The Untamed North: Iceland to Greenland

2016 The Untamed North: Iceland to Greenland Field Report

Tom Sharpe|October 12, 2016|Field Report

Thursday & Friday, July 28 & 29, 2016 - Reykjavík, Iceland / Embark Sea Adventurer

The conversation buzzed with excitement as we gathered in the Grand Hotel Reykjavík to meet our fellow travelers, and greet friends both old and new. Over dinner, Expedition Leader Russ Evans introduced the large team of naturalists and lecturers who would be accompanying us to explain and interpret all we would see over the next two weeks.

A beautiful, warm, clear, sunny day gave us perfect conditions for our ‘Golden Circle’ tour of some of Iceland’s most famous sights. At Thingvellir National Park, we were not only at the site of Iceland’s open-air parliament from 930 AD until 1798, but we were also where two of the Earth’s great tectonic plates diverge. Standing on the edge of the North American Plate, we looked east across the rift valley where fissures were created by the stretching of the Earth’s crust to the edge of the European Plate. We walked down one of the fissures, Almannagjá, through walls of basalt lava, to rejoin our buses. Driving across to the European Plate, our tour continued to the geothermal area of Geysir. The eponymous spouting hot spring rarely erupts today, but its neighbor, Strokkur, performed every few minutes for us. A short distance north, we enjoyed the spectacle of one of Iceland’s great waterfalls, Gullfoss, where the glacial meltwater river Hvitá drops over basalt cliffs into a narrow gorge, filling it with spray.

We interrupted our tour with a visit to Friðheimar Horse Farm where we had a demonstration of the remarkable range of gaits of these sturdy Viking horses, pure-bred for a thousand years, and heard about the farm’s geothermally-heated greenhouses which grow tomatoes year-round and were featured in our delicious lunch at the farm.

The return journey to Reykjavík along the Ring Road gave us wonderful views of some of the recently active volcanoes, including the infamous Eyjafjallajökull, whose 2010 eruption closed European airspace, and the volcanic Westmann islands.

 

Saturday, July 30 - Flatey Island / Látrabjarg

The fine weather continued this morning for our visit to the small island of Flatey, one of many hundreds of small islands in Breiðafjörður. Its once thriving population is now down to just five year-round residents, although some Icelanders keep properties here as summer homes. Our local guides led us up to the small church, built in 1926 but decorated with scenes of island life by the Catalan painter Balastar Samper in the 1990s. A delightful surprise was the arrival of all five members of the Olga Vocal Ensemble who were touring Iceland performing songs from Viking lands. Their close harmonies in the beautiful setting of this little church made this a memorable visit.

Behind the church, we squeezed into the tiny 1844 library of the Flatey Progress Society, home to the Flateyjarbok until the 16th century, and then headed down to the colorful village. We observed the villagers feeding Arctic terns, and wandered the cliff paths in search of seabirds.

Once back on board our ornithologist, Jim Wilson, told us which birds we should expect to see in and around Iceland and, later, Iceland native Ragnar Hauksson regaled us with amusing tales of trolls and elves. By this time we had arrived at Látrabjarg, the western-most point of Europe and the biggest bird-cliff in the northern hemisphere, home to the largest colony of razorbills in the world.

As we cruised along in our Zodiacs, we appreciated the immense scale of the sheer basalt cliffs, towering over 1,300 feet above us, the ledges between the lava flows white with guano from the nesting seabirds. Later that evening we were briefly escorted by a small pod of white-beaked dolphins. 

 

Sunday, July 31 - Ísafjörður / Vigur Island

It was noticeably chillier this morning as we stepped ashore at Ísafjörður, the main trading and service center for communities in the remote Western Fjords of Iceland. This region has a strong maritime tradition so we visited the renovated 18th-century wood buildings of the Westfjords Maritime and Heritage Museum to learn of its history, and to sample some Icelandic delicacies; the dried cod and fermented shark, with its strong flavor of ammonia, was not to everyone’s taste, but the Icelandic schnapps certainly seemed to be.

A drive through a long tunnel brought us to the community of Bolungarvík where, in the Norwegian church, we enjoyed some traditional songs by a young singer and pianist wearing Iceland’s national costume.

Across the bay, at the reconstructed buildings of the Ósvör Museum, we learned of the incredible hardships faced by Icelandic fishermen who rowed their open boats nearly 100 miles to the fishing grounds towards Greenland.

Returning to the warmth of our ship, we relocated over lunch to the small island of Vigur. Just over a mile long and 1,300 feet wide, the island has been family-owned for three generations. However, the people there no longer run an active sheep farm, they instead harvest eider down from their resident ducks and guide visitors around their island. Harbor seals lay on the rocks opposite our landing site, and Arctic terns were plentiful. Holding sticks above our heads to protect ourselves from attack from these small, but aggressive birds, we strolled around the island before repairing to the farm for coffee and homemade cakes.

While we were on Vigur, a few whales had been spotted to the northeast of the island; on return to the ship, we set sail hoping for a closer sighting. With the snowy mountain backdrop of Snæfjallaströnd, we were treated to a remarkable display of perhaps as many as 30 feeding humpback whales! Eventually, we left them in peace as we returned to our cabins to don our finery for Captain Mykola Tililyuk’s welcome cocktail party and dinner.

 

Monday, August 1 - Nansen Fjord, Greenland

Having made good time on our overnight crossing from Iceland, we awoke this morning to find ourselves north of the Arctic Circle, icebergs gliding past, and the spectacular mountain scenery of Greenland’s east coast ahead of us looking glorious in the morning sun. In the lounge, Rob Dunbar gave a presentation on the global impacts of the seas around Iceland and Greenland; historian T.H. Baughman followed, speaking of the remarkable man that was Nansen.

As we approached closer to the Greenland coast, the wide mouth of Nansen Fjord became apparent, with the large Christian IV Glacier dominating the far end of the fjord. Near the entrance to the fjord, a large group of harp seals greeted us, but farther in a small moving piece of ice caught our eye—a swimming polar bear! We watched from the ship for some time, hoping that the bear would climb out onto ice but it continued on its watery way, and we turned into a small side fjord for a landing and a glacier hike.

Much to the chagrin of our geologist, Tom Sharpe, who was looking forward to taking us hiking on the glacier (but to the excitement of everyone else), our plans had to be changed when not one but four more polar bears were spotted near our intended landing site! Russ quickly organized a Zodiac cruise instead; as the bears moved amongst the rocks, it was worrying to see how easily they disappeared into the landscape, but pleasing to know we were safe in our Zodiacs. Suddenly, a call came through for the ship—they had sighted yet more bears, this time a mother and two cubs on the opposite side of the bay!

Sated with our polar bear sightings, we returned to our ship for a barbeque dinner on the back deck as we sailed out via scenic J.A.D. Jensen Fjord, with mountains and glaciers glowing in the lowering sun. Our tally of polar bear sightings rose yet again, with another four bears seen this evening, bringing our first day total of bears to a remarkable twelve!

 

Tuesday, August 2 - Kangerdlussuaq Fjord

Entering Kangerdlussuaq Fjord, its bare rocks and glaciers glistening in the morning sun, we jumped into our Zodiacs for a cruise amongst a cluster of large icebergs and then moved on to land in a small bay. A short hike on a rocky hill gave us a beautiful view across the fjord.

After lunch back on board our ship, we took to the Zodiacs once again, sailing through coastal fog to land on the Skaergaard Peninsula near the mouth of Kangerdlussuaq Fjord. Tom was excited to explain to us the importance of this site, where the bare, brown rocks showed an unusual layering, formed by crystals settling in a magma chamber two-and-a-half miles below the earth’s surface some 55 million years ago. Discovered in the 1930s, the Skaergaard Intrusion is known to geologists worldwide, although few are privileged to visit it. The site also provided some memorable kayaking in flat clam waters amidst this beautiful landscape.

 

Wednesday, August 3 - Ammassalik

We began today with a distinct marine mammal theme, not only with naturalist Rich Pagen’s presentation on these animals in the North Atlantic, but with a truly spectacular sighting—over 100 whales were around us: fin, minke, and humpback, and, in the air, thousands of great shearwaters thousands of miles from their breeding site on the island of Tristan da Cunha in the South Atlantic Ocean.

Later, we turned our attention to the Earth, with presentations by Tom on the contrasting geology of Iceland and Greenland, and by Rob on glaciers and icesheets of the north. By late afternoon we had arrived at the colorful little community of Tasiilaq, coincidentally where our Greenland guide Kirsa Norregaard spent her childhood.

On the edge of town, the sledge dogs yelped loudly as we watched them feed on fresh seal meat straight from a carcass being cut up in front of us—not for the squeamish! We then headed to the museum, an old red-painted wooden church, for a performance by a local choir, the ladies in traditional beadwork costumes, and drum-dancing by the museum curator. Meanwhile, some of our group kayaked among the attractive islets in the bay by the town.

Having recrossed the Arctic Circle again overnight, we marked the event this evening with some fluorescent blue cocktails.

 

Thursday, August 4 - Skjoldungen Fjord

Sailing south along Greenland’s King Frederik VI Coast this morning, breakfast was cut short by a sighting of a whale blow way off to port. We immediately changed course and were rewarded with a wonderful and rare sighting of a sperm whale. Around us, other blows showed that it was not alone.

Soon we entered Skjoldungen Fjord and as we wove along this narrow sinuous channel on the northeast side of Skjoldungen Island, around us was a textbook of glacial features—lateral moraines, arêtes, and horn peaks. At the far end of the fjord, we landed on a sandy beach at the mouth of a beautiful glacial valley. Our naturalists led us on walks through the tundra vegetation of the valley floor, along a milky-white glacial meltwater river, through shrubs of northern willow and pink flowers and lichen of Arctic river beauty, to views of the rugged glaciated peaks over 7,000 feet high at the head of the valley.

Meanwhile, our kayakers were quietly paddling near the front of a tidewater glacier, watching harp seals and ivory gulls to the backdrop of occasional snow avalanches cascading down a couloir on a nearby mountain.

Back on board, we had a quick briefing from Russ before heading back out on deck as we sailed out around the southeast side of Skjoldungen Island for more views of the stunning landscapes lit by the setting sun.

 

Friday, August 5 - Napassorssuaq Fjord

Yet another glorious day in eastern Greenland as we sailed into Napassorssuaq Fjord, a more open landscape than we had previously experienced, with low rounded granite hills near the entrance. Soon the fjord sides became steeper and icier, with glaciers extending down to the water, their floating ice fronts calving icebergs into the fjord. We landed near one of these tidewater glaciers and hiked through the bouldery moraines. One group hiked out to a headland and back along the shore, experiencing the soft, quicksand-like properties of glacial clays; another group climbed through the bouldery moraines and up onto the decaying glacier front before hiking along the moraine ridge for a view of the calving ice cliff, while our kayakers enjoyed a paddle amongst small islands just offshore.

Back on board, we sailed towards the head of the fjord, intent on another landing; but the eagle eyes of Leslie Kim honed in on more polar bears. We moved, again, to plan B and took to the Zodiacs! We were treated to a most remarkable up-close view of a mother and cub, entirely undisturbed by our Zodiacs, but checking us out as a potential meal. Turning away from the two bears, we soon spotted another in the water amongst the brash ice. It climbed out onto an ice floe to give us a classic view of a polar bear on ice and even stood up for us. So far, we have seen 15 polar bears and today’s sightings were the best that any of the expedition staff could remember!

So could today get much better? Yes! After dinner, Kirsa arrived in the bar to announce that the aurora borealis, the northern lights, were visible. We rushed to the top deck and had a wonderful display of this polar phenomenon. What an end to an incredible day!

 

Saturday, August 6 - Prins Christian Sund

We made our transit from east to west Greenland through the long, narrow, zigzag channel of Prins Christian Sund, with high mountains rising steeply on either side. The bright sun illuminated the rock faces and glaciers perfectly against a clear blue sky, and we were all out on deck as we passed the narrowest part of the channel, just 1,640 feet wide.

We retreated inside to hear T.H. tell us about Roald Amundsen before lunch, after which we readied ourselves for a landing at Stordalens Havn, a shallow bay near the western end of Prins Christian Sund. Once ashore, we separated into our different walking groups to explore the beach and the tundra behind in the wide valley of Itivdlerssuaq. On either side, bare, rocky mountain peaks rose to heights of nearly 6,000 feet, and a white-tailed sea eagle soared majestically over the mountain ridges.

Offshore, our kayakers enjoyed a breezy paddle while exploring the rocky shoreline, and discovering limpets, barnacles, and sea urchins in cervices in the rocks.

 

Sunday, August 7 - Brattahlid / Narsaq

Yet another gorgeous day of blue skies and sunshine! Not only was the weather contrary to our preconceptions, but so too was the scenery—green with rolling fields of hay. Here Greenland certainly lived up to its name, and today we were at the little farming community of Qassiarsuq, the likely site where Erik the Red first settled in Greenland and where he coined the name Greenland. Local guides showed us the sites of Norse buildings and the lovely reconstructions of a tiny church, along with a cozy longhouse as we strolled among the beautiful scenery of green fields and red and white rocks.

Meanwhile, a significant contingent of our group had departed the ship earlier this morning for Narsarsuaq on the opposite side of the fjord. At the airport there, they boarded a fleet of helicopters for a flight to the Inland Ice, in perfect conditions, and were well rewarded with magnificent views.

In the afternoon, some explored the nearby community of Narsaq with its little harbor busy with boats and hunters, while others strode out towards Kvanefjeld to see the low mounds of the as-yet-unexcavated Norse site at Dyrnaes. The less strident explored the pebbly beach of the iceberg-filled bay of Narsap Ilua, and discovered some of the colorful minerals of this area, home to a huge economic mineral deposit.

Grounded icebergs clustered around Narsaq provided our kayakers with great views of bergs rolling and breaking apart.

 

Monday, August 8 - Arsuk Fjord / Ikka Fjord

Finally, a change in the weather as we awoke early this morning to overcast skies with our ship at the mouth of Arsuk Fjord. We sailed on into narrow Ikka Fjord and boarded our Zodiacs to await the arrival of a local guide. He led us into the even narrower inner fjord to show us the unusual underwater columns which reach almost to the surface of the water. Made of a rare form of calcium carbonate called ikaite, after Ikka Fjord, and first described in 1963, the columns were probably formed by carbonate-rich cold water springs on the fjord’s floor. The setting was impressive with rounded mountains at the head of the fjord, more vegetated than most we had seen so far, and a perfect location to find musk oxen. Several groups of these large shaggy animals were spotted on the hillsides around us, and we had good close sightings of animals on the shore, overall perhaps as many as 60 in total.

We returned to our ship for breakfast, after which naturalist Rich entertained and informed us on the trials of flowering plants in the High Arctic.

Our afternoon was spent at sea, en route to our next destination, Nuuk. We passed time watching the early documentary, Nanook of the North, and after tea, Rob addressed us on the issue of Climate Change and Ice: The Arctic in a Changed World. Russ interrupted Rob’s lecture to announce a close sighting of humpback whales, and we rushed out to see over 20 of the species, some breaching and pectoral fin slapping, along with over 100 harp seals.

 

Tuesday, August 9 - Nuuk

A gray, rainy day gave us a taste of what our weather might have been as we arrived alongside in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland. With a population of 18,000, the city has a character quite different from any other settlement in the country. The wet weather was of little consequence as we were headed for the National Museum with its wonderful displays of Greenlandic culture. A highlight was the opportunity to see the famous mummies found at Qilaqitsoq in northwest Greenland, and our visit was rounded off with a display of kayaking.

Our afternoon at sea gave us a chance to pack before an entertaining final recap from our expedition team, followed by the captain’s farewell cocktail party and dinner. After dinner, we retired to the lounge for lots of chocolate and Rich’s magnificent round-up of our expedition through images, movies, and music, and our reflections on what extraordinary weather we had encountered and what exceptional wildlife sightings we had had on our journey of over 2,000 nautical miles.

 

Wednesday, August 10 - Kangerlussuaq / Disembark / Ottawa, Canada

Overnight we recrossed the Arctic Circle and sailed the length of Sondre Stromfjord to Kangerlussuaq at the head of the fjord. Soon it was time for the first farewells, as a small group headed to the airport for flights to Copenhagen. Most, on a later flight to Ottawa, had time to enjoy a visit to the Inland Ice and the bouldery moraines around its margin. After overnighting in Ottawa we said goodbye to our fellow adventurers; until next time.

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