Sailing expedition in Scoresbysund
Icebergs as large as villages float by with an air of serene majesty. Scoresbysund lies in ahead, untouched. The 350 km deep fjord system is only accessible by boat three months a year. Which is now.
© Christian Lindquist
Scoresbysund, Kangertittivaq in Inuit, lies in the northern Arctic Sea on the eastern coast of Greenland. The coordinates are 70° 32nd parallel north and 24° 21st parallel west which positions us above the polar circle. The area was named after an English whale hunter and explorer, William Scoresby. He mapped out the coast of the fjords in 1822. Scoresbysund stretches out on three hundred fifty kilometers into Greenland, and is therefore the largest fjord in the world. Considering that there are side-branches everywhere, it also represents the largest fjord system on the planet. The water can be as deep as fifteen hundred meters and the steep granite and basalt walls, which delineate the fjord, are sometimes as high as three thousand meters. This is enough overwhelming nature to make you feel the smallest you have ever felt.
Whale hunter and explorer, William Scoresby mapped out the coast of the fjords in 1822. Scoresbysund stretches out on three hundred fifty kilometers into Greenland, and is therefore the largest fjord in the world
We sail from Constable Pynt, through Hurry fjord in direction of Ittoqqortoormiit. It is the biggest city in East Greenland, with no less than 429 inhabitants. “Until around 1800 the Thule used to live in the area, a people originating from the Inuit,” Þórður (Thordur) Ívarsson explains, technician and wiz-kid of Opal. “We may talk about global warming, but between 1650 and 1850 they were mainly talking about global cooling. This period is also known as the small ice age. The Thule, quite the tough type, used to icy cold, gave up on the area and for more than a century thereafter, no man would venture in these parts. The Danish and the Norwegians argued for some time about ownership of East Greenland and the Danish decided to expand their activities in 1925. So the Bureau of Colonization of Scoresbysund placed eighty-five Inuit from West Greenland here: because they found remains of a Thule settlement in this place.”
To better illustrate how isolated this area is; from October to June the sea is frozen, making it impossible to travel here by ship. The closest village on Greenland, with a staggering ninety inhabitants, is situated eight hundred kilometers south of Greenland. In between, there is nothing. The closest inhabited world is Húsavík in Iceland, five hundred kilometers sailing on the northern Arctic Sea and the home base of the Opal.
The name Ittoqqortoormiit means roughly a settlement with large houses and the colorful houses that suddenly break off of the untouched nature is a striking sight. Red, green, yellow and blue. Yellow with green knots or blue with red. It feels a bit like a Greenlandic Cinque Terre, at least seen from the sea.
The dogs’ barking is deafening. There are three times as many dogs as humans living in this place
The many crosses on the grave site that overlook the village testify to a hard life and are a strong contrast to the, nowadays, classic blue trampolines that can be seen behind each and every house. Curious children peek out the windows and wave. Visits here are not too common. In the middle of the village, two boys play at the playground under a grandmother’s watchful gaze. One of few cars in the village is passing by. On the pickup truck three small children are clinging on, their earbuds are as big as their broad smiles, on an adventure in the ordinary life. In the small shop, food is crowded with everything you can think of on the shelves. There are all kinds of supplies here to meet the needs of the villagers, from food to weapons and doll’s prams. During the short summer period it is possible to get here by boat and just when the ice is released and before it settles again, a cargo ship with supplies that will last all year arrives. For nine months a year, Ittoqqortoormiit is completely cut off from the outside world with the exception of helicopter traffic from Denmark once a month.
NICE FATTY MEAT
The family of Ingrid Anike heartily welcomes us. They are serving stewed muskox, nice fatty meat that resembles beef. Hunting is important here. The mouth of Scoresbysund presents an open water space between the ice in the winter, free of ice due to currents and winds, and therefore THE place for life. Birds, seals, arctic hares and foxes, muskox and the mighty polar bear reside here. Everything is prey for the Inuit. “For the Inuit everything has an Anirniq, a soul”, Ingrid explains. “Together they form Anirniit, the kingdom of spirits. The Inuit don’t honor anything, but fear all the more. This is not that surprising when the weather conditions are as deadly as they are here. As long as the Anirniit are satisfied there is prosperity. But if the spirits turn against you, oh boy…” An Inuit killed by a polar bear? This is the revenge of Nanoek, the master of the polar bears. The boy who drowned in the sea a few hours before we arrived? Swallowed by Sedna, the mistress of the sea. My personal favorite is Mahaha, a demon who terrorizes the entire Arctic area and tickles its victims to death. People who freeze to death are often found with a smile on their face, that’s why.
“For the Inuit everything has an Anirniq, a soul”, Ingrid explains. “Together they form Anirniit, the kingdom of spirits”
We sail in Fønfjord. It’s the first time in three days that we are blessed with wind, and not just a little bit. Captain Heimir gives the order to set out all the sails. We hang onto the ropes until our hands burn and the sails are tight. In general the fjords of Scoresbysund are relatively calm without much wind, but it can be haunting as nowhere else when the Piteraq blows. The Piteraq is a katabatic wind, which originates from the Greenland ice cap and streams through the fjords. The ice cap is truly immense. Nine percent of all the sweet water on the globe is frozen in this ice cap, which is more than three kilometers thick in some places. Due to the ice’ radiation, there is always a high-pressure area above it. When this runs into a low-pressure area at the coast, extremely fast winds may form, as strong as hurricane winds, in the fjords. Fønfjord is such an evacuation stream for the ice cap winds. Luckily the wind remains at a steady 5 today.
A beautiful, cloudless blue sky and a survival suit that defies the icy cold, black basalt towers above us and slowly transform in gorging hills, covered in moss and other small plants. A muskox is grazing by itself while its soft hair flaps in the polar wind. My lungs fill with icy salty sea air. The schooners’ rigging is tight. The world around me is the world as it has been since the beginning of time; shaped only by natural forces and polished by the ice and wind. What to do if you wake up here, on a beach of black sand? Where would you walk to? How would you survive? If the cold doesn’t get you and if you manage to catch an arctic hare, which are so tame that one dares to come as close as 2 meters from us, even then the chance of you surviving and seeing another human being one day is minimal. Nature runs the show here and she is not generous in these parts.
What to do if you wake up here, on a beach of black sand? Where would you walk to? How would you survive?
HYBRID SAILING SHIP
As fast as the wind picked us up when we turned into Fønfjord, it let us down all the same when we sailed into Rødefjord. The beautiful sedimentary mountains with a high percentage of iron reside by the water, explaining the name. However, the sailing part is finished for today. The gaff rigged schooner Opal was built in Bodemweert, Germany in 1951. From 1970 to 1983 it underwent her transformation to the elegant two-mast ship she is today, with her slender lines of oak wood and copper cladding. She was lovingly incorporated into the North Sailing Fleet in 2013 with whom I sail on this journey. “It’s a special ship,” tells Þórður, “It’s the first sailing ship with a specially designed Regenerative Plug-in Hybrid Propulsion System. In short, she has batteries instead of ballast. These batteries can indeed be charged by means of electricity from the land, just as one would with a hybrid car. However, her batteries can also be replenished while she is sailing as the propeller acts as a dynamo. The faster the ship sails, the faster the propeller turns and the faster the batteries are charged. This technique has never been applied to any other sea vessel. I am on board to improve the system to perfection. Ideally you could do away with the diesel motors. I’m trying to figure this out.”
© Örvar Atli Þorgeirsson
The result is that when we have no wind in the sails, the silence remains undisturbed, which is huge in these parts. We only hear the rippling water and at times a small chunk of ice against the bow. Opal also serves for whale spotting in Iceland. Thanks to the silent movement, animals come closer to Opal than to any other ships.
Pink and orange gusts of fog are moving high up in the sky, sometimes as bright as spotlights, sometimes fiery
The night falls; clear as crystal. The amounts of visible stars in the polar night give me an almost melancholic feel. A glass of Icelandic brennivín, cooled by century old ice, which we have specifically chopped off a blue ice-lump for this purpose, enhances this feeling. I’m staring at the star-speckled sky when suddenly in a vague plop a small green explosion stands out in the dark night. The spooky green light moves quickly in the night, blurs and clears. On my left, another explosion occurs, then right, then left again. Pink and orange gusts of fog are moving high up in the sky, sometimes as bright as spotlights, sometimes fiery. It’s disco time in the Greenlandic polar night. This northern light is sun wind, containing a lot of energy. The energy is released when it collides with oxygen and nitrogen atoms in our atmosphere. It is then beamed at a height of 80 to 1000 kilometers in the sky in the form of the colorful polar lights. I have seen northern lights before, but never like these. Never have I seen them so clear, so many, so often, and so long. It is also the first time that I hear them. The night lasts very long that day, as it is nearly impossible to withdraw from such a spectacle. Who knows when you will see something as beautiful again. In this case it was the day after, and then the day after that. Igaluk, the Inuit god of the moon keeps playing games with his brother, the god of the sun.
Gold & light blue
© Linda Wasell
Beauty. Unsullied beauty. You are almost too afraid to turn your head to the right in fear of missing something on your left. As a travel writer and an avid sailor, I’ve been to many beautiful places on the seven seas of this planet, including Antarctica and Drake’s Passage. However, the waters of East Greenland are the most pristine, most beautiful waters I’ve ever sailed. I even prefer it to Antarctica because there is plant life here, where as the South pole is black and barren.
When we set sail back onto Ittoqqrtoormiit we encounter the Bjørne Øer, the bear islands, named in this fashion because the crest resembles bear-claws, from the back. It is 4:45 am and the sun is appearing with a thousand colors. The sleepy, sharp mountaintops of Bjørne Øer are kissed by the pink sunbeams. The sea is flat but made of gold and light blue. Far away, at the horizon an iceberg the size of a small city breaks off. The remaining ice behemoth has lost its balance and is slowly rolling around, creating rolling seagoing waves. Ultra-thin ice-pancakes have formed on the water during the night. This is a reminder that we must leave the Scoresbysund. The East Greenlandic wilderness is closing up and prepares for the ever-returning winter domination of a very harsh mother nature.