Kayaking Greenland’s Mysterious East Coast

Remote and removed, the east coast of Greenland is a mysterious place, largely absent in the romanticized history of Arctic exploration. Geographically, it lacks the allure of the North and South poles, and its fractured fjords and inlets, which can extend hundreds of miles inland, offer no great trade route. Enormous, jagged peaks rise upward of 4,000 feet from the sea, and the unpredictable waterways can be clear one moment, and choked with enormous icebergs and flotillas of sea ice the next.

This can be a difficult place to navigate, yet I was thrilled that explorer Olaf Malver invited me to travel with his company Explorers’ Corner on its 2011 Greenland kayaking expedition this past summer. This would mark my third time to Greenland, but my inaugural visit to the mysterious eastern coast.

It’s no wonder that humans have largely overlooked this territory. There isn’t enough flat land for grazing animals such as reindeer and musk-ox, and its only inhabitants are a sparse population of arctic fox, sea birds and the stray polar bear. Much of the year, storms can build in minutes and last for days. And when summer rolls around, the mosquitoes can be prolific, while a shield of ice from the north buffets the sea coast and keeps a majority of whales and other large marine mammals from entering the channels – not good for the native hunter. It’s remarkable that humans were able to settle in this inhospitable environment.

On Greenland’s east coast, the most formidable terrain lies to the south — a land of menacing vertical mountains, volatile glaciers and thousands of miles of vast emptiness. It is here Malver runs his masterful journeys. An expert paddler and explorer, the 6-foot-2 Dane is handsomely weathered, quick to smile and has a healthy dose of wit and humor behind marble blue eyes. This is his 16th year leading expeditions to the region, and he’s explored it in all seasons and by every means of transportation possible: dog sled, skis, on foot and by kayak.

Our adventure began in the largest town in East Greenland, Tasiilaq, a colorful and busy place with a population of less than 2,000 people. Tasiilaq serves as the starting point for the few tourists and explorers who find their way to the Ammassalik region. After a motorboat dropped us at the head of a fjord, we assembled our Feathercraft expedition kayaks, and set out to paddle through a magical world of contrasts.

The pastel shades of orange and pink sky sank into the inky, black, glassy water. Vicious summits capped off craggy mountains, nearly all of which were blanketed with deep blue and pure white glaciers. Moments of calm were broken with dramatic acts of violence, whether it was the calving of 200-foot ice blocks at the terminus of a glacier or the crashing echo of rock fall from the high peaks.

We paddled in solitude for the bulk of the adventure, following the more stable, ice-free waterways, camping on beaches along the way.

But, we did stop at two very small outpost towns, Kuummiut and Tintequillaq. With populations under 300 people, these gritty settings are home mostly to hunters who still subsist primarily on seal and fish.

The Greenlanders (a name for native people who have mixed European blood as opposed to their ancestors, who would be considered Thule or Dorset people) are shy but friendly. They speak the unique native Greenlandic language and some Danish, expressing great humor and wit — a survival mechanism that seems almost absurd by Western standards. Malver relayed a story of a Greenlander friend who, upon breaking through sea ice with his dog sledding team (a VERY serious predicament), remarked, “Look Olaf, I am the only Greenland submarine!” with a smile on his face. I can only imagine the elaborate string of profanity that would erupt from my mouth in the same situation.

In between paddling, we scrambled on coastal peaks and explored the rivers and lakes. Because of the low animal (and human) population, this is one of last places on earth you can still safely drink out of the streams – and the cold, glacial water is divine!

After two weeks of navigating icy inlets and pristine wilderness, it was back to Tasiilaq for one last hike to the summit of a 2,500-foot peak in town. From our vantage, we gazed across mountains cascading inland as far as the eye can see, surrounded by a carpet of glaciers that wind their way to the horizon. A mosaic of sea ice drifted in the deep blue-black water, and patches of ice and snow were plastered to the steep mountainsides and in the dark valley shadows.

East Greenland is unlike any other place on Earth. Beyond the majestic Arctic scenery, it is home to a culture that is one of the last to be absorbed by modern times. Granted, the modern world is creeping in, as ancient ways are being refitted for a world of electric lights, babbling television, refrigeration and industry. To witness this transition in a land so unapologetically beautiful and brutal is humbling.

My departure from Greenland felt like a dream, as our helicopter floated into the sky and the thumping blade overhead rattled the frosty windows. I watched the Arctic landscape fade into the distant mist, and the coast disappeared as dark, black storm clouds drifted in from the east.

Travelers’ Notebook

Click here to visit the website for Explorers’ Corner and read more about excursions to Greenland. Anyone hoping to travel to East Greenland should consult with Olaf Malver, the owner of EC.

If you’re planning on going solo, contact Robert Peroni at the Red House — he runs and orchestrates tours and adventures.

James Dziezynski is a freelance writer based in Colorado, and the author of the best-selling guidebook “Best Summit Hikes in Colorado.” To read about more of his adventures, visit his blog at www.mountainouswords.com.

Create PDF    Send article as PDF   

You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

Leave a Reply

close comment popup

Leave A Reply