Kayaking in Greenland is serious business. For centuries, Greenland was known as the land of kayakers and today, the tradition still holds strong. The kayak was the hunters tool for silently sneaking up on their prey. Today, the practice of hunting by kayak is still true for species like the Narwhal. Known as the Unicorn of the Sea because because of their single long tusk, the Narwhal is one of the most elusive whales in the wild. It's also one of the most endangered and because of this, law states that the Inuit are only allowed to hunt for the Narwhal by kayak. It is dangerous business but the Greenland hunter is greatly skilled.
During our expedition a competitive kayaker put on a display for us showcasing all the different skills that a hunter needs to be able to take down a whale with nothing but a harpoon, his paddle and a kayak. They can do dozens of variations of the Eskimo Roll. Hunters need to be able to roll with one hand, no hands, laying backwards, leaning forwards and with their paddle. During a hunt they may be injured, lose their paddle, need to dive while throwing a spear or they may need to get out of a jam. Not having these skills could be deadly. They need to have complete control over their kayaks to be able to paddle silently through the icy waters while sneaking up on a pod of whales.
I cannot imagine how terrifying that would be to be harpooning a whale by hand while sitting in a tiny kayak in the middle of an angry pod. The Narwhal is an important source of vitamin C for the Inuit. Vitamin C is difficult to come by above the Arctic circle growing a garden is impossible and importing food is expensive. Greenland is 80% covered by polar ice cap and there is no way to get from one place to another by road. Your only options are flight and ship. So if you happen to live in an isolated community, the Narwhal may be needed as your source for survival.
Read more about Whales and the Inuit at our post Would you eat Whale?
We had the opportunity to kayak many times during our Arctic travels and while we weren't hunting for Narwhal or seals, we still felt the nervousness and excitement of paddling through uncharted Fjords and around gigantic icebergs. We paddled in Antarctica a year earlier, and having that experience behind us gave us the added confidence of kayaking above the Arctic circle. Instead of being afraid of the brash ice or cold, we embraced it.
There is nothing more wondrous than being surrounded by giant glaciers calving in the distance as you float through a thin veil of ice crackling beside your kayak.
Quark Expeditions offers amazing kayaking opportunities during their tours and we highly recommend signing up for it. The cost adds an extra $500 – $900 (depending on the expedition) on to your tour, but you have the opportunity to paddle several times throughout the journey. Our voyage gave us an astounding 11 paddles!
Each day was completely different from the other. From exploring tributaries to paddling through ice, circumnavigating islands or taking in the scene along the coast, we never had one paddle be like the next.
How Kayaking on a Greenland Expedition Works
There's a lot of work to be done when you sign up as a kayaker, but it is worth every minute and dollar. The kayakers form a bond that other people on the ship may not get. We have separate disembarkation times and we go to separate parts of the bay or coast. Our group of nine got on splendidly and worked well together.
Paddlers meet every morning after breakfast to discuss the day ahead. Our trusty guide Val examines the conditions and weather and lets us know if we'll be able to get in the water or not and what we can expect. It's then up to us if we want to join any of the tours happening on land, in the zodiac or if we simply want to stay on the ship. Most of the time, we all chose to kayak.
At the beginning of the cruise, we all met in the Oceanus lounge to prepare for our two weeks of kayaking. We were fitted with dry suits, booties and skirts and sized for our foot pedals in our kayaks. These sea kayaks are steered by a rudder that is controlled by your feet. It's extremely easy to paddle and maneuver through tight spots.
When the expedition leaders makes the announcement that they will be boarding the zodiacs for shore landings or fjord exploration, the kayakers meets in the lounge and are first off the ship. We all pile in to one zodiac that takes us to our paddle point and from that zodiac, we launch in to our kayaks for a beautiful day on the water. Sometimes we literally launched as Val is always keeping us on our toes and likes to mix things up a bit. One day we all got into our kayaks while still on the zodiac and then Val and our driver Dave, pushed us nose first into the icy waters. Luckily, nobody went under.
There were days when the wind was strong and we had a killer work out and then there were times when the water was smooth as glass and we could float with ease and truly explore. It was on these calm days while in icy bays that we all had the best times. Val taught us all how to paddle up on to an ice float and “beach' our kayaks on a chunk of ice. It was exciting and scary at the same time.
I had a little more apprehension than others as I witnessed a fellow paddler capsize in Antarctica attempting the same thing last year. We all know how much I hate water, but we also know that if I don't give something a try, I have huge guilt. So I gave it a try and it was a blast!
There was one very notable day when we were out in a sea of icebergs unlike anything I have ever seen before. These towers of ice were giant and we could understand how the ice from this area of the world brought down the Titanic. As we sat in our group looking back towards the Sea Spirit, we were completely Agasp at how it was dwarfed by walls of ice. Wedged between two giant icebergs, we wondered how on earth Captain Peter was going to maneuver his way out of this one. However, Captain Peter is the best Arctic Captain that we know of and as we've witnessed on two polar excursions with him, he knows his stuff! This ship is as long as three football fields and yet it looked like a toy boat in the water next to these mammoths.
The was a day when we paddled next to a shipwreck and couldn't help but chuckle when we heard that the reason for sinking was because he was drunk. Luckily everyone survived, but I wonder what kind of fine that Captain got?
During other paddles, we'd spend the first half of the excursion exploring Fjords or bays and then we'd do a landing to explore the coast. At Skoldungen Island, we walked through an abandoned village that had an eerie sense to it. Many Greenland communities were uprooted and sent to live in the larger communities and here it was as if the families were not allowed to bring anything with them. Single shoes were sitting in front of a house, bed frames were left in tact and oil barrels and dolls littered the area. I wonder why they didn't bring all of their belongings with them? Did they have hope that they would one day return?
Our final day took us paddling through an uncharted Fjord. Much of our trip was an exploratory tour. With the Polar Ice Caps melting, expeditions are able to explore Fjords that were once impassable. We'd hear an announcement in the morning from Expedition Leader Alex telling us that he and Captain Peter had decided to take the Sea Spirit in to a Fjord and see how far we could take it. Much of the coast that is usually covered in ice, was now showing rock and islands. We wondered if anyone had laid claim on naming any of these islands that we paddled around.
In the end, Dave and I paddled about 8 times out of the eleven opportunities. That's the beauty of kayaking, you have the best of all worlds. When there seemed to be an exciting hike or view on land, we'd join “the beautiful people” as Val calls them for their shore excursion. If we were keen to take photos and videos of incredible ice on cameras other than our GoPros and waterproof snappy's, we'd join a zodiac cruise. When we were ready for adventure and fun, we hit the kayaks.
It was once again a magical polar experience and if we ever have the opportunity to go back, we'll be sure to join the kayakers again. Nothing compares to being nose to nose with the sea.