Icecaps, katabatic winds, and vivid red tundra

Past passenger Ian Nowak writes of his experiences on a European Arctic voyage with Aurora Expeditions. 

 

At the end of a very wet and windy day in Reykjavik, we flew to a fjord in the far northwest of Iceland and embarked for a two-week voyage on the smallish ship (gross tonnage: 1750) that we had first become happily familiar with nearly seven years ago. I say ‘happily’, although on our first night across the Denmark Strait and for much of the following day my wife relived the acute seasickness of her crossing of the Drake Passage in 2007. I, on the other hand, enjoy the endless ‘corkscrewing’ motion, but I’ve never been game to tell her that. Mid-morning on the second day the ship anchored, seasickness became but a memory, and we zodiaced to the isolated Inuit community of Ittoqqortoomiit (‘Ee-tokka-toor-mit’), the first and last settlement we saw over the next seven days of poking north up the Greenland coast.

The fjord systems of the east coast of Greenland are immense — eclipsing those which are more familiar in Norway, although all fjords are the result of ice gouging as land rose from the sea for whatever reason. Ittoqqortoormiit is nestled in a northern bay protected from the ocean just inside Scoresby Sund. The population is around 450. Some years ago, the Danes, who still administer Greenland, collected all the remaining Inuit families from farther north and ‘more or less voluntarily transferred them’ to this southernmost settlement. Today, tourism is a major economic component of their survival which, in more immediate terms they achieve by hunting seals, walruses, polar bears and arctic foxes. We were told before leaving our ship that they never hunt for sport and were therefore requested ‘not to engage any prejudices’ we may carry. Fair enough.

The folk of this small community were happy enough to welcome some forty ‘invaders’ — for one thing, many of us spent a few kroner on souvenirs, local artwork, or food products . The smoked musk ox tasted nice enough, but I chose to buy an excellent map of Greenland, which I now have laminated and hanging on a nearby wall as I write. Last chance, actually — we did not see a single local soul for the next week. The small town is bleak, bare and seemingly bereft of comfort. Dog handlers breed huskies for hunting and tourist sledding (no snow in August!), a weather balloon is released daily, and transport is by four-wheel buggy. A store, a school, a church, a hospital, even a police station, to which is attached a children’s playground, are all well maintained. Very clean of litter, in part due to brightly painted bins (used fuel drums). An austere existence indeed, and after a couple of hours, I sensed that most of us repaired to the mother craft more than satisfied with our own way of life. And is this not, so often, the whole point of travel?

This account is not chronological, and it suffices to emphasise that each day was characterised by some of the most beautiful scenery one could imagine, and constant geological, archaeological, faunal, floral, anthropological and meteorological stimulation and experiences. Each morning (and most afternoons) brought a trip by zodiac, either to a landing of specific interest or, if the swell was too great, perhaps a two-hour cruise (10-12 per zodiac) amongst the gloriously large, and often unstable, pure white to bluish icebergs that tended to gather in the sounds. These had ‘calved’ off the glaciers that fronted onto the deep waters of the fjords. There were occasions of course when the weather was too foul to leave the ship, but we were lucky — these were very rare. But no matter what, there were two golden rules: rug-up in your many layers of warm clothing and covering waterproofs (the sudden onset of a gravity-driven katabatic wind from the icecap will snap freeze the unprepared), and make a last call to the toilet before leaving the ship — even if you don’t think you need to.

I do not wish to belabour the geology — this is not on everyone’s interest list; not in the way wildlife and colourful little blooms always have been. But I shall note that there is a shared history of intense structural disturbance, folding and faulting from Norway, through Scotland to Greenland, and even to Newfoundland and the Appalachian Mountains of America, that cannot be ignored if one is to understand that the volcanic, granitic, and layered limestone and sandy beds have all been affected in the most complex ways over the aeons, and that the lovely landscape we all admired so much is a direct result of these processes.

Eighty percent of Greenland is under icecap, which explains most of what we see: from the smoothed and jagged peaks, the lack of trees, the startlingly colourful tundra (white/green groundcover, with patches of the most vivid red and orange — in fact, miniature birches; it’s what we walk on) and the scarcity of habitation, to the magnificent, huge glaciers snaking down into the fjordlands and, consequently, the icebergs. The glaciers and icebergs are both in a state of constant flux. The glaciers give rise to their offspring with noises from grumbling roars to cannon shots, and an iceberg in its death throes is an unforgettable mix of sharper, rifle-shot reports and majestic rolling over to a new position of temporary stability. I could not help myself once when, during a pause in this process, a rather serious woman standing next to me remarked somewhat pompously that “Mother Nature will not be hurried”. I observed that it’s amazing what half a stick of gelignite will achieve. I was wickedly gratified when she was not amused.

On occasions, the weather could change very quickly. One afternoon we left the ship, in pleasantly overcast conditions, for a cruise around the fjord and numerous islands, looking for seals and various birds, but also for the sheer enjoyment of being out on the water. The fact that it soon started raining lightly was no problem, nor that it was becoming somewhat colder — at least at first. About thirty minutes later, I realised that we were not only a long way now from the ship, but also that conditions had deteriorated to the point where it was doubtful if we’d be able even to see the ship for much longer. I hoped that our zodiac driver had a GPS, for that would be the only way we would ever be able to find the ship if things became a little more misty.

At the outset, we were all advised to forget any preconceptions concerning just what we may or may not have felt we came here for. This is particularly sound advice when it comes to the weather and the wildlife. Sightings are as you find them. On this trip, for instance, we came across no polar bears (disappointingly for some), but the arctic hares are ‘blindingly’ white, as would have been the arctic foxes were it not their summer (when their fur assumes a brownish camouflage). Musk oxen are built like rugby league second-rowers but scarcely break into even a trot. Reindeer blend in so well with the rocky outcrops that the unpractised eye will rarely pick them out. For me, a close zodiac encounter with a walrus remains as memorable as it gets. This animal is the largest of the Arctic pinnipeds (‘fin-feet’), and males can weigh nearly two tonnes. They forage in shallow, sandy-bottomed water and at very close quarters you need to remind yourself that these brown, buck-tusked ‘blubbered lumps’ are not some kind of risible aquatic drollery.

A couple of days were spent in the immense Kong Oscar Fjord. This body of deep water soon shoots off into smaller sounds, which in turn become a plethora of even smaller ‘sub-sounds’. This is a stunning example of what the mathematicians call ‘fractals’, where the same pattern is replicated on a diminishing scale, seemingly for ever. No wonder the length of a coastline is totally dependent upon the detail with which it is measured. A vessel could sail around the landmass of Greenland having travelled about 7,000 kilometres. But this is scarcely an acceptable measure of coastline length. A cartographer, navigating the ins and outs of the fjord system in greater detail could, if so inclined, easily measure the actual coastline to be 70,000 kilometres, or even more. There is no simple answer.

Well into Kong Oscar Fjord we landed on Sand Island to find a beautifully preserved hut assembled by Norwegian trappers around 1934. The ‘footprint’ was roughly three by two metres, and not quite two metres high. Constructed of solid wood with a black, bituminous zinc sheeting that I recall still being used for interior roof lining well into the 1950s, these (kit) huts have two rooms, with the ‘hall’ containing a cast-iron potbelly stove and a fuel box, and the ‘main’ room with two raised platforms for bedding and sitting and, presumably, dining. Cosy in the extreme, so long as the entrance was securely closed before opening the door to the ‘bed-sit’. (Inside, I was unable to stand up straight). This potbelly had been powered by coal — there was a seam nearby from which this fuel had been mined. The trapping was of foxes and bears predominantly, for their skins. I expect they ate the rest of the beasts!

No matter where in the world I find myself, the birds are always a special pleasure. One particular morning, I was out and about in time to see the unrisen (to us!) sun giving that uniquely delicate kissing-pink tinge to the icecap and the jagged snowy peaks, which remain as splendid testimony to the lovely devastation wrought by millennia of glaciation. After breakfast, the zodiacs spent a couple of hours of this luminous morning taking us deep among the little group of Bear Islands and a backwater concentration of majestic icebergs. Once there, the drivers cut the engines — utter silence. Except for the cries of the small sharp-featured, white Arctic Terns that wheeled overhead; not spooked by our presence but, rather, mildly offended by our being there at all. They summoned their families to grizzle at us until we had drifted out of their territory. One whimsical postscript from this quiet, crystalline morning was that whilst chatting sotto voce to my neighbour in the zodiac, I was told that her husband was the only other person ever trusted by her father to drive his tractor. Why? — because the younger man held a pilot’s licence. Such splendid logic!

There is so much more I could write about Greenland, but I might stand accused either of wearying the reader with repetitive ‘diarising’, or of redundantly listing facts that these days are so easily Googled. I should mention that we had a qualified archaeologist/anthropologist on board whose mission was to impart some of the history of the earliest peoples who inhabited this land. It seems that there were settlements dating from ~2500 BC, and that many of the outlines of dwellings and graves, and associated reindeer bone artefacts would have dated from this time. One of our number found an exquisite ‘rounded triangular-shaped’ decorative slate amulet, no more than 2-3 cm across, with a lobe at the top through which a tiny hole had been drilled for hanging. According to our expert, the circularity of the hole fixed this amulet within a certain period (possibly Thule culture, about 1000 to 1300 AD, rather than the earlier Dorset folk — my uncertainty, not hers).

A final note concerns the more recent history of Greenland. There is nothing much happening here these days — on the east coast, anyway, where, as noted, Ittoqqortoormiit is one of the few remaining settlements, and certainly the most northern. Jared Diamond, in his book ‘Collapse’, deals with the ill-fated 500 years of Norse settlement between 1000 and 1500 AD. Along with Easter Island, Angkor Wat, and the Mayan civilisation, Diamond cites a suicidal brew of resource mismanagement, misguided religious strictures, and an unwillingness to pay heed to time-tested survival practices of the native peoples (here, the Inuit). This chronicle of folly led inexorably to the terminal decline of the Norse community. In varying forms, these are lessons that are still far from having been learned in a number of today’s societies. Diamond gives examples.

The day and a half’s journey to Spitsbergen was for me perhaps the highlight of the entire voyage. The ship set a course somewhat more north of east than strictly necessary with the express purpose of encountering the pack ice. That this contiguous ocean covering of a mosaic of flat slabs of individual pieces of white ice is nowadays continuously shrinking (aside from seasonal oscillations), with the southern margin ever closer to the North Pole, is a fact whose degree of recognition seems unfortunately to have become something of a political football. All I shall say here is that the polar bears are finding their natural habitat and fish-foraging platform quietly disappearing — and this to the point where they are becoming a seriously endangered species. I felt a frisson of excitement at the thought that as we approached latitude 80°N, we were little more than a thousand kilometres from the Pole!

The sky, its colour, clarity on a good day and the sharpness this brings to the snowy peaks is unique in the Polar regions. Here, in the Arctic, there seemed to me to be to be a different type of intensity from what I recall in the Antarctic. Blue, of course (on a cloudless day), but carrying its own signature hue. Mind you, in 2007, our ship was never able to more than approach latitude 70°S — conditions are similar at the two poles only with respect to there being lots of ice; the size and shape of the bergs, most of the wildlife, and the landfalls are peculiar to each pole. I can say, though, that in each of these two regions the ‘skyblue’ is quite idiosyncratic as it is, yet again, in the Western Australian desert environments I am more familiar with.

But the day we sailed toward the pack ice was far from sunny — the uniformly grey cumulo-nimbus cover was so low as to be almost touchable. Truly a louring, sullen sky — the one optimistic feature of the day was that there was no rain, and an indistinct horizon was discernible in all directions. A strange tension silenced everyone as we approached the edge of this seemingly unbroken ice sheet. I recall our ice-reinforced ship slowing to little more than a crawl as it nudged its way into what was now clearly a mosaic of smallish ice floes. This was pack ice, by definition — not an ice sheet, as would have stopped us in our tracks toward the antipodean Pole. Once the ship had settled into its rhythm, it took surprisingly little time before the pack ice stretched from horizon to horizon in all directions.

It was then that I realised just why this day would remain fixed in my memory for all time — the ubiquitous cloud cover had imperceptibly changed colour from the earlier dull grey to a kind of light, purplish mauve. Why, I have no idea; this had just happened — another weird polar effect that just is! Whatever the reason, the effect is forever etched in our memories, and although I took many shots with my Jurassic digital ‘point-and-shooter’, I seem not to have quite captured the exquisite essence that my mind has faithfully recorded. And perhaps this is why Paul Theroux never carries a camera on his travels.