Thursday, July 19, 2012

Arctic Kayak Adventure

I've made it back safely to Upernavik after an exhilarating kayak journey to the north!!!  Our small group spent two weeks paddling a circuit of small islands off the coast of mainland Greenland at about 75 degrees N latitude.  Our destination was Reindeer Valley/Tugtulikavsak.  We threaded our boats through fjords littered with icebergs, camped on tiny islands, drank from glaciers, hiked on the inland ice, and saw no one but a couple of Inuit hunters searching for seal and narwhal.
Kayakers in intense arctic light

We paddled through some pretty dense ice on this trip... yowzah!

Mainland glacier meets the sea, as seen from the chopper
It’s hard to ground my experience here on the page, to put to words what was so completely breathtaking and, in the truest sense, awesome.  

Saturday July 7.  I dream so deeply out here, lavishly.  The days fall seamlessly into one another, night becoming day becoming night again. Always light. The world feels timeless and on some mornings I wake disoriented, forgetting where I am – and who I am.

Our group was led by Nikolaj, a Dane now living in Upernavik, and his assistant Rickard - a kind and fun-loving young Swede.  Two Germans, Jan and Mieka, recently married, rounded out our posse.  We flew by helicopter on July 5th to the very small settlement of Kuvndlorssuaq, where our kayaks, gear, and an unprecedented Arctic adventure awaited us.  

Orange lichen and a kayaker fishing

Kuvdlorssuaq… is unlike any place you’ve ever been, as are all the settlements here in GL!!  It’s home to a couple hundred people and as many sled dogs.  There are no cars or roads, no plumbing or running water.   The stench of rotting seal blubber and whale carcasses is overpowering.  Piles of trash – including plastic bags full of human waste - lie in the dust by the small houses.  Steeply pitched footpaths connect the settlement, and all ways lead to the harbor.
The settlement of Kuvndlorssuaq

We loaded our boats while surrounded by a throng of local kids and adults, since no one is shy and tourists in Kuvdlorssuaq are rare.   As in Upernavik, there are many babies and teen mothers.  I haven’t yet looked up demographics for this area, but it seems like half the population is under age 25 – and I wonder what their lives will be like, are like.  I managed to interview/film a young mother who works at the health care center in the settlement.  She spoke some English!  It was so cool to swap stories with her.

We spent the night with a local hunter and his large expended family.  The men of Kuvdlorssuaq still hunt traditionally and many husbands, fathers, and sons were out on hunting trips when we arrived.  We were served mattock by the women of the family, raw whale skin in broth.   There is clearly no wealth in the settlement but our hosts own a large HD TV which blared English and Danish sitcoms throughout dinner. I longed to talk more with our Inuit hosts, but it takes time to become conversant in Greenlandic/Kalaalisut!!

Sweet kids in Kuvdlorssuaq

Inuit hunter posing with the (huge) penis bone of a walrus

Boys in Kuvdlorssuaq
The following morning, after little sleep, we wrestled our remaining gear (somehow) into the kayaks, waved to the crowd gathered at the harbor and headed north through open water, finally on the sea!!   It was a relief to shed the chaos of our travel and preparation days as we paddled into the long light of the Far North.  

Mist rising from the ice, ethereal
 IT WAS SO EXCITING TO FINALLY SEE THE ICE UP CLOSE!!!!!!!  WOW!!!!!  What had existed only in my imagination before became suddenly, irrevocably real.   It felt like a dream to be kayaking near icebergs glowing with sapphire light as I navigated the fjords, each berg like a translucent porcelain sculpture adrift on the water.

Iceberg abstraction from the air... I LOVE the color of that sapphire water!!
Rock. Ice. Sea. Sky.  After several days paddling, I realized my world had been reduced to these four essential elements, the yellow of my kayak and drysuit startling the monochrome of blue and white that defines the Arctic.   

Tuesday July 10.  A break from paddling today.  We explored Reindeer Valley and hiked to the inland ice today – walking on the glacier!!! It’s spectacular, surreal.  Didn’t break down camp – decided to stay 2 nights here instead.  A luxury, but the mosquitoes are so bad, devouring me even through my layers and the bug net over my head, ugh. 

Our days had a rhythm, and I felt blessed to have a tent to myself to collapse in after exhausting days on the water and with each other.  We’d usually meet around 8:30 each morning for some kind of breakfast and I would wake up early to sneak in some reading ("A Naturalist's Guide to the Arctic", by E.C. Pielou) and writing time before a full day with no downtime.   Then the work of breaking camp and moving kayaks back to the waterline, meticulously packing the boats, suiting up to kayak, and finally hitting the water for a couple hours where I could be quieter with my thoughts, a relief from the everlasting noise of the group - the banter a combination of Danish, Swedish, and German as well as English!

Home for the night, Reindeer Valley

I’m not sure if it’s a European thing, but the meals were so protracted they tried my patience.  (Maybe this is because I’ve been 22 years a vegan and there was so little for me to survive on for this trip?!)  We’d paddle to an island for lunch, fight off the droves of mosquitoes while we ate, paddle a few more hours and make camp again, pull our boats to shore high above the waves,  and immediately start making dinner, with several fuel stoves going at once.

I have to reveal that there were no reindeer to be seen at Reindeer Valley, though birdlife was plentiful.   I saw eider ducks, Arctic terns, glaucous gulls, snow buntings, and black guillemots.  But the only mammals we saw were a few bearded seals. No beluga, no narwhal.  I spotted a single fish in the water below my boat in all the days we kayaked.  And when Nikolaj and Rickard fished on three consecutive evenings, they came back empty handed every time.  It has definitely made me wonder what’s going on; if even here in the Arctic we are feeling the effects of centuries of commercial fishing and that things have become out of balance.   

Thursday July 12.  Wake to the cacophony of arctic terns overhead and the explosions of icebergs calving, breaking apart. Sounds like gunfire.  We do actually have two rifles with us in case of polar bear, to scare them off.  How strange to be traveling with weapons.  You can buy guns and ammo in the grocery store in GL.  Everyone owns guns here.
My ride back to Upernavik

My boat on a rare Arctic beach

The good news is, all five of us managed to avoid the potential disaster of flipping a fully loaded kayak into the frigid Arctic waters!!!   I did a lot of filming, photographing, and note-taking.  I’m musing constantly about what art will result from my time here, and what I will create now in the studio while still in GL.  I had the experience of a lifetime these last weeks on the sea, in one of the last truly wild places on Earth.   Gratitude fills me. 

I’m writing (offline) tonight in the comfort and solitude of my red house on the shore in Upernavik again.  It’s late.  I slept 11 hours last night and can feel that tonight will be much the same.  I’m so tired.

A motorboat of fishermen has just sped past. I wonder if they caught anything.  The fog drifted in last night and has shrouded the village since morning.  Hard to believe it’s July.  Hard to believe so many multiple/coincident realities exist on this little blue planet we all call home. 


  1. Incredible, awe-inspiring. Thank you for sharing. I love the "porcelain" icebergs! I want to read this again and again so I can be transported there in some small way. Sending you love!!! xoxoxo

  2. Rebecca, your words so vividly painted me into your current reality, so far removed from all the variations of "normal" that we experience, even when we travel. I will share this link with the rest of the Big Wheel Racing team so they'll know how you are and what you're doing. I'm sure you haven't the time to keep up with stateside events, so I'll fill you in on what little excitement is happening here. Michael Cleveland completed the Tour Divide, and is en route back to Germany as I type. Mostly it's status quo, so I'll close with hugs and well wishes for your safety and happiness. Claudia

  3. Yo Rebecca! You are living an exciting life for sure. Too bad those mosquitos aren't vegan as well!

  4. Thanks you guys, it's definitely an adventure up here! Matt and Claudia, I miss my bikes and can't wait to get back in shape. My arms are ripped from paddling but my legs are withering :) thanks for your love and support, big hugs from Greenland!

  5. Becca, thanks so much for your commitment, your words, your descriptions of place I probably will never see in person. I also appreciate the truth of the situation that includes burning garbage, human waste, lack of fish to eat and your struggles to maintain your vegan lifestyle. Love from Durango.