• Alex

Hiking and packrafting in Greenland

Updated: Jan 21, 2019






South Greenland and especially Tasermiut fjord, already triggered my interest when I was teenager. The exceptional rock faces present in this fjord was enough to ignite my imagination, especially at that time, my main focus being climbing and alpinism. But what really caught my attention was the conscious choice from the climbers to not share topo map of the routes they opened to preserve the wild aspect of the place.

Time flies, life shifted my interest from climbing to flying which made me progressively forget about it. But this was not Greenland last words, when I started BASE jumping the “Tasermiut” effect kicked back, even stronger this time. Soon or later I have no choice but to go to Greenland and experience this place first hand.


Ulamertorsuaq

Time keep flying and my list of dream projects is in constant expansion, it is decided: 2018 will be the Greenland year. Im making a call within my close BASE jumping friends to find partner for the trip as well as making some research about the jumping possibilities. I want to make this project fit into my teenager dream and the way climbers gave respect to the wilderness of the area, so I have a solid motivation to access the area by paddling and hiking from Nanortalik, the nearest town about 40 km south the jumping area.

Conclusion from my research is the access to exit points are very demanding and the most interesting cliff require technical climbing to reach the exit, at the same time, none of my friends got enough drive to put so much effort into so little jumping, well I guess no one shared my vision about this place.

Future will prove them right as it would have been probably not possible to jump during the period of our trip because weather and snow condition in the mountain.

Never mind, I switch to plan B: I propose to Jenny a 3 weeks adventure with no specific plan in mind except trying to be light and mobile to roam in Tasermiut Fjord, starting from Nanortalik. The core idea would be to bring with us packrafts, lightweight inflatable kayak to open more possibilities of exploration.

To put things in perspective, we have a very poor map of the area and there is not a single path to show you the way. We never packrafted and have no experience of paddling in fjord which can be synonym of strong tidal current, needless to say no experience about paddling near iceberg… oh and apparently, regarding wikipedia, Nanortalik means: “place where the polar bears go”.

Me and Jenny are outdoor enthusiast, we love to camp and engage in outdoor activities, generally short trip, to do something fun such as snow kiting or ski touring, but we never did anything close to such adventure and simply going in the wild for 3 weeks unsupported is, by itself a solid challenge for us…

Indeed, she accept my offer. Packrafts are ordered and tickets are booked, adventure is calling and we must go.


We set foot in Greenland the 28th of August in Narsarsuaq, in order to board for a five hours boat ride to Nanortalik.

The wind is seriously strong, and the waves get bigger and bigger as we move forward. Some passengers are literally screaming as we feel the boat dropping from couple of meters while hitting the biggest wave. Our captain have no choice but to turn around, we’ll spend the night in Qaqortoq and wait for the wind to drop.

Little we know that we were learning our first lesson about Greenland, no boat or helicopter could reach Nanortalik during this weather event and we actually spent 4 days stuck in Qaqortoq: in Greenland, a clock doesn’t mean much, the weather and the terrain dictate the program.



We try to use this time the best we can, doing warm up hikes around the city and studying the map, over and over again … every passing day increasing my frustration of being stuck and having the feeling of missing out my chance to fulfil the perfect adventure.

As usual, future we’ll prove me wrong: the time spent studying the map and the weather condition placed us on a much greater itinerary that we had imagine at first.





Day 1

Finally the wind drop… giving place to rain, at least the boat can safely bring us to the starting point of our trip. Approaching Nanortalik, the landscape become more and more impressive, it is much bigger and rough that I imagined from reading the map, many island got +1000 meters cliffs going more or less straight down to the water on a very steep angle, it is quite intimidating to picture ourselves paddling in such places with our little packraft with long stretch of coastline offering no opportunity to get back on land.

As Im feeling quite humbled by terrain, the old man in front of Jenny turn around and says: “this is only when we travel like this that we can realise how small we are”.

So cliché, I told to myself but those words actually stick to my head the whole trip, and my first impression change from “this is cliché” to “this is solid local wisdom”.

When we step off the boat, a whole family is welcoming one of the passenger, an old man who board the boat with us 4 days ago, everyone without exception is crying and it is is easy to assume they recently lost a family member. As we start walking I feel even more humbled, giving some thought to this guy, isolated the last 4 days waiting to join his family in such situation, increasing the roughness feel deliver by this place is.


As a gift to celebrate the long awaited start of our adventure, the rain stop and we directly head north in direction of Sondre Sermilik, the parallel fjord West to Tasermiut. We decided to reach Tasermiut using an indirect road, and hopefully create an elegant itinerary to avoid going back and forth in the same fjord.



Nanortalik being situated on a island we soon have to inflate the packrafts to reach the mainland. The paddling condition are great so we keep moving north on the water until the rain and wind come back. Maybe the welcome gift was not so much a gift after all: we are soaking wet in less than five minutes and the wind is freezing cold. The ground is so wet that we are walking most of the time with water up to our ankle, slowly getting colder and colder from the ice cold wind. I'm trying to imagine a strategy to set camp under such a rain, with not so much success. Only after a few hours leaving Nanortalik, I already start to question what the hell we are doing here. But this is when our luck came in place and we’ll not leave us all the way til the end of the trip. As we keep walking, two little cabins appear in the distance, getting closer, it become obvious that they are abandoned and in very poor condition, just good enough to offer us a shelter and the promise to keep our sleeping dry for the night, which is beyond everything I could dream of to end this day.



Day 2

I wake up with so much appreciation for our shelter, spending the night under the tent would have been tough. We start to walk under a menacing sky but get only short episode of light rain. After crossing a stretch of land, we embark on the packraft push by a gentle breeze. Jenny is obviously much faster than me, indeed she’s lighter but it seems like Im using lot of my energy in an erratic way, mostly splashing water and making my boat pivot instead moving forward. Never mind, the landscape is amazing, we cruising between small iceberg and seals checking us out from distance. We reach our goal for the day a bit late and set our camp freezing cold and wet near huge icebergs.




Day 3

The morning offer us the first sunlight since the beginning of the trip, perfect to dry our gear and feel a bit of warmth for the first time since a while. He rained most of the night and woke up many times due to the thunderstorm noise of cracking iceberg.


From our position, we can see a tent settlement just a couple of kilometers away, we assume this a temporary camp of workers, since there is a gold mine deeper in this valley. While packing our camp we have the visit of Ulrik, after chatting with him we learn that he is a former Danish special force, he spent most of his life pattroling Greenland in dog sledge and sea kayak with the mission to enforce Danish sovereignty in Greenland and do exploration mission, in another word is a proper badass with years of experience about Greenland wilderness. He gives us a reality check about polar bear, they spotted three polar bears lately in the area, the most recent being less than a week ago. Wikipedia was right, we are in polar bear territory. Ulrik seems to be quite curious about our project, especially about the sea worthiness of our packraft. Another reality check, earlier this summer an iceberg cracked in such a way that it created a 2 meters waves and destroyed the bridge that gives access to their settlement.

He follow us to the shore to wish us good luck, he also offer us a flare as a protection against the bear. We thank him for the advice and start our first serious crossing, about two kilometers separate us from the next shore with three of the biggest iceberg we’ve seen so far. While paddling, I can’t help myself but picture how our packraft would handle a 2 meters wave and how intense would it be to have to scare a bear with the flare.

Well at least it is sunny and paddling near the iceberg is offering us quite of an amazing backdrop.

Actually, it is not that sunny anymore, and we can see the next low pressure system arriving at great speed in our back. The next hours will be dedicated to race against the bad weather along a very steep shore where it is impossible to debark for long stretch of coastline. It start to rain as we reach the beginning of a four kilometers kilometers crossing, follow by wind gusts that encourage us to stop to the shore in order to see how the condition evolves before engaging ourselves in the middle of the fjord. We set a temporary camp in what seems to be the best spot to debark we found since we start paddle, indeed, I reckon this is what a bear would think to.

The rain increase as well as the wind, we have no choice to set camp here to spent the night.




Day 4

And again it rained all night, with solid wind gusting above 50 km/h. We need to rethink our plan, we were initially planning to cross the fjord and keep paddling for about +20 km more along what seems to be a very steep shore. If we want to reach Tasermiut with such condition, we need to forget about packrafting and walk east. After studying the map, we find a mountain pass at 900m that would allow us to cross the mountain range that separate us from Tasermiut. Our map is very mediocre and not detailed enough to assure that it is possible to hike through the pas. Let's put it that way: neither me or Jenny want to sit and wait another 4 days for the wind to drop so we choose the hiking option.

We walk along the shore in various terrain and cross a quite impressive amount of rivers, we start to understand that hiking off track is really not the same deal than following a path: we are slow and carrying about two weeks of food on our back doesn’t help to get any faster.



After quite much effort we reach the end of the secondary fjord and get access to the valley that lead to our chosen itinerary.

It rains all around us but somehow doesn’t hit us, which allow us to make a fire for the first time.

We are warm and almost dry what else can we ask for ?



Day 5

We found ourselves walking toward a very impressive mountain range and it feels quite improbable that it will be possible to cross without alpinism gear. Of course the slope under the pass is hidden by a ridge so we have no choice but walk all the way to the end of the valley to assess if it will be possible to walk through the pass. Our very limited trust in our map make it feels like a gamble. As I picture ourselves to be force to u turn, I actually stop caring about it, the dramatic change of landscape is worth the hike, with or without crossing. And when we finally reach the last ridge it seems like it will be doable, the last 200 meters are covered of snow and as Jenny mention it, it looks like quite of a steep wall. I'm trying to comfort ourselves saying that it is most likely an optical effect.

We start to climb in a surprisingly fast way and reach the snow in a short amount of time … indeed it wasn’t an optical effect and only 2 or 3 cm of snow transformed, it is proper ice under the superficial layer and steeper than we wished for.

Here start a complexe navigation with low visibility thanks to the formation of clouds. We are zig zagging through rock section and steep snow. Jenny is leading the way since she got the best shoes to carve steps in the snow. We almost get stuck less than fifty meters under the pass, in a section a bit steeper and icyer than what we encountered previously.

As we trying to find our way out, Im thinking about all the past days combined events that led us to this itinerary, so much more challenging and interesting that we were planning at first. The no plan approach is definitely the best of all, moving in a flexible way according to the terrain and the condition, offering the perfect amount of surprises and challenges, carrying our little rubber boat through the mountain and, if everything goes right, reaching Tasermiut Fjord in the most epic way that I could have dream for.



When we finally manage the last difficulty, we reach the pass submerged by the best feeling since the beginning of the trip. Everything falls in place, the frustration of being stuck in Qaqortoq, the difficult weather since our departure, the anxiety about cracking icebergs and polar bear, all of this vanish to give space to a feeling that will not leave me until the end of the adventure.

Both me and Jenny relate to this moment as no longer being an external spectator moving through a landscape, we can’t control the weather, neither the terrain or the condition, so why resist it? We can only accept what it and somehow merge with the environment.

Today the word epic is taking a much more meaningful definition in my vocabulary and I couldn’t be more stocked and grateful to share this with Jenny.

We use the last hours of daylight to walk down the other side through a maze of big unstable rocks. We set up camp in the dark and can see our first nordic light of the trip glowing through the clouds … what a day, tomorrow we’ll be in Tasermiut.




Day 6,7,8

We wake up above a sea of clouds, it is still overcast tho, as you already know we had rain everyday since the beginning of trip but this will be the beginning of 3 days without rain.

The fjords is very close but the hike is quite complex, dense bush, river crossing and steep moraine. Also the landscape doesn’t let itself appear so easily, as the clouds progressively dissolve, we can see parts of huge vertical wall, basically the reason why we are here.

Reaching the fjord mark the beginning of 3 days with perfect paddling condition. We make the best out of it cruising side by side with curious seals and enjoying the stunning landscape.



First heading north to see the ice cap, then reach the other side of the fjord, to camp at the bottom of the ketil near in a river that is for me the best campsite of the whole trip.

To help you picture this place, imagine Chamonix and Yosemite meeting in a Norwegian fjord, all of this completely clean of urbanism, road, path and empty of people … well almost no people.

We are crossing path with a group packrafters and spent few hours by the fire sharing stories and watching nordic light with Victor, a member of the group. This summer Victor spent nearly 2 months roaming in Greenland, hiking and packrafting, indeed quite inspiring.



The following day, we camp at the foot of Ulamerstorsuarq, which is one of the most esthetic mountain feature of the fjord, after setting the camp, we go for a sunset walk. I'm running around like a maniac trying to capture the beauty of the place with my camera, knowing that I will fail regardless how much effort I put into this; no camera can capture being present in such a place.




Day 9,10

We wake up caught in the fog, humid and cold, no the best invitation to embark for a paddle session. So we start to head south walking along the shore. Ulamertorsuaq is out of sight, hidden in the fog, also our bags are considerably lighter as we ate half of our food supply.

Those combine factors make me feel slightly anxious, “reality” kick back and take me out of the perfect mind state we experienced the last days; this adventure will have a end.

We end the day by a paddle session and set camp on the beach, another great bivy location. A glacier suspended thousand meter above us is delivering fresh water few meters away from the tent, in addition to a perfect sunset view.



Waking up under the rain the next day, we decide to stay here a second night, a solid westerly wind form waves on the fjord and bring us precipitation the whole day. A never ending rainbow create a bridge between both shore of the fjord, north of where we are. It really looks like a magic gate to enter some sort of fantasy land …. Well, it is not that far from the truth.




Day 11

We wake up with a perfect blue sky, full of energy and motivation from our rest day. While we are eating breakfast, a sailboat mast appearing behind a ridge. “No way !!!” .. I got really excited as I'm sure this is my friend Mats, skipper at Sail Norge as I know he is supposed to “work” in the area. Only five minutes later we see a dinghy leaving the boat with Mats joining us on the beach to say hello. Somehow, I always meet him in incredible place, last time was in a Norwegian fjord near Tromso while I was shooting one of the most exciting video project I did: freediving with Killer whales, we crossed path in different sailboat going in opposite direction, just enough to say hi and sharing a big smile. This time is not really different, his sailboat already disappeared and he must go back onboard … he is the skipper after all.



At this point of the trip, I truly believe that the best is already behind us, fortunately, I will be prove wrong almost everyday. Especially when we reach Tasiusaq lake, this lake is only few hundred meters away from the fjord, but it offer a dramatic change of atmosphere, we suddenly jump from ocean atmosphere to alpine lake.

We paddle the lake to the south to find the first and only path of the trip as we cross a farmland. We use the last hours of the day to reach a mountain top that offer a great view point which help us to make a plan about how to reach Nanortalik.



We set camp in the dark in what I think to be the least interesting camping place of the trip so far … well, one more time I'm wrong, the nordic light start to appear above us and just a few minutes later, we get the most intense light we ever seen. We are quite familiar with nordic light, especially Jenny growing up even more north than were we are. But this is a new experience, the whole sky is bursting in a broad range of color including magenta and red, crossing the horizon at fast speed as well as swirling all over the sky. I manage to over expose shots at only 2,5 secondes exposure in another words it is seriously bright.

It is also seriously cold, the clear sky come with a price: a big drop of temperature. This night our -10C sleeping bags start to reach their limit and we wake up the next morning seeing ice on a good section of the enclose part of the fjord.




Day 12

The last section of Tasermiut fjord has really steep shore on both sides, and frequently exposed to strong wind. This motivates us to reach Nanortalik by hiking across the mountain. But for that we need to reach the other side of the fjord and the wind is not collaborating with us … it blows around 40km/h and shape some solid waves that doesn’t match our standard of safety when it comes to using the packraft. After waiting few hours, the wind slow down enough for a safe crossing but still offer us the bumpiest ride so far, I'm enjoying the crossing, singing pirate’s song… well maybe I do this only to reassure myself, who can say ?




Day 13

The plan is simple, first we’ll reach a ridge only 300 meters above us, then walk down to the next valley, hike to a mountain lake and walk through a pass that will lead us to our final destination passing by couple another lakes. It feels great to be back in alpine environment, especially knowing that it will be the last time of the trip.

Reaching the pass is an easy task followed by a steep slope constituted of some of the mst unstable rocks, I ever walk on. When the next lake is at sight, it become obvious that both side of the lake are too steep to walk … “This is why we walk in the mountain with rubber boat” say Jenny with much excitement in her voice. One more time, the unknown of walking off beaten path with little information create this special vibe making this trip so special. While paddling we are both strike by the unique blue color of the water …. We’re also strike by the cold, we got some solid head wind, as well as rain and indeed the water is ice cold being melted ice from near glacier.



As we paddle I realize that we misread the map, the terrain is much steeper than expected and the average steepness describe in our map is not really relevant because the presence of these lakes, creating big steps in the terrain instead a progressive slope.

As soon as we reach the other side of the lake I go for a little run to warm me up but mostly to scout if we will be able to walk down what seems to be a cliff.

I reach the edge of the cliffs slightly anxious by the idea of being forced to turn, the view is breathtaking, right at my feet a waterfall lead to a network of rivers that lead to another lake and rivers flowing into the fjord. The horizon is shaped by multiple islands and majestic cliff falling down straight to the water, all of this in the last beam of sunset light shining through the clouds and the characteristic air washed by recent rain.

Jenny join me at the perfect timing and we almost forget why we are here, which is finding out if there is a way down. Suddenly I realise that I left my camera behind and I should capture this moment, I run to go grab it, but indeed the sun is now behind the ridge and the moment is not even close to be as magnificent, never mind I take couple of shots, just for the memory and the battery dies off.



In normal time, this would have upset me quite much, the fear of missing a shot is quite deep in me and this was without a doubt a wasted opportunity but now I can only laugh about it. The best photographer, with the best equipment, at the best time of the day would never be able to capture the emotion I felt when my eyes laid on this view. The unexpected paddle session over an unreal colorful lake, the doubt of being able to keep going, the surprise of stumbling on this landscape, all this context can’t be capture in a photo, and the only thing that should be done in such moment is to be present and appreciate this gift.

By the way we find a way to hike down, but the place is so special that we can’t leave yet; we set camp by the lake.



Day 14


For reason easy to understand we are packing our gear so slowly and push the departure as late as possible. This is it, we are getting really close to Nanortalik, aka the end of the trip, We quickly reach the fjord. The smell, the view, the vegetation are so different, the mountains are now far behind. We set camp by the shore, starting point for the last paddle session of the trip in a blissful sunset light.

Tomorrow, after a short paddle, we’ll be in Nanortalik.



This day, for the first time, our discussion shift back to work waiting for us at home, commitments, deadlines and other old topics we completely forgot about. We also reflect about how amazing it has been and this experience will change us … for the better … hopefully.


Day 15


We wake up surrounded by fog, after a long wait, the visibility become good enough to start paddling, we get some head wind and the strongest tidal current we experienced during the whole trip. It feels like the last kilometers we’ll not give themselves away so easily and I actually like that as I can’t help feeling nostalgic the closer we get to town.

While paddling, Jenny choose from distance a big blue building as our debarkment point. When we reach it, neither me or Jenny are celebrating, we are quite happy we manage to close the route unsupported but at this time, the only thing as we for is to resupply with food and turn around to continue the adventure.


Actually, I feel quite cold so I do my usual little run to get warmer and get back control of my legs, numb by the low temperature and the static position. Funny fact, the building is an hotel and a bar. After packing our gear, we walk in the bar into one of the most surreal scene we could expect for our return to civilisation: someone extremely drunk get kicked out of the bar, another group of oldies seems to have a great time pushing a bit hard on the bottle, we try to start a discussion with an extremely bored waitress without to much success, and the music, seems to be some 80’s classic in native language. All of this feels straight out of a movie scene and I struggle to make sense of it, similar to the struggle after waking up to differentiate the frontier between dream and reality.



Jenny is now at the counter for what seems to be quite a long time for ordering drinks. Coming back at our table she explain me; the manager and a customer where asking her opinion to evaluate the price of a little sculpture they’d like to sell to tourist. Jenny share my disorientation, especially when it come to money, price and value. Only two weeks out was enough to redefine how we value things and put a price on it. When you have no choice but to carry on your back everything you own, there is no room nor value for useless item, if it doesn’t serve a purpose, it simply have no value so why bothering wasting energy to carry it around.

As we trying to make sense of all of this, the weather outside is not getting any better and it feels like the temperature is going to be even colder than the previous days, we decide to book a room in the hotel, the adventure is officially over.




Epilogue

If you are reading this around the time I'm writing it, you are most likely one of the most lucky human being that walked on earth to date. I assume you don’t have to worry too much about finding food or drinking water, and despite what the news says, we are living in the safest time in history. Medecine is also at its best, we live longer and better lives and most of us would be dead or cripple without the progress of modern medicine. The exponential advance of technology is reshaping our life for the better, assisting us in the most tedious task and giving us access to a never ending flow of information at the push of a button. It also never been easier to travel, dedicate time to leisure, passion and fun activities.

In another words we should all live in a blissful state of happiness … well, paradoxically this is far from the truth.

Mental health issue, suicides rate, anxiolytic consumption are on the rise. It also seems like the isolation created by the modern lifestyle is contributing to develop narcissistic and selfish trend. Social pressure increase competition within one to another and fuel the “more is better” kind of behavior putting great stress on many layers of our society and, of course, on the environment.

It seems like for every step towards shaping a better life for mankind, there is a hidden price to pay. We solved the hunger problem in rich country to replace it by eating disorder and obesity. Nowaday obesity kills more than hunger on the global scale.

We created the internet to share information and connect the world, but in fact we lock ourselves in addictive echo chamber where corporate giant are feeding us with tailor made news feed design to please our confirmation bias to the point of disrupting the way we interact from one with another and even the political landscape. And for what purpose? Selling ads.

I guess you got my point, but how that can be connected to packrafting in Greenland ?

Bare with me, here is one of my favorite quote:


“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”

Mark Twain


If you spent most of your time with a mobile phone connected to internet in your arm reach,

If your life is dictated by answering emails, commitment, deadlines,

If you are living by the “more is better” pursuit of happiness,

Then you are part of the majority... as I do.


Engaging in long form outdoor activity is the most powerful way I found to “pause and reflect”, to step away from all the things that seems normal to us but are actually so much against our human nature.


We are the product of million of years of a slow pace evolution tailor made for survival in natural environment, but the modern lifestyle as we experience it is just a few years old, and is changing at an exponential pace. Our goals and values, our diet, the way our society is structured or even something as simple as artificial light is extremely new in the timeline of human evolution and have deep effects on ourselves.


When all you do is trying to move from A to B in a natural environment according to factors you can’t control such as the wind or the tide, when you have no specific goal for the day except finding a safe spot to camp, when your life is in tune with the natural cycle of light and almost nothing can distract you from being present … something special happen.


No written words can replace experiencing first hand the feelings Im talking about, so if this resonates with you, trust me and give it go:


Go get lost and find yourself.






I can't end this post without a THANK YOU section


- thank you Peter Mårtensson from Haglöfs* for your support

- thank you Jose Trejo from Tasermiut expedition* to share valuable advices about the area

- thank you Ulrik for the flare and the reality check

- thank you Mats from Seil Norge* for the surprise visit on the beach

- thank you Willem Vandoorne to share your adventures on your blog and provide valuable advices and inspiration

- thank you to whoever developed the packraft concept, and in our case thank you Kokopelli* to produce such a lightweight boat

- thank you to Outdoor Herbivores* for the incredibly tasty Vegan food


* this is not a paid partnership but a true genuine thank you to people dedicated to make this kind of experience possible.

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