some of our equipment by post, from Germany to Greenland. It had not been so easy to do that - partly because the German Post Office is very fussy that its rules and regulations about size and weight are adhered to, and partly because some of the employees were always good for a surprise. As we handed in the third parcel, the post-office clerk asked 'It is going to Greece , isn't it?' We looked at him, taken aback and questioningly, and said that all the parcels that we had just posted were not going to 'Greece' but to 'Greenland'. It took him some time to correct those parcels that he had already accepted. Luckily, about two weeks later, we received a letter from Inge Weber saying that the parcels had arrived in Greenland.
Whale-watching the Greenland way
We have already made several whale-watching trips in various countries - New Zealand, Nova-Scotia, Newfoundland. So, when another German couple who were spending their last few days at the Red House, after a hiking tour, asked us if we would like to accompany them on such a trip, we didn't feel like refusing.
In other countries, the boats used for this purpose are somewhat larger and are fitted with all kinds of technical equipment, such as radar or echo-sounder. Here we sat in a small boat with an outboard motor. The only object which, as yet, we had not seen in boats when whale-watching was a rifle, laying in the boat. Tobias, the Inuit hunter, started off with us. First we went out of the Kong Oscar Fjord. Here, we were able to see the hunter's instinct. Without any technical aids, our hunter soon discovered the first whale blowing. We chased after it - never before had we been so near to whales. We were enthralled.
At breakfast the next morning, Robert told us that, after he had brought us back, Tobias took the boat out again and killed a whale.
Underway with Kayaks
When talking with Robert about the possible danger from polar bears, he said it was safer to take a rifle with us. The boots had already been assembled and most of our gear had been packed in the canoe-bags. The previous day, we had already made a short trip with the boat not-loaded on the Kong Oscar Fjord.
As the rifle and the satellite telephone were not yet available, we started off at first without weapons. We were to get the rifle and the phone Saturday afternoon. It was not exactly easy to load the boats by rising tide so, when we set off, we were rather squashed in the boats. Somehow, we managed to squeeze ourselves in, between our gear. As we didn't plan to go far that day, it was not so bad. We paddled to the other side of the fjord and, when we thought we couldn't go any further, we saw a narrow gap, leading into a lake-like arm of the fjord. There was even a small stream - which solved the problem of drinking-water. We unloaded the boats and set up our tent. Annette withdrew into the tent to read.
This is where having bought a mosquito net proved a blessing. With a mosquito net, one can stay outside without having the flying monsters continually getting into one's mouth or nose and crawling all over.
As we did not have to be in Tasiilaq until the afternoon of the next day - to pick up the satellite telephone and the rifle, we had plenty of time, so we could sleep longer. After having breakfast, packing our gear and loading the boat, we left just before midday. As we soon found out, we were still too early - the part of the fjord where we were was almost cut off from the other part when the tide was out. Although the tide soon turned, we had to get out of the boats in order to make them lighter.
When we arrived in Tasiilaq, the group which had the satellite telephone had not yet returned. We erected our tent and decided to spend the night in Tasiilaq. Having done this, we went to the book-shop and treated ourselves to an ice. This book-shop, which stays open until half-past-nine in the evening, is a meeting place for the local young people.
After our return, Robert came to bring us a rifle and a satellite telephone. Until now, we had never taken as many safety precautions on our travels. Robert showed us how to use the rifle. Secretly, I hoped I would never be forced to fire it at a polar bear. I must admit I hoped that the polar bear would either be frightened to death or die of laughing when it saw me. Of course, I didn't say anything, as I did not want to frighten Annette even more. On the other hand, I felt that the satellite telephone would be very useful in an emergency. Robert said we could also call if the weather was bad, and arrange to be picked up by a boat.
After everything had been explained, written down and signed, Robert wished us all the best and left us.
It was not so easy to also find a place for the rifle in the boat, but we managed to find one directly next to the seat. As the tide was ebbing, the way out of the Kong Oscar Fjord was a bit tricky, especially near the mouth of the fjord. Although the weather really fine, a wind - which we had not noticed while on land - caused very unpleasant waves. However, as soon as we had left the fjord behind us and headed in a northerly direction, paddling became far more pleasant again. After about two hours, our backs started to hurt, so we looked for a place where we could land and take a break. But the coast was either too steep, too rocky, or the breakers were too high to even think of landing there.
Suddenly Annette discovered a narrow opening and paddled towards it. I was not sure if one could get through it but I followed her. After getting through, we paddled along a section which was rather like a river, with high rocks on either side. It became wider and suddenly a smooth stretch of water was in front of us. The sky, the clouds and the mountains were reflected in it and a smooth pebbled beach lay right in front of us. By accident, we had discovered a wonderful camping place.
When we left the next morning, the beginning of our journey gave us almost a 'white water' feeling. The tide was going out and the water shot out through the narrow opening, spitting us and our boats into the open sea - the right way up. This example of the strength of the tides made quite an impression on us. Probably, passing through the gap in this direction would not be possible when the tide was coming in.
Continuing on our way, we came rather near to several imposing icebergs. They creaked and groaned, as if complaining about their arduous journey. The shapes and the colours were fascinating. When seen from another angle, the iceberg suddenly looks completely different.
In the search for a camping place for that evening, it was important to find one where there was fresh water, as our supplies were almost used up. When on the sea, I always find it both fascinating and frightening to be surrounded by so much water but, at the same time, to have to look for fresh water.
The search proved difficult, as it was almost impossible to hear the murmur of a small stream against the background of all the other noises. Finally, we find a spot that meets almost all of our wishes. As we were unloading the boats, Annette's boat suddenly decided to make itself independent and drifted off. Only through a plucky step into the rather cold water was she able to stop anything worse from happening. We pulled the boats on land in order to prevent a greater disaster. For our tent, we found a higher but fairly even place, from which we had a good view across the bay.
The weather became increasingly like autumn. At times, it was rather windy, so it was not easy to cook. Thermal underwear and a fleecy windproof jacket formed our first choice for clothing. For a long time, we had considered whether wet-suits were necessary for when we were paddling, but we decided against them. A wet-suit has the disadvantage that liquid from inside (sweat) also can't get out. At the same time, we realized that overturning would also be a serious problem. The temperature of the water and the amount of ice floating in it made bathing in it appear inadvisable. We had already read enough about the dangers of hypothermia (exposure).
For the next few days, we were stuck more or less fast because of fog. We soon broke off an attempt to paddle in the fog, as orientation was almost impossible, especially because there was a strong wind and high waves. Because of this, we decided to use the satellite phone to call Robert and ask him what the weather forecast was. The information received from Robert was not exactly pleasing. As of the next day, the weather would be considerably worse. So we decided to paddle back to Tasiilaq.
The weather the next morning was beautiful. We started on our way back, hoping to reach Tasiilaq before the weather broke. After eight hours in the kayak (without a break), we were still about 6 km (as the crow flies, according to GPS) from Tasiilaq. In the course of the day, the weather had deteriorated considerably and, at some point, we had the feeling that we were making no progress against the waves.
We were both completely exhausted and looked for a place to spend the night. We couldn't feel our hands, our feet or our backsides. After we had erected the tent, Annette immediately crept into her sleeping-bag. With frozen fingers, I tried to cook an evening meal. Gradually, we started to feel pins-and-needles in our hands and feet. The next morning, we found that the pins-and-needles and lack of feeling persisted in some joints of our fingers. We believed we were suffering from at least slight frostbite. While paddling, Annette had worn her paddling gloves, mine were in the boat but I had not had them on.
The next day, it took us about 4 hours for the remaining 6 km. The weather had really deteriorated, and there was fog for part of the time. Luckily, it was only in patches, which we were able to get through fairly quickly. It is a frightening feeling when one can see nothing but water (and fog). The waves were so high that I could not see Annette and her boat at all when she as in a trough. When the first motor-boats overtook us in the entrance to the fjord, we knew that we were going in the right direction. The entrance to the fjord is relatively narrow and the sea was surging against the boats from both sides. The waves were thrown back from the rock, causing breakers through which it was not easy to paddle. Only as we got further into the fjord did the water slowly become calmer.
When getting out of the boat in Tasiilaq, I almost managed to take a ducking. Only Annette's quick reaction prevented it. After the boats had been unloaded and the tent set up, we made our way up the hill in the direction of the Red House, carrying our most important pieces of gear. We were again housed with the family, with whom we had stayed on arrival.
The bad weather which Robert had forecast did not come for several days. But, when it did come, we were very happy that we were no longer on the water, in our kayaks.
Seals in the water and on our plates
For the days until we left, we had not only breakfast but also our evening meal at the Red House. Of course, food produced in Greenland formed the basis of our evening meal. It was excellently prepared by the Belgian cook. Thus, for example, it also included seal and whale-meat. The seal meat (boiled in water from the sea) is very dark and has a very strong taste. It forms a very important part of the diet of the Inuit. In the harbour, there were several dead seals - the water was used as a natural refrigerator for them until they were needed for the cooking-pot.
During the last couple of days, we had to take our boats apart and pack them. Just as on the way here, they were to return to Germany by post. This time, everything fitted into four parcels. As we were sending the parcels by surface mail this time, we were not limited to a weight of 20 kg. About six weeks after we got home, the four parcels reached us within the course of a week.
Our stay also neared its end. When we arrived, Robert had asked us if we had been to Greenland before. We said we hadn't. He then said that it would certainly not be our last visit. In the meantime, both Annette and I feel that, although this was our first visit, it would definitely not be our last one to (East) Greenland.
© Annette Baur and Reinhold Strecker , April 2005