Ittoqqortoormiit and Denmark Strait


It’s quite a mouthful, isn’t it? But that is the name of the small village we are scheduled to visit on our last day in Greenland. Before that there is another outing on the cards, in Hurry Inlet, but all that goes by the wayside during the night. As John reminds us, this is expedition cruising, and sometimes, things don’t work out to plan.

Early in the morning I wake up from a thumping noise. At first I think it is the anchor, but then I realise it is actually ice. Given I haven’t been very good at getting up early for photographs and how I’m awake anyway, I figure I might as well get dressed and head up to the panorama deck with my camera to see what it looks like outside.

Ice pack sunrise

Outside it is stunning. There is barely a soul around at this early morning hour, but the light is spectacular. With the sun rising it casts a golden glow over one side of Scoresby Sund, while gently illuminating the mountains on the other side of the fjord system. So there is plenty of photography to be enjoyed, while the ship moves slowly through the ice pack.

As John later explains, the ship hit pack ice at 2am in the morning. As it was dark, the decision was made to stop the ship until first light when an assessment could be made. That assessment at 4.30am was not overly positive. Captain Oleg judged it could take up to three days to work through the pack ice. Access into Scoresby Sund, only opened a few days ago, appeared to have closed up again. At first light the ship started probing her way along the ice pack to find a way through, which were the sounds that woke me up. It turned out that the ice prop was thick on both sides, but thinner in the middle, like an hour glass, and eventually the ship managed to find its way through.

By then, the Hurry Inlet excursion was off the program and attempts were made to see if we could visit the village of Ittoqqortoormiit in the morning instead of in the afternoon as per the original plan. As we moor off the village, the communications continue and we patiently wait until we get word that disembarkation will start at 10am. We are also to bring our passports if we want a Greenland stamp in it. We learn that we are only the second ship to make it to the village this season. The sea ice has kept more ships from visiting so far and our trip is really the end of the season here.

Polar bear skin drying

The village is a collection of colourful houses dotted over the hills. When we land we get handed a map and a list of place that can be visited. I start off at the weather station, to see the release of the weather balloon at 11am. From there I descend into the village and buy some postcards in the local supermarket. A somewhat different selection of products, and I am particularly amused to see the rifles and bullets for sale in a small aisle in the back, next to the female hygiene products.

Preparation of the weather balloon

I move through the village, visiting various art and souvenir places. I am very taken by a beautiful pair of seal skin mitts, lined with Arctic hare fur. They are the perfect fit and wonderfully warm, but I could never bring them into Australia and in Brazil one really does not have any need for such mitts. Reluctantly I put them back on the shelf.

My meanderings finish with a group of Greenland dogs, one of which has a litter of eight puppies. They are all asleep on top of each other, occasionally waking to snuggle closer against one of their siblings and promptly falling asleep again. It is now close to “last zodiac time” so I have to head down to the harbour to catch one of the last zodiacs returning to the ship.

Greenland puppies

After lunch we sail along the outer edge of the ice (to avoid getting caught again) to see if we can spot polar bears. But it soon starts to rain and there isn’t a polar bear in sight. After a few hours captain Oleg decides to to point the ship towards Iceland. There is weather coming in behind us and we are advised that we will be in for a rough ride tonight and tomorrow as we cross the Denmark Strait.

The rough ride is no exaggeration. With Phenergan on hand I knock myself out again as soon as I can after a half-eaten dinner. But even with the meds I can feel how the ship rolls endlessly during the night and at times it feels as if I am standing up in bed and the next moment on my head.

In the morning it is still rough, but the intensity is diminishing from the Beaufort 9 it was and I manage to have a shower and breakfast before heading up to the panorama lounge.

Greenland Time

Cloud formation above fjord

It has taken me a few days to figure out how to write this post. Every time I thought of the days in Greenland, I realised I couldn’t quite tell them apart, despite the notes I took. Time spent in Greenland is different, for me at least, than time spent elsewhere. I’ve said this in my first post after the trip, but there is a timelessness to these places and time doesn’t move in a conventional way. Perhaps this has to do with being on a holiday as well and being totally relaxed by then, yet it wasn’t like this in Iceland, so I can’t quite account for it that way.

Rocks and glacier

Time drifted and I could easily have spent hours in the one spot just watching and quietly waiting for something, not even knowing what I was waiting for. Or drifting gently in a kayak, at peace with the world. We did a lot of that; we had five kayaking sessions in Greenland and at least three of those were around big ice. These inner reaches of Scoresby Sund are magical and to be able to paddle around ice behemoths was incredible. It also reduces your sense of self to very small proportions. One is nothing but a gnat in those surroundings, easily crushed by anything, particularly a big iceberg that decides to randomly topple at some point. Barry Lopez writes in Arctic Dreams how the Inuit on a day-to-day basis have more fear, because “they accept fully what is violent and tragic in nature. It is a fear tied to their knowledge that sudden, cataclysmic events are as much a part of life, of really living, as are the moments when one pauses to look at something beautiful”. It’s something you start to understand paddling around big icebergs and I found it a surprising relief to realise how insignificant one is and yet how alive at the same time.

Moody fjord

The morning after the party we are all a bit dusty and head for a walk in the hope that we will feel better once we are in the fresh air. There is a sizeable hill to climb, but we run out of time and then there is only time to make a dash for it, so I leave that to the mountain goats and sit with Valerie, nursing my creaky knees, to wait for the return of the summit group. As we sit talking quietly, we suddenly see an Arctic hare appear. It hops past and then, all of a sudden, suddenly gets up on its hind legs, sticks its front paws in the air and walks like that in an almost psychedelic dance before it drops on all fours again. Valerie and I look at the hare and then at each other and burst out laughing. She has never seen a hare do anything like this and it is impossible to erase from our minds what we have seen. If we hadn’t seen it together, no one would believe us, but it undeniably happened. Sadly I had no camera ready to photograph it and even if I had, it only lasted a few seconds.

It certainly is the day for interesting animal encounters. In the afternoon we do a kayak session around the Bear Islands. During the paddle a curious seal pops up out of the water and is mesmerised by Mark, who is equally taken with the seal. They check each other out for quite a while, until too many others intrude on this very special moment and the seal decides to move on.

National flower of Greenland

On our second morning in Scoresby Sund we have travelled further into the fjord and are surrounded by spectacular icebergs. While most of the passengers get into the zodiacs for a close up look at musk oxen, the kayakers get to paddle around the icebergs first before we beach our kayaks on the shore and walk towards some musk oxen that are far off. We do get to see them through binoculars, but not close up. That privilege is for those who took the longer walk and managed to get close to a group of the animals. They can be temperamental animals, so they need to be approached with caution. We later learn that even those who only came for the short walk were lucky enough to see them close up as they cruised along the coast in a zodiac and came upon a couple of individuals standing near the water’s edge.

Musk oxen skull

When we get back to the ship, the barbecue has been fired up on the back deck and lunch is in the open air with a most spectacular scenery around us. The music plays and once the food has been cleared away inevitably it turns into a dance party again. The idea for the afternoon was to cruise through the fjord system, but later in the afternoon John decides that it is too good an opportunity for a zodiac cruise. While the “beautiful people” get on the zodiacs, the kayakers get another chance to paddle amongst the breathtaking icebergs.

Boarding the zodiac

The third day we are still in this icy wonderland and we kayak again in the morning, dwarfed by large icebergs, which occasionally threaten to tumble. In a single kayak I thoroughly enjoy the moment and I wish it could go on for much longer. But as we have to travel quite a distance to our next spot, it can only be a short paddle, much to everyone’s regret.

Kayaking crew

The afternoon at Denmark Island offers a choice between a walk and kayaking. Definitely a paddle for me and once more in a single kayak I cruise along a rocky shore while viewing magnificent mountains on the other side of the fjord and a large glacier. Eventually we paddle to where the zodiacs are beached and explore a few ruins before we prepare for our polar plunge.

Contrasting colours

After much debate the prevailing strategy is for immediate submersion. Laurens is the first one in and if the tall Dutchman can go under without hitting anything, I can too, and so I follow in his footsteps and run into the frigid waters of Scoresby Sund, diving in head first. I have been dreading it all afternoon, this plunge into waters of 1 degree Celsius, but when the moment comes it actually feels amazing and I feel so invigorated coming out of the water that I don’t even rush to put my clothes on. The hot shower afterwards feels wonderful and the Talisker never tasted better, particularly with real glacier ice. Happy days.