Skjoldungen Fjord

Untamed North: Greenland to Iceland Field Report

Tom Sharpe|August 21, 2018|Field Report

Tuesday, June 26, 2018
Reykjavík, Iceland / Narsarsuaq, Greenland / Embark Hebridean Sky

Having gathered and met our fellow travelers and expedition staff in the Hilton Nordica Hotel in Reykjavík the previous evening, our Greenland to Iceland adventure began today with a tour of the most northerly capital city in the world. We took in views of Reykjavík from atop the hot water tanks of Perlan and visited Hallgrímskirkja and its statue of Leifur Eriksson before heading to the airport where we boarded our flights to Narsarsuaq in southwest Greenland. Landing at the old World War II USAF base, Bluie West One, in beautiful sunshine we had time to visit the fascinating little museum there before embarking the Hebridean Sky

Wednesday, June 27
Brattahlid / Narsaq

A beautiful vista greeted us this morning as we looked from our ship across to the lush green farmland of the village of Qassiarsuk. This was the Norse settlement of Brattahlið where Erik the Red settled after emigrating from Iceland in the year 986. We saw the sites of some of the early Norse buildings, including that of the earliest church built for Erik’s wife, Tjodhilde. The ruins were brought to life by two modern reconstructions, one of a longhouse and the other of the church, now consecrated, and by the interpretation and descriptions of a local guide.

We sailed on south down Tunulliarfik, or Eriks Fjord, to the town of Narsaq with its colorful houses. Some of us hiked out of town and around a small bay to view the remains of Norse buildings at Dyrnaes and search the beach for colorful local minerals. Others wandered the town, taking in a tour of the small craft brewery where we were treated to samples of the different beers brewed here.  A visit to a local hotel gave us the chance to sample various Greenlandic foods including dried cod and smoked Arctic char.

Once back on board, we cleaned up and dressed up for our captain’s welcome reception and dinner, with Captain Andrey Rudenko; busy on the bridge navigating through the ice, it fell to Chief Officer George Hendry to introduce the senior officers and welcome us to the Hebridean Sky.

Thursday, June 28
Ikka Fjord / Arsuk Fjord

We awoke this morning in a drizzly Ikka Fjord and took to our Zodiacs to search for the remarkable underwater features for which this fjord is famous. Spring water seeping from the floor of the fjord is precipitating an unusual form of calcium carbonate called ikaite, which is stable only in cold water. These seeps are building columns up to 50 feet high with their tops just below the surface. Along the shore we also saw numbers of musk oxen grazing on the fjord slopes.

Many more musk oxen were encountered by our large group of long walkers who were dropped off at the head of Ikka Fjord. Accompanied by a local guide, we hiked westward over a high pass and down into Grønnedal on Arsuk Fjord where the Hebridean Sky awaited us. By then the earlier rain had given way to sunshine and blue skies.

While our ship repositioned, the non-hikers were entertained by Ragnar Hauksson who compressed the 4,500 years of Greenland history into 45 minutes. Once we were all reunited, the Hebridean Sky sailed deeper into Arsuk Fjord where we cruised by Zodiac amongst the spray of the spectacular Foxfald Waterfall before cruising the nearby bird cliffs, busy with kittiwakes, Iceland gulls, and glaucous gulls.

Friday, June 29 
Alluitsoq / Alluitsup Paa

Today started gray and overcast as we set out to explore the area around Alluitsoq, the old German missionary settlement of Lichtenau, one of several established in South Greenland in the 18th century. Zodiac cruising gave us great views of a group of humpback whales shallow feeding along the fjord shoreline and of a stunning arched iceberg. The low cloud soon gave way to sunshine and blue skies, just in time for our long walkers to begin their hike south to the settlement of Alluitsup Paa at the tip of the peninsula. We scrambled up the steep slope to the crest of a rocky ridge, with spectacular views of the fjords and mountains around us. We were also treated to good views of Arctic hare, snow bunting, and white-tailed sea eagle before we reached our destination. Here we met up with our fellow travelers who had come ashore from the Hebridean Sky, which had repositioned during our hike.

Once back on board, Kevin Arrigo spoke to us about the changing Arctic Ocean and its disappearing ecosystems.

Saturday, June 30
Prins Christian Sund

During an early breakfast, we entered the long fjord-complex of Prins Christian Sund, which provides a through-route from West Greenland to East Greenland, avoiding the rougher open waters around Greenland’s southern tip. Although it was an overcast and rainy day, the landscape was still impressive—steep, jagged mountain peaks and pinnacles towered over our ship as we negotiated the narrow channels, while hanging glaciers clung to the steep rock faces. A strong NE wind challenged our expedition team to find a sheltered landing site. This we did, at the head of a fjord called Kangikitsoq where we walked amongst the striking conical mounds of glacial moraine known as kames. This was our first walk in polar bear terrain, so our expedition team was armed with rifles and flares. Prior to our landing we had been given a briefing by naturalist Conrad Field on what to do should we encounter a bear while ashore.

Once back on board, while our clothes dried out, we were informed and entertained by three historical presentations from our expedition team. Terence Christian spoke on POW repatriation, Hector Williams on the Vikings, and T.H. Baughman on the remarkable life of the Norwegian polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen.

Sunday, July 1 
Napassorssuaq Fjord

Today we were truly in the wilderness of East Greenland as the Hebridean Sky sailed into Napassorssuaq Fjord. Around us glaciers descended from the mountains to the sea which was littered with floating ice. We set out in our Zodiacs to explore the world of brash ice, growlers, bergy bits, and icebergs as we sailed along the front of a large glacier and were impressed by the crackling sound of popping air bubbles as the ice melted around us. 

In the afternoon, we landed at the southern tip of an island at the mouth of the fjord and set off on our various hikes through the rocky tundra. But just an hour in, the call came through that a polar bear had been spotted on ice farther up the channel. Immediately all of our hikers turned around and headed back to the landing to reboard our Zodiacs to go in search of the bear. On the way, we spotted another polar bear on shore, resting and chilling out on a mossy ledge. It paid us little attention other than a quizzical look and resumed its slumbers. So, we left it in peace and sailed on to find the other bear. This was a view we all wanted to see—a polar bear ambling along the fast ice. Our day in Napassorssuaq Fjord came to a memorable end with the sightings of these two polar bears!

Monday, July 2
Skjoldungen Fjord

We were treated to some magnificent mountain scenery at breakfast this morning as we sailed into the southern arm of Skjoldungen Fjord. Glaciers clung to the steep cliffs above us and impressive icebergs floated past our ship. Soon, a polar bear was spotted close to shore on Skjoldungen Island and the captain positioned the ship perfectly so that we could enjoy good views.

At the head of the fjord we made a landing near the mouth of a milky meltwater stream and set out for hikes along Dronning Marie Dal, a beautiful glacial valley, with a carpet of crowberry, willow, and other Arctic plants, flanked by mountain peaks glimpsed through the low cloud.

After lunch back on board ornithologist Jim Wilson spoke on the magnificent migrations of some of the birds we had been seeing, and naturalist Rich Pagen told us about the flowering plants of the Arctic and their strategies for survival in the harsh climate.

Tuesday, July 3 
Tasiilaq

With much improved weather, though colder reflecting our more northerly position, we docked this morning in the town of Tasiilaq, the largest settlement on Greenland’s east coast. We explored the colorful town and its surroundings, hiking in the lovely Narsuuliartapiip (Flower Valley) to a frozen lake, saw the sled dogs being fed, and enjoyed a traditional drum dance performed outside the town’s museum. 

In the afternoon, we spent time on deck watching for whales with our naturalists before heading indoors to attend a couple lectures. Kevin told us about the melting Greenland Ice Sheet and its effects on the surrounding oceans, and geologist Tom Sharpe described the contrasting geology of Greenland and Iceland.

Wednesday, July 4
Miki Fjord

Overnight we had crossed the Arctic Circle and found ourselves in calm seas with the sun trying to break through a thin layer of fog. While we sailed on toward Nansen Fjord, Conrad told us about the various seals of the North Atlantic region. As we approached the fjord, the amount of ice in the waters around us steadily increased until the captain deemed it unwise to proceed further in the fog. Ships, fog, and ice are not comfortable bedfellows, so we turned around and headed out to sea to escape the ice, then set course south toward Miki Fjord. En route, Kevin spoke about the most important ocean in the world, the Denmark Strait, in which we were sailing, and described how it influences global ocean circulation. 

Once in Miki Fjord, we were able to Zodiac cruise amongst some stunning stranded icebergs as they loomed out of the fog, and even sail into patches of clear blue sky with spectacular views of the mountains around us. On our return to our ship, we celebrated the 4th of July with a foggy, but fun, barbecue on the Lido deck.

Thursday, July 5
At Sea

Ice and coastal fog prevented any further exploration of East Greenland, so it was time to say goodbye to the ice of Greenland and head for the green of Iceland. En route, Ragnar Hauksson summarized the history of his native Iceland; T.H. Baughman told us the tale of the explorer Roald Amundsen; and Hector Williams spoke on World War II and the Cold War in Greenland. Our entertainment continued with a remarkable display by a number fin, sei, and humpback whales all around us, including a young humpback who repeatedly breached, throwing himself out of the water, making a huge splash in the flat-calm sea. The whales returned for an encore in the late evening with groups of northern bottlenose whales, killer whales, and six other species performing close to the ship.

Friday, July 6 
Patreksfjörður, Iceland

We arrived in Iceland’s Westfjords this morning as we docked in the small fishing port of Patreksfjörður. We set out on our tours which took us along steep, hairpin, gravel roads snaking over high, bleak, mountain passes with ever-changing views down to the deep fjords indenting this coastline of northwest Iceland. In the plateau landscapes of some of the oldest lavas in Iceland, waterfalls such as the ladder cascade of Dynjandi tumbled over the basalt cliffs and red shell-sand beaches like Rauðisandur piled up along the shore, home to harbor seals. In the remote village of Bíldudalur, we took in the quirky Sea Monster Museum which collects stories of sea and lake monster sightings from Iceland and around the world.

Saturday, July 7
Látrabjarg / Flatey Island

At Látrabjarg, the westernmost point in Europe, we went ashore on a sandy beach and hiked up to one of the biggest seabird cliffs in Europe, which is home to the largest breeding razorbill colony. Near the lighthouse we enjoyed up-close-and-personal views of puffins on the cliff edge just a few feet in front of us, while kittiwakes and razorbills nested farther along the cliff.

Over lunch, we headed farther into the wide bay of Breiðafjörður to make a landing on the small island of Flatey, one of the many thousands of islands scattered through the bay. Guided by locals, we saw the beautiful church and its remarkable interior paintings by the Catalan artist, Baltasar Samper; the tiny library; the colorful houses of the village; and the bustling bird life, with nesting terns, redshank, red-necked phalaropes, and others.

Back on board, it was time for our farewell reception and dinner, hosted by Captain Andrey Rudenko and a wonderfully entertaining after-dinner slideshow of our trip, skillfully presented by Rich.

Sunday, July 8
Reykjavík / Disembark 

It was a busy start to our last day as we completed our last-minute packing, said our goodbyes to our new friends, and disembarked the Hebridean Sky. Some were off to the airport immediately, but others were able to squeeze in a tour of some of southwest Iceland’s scenic highlights, such as the spectacular waterfall of Gullfoss, the eponymous Geysir, and the beautiful Þingvellir National Park set in the rift valley of the Mid Atlantic Ridge where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are pulling Iceland apart, producing long fissures and scarps in the landscape. All too soon we too had to leave for the airport and bring our amazing Greenland-Iceland adventure to an end.

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