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East Greenland – in the footsteps of Gino Watkins

In the late 1920s and early 30s the celebrated British explorer, Gino Watkins made his indelible mark upon the world of polar exploration. Whilst enduring the financial hardship of the Great Depression, Watkins led an expedition to the icy and mountainous coast of East Greenland.

east greenland

By Jim Krawiecki

The aim was to find a site for an airfield to form part of the first trans-Atlantic air route. He formed valuable friendships with Greenlandic people who taught him the kayaking, hunting and fishing skills that would be needed to live in this harsh environment. With limited supplies and equipment, the plan to spend two years mapping the coastline and gathering weather data was ambitious. In 2014 our team of expedition kayakers set out to explore this rugged stretch of East Greenland coast, and to see what remains of Watkins’ basecamp at Lake Fjord.

east greenland

Sea Kayak guide Martin Rickard has been exploring the area for the last 14 years. During that time he has established an expedition base at Tasiilaq with an excellent fleet of kayaks and other expedition essentials. During the short summer seasons, Martin runs expeditions for paying clients and in 2012 and 2013 I had been to East Geenland to help out. Lake Fjord lies far beyond the areas where hikers and paddlers normally go; so when I was invited on this trip, I jumped at the chance!

Arriving at Sermiligaaq
Just over half way through the flight From Reykjavik, we began to see the jagged frozen coast of East Greenland. As we got closer we could pick out some of the headlands and islands that we would be paddling round in the next 16 days. The motorboat journey from the airfield at Kulusuk to the northern settlement at Sermiligaaq took just over 90 minutes. Once we arrived first job was to get to the shop to buy some additional supplies to supplement the dehydrated rations that we had brought with us. Martin had arranged for his last guided trip to finish in Sermiligaaq. This meant kayaks were waiting for us on the beach all but ready to go. While we were packing the

While we were packing our kayaks a small group of hunters were quietly gathering between a couple of houses at the head of the beach. One of them asked where we were going. Our mention of Lake Fjord was met with blank expressions. They were more impressed when we referred to it as, ‘Tugtilik’. They took on a more serious tone and urged us to be careful out there. All loaded up, we launched into a misty afternoon and paddled for just after an hour until reaching our first camp. After pitching my tent I went for a short walk around the nearby headland and gazed at the moon rising over the ice-laden channel that we would be paddling through the next day. It really felt as though we were about to paddle off the edge of the world.

east greenland

Stepping off
There had been a steady breeze from the sea since we landed. This brought a penetrating chill that reminded me that we were in a lonely Arctic wilderness. I had been feeling cold all night. I was woken at 5am for my hour-long lookout shift. We would do this most nights so that if an inquisitive Polar bear would wander by our camp, we would not be taken by surprise. I made myself a cup of hot chocolate and huddled out of the wind behind a boulder; watching, waiting and hoping for nothing to happen. After my shift, I felt the benefit of the warm drink and got a couple of more hours in the land of nod.

Paddling from our first camp filled us with excitement and anticipation. The wind had abated, the morning sun warmed the air and gave the bergs a bright, fresh new look. The peak of the first exposed headland towered nearly 700 metres over the calm ocean. The sheer scale of the scenery was difficult to take in. The rest of the day’s paddle was less exposed with the sparkling coastal waters protected by a series of off-lying islands with towering peaks and rock spires. We landed in the late afternoon sunshine on a sandy beach at the island of Gruse. To the west, the steep rocky coastline was dissected by immense calving glaciers. Every now and then, a huge shard, the size of a block of flats would fall from the ice-cliff and crash into the sea.

This would give a thunderous boom shattering the peace of what had become a still and silent evening. In the distance to the north we could make out Ailsa Island and our crux headland dubbed ‘Hell Corner’ by the 1932 British Air Route Expedition team. We were stepping off into territory where even the local hunters would rarely choose to venture. During the next couple of days we paddled steadily north keeping within a mile or so from the glaciated coastline.

east greenland

The further we paddled north, the more colossal the coastline became. To the west lay a deep inlet called Depot Fjord. A shifting gusty wind and an increasingly threatening sea state hindered our approach to the fjord. With aching limbs and snot-streaked, wind-burned faces we landed on a tiny beach on Depot Island at the entrance to the fjord. We would remain stormbound here for a day and a half.

Once the weather loosened its grip, we got underway. A gentle southerly breeze followed us out of the channel that led out to the open sea. The swell was powerful as it crashed explosively into the foot of the huge cliffs. Progressively choppy seas greeted us at each new headland and as we paddled into lengthening shadows it grew colder too.

It was with a great sense of relief that we reached the southern tip of Storø at around 6pm. Storø means big island in Danish and with it has towering peaks and ridges reaching to over 800 metres it lives up to its name. Our relief was short-lived as we realized that our camp for the night in one of the northern bays was still over two hours paddling away. The warmth of the sun had gone by the time of our arrival. Fortunately, there were two shabby hunting cabins. They seemed to be in reasonably good condition, and although a bit creaky and smelly, we were too tired and cold to care about that. There was no need for us to pitch our tents or watch out for Polar bears.

east greenland

Hell corner
The team rose early soon after the sun rose into the blue morning sky. The weather forecast was a little sketchy but sea had become calmer. The beginning of ‘Hell Corner’, a 30kms stretch of coastline with no landings, lies around 10kms across a wide channel from the northern tip of Storø. The closer we got to the first headland, greater the swell became.

The waters became choppier than we had seen on this trip. Several huge bergs that were surging and rocking in the swell gave us only limited room to get through. We had expected more pack ice sitting just offshore. The presence of pack ice serves as a slowly drifting breakwater and dampens off much of the energy from the swell. It is also possible to land on these flat fragments of frozen ocean to rest during long passages. On this occasion the pack ice was gone. Only huge bergs remained leaving our route around ‘Hell Corner’ dangerously constricted and exposed to the undiluted power of the Denmark Strait.

The group had gone quiet. There was none of the usual chatty banter. A decision needed to be made and agreed upon so we rafted up. Even holding the kayaks together was tricky as they banged together in the surging choppy sea. With a further 30 kms of committing paddling to go, there was insufficient confidence to go ahead, especially as we had only a vague weather forecast for the return. Reluctantly, we decided to retreat to a beach that we had passed some 40 minutes earlier and have a re-think. We landed through surf onto a broad pebbly beach in a bay that was littered ice fragments. We took our time to eat, rest and recuperate. While we had been resting, the surf had increased. The increasing sea state confirmed our decision to abandon our plans to reach Lake Fjord.

east greenland

Northern Lights
We found a great place to camp less than two hours paddling east from our ‘retreat beach’. There was fresh water, plenty of space for tents and excellent views along the coast and across the icy sea. We had landed earlier than normal so there was plenty of time to relax and enjoy our surroundings. It wasn’t long before I dozed off. I woke up at 1am for my ‘bearwatch’ shift.

I was surprised as to how dark it was. In mid-August the Arctic nights get progressively dark at an alarming rate. I stood on a rocky knoll and did a sweep of the nearby shore with the main beam of my head torch. I must have been feeling a little on edge because I nearly jumped out of my skin when my torch picked out a particularly pale (bear-shaped) boulder on the beach. As my heart-rate returned to normal I put on my stove to make a cup of hot chocolate to settle my nerves. It was then that I noticed a pale green stripe gently moving across the dark blue sky. It grew into a collection of broad shafts of light that waved and curled like a curtain caught in a breeze. I had been staring long enough for the water on my stove to boil over.

In the morning it was time to head north-west for our consolation prize; a couple of days exploring Kangertittivatsiaq fjord and the calving face of Glacier de France. The combination of sheltered waters and sunny weather made for almost Mediterranean conditions in Kangertittivatsiaq Fjord. We finished the day two-thirds of the way up the fjord by sunbathing on a beach with flat rocks that were warm from the day’s sunshine.

A chilly morning greeted us as we paddled for almost three hours towards the calving face of Glacier de France. The scale of this landscape was difficult to comprehend. I gazed beyond the fragile ice cliff and across the surface of the glacier stretching, twisting and curving for mile upon mile towards the mountains in the hazy distance. The most distant mountains were well off our map and north of the Arctic Circle. This place was peaceful and quiet apart from the ‘snap crackle and pop’ from the brash ice. As the strong morning sun warms up small ice fragments, tiny pressurised air bubbles burst as the surfaces melt. The fizzing and popping sound is amazing. Like paddling through a giant bowl of ‘Rice Crispies’. The ice kept us busy as we turned to paddle south and continue our journey. From now onwards we would be working our way back towards Sermiligaaq and eventually Tasiilaq.

east greenland

We re-traced our route to Sermiligaaq visiting our previous camps on the islands of Storø and Gruse. With time in hand we could explore the remains of old Eskimo settlements and hike up onto the high ridges to take in the expansive views of the mountainous coastline. A forecast of poor weather combined with news of a volcanic eruption in Iceland prompted us to make a dash for Martin’s expedition base at Tasiilaq in order to wind things up and sort out the kit before strong winds and heavy rain would make this task a great effort. It was a bit of an anti climax to return early but the underlying memory is of an expedition to a majestic coastline with such scale that I could not have imagined. The glaciers, the cliffs, the bergs and the Northern Lights were all so much beyond what my dreams could conjure up. As for Lake Fjord and the Watkins base camp; they will be there for another time and another adventure…

Finally, I’d like to pass on my thanks to Martin Rickard at Sea Kayak Adventures for his impeccable guidance and logistics arrangements, Clif Bar and Company for keeping us all in healthy and nutritious snacks, Lyon Equipment for support with Ortlieb dry bags and Trek ‘n Eat expedition meals, Mitchell Blades for my excellent 4-piece Bombora paddles and finally to Peak UK and P&H Custom Sea Kayaks for their continued support.

About thepaddlerezine (509 Articles)
Editor of The Paddler ezine and Publisher of Stand Up Paddle Mag UK and WindsurfingUK magazines

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