It’s been a while since I posted here. I’ve been back in the UK for months now and have completed the rather uncomfortable transition between life in an Arctic wilderness and that in the centre of London. The idea was to forget about the frozen north – to move on to new things and apply for graduate-entry medicine and a rather more stable career. However, there was one adventure which went unreported and which, if results do not go to plan, may yet lead to another big one. My month aboard MV Fram and my first trip to Greenland. My home for the month: MV Fram
Towards the end of my Arctic Nature Guide course, well aware that the fun was coming to an end, I applied for a position as a trainee with the Expedition Team on the polar cruise liner Fram. I was taken on for two circumnavigations of Svalbard and a trip to Iceland, via Greenland.
Greenland. The place is second only to Antarctica on my bucket list. A lot of old Arctic hands end up in Svalbard and those whose journey took them through Greenland told the best stories. Hunting polar bears with the Inuit. Crossing the world’s second largest ice-cap. Vengeful walruses pursuing their vessels as they fled for land. Being charged by muskox. Dogsledding the West Coast. The ice. The cold. The wind. The dark.
Of course I accepted, with the circumnavigations of Svalbard almost incidental to the fact that I wanted to see the Northern Hemisphere’s largest ice mass; a place which by most accounts is like Svalbard on steroids. Bigger, colder, windier, wilder.
What an offensive attitude; I had underestimated the charms of my beloved Cold Edge. I have explored so much of it at ground level; snailing through valleys and over mountains by foot, ski and Sex Panther. In all this time, despite them outnumbering people in these frozen wastes, I had encountered just a handful of polar bears. That all changed on my first cruise. It turns out that Svalbard is infested with the things. On just one day, we saw twelve. Sometimes they were so ubiquitous that we couldn’t even find a place to unload the guests. I believe I saw over fifty during my month on board, sometimes so distant you could only see them when they moved; sometimes just a stonesthrow away on the pack ice.
At 80′ North, we encountered the bizarre island of Moffen; a flat protruberance of sand and shingle in the middle of the sea. The name means “sphincter” in Dutch and is probably inspired by its form, generally described by modern guides more tastefully as “doughnut shaped”. There, I sighted my first walrus. It’s difficult to do justice to these things. They look, simply, too big to be allowed. Moving through the water, it has the inexorable grace of a landslide.
Later on in the cruise, when I hit Greenland, I would hear stories about the largest member of the seal family. The Inuit hunt walruses, often by boat; an activity for which they advise extreme caution. The walrus has a reputation as one of the most vengeful animals in the Arctic. If you take one of the herd when there is a family member of the victim close by, you can expect a ton-and-a-half of furious, tusked blubber to swim against you; attempting to sink your boat and kill all who take refuge within.
A colleague of mine who has hunted walrus once showed me a photo of the stomach contents of a bull he had taken. Within were the heart, lungs, intestines and skin of a seal; unchewed and completely intact. The walrus, so adept at sucking the insides from their primary food-source, the clam, had applied the force of their considerable lips to the stomach of a seal and simply sucked it to the bone. To the Inuit, this is a fearsome adversary.
Cruising really is a splendid way to see Svalbard, with those on board Fram treated to a highlights reel of the islands. On top of all the major settlements, we stopped off at a dozen historical sites (dating from back when these islands were called Spitsbergen: “Pointy Peaks”, in Dutch); vast glaciers, fjords and Nordaustlandet; the world’s third largest ice-cap. Several times Fram was forced to show her ice-strengthened hull as we ploughed through dense sea-ice in the far north.
One encounter in particular seemed to encapsulate Svalbard. We ferried the guests ashore Edgeøya, where they were entertained by an eddying flock of kittiwakes, tethered to a narrow canyon in which they had constructed their colony. Arctic foxes swept the floor, picking off the young, the weak or simply the unwary. Some even scaled the sides of the canyon, ambushing unfortunate birds which were wrestled down from the cliffs in a welter of feathers. Those kittiwakes that strayed too far from their compatriots found themselves battered to exhaustion by a gang of Arctic skuas, attempting to brutalise the birds into surrendering their last, half-digested meal.
The show was dynamic and enthralling; appearing all the more so for the barrenness of the desert that surrounded it. Somehow here, in this fissure in the rock, life had concentrated and competed ferociously for the right to survive another year in this wilderness. All the main players were too busy to care much for the bunch of blue-jacketed observers who came and went in procession, staring up at the relentless nature of life on Svalbard.
So much for Svalbard. Next: Greenland.
Crossing the heavily furrowed Denmark Strait, we steamed down the almost abandoned East Coast of this vast wilderness. Evidence of human habitation was all but invisible, with a few solitary weather stations the sum total of our species’ impact on this part of the island. Instead, the impression was of sheer, untamed wild. The pack-ice, unseasonably dense, was sprinkled liberally with blood-smeared polar bears; animals which hardly acknowledged our presence as we floated by. The proud, prehistoric-looking muskox dominate the glacier-sculpted valleys and Arctic hares scatter before you as you move over the hills. Anything which doesn’t move fast enough is shredded by Arctic foxes, which, combined with the slow rate of decay, means that bones are scattered everywhere. In between these, small wild flowers speckle the tundra.
Ice-bergs the size of our ship regularly drifted past. Some of the glaciers were so unfathomably huge that I didn’t even try using the panorama setting of my camera to capture them. The resultant picture would simply have looked like a piece of string. Some of the names are a provocative reminder of the days when the earth was a much larger place. Hold-with-Hope. Jakobshavn. Thule.
Greenland, named as a piece of generous real-estate propaganda by Eric the Red, resembles a primeval Garden of Eden. Deserted, beautiful and savage.
So surprising is it to find evidence of human habitation in this place that you almost cannot believe it when you do. On one memorable occasion myself and another guide, Steffan, had to stop abruptly when leading a shore-party on excursion. Up ahead, we could see malevolent shapes against the tundra. Binoculars confirmed our fears; a trio of muskoxen had spotted us and formed defensive formation. This was a serious matter; the 30-06 rifles we carried would have been too weak to penetrate the heavily-reinforced skull of these beasts should they decide to charge. A standoff ensued, neither us nor the muskox prepared to give an inch of ground, which was only resolved when one of our guests, peering through the binoculas, suggested they might not be muskox at all. The man, an engineer by trade, was quite right. We had spent twenty minutes squaring up to three industrial drainage pipes, inexplicably lodged in the middle of the tundra.
Our encounter with this colossal wilderness finally came to an end at Ittoqqortoormiit; the only settlement of any note that exists on the East Coast. Barely 450 souls winter in this rough port, where the main occupation is still hunting and impish Greenlandic dogs roam semi-feral. It is at once terribly bleak and completely inspiring. In this refuge, located on the doorstep of land that is 80% ice, there is a strong whiff of the Wild West. Firearms are sold next to the food in the supermarkets. Transport outside of town is either by dogsled or snow mobile. The bones of mighty fauna (bear, whale, muskox, walrus) are the playthings of children in the street. Abandoned villages surround the settlement.
Though it is a rough life, it offers more freedom than anywhere else I have so far seen on earth. Anyone may buy a cabin, assemble a team of dogs and go live the life of a Greenlandic hunter. Should my medical aspirations fall through, it is something I am seriously considering. Ittoqqortoormiit; tiny, bleak and inspiring.
The cruise ended with a brief stint in Iceland, from which we caught the flight home. Everything you have heard about this country is true. It really is the most stunning place I have ever been; an unexpectedly verdant lost world of waterfalls, volcanos, mountains and ice. We were exposed to it all too briefly – I look forwards very much to returning to explore it properly one day.
There is not much left to say and in any case, this entry is long enough already. This will not be my last post here. I’ll be back in the cold someday, whether at high north, south or altitude and I’ve no doubt it will warrant another update. Til then, folks.