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Polar Bears and Paddleboards

polar bears and paddleboards

By Justin Miles

The Paddler ezine

In August 2013, a team of ten paddlers completed a world first: to SUP approximately 100km of the Sermilik Fjord on the east coast of Greenland in an audacious bid to reach the Helheim Glacier, one of the largest glaciers on the planet.

When people think of SUP they tend to think of catching waves on surf beaches, paddling around the Florida Keys or exploring a city by river, so the words ‘polar bears’ and ‘paddleboards’ don’t seem to go together – but they did for a team taking on an ‘Arctic’ paddleboarding expedition!

Polar Bears and Paddleboards Trailer

From Justin Hankinson

Taking inflatable SUPs to paddle between icebergs in an area just outside of the Arctic circle may seem like a crazy idea, but a multi-national team of ten have just returned from the first (known) such paddleboarding expedition in Greenland.

The ambitious ‘Polar Bears and Paddleboards’ project was initially thought up by Paul Hyman of London and Brighton based paddleboarding company ‘Active 360’ and professional adventurer Justin Miles who is the face of the UK wide ‘Schools Explorer’ education initiative.

polar bears and paddleboards

Julez Ball

A wine-fuelled brainstorming session after a paddle on the Thames one evening gave rise to the idea of taking paddleboarding to new and remote destinations to demonstrate the versatility of the sport. Over the following months, surprisingly, a team of crazy like-minded SUPers came together to breathe life in to the project and ‘make it happen’.

The objectives of the project were to use an attention-grabbing expedition as a focal point to promote and develop the sport of stand-up paddleboarding, to encourage people to get active outdoors, to support selected charities and to generate material for Justin’s ‘Schools Explorer’ project.

As the destination the team chose the Sermilik Fjord on the east coast of Greenland in the hope that the relatively sheltered waters would make for good paddling and some stunning images with a few icebergs serving as a dramatic backdrop. What they actually encountered when they arrived was totally off the scale! Justin Miles, on behalf of the team continues the story…

Justin Miles, on behalf of the team continues the story…

“When we arrived at Kulusuk we had to camp in the town overnight whilst waiting for the boat which would transport us, and our 46 bags of luggage including paddleboards and filming equipment to the entrance to the Semilik Fjord. Whilst we were there we encountered many locals who were telling us that the fjord didn’t just have a few icebergs – it was ram-packed!”

The following morning, the boats arrived to take the team out to the mouth of the fjord to begin the expedition. These boats, under the control of experienced helmsmen race through a hair-raising course, weaving between the icebergs at breakneck speeds. Just in case the worst should happen, the boats are double-hulled to give additional support should they strike an iceberg and they are fully equipped with immersion suits, life-rafts and other emergency equipment.

polar bears and paddleboards

Phil and Charlie heading towards more tightly packed ice.

“We were dropped off on land just inside the entrance to the fjord late in the afternoon, so after a quick gathering of thoughts we decided to use the rest of the afternoon to set up camp, collect water, repack our bags in ‘expedition order’, run through safety drills and of course pump up the boards.”

The inflatable paddleboards that the team took, were supplied by one of the key supporters of the expedition: TV personality, ‘adventure junkie’ and leader of the scout movement – Bear Grylls. Bear, a keen paddleboarder himself, has been working with leading SUP manufacturer Coreban to develop a new inflatable expedition paddleboard. The first outing and true test of the boards was through the ‘Polar Bears and Paddleboards’ expedition.

“Setting up the Coreban BG boards is a fast and simple process. Ten minutes of pumping followed by securing the fins in place and you’re off. In less than 15 minutes per board we had them set up and ready to go. “We weren’t intending to paddle on that first day, but the sun was shining and hot, the water in the fjord was like glass and the temptation to paddle was just too strong. The excited buzz on the beach soon faded as we drifted out on the icy water between the icebergs and we experienced, for the first time, the true beauty, eeriness and total awesomeness of where we were.”

polar bears and paddleboards

Justin with Phil wearing a mosquito net

One of the conundrums that the team faced was the choice of apparel for the expedition. With possible conditions which included boiling hot sun, rain, sleet, high winds and the ever present threat of falling in to the freezing water the team had to take clothing to suit every situation.

“On the first morning, after discussions which must have made us sound like a bunch of teenage girls deciding what to wear on a night out, we eventually decided that we would start the day in our Ocean Rodeo dry suits. After re-packing the 46 bags (supplied by Berghaus) on to the support boat driven by local Inuit hunters Lars and his father Imica we launched in to the bay and set off for the first day of our journey.

“Words just aren’t enough to describe what we saw and how we felt on that first day. It was just absolutely awesome! The icebergs were an amazing array of shapes, sizes and colours from pure white to various shades of blue and even black and there were lots of them!

“Even though the water was very cold, the sun was blazing hot, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky; we were all covered in factor 50 sun cream and still we were getting burned skin and chapped lips. By half way through the morning we were all struggling with the heat and stripping our dry suits off.

“The silence in the fjord was interrupted by intermittent chatter from the team and the thunderous roars of icebergs cracking and splitting which echoed terrifyingly around the fjord like canon fire.

“We took lunch on the boards, drifting around in the most bizarre and surreal location in the world. By this time, we’d all stripped off and were wearing our Oakley board shorts and tops, apart from Jaime who insisted in dressing like a ‘human seal’ in his trusty old surfing wetsuit and we bobbed around on paddleboards among a mass of icebergs with the sun glaring down as we nibbled our snacks and sipped soup – it just didn’t seem ‘real’.

“By the end of the day we were all absolutely baking hot. Lars, the boatman had indicated that he knew of a good place to camp which had running water and was sheltered should the wind pick up overnight. Late in the afternoon we rounded a small headland to be confronted with the spectacular sight of a white sandy beach with a waterfall tumbling from the rocks behind. We couldn’t believe our eyes; this was more like Hawaii than what we expected to find in Greenland.

“Once again, lugging the 46 bags off of the boat (I give reference to that number of bags a lot – when you have to carry 46 bags everywhere it tends to be quite memorable!) left us even hotter and sweating buckets. Some of the team headed off on the boat with Lars and Imica to witness a seal hunt and the rest of us did something very different.

“Julez and Phil were the first in. Phil ran in to the water dressed only in shorts with Julez hot on his heels sporting her ‘South Africa’ bikini. A few minutes later I joined them – in shorts, not a bikini – as did Mo, Paul and Jaime.

“It felt totally unreal to be swimming with icebergs and actually enjoying it. The shallow beach in this cove made for slightly warmer water than in the main fjord so we were able to stay in the water and have fun with the small icebergs in the cove. Paul actually tried to paddle one, but every time he stood up the ‘berg would roll and throw him back in to the water.

“That evening, during our meal of rehydrated stuff in various flavours, we had the most irritating battle with clouds of mosquitoes. The little blighters were everywhere, poking their proboscis in to any patch of exposed skin, sticking themselves to our food and even flying in to our mouths as they opened to accept another spoon full of nutrition (calling it ‘food’ does it far too much justice!).”

polar bears and paddleboards

Paul Hyman

Mosquitoes are prolific during the summer months in Greenland and can make life uncomfortable, even if you are prepared. There are lots of insect repellents available through outdoor shops, chemists and supermarkets and head veils are a very good addition to your kit list. You could also consider ‘smoking’ repellents to keep the insects out of tents and away from communal areas.

“The following morning, after a breakfast of porridge mixed with various ‘stuff’, including dead mosquitoes, we were quite sad to leave our perfect white sand beach and head north.

“The further we travelled, the more condensed the ice became and picking routes through was, at times, quite a challenge. Because the icebergs crack up, split, roll and huge chunks fall off you have to make sure that you leave a wide birth but at times that was quite difficult because the ‘alleys’ were so tight. At one point, one huge ‘berg split and dropped a chunk of ice about the size of a decent sized house in to the water not far from us which created quite a wave which in turn set off a chain reaction of other icebergs splitting and rolling.

“When we reached the remote village of Tiniteqilaaq we were given word by the villagers and by a passing party of kayakers that the possibilities of continuing the journey were looking bleak because the ice was so tightly packed ahead of us.

“Exploring the village of Tiniteqilaaq was fascinating. We looked around the town, played soccer with the local kids, looked at the fly-covered fish hanging up to dry, saw dead seals anchored to the bottom in the water to keep them fresh for dog food, played with the husky pups and we saw the skin from a freshly killed polar bear hanging up to dry on the banister of one of the huts – just like we may hang a rug out to air back home in the UK.

“We camped on a small island opposite the town that night, melting icebergs to supply the water for rehydrating our food and building a small fire from driftwood as company for the guys doing ‘polar bear watch.”

Polar bears have been known to hunt humans for food, so having adequate systems to monitor any approaching bears and systems for how to scare them off are essential. As well as the ‘polar bear watch’ which took place all night every night, the team were drilled in what to do if a bear approached and they were armed with flares used to scare the bears and, as a last resort, a rifle.


Justin, Brad, Jaime, Julez, Phil giving an idea of the scale of some of the icebergs.

“Pressing on, we found that the reports were quite true. The ice was becoming more tightly packed and our progress was slowed tremendously. We managed to travel about 10 kilometres beyond the town when we took the decision, for safety sake, to halt progress and ‘plant our flag’. We could have tried to pick our way slowly forward, but we felt that by stopping where we did the expedition was still a success and we hadn’t taken any unnecessary risks.

“We took photographs, lots of photographs and our documentary maker Justin ‘Hanks’ Hankinson shot some brilliant footage from a cliff top, then we turned and headed back the way we’d come.”

Late Greenlandic winter

The general opinion from the local inhabitants was that the excessive ice in the Sermilik fjord was largely due to the Greenlandic winter ending several weeks later than usual. The team also met a team of glaciologists from Cambridge University who were there monitoring the Helheim glacier at the head of the fjord. Due to a shift in the gulf stream, slightly warmer water than usual is being forced through the Sermilik fjord which is undercutting the face of the Helheim glacier and causing it to retreat by an astonishing and quite alarming rate of 25 meters every day, depositing it’s chunks of ice in to the fjord.

“The journey home was quite sad in many ways. We’d worked on this project for around two years and now the biggest part of it was drawing to a close. There was a mixture of emotions from the team as we re-traced our path.

“On the journey back we stopped to explore an abandoned village. The villagers had all been relocated to larger settlements by the government to make healthcare and education provision a simpler and more economical process (it may make it easier and more cost effective for the government, but this type of activity is killing the traditional Greenlandic way of life). The village looked very much like the people had literally just walked out; the houses still contained the remnants of everyday life from cutlery and crockery to clothes. The school house was still there and full of books and the church was still there in pristine condition.

polar bears and paddleboards

Left to right: Phil, Paul, Mo, Julez, Justin, Jaime, and Stuart Sermilik Fjord Greenland.

“When we arrived back at our pick-up point we had to de-rig all of our equipment and re-pack everything for the journey home, which was done with a great degree of reluctance.”

When the team came to deflate their Coreban BG boards, they found that despite being subjected to boiling hot sun, freezing water, having been bumped, bashed and dragged across ice and having been loaded with over 200 kilos per board when transporting the luggage from the boat to the shore they hadn’t lost any air pressure at all.

“With everything packed and loaded on to the boats we toasted our success and friendship with a swig of whiskey from Charlie Head’s hip-flask.”

The ‘Polar Bears and Paddleboards project is far from over and we will be bringing you news about their SUP events around the UK, the work of the team in promoting the sport and, of course, their next adventure!

polar bears and paddleboards

Mo stretching out before a long day of paddling.


You can find out more about ‘Polar Bears and Paddleboards’ on the website

‘Polar Bears and Paddleboards’ team members:
Justin Miles:
Paul Hyman:
Phil Sayers:
Mohammad Nilforooshan:
Stuart Howells:
Jaime Silva Juliette Ball of Development Through Sport
Brad Symmington
Charlie Head
Justin Hankinson (film maker)

The charities supported are: Momentum. Canals and Rivers Trust. Development Through Sport (South Africa). Logistic support was supplied by Norwegian based ‘Newland’.

About thepaddlerezine (654 Articles)
Editor of The Paddler magazine and Publisher of Stand Up Paddle Mag UK.

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