Welcome To My World of Pedals and Paddles

An account of my Sea Kayaking and Mountain Biking exploits

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Exploring East Greenland 2014

photo courtesy Jim Krawiecki

I have deliberated about updating my blog for sometime due to a number of reasons. Suffice to say this trip did not go according to plan and I feel it is important for a blog to be both interesting and informative. I hope this one fulfils both of those intentions.

As with all trips, the final preparations and  work commitments make for a hectic few days. I was due to fly to Iceland from Heathrow on Monday 11 August with take off scheduled for 1pm. I did not relish the prospect of fighting the traffic along the M4 on a Monday morning so I decided to stay overnight with my brother in law Kev and his wife Tracey at their house in Harrow.  The Saturday and most of Sunday morning was spent packing and repacking my kit to ensure that I could get it all into my respective bags. Sending packages to Greenland in advance has been deemed too difficult unless you ship out say a new kayak in a container and stuff it full of goodies such as camping kit and food. Even then it is not a cheap option. With this in mind I had bought myself a disposable kit bag and stuffed it full of expedition food. The additional baggage charge with Iceland Air was well worth the expense. I intended to ditch the kit bag and eat the food in Greenland so it was not necessary to pay for this bag on the return Easy Jet flight to Bristol.

Sunday evening arrived and the three of us went for a meal in a restaurant just up the road from Kev and Tracey's house. I had not been feeling well all day and I started to have breathing problems. Sitting outside in the air did not help and a very difficult night followed.

At about six in the morning it was clear that I was going nowhere. I lay on the bed surrounded by all of my kit feeling very sorry for myself and wondering what I had done to deserve this. Months of training and lots of expensive kit were about to be wasted.

I rang my daughter and she began the drive from the middle of Wales to come and collect me. I rang my Doctor for an emergency appointment and was told in no uncertain terms to go to a hospital.

So, three hours before take off and I am sitting in the A&E Department at Northwick Park Hospital in Harrow with an oxygen mask on.

The Doctor diagnosed an Asthma attack even though I had never had Asthma before. After about forty minutes my Stats had returned to normal and I was cleared to fly. I checked with Sam, one of the team members who was about to board his flight in Manchester, and his response was 'go for it'. I then had a rather difficult telephone call with my daughter who was by this time at Reading. I did not realise Lawyers knew such words. She refused to take me to the airport but Kev relented and I made the flight with a few minutes to spare.

I met up with Sam at the airport in Keflavik and we boarded the bus together to continue our journey into Reykjavik. We had booked into the city hostel for an overnight stay and we were met of the bus by Chris who informed us that the team had gone for a swim. The heated outdoor pool is next to the hostel and has various spa pools, steam room and slides. We had a nice relaxing time for the remainder of the afternoon and the steam room gave my lungs the chance to get some movement.

Six of us were staying at the hostel and we had had a team meal nicely cooked by Les. Unfortunately, the six of us were also sharing one room furnished with three bunk beds and ventilated by one small window. It was not easy to get to sleep. It was very warm and every time I moved it sounded like someone had come into the room and fired a shot gun. I started coughing quite badly and I was concious of spoiling everyone else's sleep. I grabbed my pillows and went down to reception and asked the very nice lady if I could sleep in the lounge. She explained that this was not permitted but due the fact that I was not well I could have a room on my own. I did not get a lot of sleep but at least I did not disturb anyone else.

We grabbed breakfast, made lunch packs from various rolls, cheeses and ham and took a taxi to the domestic airport. Some of us were aware that our packs looked quite large so we purchased some additional weight from the machines situated in the departure lounge. You get quite heavily penalised by Greenland Air if your bags are overweight but the charges are reasonable if you buy the weight before you check in.

It felt really good to be on the plane to Greenland at last and the team were in high spirits. As we neared Greenland it was possible to view from the air the places where we were about to paddle. Jim was able to point out the entrance to Lake Fjord some one hundred or so miles to the North.

The airport at Kulusuk is very basic, just one building where the departure and arrival lounges merge into one. The baggage gets off loaded onto a cart and driven around to the airport entrance for the passengers to unload themselves. The views are stunning and the ice is always a fascination.

After finding our baggage it was time to load up and make the long trek down the dirt road to the quayside. I made it about 1km to the first junction before I had to ditch my food. My main pack weighed nearly 30kg, the hand luggage about 5kg. My paddle bag complete with walking poles and fishing gear weighed about 7kg and the food another 10kg. I was thankful that it was downhill.

The quay at Kulusuk comprises one main jetty and rocks either side. Lars was in his boat waiting for us so we quickly loaded up and headed North. I had being doing ice reports for Martin for quite a few weeks before the trip but I was still surprised how little ice there was. Last year we had to trek much further into the main village because the quay closer to the airport was ice bound.

As we headed north up Angmassilik Fjord we passed some of the campsites that we had used last year. The most obvious one was the US Airbase at Ikatek which was clearly visible from the boat including all the rusting oil barrels and vehicles.

After a few hours we pulled into the small settlement at Sermiligaq. There were quite a few boats in the harbour which were moored using an unusual over head rope system. As we neared the jetty we could see Martin and the members of his previous trip waiting to greet us. Lars positioned the boat alongside the steel piles and we  formed a chain to unload our bags. We compared notes with the other trippers and left them to load their bags for the return trip to Kulusuk.

Sermiligaq has a supermarket like all of the satellite settlements around the main centre of Tassilaq.

Jim Krawiecki (Jimski) ponders over his shopping in Sermiligaq supermarket.
This gave us the opportunity to top up our food supplies even further with various goodies such as chocolate, carrots, milk and for some even a little beer.

photo courtesy Sam Cook

I was using the Rockpool Menai 18 that I had paddled last year so I was quite well practised at packing it. Even so I had rather overdone the top up food shop and struggled to get it all into the hatches. We were going in to the field for seventeen days and I was determined not to go hungry. I kept hold of my large dry bag and used this to carry some gear on the back deck. The boat was well loaded and when we eventually set off from the beach it took a bit of getting used to because it was low in the water but had a higher than usual centre of gravity.

Our plan was to use the remaining daylight to get to a campsite situated two hours north at the end of a Fjord named Ikasak. Good fresh water supplies are a must on a trip such as this and we wanted to record any suitable locations for future reference.

There is a good campsite in a bay just north of Sermiligaq which also has a clean water supply so this was our first stop.

It was a nice paddle from there to the campsite. The weather was calm and there was a bit of fog to add to the views. The warm air of The Gulf Stream meets the cold Arctic air coming down the East coast of Greenland so fog is very often present on calm days.

Our first campsite was situated on some rock slabs just south of Sarfaq Pynt. We found some grassy flat areas up above the slabs and set up camp. This years expedition food was not as tasty as the ones we had last year. I picked out a beef strogonoff but found it very difficult to eat it. The temperature had dropped a few degrees so a hot meal was very important after all the hours travelling.

We agreed on a bear watch rota and settled down for the night. I did not sleep well and spent most of the night coughing.

The next morning we launched from the slabs and set off on our first full days paddling. It was due to be a five thumbs journey or about 35km. The weather was super clear with a blue sky and a slight tail wind. We rounded Sarfaq Pynt and paddled west towards some large ice bergs. Once past these we headed into the open sea towards Jerne Sund which is a stretch of water inside the island of Tikivipik. At the north end of Jerne Sund is a very small gap which separates the island of Armilinarteq from the main land. This gap is less than ten metres wide but this route avoids paddling around the island. We passed through the gap and into a bay with the most stunning view. There were glaciers mountains and cliffs to the north and a nice sandy beach to the south. This was a lunch spot not to be missed. At the back of the beach was a large block of snow but this was not a suitable water supply because it was contaminated with grit.

After lunch we continued north west through another gap called Smal sund followed by an open crossing to the island of Gruse which was our next campsite. We also crossed LAT 66 degrees north so this was by far the furthest north I had been.

We landed on a very rocky beach near to a hunters hut. The actual campsite resembled a quarry with gritty patches which we used to pitch our tents on. We had to carry our kit up to the camping area. By now I was not feeling good at all and starting to think that I perhaps had a problem. I gave the strogonoff a miss and found the shepherds pie much more tasty and managed to get that down. One valuable tip is to bring a jacket for the food bag made from carry mat. The food tends to cool very quickly after the hot water is added and the jacket slows this process making the food edible for longer. The main meals were 8ooK and a pudding could add some 300K. Porridge for breakfast would be a maximum 500K probably less. So even topping up on bars and snacks it is very difficult to put back in more calories than the 2500K plus you are using during a day on the water. The main evening meal is the one meal not to be missed.

After dinner we went for a walk over to the hunters hut, or rather what remains of it. Inside we found a board with a list of names on it. This was the expedition to Lake Fjord in 2009 and amazingly the original pen was still there and it worked. We wrote our names on another part of the wall to continue the tradition.

Another difficult night followed.  I was excused bear watch and I positioned my tent away from the others so that I did not keep them awake with my coughing. All through the night we could hear glaciers calving on the other side of Fjord.

The next morning and the weather had improved even more. It was quite warm and a dry suit did not feel at all suitable for the day even though we knew the water was still below freezing. I considered rolling down my dry suit and paddling in a fleece top. Instead I opted for the thinnest set of thermals that I had with me.

The first part of the paddle was due north across an open stretch of water. We wanted to get to the island of Store for our next night stop. For most of the morning the wind was light and we made good progress. We passed some massive ice bergs which I noticed were moving at quite a rate of knots. To the north of us we passed glaciers and mountains. The scenery was getting more rugged the further north we went.

Around eleven o'clock the wind picked up to a steady F4 from the north and the temperature immediately dropped. Most of us now had on our water proof tops and I was starting to regret wearing such a thin base layer. Progress slowed so the decision was taken to head into the lee of Depot Island for as rest and to regroup. We then landed on a small rocky beach to have lunch. I felt quite light headed and welcomed the break. I then made the mistake of having a knap. I had not slept well for four nights and lack of sleep was starting to have an effect. When I awoke I was very cold so I went to sit in the sun. At this point the team decided that enough was enough and that I was not going to get any better. We were at least four days paddling from Tassilaq and a rescue boat travels in an hour what a paddler can achieve in a day. Depot Island is about as far north as a boat from Tassilaq would want to travel. To carry on further from Tassilaq in my condition would not only have compromised the success of the expedition it could quite possibly put others at risk. I was not prepared to let either of those things happen so I reluctantly agreed to Martin making the call.

The decision was made to make camp on Depot Island. I got into my tent and sleeping bag to ensure that I did not get hypothermia and the rest of the team moved all the boats up off the beach.

When the tide comes in the beach completely disappears and the boats had to be hauled up into a small gulley at the top of the cliff. This gulley split the campsite in two but there was plenty of space.

This turf house is a replica built at the Tassilaq Museum.
On one side there were the remains of some Inuit turf houses and a burial chamber so this location must have been well used in the past. It was a stunning if not noisy campsite with sea views on three sides.

The boat was not due to arrive until mid day so we all had a bit of a lazy start. I packed  my gear and let the team pick through my food and goodies. I noticed all the remaining shepherds pie got swapped for beef strogonoff so I was not the only one who did not like it. The chocolate did not last long either. Various other items also disappeared such as reserve gas cooker, vacuum flask water bags and a flask. I was glad to help the team out but it did not help morale very much.

At about 1pm we could see the rescue boat but it had trouble finding us despite the use of flares and the shotgun. We eventually raised them on ch 16 using the vhf radio. This was the same frequency as back home.

Very quickly all my gear and the surplus kayak was on the boat. There were some sad goodbyes and my trip to Lake fjord was over.

The trip to Tassilaq took about four hours which was a quite along time to be bounced around in the back of a boat. It was also quite demoralising passing the various campsites we had just visited. As we passed Sermiligaq I took the opportunity to message home and inform them of the situation. One bonus of the trip was that we came up behind a whale and slowly passed within a few metres of it. Another first for me.

When we got to Tassilaq I was surprised to see an ambulance on the quay side, but it appears no one was taking any chances. I was kept in hospital for three nights and not cleared for flying for five days. My oxygen level was too low and I had Acute Bronchytis. My temperature was also low so the team had been right to be wary of hypothermia.

I spent the next day having a rest and enjoying the food. We had awful trouble sorting out the travel insurance and making arrangements to get home. The insurance company would not do a thing until they had my medical notes from my GP. Many faxes were exchanged which was quite difficult where not may people spoke English. Eventually we made the arrangements ourselves with no help from the Insurance company.

I was in a ward with two Greenlanders who were obviously a lot more ill than me. After two days the Doctor insisted I get out for a walk around the town to get my lungs moving. During one of these trips I paid a visit to the supermarket. I am aware that Greenlanders embrace 'the group' philosophy approach to life and my two new friends on the ward seemed to appreciate the large bars of chocolate that I brought back. I was rewarded with big Greenlandic smiles. Anyone who has visited Greenland will know what I mean.

Saying good bye to Dr Banke-Mikkelsen who had looked after me so well.

I was a little sorry to leave the hospital. I had received amazing care and treatment and was made to feel very welcome by the Doctor and all the nurses. I had even been taken shopping in the Ambulance which they seem to use as a taxi when its not needed for an emergency.

Two nights in the Angmassalik Hotel followed whilst I was waiting for flights. By this time I was feeling a bit stronger and I was determined not to waste my time in Tassilaq.  Before leaving home I had visited the local fishing tackle shop and purchased various lures. The sales assistant was fascinated that I was visiting Greenland and insisted that I send him pictures of any fish that I catch.
I had intended to hopefully supplement my expedition food with fresh fish during the stay at Lake Fjord. This was no longer possible but a quick chat to Lars and a trip out of Tassilaq was hastily arranged.

I met a local hunter Mikel on the quayside in Tassilaq early the next morning and we set off in his boat towards Kulusuk. I was getting to know this stretch of coastline quite well. We passed another of the campsites from last years trip and out to sea there were some large icebergs just to remind me of where I was.

I tend to get sea sick when a boat stops so I was relieved when we pulled into the entrance of a calm Fjord. Mikel took out a new hand line which was had various lures and a very large silver spinner on the end of it. This was duly dropped over the side and all 100m of the line was let out. He then added
about another 20m and handed it to me.

Within minutes there was something on the end and I was instructed to reel it in. This was no easy task but a few minutes later and five large Cod were flapping around in the bucket. I am not sure
what I was expecting to catch but those fish were a lot larger than I was expecting.

  Between us we caught some twenty five fish in the space of two hours. Once the buckets and trays were full it was time to head back in. Because I had caught the first fish I was invited to dinner that night with Mikel and his family. By now I knew that that the Greenlanders have a penchant for chocolate and I was once again rewarded with big smiles of Mikels children. A great day to end such a demoralising trip.

My flights out of Tassilaq were arranged for early the next morning. There was no way that I could
walk the 2K from the quay to airport with al my kit so I booked a flight on the helicpoter.

 Yet another first. The flight gave fantastic views of the icebergs that I had seen on my fishing trip.

Our fishing spot is near the top of the picture.

The usual way that kayakers get from Tassilaq to the airport.

The runway at Kulusuk.

The weather still remained clear and I could easily pick out where I had paddled.

Depot Island is just left of the propellers.

The trip back to Bristol was uneventful and I was met by a rather stoney faced daughter who I think was actually pleased to see me.

I have reflected on this trip for some months now and have decided the best way to deal with the disappointment is to go back and have another go. Martin Rickard has kindly decided to support me with this so hopefully summer 2016 will prove more successful.

I had learnt some valuable lessons. The first one is how surprisingly easy it is to kill yourself. Apparently, according to the Doctor in Tassilaq I was about one day away from pneumonia. To have continued would probably have been fatal. it is important to listen to your body and speak up. The ease at which someone can go hypothermic is frightening. I may have been run down but laying down in a cold wind with light thermals on was just silly. I will not do that again, in fact I have bought myself a Kokotat Storm Cag just for lunch stops.
Quite clearly a 'I am fine' mentality can quite easily kill you. I was very fortunate to be with such a good team. I will always be grateful for their support and have no problem apologising here for the inconvenience I caused them.

I had an interesting chat with the owner of the Angmassalik Hotel who kindly gave me a lift to the heliport. He did not have a very high opinion of us kayakers because apparently we arrive one day and we are gone the next without spending any money with him so that is quite understandable. He is also of the view that as the ice melts and tourism grows and more people venture into the outdoors someone is going to get hurt. I was fortunate that we had an exit strategy that worked. This was down to the proffesionalism of my friend Martin Rickard, the support of our team and the backup of Lars Anker at Travellodge Greenland. If others do not put this sort of plan in place it will be interesting to see if Hendrik's prediction comes true. Greenland does not take prisoners.

My friend Martin Rickard

As for the rest of the team:

They continued with their adventures:

but that is for them to tell you about.

To be continued 2016


Martin Rickard said...

We had all prepared and trained so hard for such an amazing trip, so considering your initial diagnosis from the hospital I was very glad you came out and gave it a real go. We all thought your health would have improved and all been OK. However as it didn't - I am very glad I pulled you out when I did.
As you know we didn't get past "Hells Corner" that summer, but its not going anywhere - so here's to next time. Martin.

Andrea Wilkins said...

It is always an interesting thing to bear witness to new terrain, and see how human activity would be laid out differently across it. Speaking of which, great job to James for tracking and profiling the different campsites there in East Greenland; mostly defined by slabs of rock overlooking a shore. At least we'll know where to set up as soon as we get there, and what equipment and types of tents to bring.

Andrea Wilkins @ Getaway Outdoors

Hiker Huw said...

Congrats on both an interesting and informative article, good to be open about the things that go wrong. I was on the west coast again in 2014 about a month before you were in the East. I went over again in 2017 for my 8th visit and as always, when I fly over the east coast, I start thinking what could I do if I spent some time there because I'd love to see more of the east side. I prefer hiking and camping for a few weeks at a time. I really enjoyed your photos though. Some spectacular geology and terrain to explore...I might visit the east if I could wean myself off the west and looking for my geese. Keep exploring! :o)

Hiker Huw said...

By the way, I was sent the link by your aforementioned daughter via Twitter! :o)

James Murray said...

Hi Huw, Thanks for the visit. Just got back from visit to The East Coast number four. Blog to follow. I went back in 2016 and we managed to get Tugtilik. The Blog is now posted if you are interested.