EAST GREENLAND AND SPITZBERGEN(2)

More photos of East Greenland: https://flic.kr/s/aHsmnH6Bnb

Dawn in Scoresby Sound

We had left Reykjavik on the 19th of August and it was not until dawn on Tuesday 21st that we woke up to find ourselves anchored off the only village in this vast,  barren but stupendous landscape -ITTOQQORTOORMIT. It was a glorious morning of sunshine and blue skies, heralding the pattern over the next 7 days as we headed 200 miles into the deepest reaches of the fjord system.We were now 71 degrees north and it was a balmy 7C.The mountain ranges to the south of us were Alpine in scale, covered in snow and glaciers.

 

Great fun queuing up for the zodiac then being whisked off to land on a rough shore (there were no jetties) hence the rubber knee high boots were essential as every landing was usually a wet one. Nifty timing and sliding the legs over the rubber surface of the RIB in order to exit it, became like second nature.I loved the zodiacs!

I wish we’d spent more time just cruising up and down the coast as spotting wildlife this way seemed more productive than stumbling around on the rubbly, empty landscape which generally provided little by way of birds or mammals – except of course for wonderful Musk Ox.I had so wanted to see them and they were very common those first few days.What a prehistoric sight they were! We often landed at trappers huts where in the distant past, these hardy men had captured huge numbers of arctic hare , fox and bear, selling the pelts for cash. Over the decades they seem to have made their mark by significantly reducing the animal and bird population. The huts are still used by local people (one had shelves lined with mega packs of M&Ms, brandy and whisky.)

We had 2-3hrs to stroll the village on our own – there was no bear danger within the confines of the housing area – though the local guide there , an attractive friendly woman, told us that a bear and cub had been seen close to the village just the previous day. A small pod of Narwhal had also been seen off shore but zodiacs and ship activity tended to keep them away, so we were out of luck. An elderly man, very friendly, had set up a small stall where we could try dried Musk Ox ( delicious) and Narwhal, local delicacies. It was not the done thing to offer money for this, or to pay anything in the small museum with its interesting old photographs; or to give something to the lovely young girl who had dressed up for us in colourful traditional costume.These people were not looking to make money from ship visits.

It was life on the edge, no doubt about it but as a Danish territory they received supplementary income (benefits we would call it). There was a school and a sports centre. Each house was detached, made of wood and painted in bright colours. Incredibly, although people got around on quad bikes, a pavement was under construction, bordering the rough track that served as a road. We had been well warned to jump off the road itself if someone came along in a quad bike; basically, they didn’t stop and expected you to give way! It was slightly bizarre. Overall, there seemed to be very little interest in us amongst the few people going about.The village has 10 licensed hunters and they are allowed to take 35 polar bears, 50 narwhal and 70 musk ox per year. All meat from these kills is shared across the village. They also make money from selling the fur.  It certainly was not a pretty place though from a distance, it looked very picturesque.

I wandered mostly by myself, enjoying the fine sunny weather and taking a ton of photos. There were a lot of hunting dogs, chained up in groups, continually barking and I watched one group being fed. I couldn’t imagine life here at all; for all that I love wild landscapes this was just too barren and too hostile, an alien world of ice and rock.

Zodiacs landing at the village

Then we were whisked back to the boat and greeted with an excellent lunch – food was always a real pleasure on board, first class home made grub – as our ship set off for the afternoon’s landing at Kap Stewart, a more benign bay.

Polar Bear mitten

 

Kap Stewart , Polar Bear footprints and Musk Oxen

Kap Stewart was a softer landscape than the rocky , bare surroundings of the village. The tundra was something I really wanted to see and already the Bearberry and Bilberry were turning dark red. Very beautiful though overall, the tundra was more sparse than I imagined it would be. We spied musk oxen – 3 of them – and they spotted us, slowly making their way up onto higher ground. You are not allowed to pick up anything during the landings but we were allowed to take some discarded clumps of musk ox hair, incredibly soft(I had visions of making something of this by framing it but unfortunately left it in a trouser pocket which I then washed at home! Out came a tiny, shrunken piece of brown wool…..)

Polar bear prints were also pointed out on the foreshore…eerie to think that a bear had ambled past here, where we stood, days before. It re-affirmed how hostile this place was.You couldn’t survive without being heavily armed; it was a sort of death zone in many ways.

 Rode O (Red Island) and Harefjord

East Greenland really took off when we woke on 22nd August  to find ourselves in the amazing surroundings of Red Island.

 

Towering, ancient red sandstone cliffs and gigantic icebergs dwarfed the ship.It was stunning. The ice seemed so impenetrable at times, I couldn’t believe how the zodiacs managed to get through – albeit very carefully.The colours and light were outstanding. A seal briefly popped up its dark head to say hello then disappeared. A glaucous gull pair were nesting on a ledge.Apart from that, the absence of life was unnerving.This was a harsh land, almost primeval.

The weather was so lovely and pleasant – a sunny, 12C – that we had a Pizza and Salad buffet lunch served on the deck! Followed by home made ice cream cones. Surreal! First class food as ever. Afternoon saw us landing on Rode O itself, at a very beautiful place with (unusually) thick tundra and a turquoise bay looking out onto the giant icebergs which had calved from the Vestfjord glacier.Dwarf willow and colourful rose -root, lilac harebells and delicate dwarf birch, carpeted the land.

There is something extra beautiful about tiny flowers and plants which somehow cling on to life in extreme places.

The evening was spent cruising up the fjord itself, admiring the stunning 2,000m peaks , snow capped, rearing out of the 1,000m deep fjord itself. There wasn’t a seal or bird to be seen; no life stirred. We were in utterly silent , vast country and seas littered with gigantic icebergs of great beauty and variety.

Thurs 23 August: Nordvestfjord and Eskimobugt

We were now as far west in Scoresby Sund as it was possible to go.The morning saw us cruising in the zodiacs past 500m cliffs and giant bergs then in the afternoon, there was a landing in an area we could walk on relatively easily.The groups split up and I joined the ‘long walk’ up a scree and boulder slope before we contoured across to watch a small family of Musk Ox with 2 calves, watching us warily.There were Paleo Eskimo graves  and a littering of ancient animal bones.

There were no birds nor many flowers.We had a distant sighitng of an Arctic hare which was of great interest – at last, life on land! The kayakers and those who been on the short shore walk fared better however with a sighting of 6 narwhal cruising along the shallows; I was so disappointed to miss them.Evening, after dinner, was spent watching the light changing on the Alpine peaks as we headed for the Bear Islands. It was magical – truly stunning.

Friday 24:  Bear Islands  – THE most spectacular of all

To me, this and the journey to get here, was the most spectacular place of all that we saw in East Greenland.

I was mesmerised by the geography here – the mountains looked like the backs of dinosaurs rising out of the ocean; a bit like Suilven in our own North West Highlands, but without the vegetation – just bare rock and scree.The tundra was really gorgeous.

 

 

Back to the ship and we set sail up Hall Bredning, the area of Scoresby Sound we’d first arrived in.Enormous icebergs were dramatically lit in the late afternoon light as we headed out into the Greenland Sea again.Next stop, Kong Oscar and Franz Josef Fjords.

An afternoon talk was given on the hunting patterns of polar bears, musk ox and arctic fox.Had a drink in the bar as it was Gary, the chief expedition leader’s birthday and there was a discussion of our time so far.Everyone had been wowed by the landscapes and the sheer variety of terrain,  but there was great surprise at the lack of wildlife/birdlife.

Saturday 25 Antarctichavn and Gateau Point

Another trappers favourite though the hut seen better days and lay half buried in the sand.’Needs work’ would have been the Estate Agent’s description.

We all did the same walk over rubbly terrain, mostly scree and boulders and unpleasant.There was very little to see – a few Barnacle geese took off which was a nice sight. It was an empty, barren land and seemed endless. We spent a lot of time admiring the few arctic flowers in bloom.Of course out there,  were polar bears but what on earth they fed on was difficult to imagine. They are marine mammals – feeding mainly out on the ice floes, hunting seals – but in summer many do come in to scour the land.It can be months in between successful hunts/feeding.

There was a lot of old debris from the trappers hut lying about – an old stove, barrels, bones…..It felt a sad, lonely place and I was quite glad to move on.

Sunday 26 Aug Sophia Sund, Myygebugten(Mosquito Bay)

A final landing in Greenland on another barren plain where a couple of Musk Ox grazed in the distance. We walked for 2 hours, climbing high up onto a plateau then following it round and passing multiple skeletons of animals. Evidence of trapper activity or bears or both; the leaders weren’t sure. Beautiful weather still, blue skies and light winds.I was looking forward now (I didn’t think I would) to two whole days at sea, as a break from the routine of landings on shores which were dead and somehow uninspiring, even depressing to the spirit. Much as I love solitude and a sense of remoteness, even loneliness , I’d never quite experienced these things to this level.You learn something about yourself all the time and I now realised how much I took for granted that the ‘lonely’ places I loved, were nevertheless rich in their ability to sustain life. For that reason they were not hostile, as much of this land was.It seemed to trigger a rejection in me , a wish to escape and be surrounded once more by the signs and sounds of birds, animals, lush grasses and heathers. We’d had 6 full days now in East Greenland  and thankfully, it was time to move on. I was also looking forward to negotiating the pack ice before we headed north east to Svalbard. That sounded exciting – and was!

NEXT: PACK ICE, POLAR BEAR AND WALRUS

PREVIOUS DAYS: THE HIGH ARCTIC: EAST GREENLAND AND SPITZBERGEN (1)

East Greenland and Spitzbergen(3)

 

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