Thursday 30 September 2010

Ulloq nuan – a great day!

 Was it due to Steffen’s special birthday that we were granted with yet another splendid day here in Greenland?! Everything started with a spectacular sunrise and soon after the Fram entered the picturesque Prins Christian Sund, a 60 km long channel in the very south of the country. High mountain peaks, glaciers and waterfalls make up a breathtaking landscape and not one cloud was seen in the perfectly blue sky.
Anja had called Aappilattoq, a little village in the middle of the Sund, only 30 hours ago and asked if they would be prepared to receive a visit from our ship. Fortunately, they were indeed very happy and we could make an extra landing here as special bonus. And a special landing this was indeed! We received a very warm welcome from the inhabitants (particularly the children!), many of them in their national costumes. Boys and men wear a white anorak, black trousers and the traditional “kamiks”, the boots made of animal skin. The female dresses are much more colourful with their carefully handmade pearl collars.
Lots of pictures were taken – but not only from us! Also the locals enthusiastically could not stop making photos of each other.
When everybody was ashore, we were invited to assist an open-air dance performance ending with passengers, staff and locals all dancing together in a round circle. 
We further had the opportunity for a ‘kaffeemik’ in the school (which is quite impressive, given that they currently only have 22 pupils), to visit the church, to wander around in the settlement or to climb a little hill for a better view.
Finally, the local choir came on board - in addition to the school children who were happily exploring the ship and trying out the table tennis. We all gathered in the Observation Lounge to listen to some songs and to watch another polka performance.
In summary, our visit was a highly enjoyable intercultural encounter and very much appreciated by everybody involved.

The voyage then continued through the reminder of the Prins Christian Sund and took us later in the afternoon to Ikigait. Facing the steep cliffs of an impressive mountain, remains of an old Viking settlement are still visible. It is easy to imagine them living here during sunshine weather like today – but how had life been during long winter nights and endless snow storms?

Wednesday 29 September 2010

Skjoldungen or the cementery of shoes

What a day! When Anja in her morning announcement informed about an outside temperature of 8°C, everybody was reluctant to believe it (at least the expedition staff!). But yes – soon after we landed on shore, one thermal layer after the other came off and also the passengers were surprised with this almost tropical climate! Needless to say that everybody was delighted.

Skjoldungen was our morning destination and is the name of an abandoned settlement in the middle of nowhere. 1964, as part of a nationwide program to concentrate the Greenlandic population in a few central sites, all inhabitants were relocated. 
Today we find rotten houses, rotten barrels, a rotten mangle and…most impressive… different rotten shoes in all sizes, shapes and colours…everywhere.
A ghost “town” which makes us aware how long it takes to decompose human remains and for nature to take over again. Especially in this sensitive arctic environment, where everything is preserved for years or centuries. 
But besides the anthropogenic traces, something else caught our attention and enchanted all of us: the incredible colours of the vegetation. Bright red patches of birch and berry leaves intermingling with the yellow of the willows – what a beautiful scenery!

  Later in the day, these intense autumn colours were a perfect contrast to the dark mountains, the green sea and the white icebergs, making our circumnavigation of the island of Skjoldungen a very special experience. Lack of wind contributed to some fantastic reflections in the water and the dramatic peaks of up to 1900m, glaciers and a few narrow passages will be an unforgettable memory.

Tuesday 28 September 2010

Whales, ice and a true arctic experience

Our day started with an introduction to our route, to boarding and disembarking of our Polar Cirkle Boats and to the AECO-Guidelines. AECO stands for Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators and its main objective is to ensure that tourism in the Arctic is carried out with the “utmost consideration for the fragile, natural environment, local cultures and cultural remains, while ensuring safe tour operations at sea and on land”. And a truly Arctic day this was! Already in the morning we could get a glimpse of the snowy Greenlandic coastline in the distance and it was not long until the first icebergs appeared close to the ship.
We reached our destination Umiivik during lunch time and soon after the tender pit was set up and prepared for our first cruising. 

In the meantime, two humpback whales entertained passengers who were looking out from the Observation Lounge or from the forward deck on the bow. The animals seemed not to be disturbed at all by the presence of the Fram and were friendly enough to stay in the area during the whole afternoon. Some of us were even so lucky to observe them directly from the Polar Cirkle Boats! Humpback whales are baleen whales and can reach a considerable size of up to 18 m. They will migrate to the Caribbean soon to mate and give birth in warmer waters. But before, they need to store enough energy in form of blubber to survive several months without feeding at all.
However, not only the whales were responsible for a fantastic afternoon. The icy scenery with glaciers all around was simply stunning. Hard to tell how many different shades of blue, white and grey were present. The crackling of the melting brush ice was interrupted once in a while by big thunders that came from inside the glaciers. Sometimes, if quick enough, one was able to catch a glimpse of some little pieces breaking down from inside of the huge ice caves.
Also, the bizarre and majestic icebergs were breathtaking. The almost transparent blue colour of some of them surely took up thousands of megabits of pictures!
Finally, not to forget that this is also a very important historic place: it was from here that Fridtjof Nansen started his 40-day journey across the Greenlandic Icecap in 1888.
An exciting day ended with the Fram sailing out of the icy area in foggy conditions, which again reminded us of where we are: in the ARCTIC!

Monday 27 September 2010

Infotainment Day!

Is it the Denmark Strait or the Denmark Lake we ask ourselves this morning. Although some swell and wind were present, to our relief the sea was really smooth and nice today. No need for seasickness bags this time! The day started with Anja’s wake up call from the bridge – a procedure that is a daily ritual on board of MS Fram. Today we heard that the windspeed was 10m/s, which is a 5 on the Beaufort scale. This scale was created in 1806 by Sir Francis Beaufort and is an empirical measure for describing wind speed based mainly on observed sea conditions. So a 5 means a fresh breeze and the sea shows moderate waves and white horses. These disappeared during the day and in the evening we went down to a 3, i.e. a gentle breeze. 
Passengers could choose from a variety of interesting lectures relevant to our route. Shall we call it entertaining information or informative entertainment? The topics ranged from ice, rocks, seals to history – what a spectrum! Additionally, our guest lecturer Dr Jason Box talked about climate change, always a very hot topic. All in all it was a calm, relaxing begin of the journey, which made the observation chairs on deck 7 certainly very popular!

Setting sails for another adventure

After three days of life in the harbour, it is time to go out to sea again! Despite the friendly smile of the Icelandic traffic lights, we are happy to finally (and hopefully!) leave this rainy weather behind us and head back to Greenlandic horizons once more.
Passengers arrived and it was a typical busy afternoon with everybody setting up cruise accounts, getting the blue expedition jackets and exploring the ship.
During the mandatory safety drill the use of the life jackets was explained and people were familiarized with their muster stations. Then, Captain Rune Andreassen welcomed everyone on board in the Observation Lounge.
The last trip of the Arctic season has now started and we are all very much looking forward to it! (and for the short term expectation: we are hoping that the Denmark Strait will not be too bumpy – despite the forecast!)

Friday 24 September 2010

Hello or Farewell...?

After this peaceful and beautifully lit crossing (the saying seems true: A different time can be a different place), we reach the steep fjord of Isafjördur, flanked by now snow-capped volcanic mountain.

So, that's it? Last day of exploring. It feels a little odd, cuts into curiosity and the capability to enjoy without a second thought. But then again, what a time lies behind us! We have bee travelling through the wildest areas of the northern hemisphere, being spoilt by sun and blue skies, too. We have met people from these wild parts, seen immense sceneries, building memories that will last for a lifetime. This certainly is worth celebrating. And that's just what we do in the late afternoon, when Captain Rune welcomes us for a last time for the Farewell cocktail. And as we sail into the night, the trip passes in front of the inner eye. A time that was...

Thursday 23 September 2010

A friendly escort

 Today we find out what a seaday can be like, when the elements are on your side. People are ambling across the outer decks with a dreamy smile on their faces, looking out at the horizon. Time for a lecture? Why not, nice to learn more about Greenlandic Culture, climate, whales and what not. Suddenly an announcement over the PA: Whales on portside! People rushing out to the decks, the observation lounge, any window to see the spouts and the flukes.
Later on the water is stirring again, in shorter, swifter movements - white-beaked dolphins are coming to check us out…
They ride the bow, they go round and round, obviously playing with our ship. And suddenly - they're gone. Not a trace left, not a flipper. They had their share and are gone now where we can't follow. And we won't, anyway: Iceland is waiting for us. So we take this as a last farewell of the wild places we have been. Tomorrow it's a "civilized" place.

Monday 20 September 2010

Solitude with a Visitor

Solitærbukta means Solitude Bay and is definitely situated in a place where you can very well imagine being alone for a while. The pebble beach leads out in the wide Kempesfjord which itself is flanked by near-vertical walls of colorfully banded rocks, bearing names like "The Chief's Head" or "The Helmet". The names were given by the temporary inhabitants of the buildings that we find here - trappers first, now members of the Sirius Patrol and scientists, carrying out research on subjects like crustal movements. Behind the big and comfortable house there's even a runway. Well, at least it is a scaringly short stretch of flattened gravel with some empty barrels on either side. According to Bjarki the Twin Otter doesn't even need the full length of it. That's some flying…
Behind the mountains the sun is rising. Which means on the other hand that it is really, really cold in the valley, at least after a while of standing guard. But this seems more than necessary: The station shows clear traces of polar bear rampage. Huts are damaged, oil drums ripped, boards torn down. Here's a bear that knows where to find goodies. So we have the guides out to prevent some of us become goodies, too. But apparently today's landing is not meant to be disturbed, we all can enjoy the wonderful clean air and the gorgeous lookout points. In the meantime, Palle and Kasper carry out the most urgent repairs on the station.
In the afternoon we take an impressive cruise among big icebergs that are stuck in a so-called iceberg graveyard. Everybody is really gripped by this obstacle course among the gleaming white giants. But these prove to be tiny compared to the immense walls of Narwale Sound, our last narrow passage on the way out towards the open sea. Tomorrow it's Denmark Strait again. Brows furrow sceptically as the announcement promises better conditions than on the way up. Well, it cannot be as bad as a week ago, can it?

Sunday 19 September 2010

A beary good morning

Myggbukta, not the most tempting of all names. And in fact, the summers here must be hell on Earth, this place is situated on a beach that sits at the end of enormous swamps. The plains open wide, and only by the tiny little dots in the distance that turn out to be more than 20 musk oxen we can guess the mountain range to be as far away as about 40-50 kilometers…sometimes size does matter. Today we do not have to suffer from the black blood-thirsty clouds, it's freezing cold and the ground is solid. At least, that is what we assume from the distance. There is also another thing we notice on approach: It is medium-sized, of a yellowish white and seems to be moving. Yep, indeed, we have our first polar bear! Unfortunately it is sitting just a bit above our landing beach, e.g. a mere three-minute stroll from us. So we have to restructure the landing a little: Keep a vigilant eye on the bear all the time and always have enough boats ready to get everyone evacuated if needed. The guides with the flares (and rifles) build a perimeter around the whole area et voilá! - we can proceed.
Unnecessary? Too much? Just keep a few things in mind: This is the time when bears are usually pretty hungry, cause all the other food is difficult to get. Do not ever think you can predict what a bear is going to do! They do not show any sign before an attack, and when they do they can run faster than 50 km/h over a short distance. And yes, they do eat people. So nobody here finds their kicks in carrying a gun or calling anyone back from the stroll. It is for safety, as simple as that.
 After a while, our bear retreats a few paces out of sight. Not good, better to know where he is. So two of us follow and find him just behind the first ridge, chewing on the miserable remains of a dead musk ox. Fortunately, he does not change his diet towards blue or orange jackets but decides to disappear for good in the steep riverbed behind the ridge. And that was the last we saw of him. But now we know it's not a joke: They are around.
The hut itself is a really big one, several rooms, two floors, good shape. Even our new constant chaperon, the "Einar Mikkelson", seems to agree. Easy to imagine staying here for a summer. If it weren't for the mosquitoes...

Saturday 18 September 2010

Best friends

Daneborg, paradise! At least for those who come back from the endless journey through the frozen world of Greenlands National Park. They lost 10 kg or more on this incredible ride, have been longing more than once to be in one of those airplanes that go miles overhead (going to warmer places with comfy seats, warm water, different food and stewardesses…!), seen the most amazing things, beauty and danger, maybe bumped into polar bears, spent nights of sheer survival at minus 60 degrees, welcomed the lemonade in the depot like a treasure, and made and made and made their way with great endurance. Two men and their dogs, for weeks or even months. If you go along well, if you brave all this together, you become friends for a lifetime. And Daneborg is their headquarter, the place where they meet, a realm of team spirit. We are greeted warmly upon arrival, although watched carefully by the "Einar Mikkelsen" of the Danish Navy. (Well, later on they pay us a visit on board, it's certainly a little less than formal here.) The members of Sirius are just ready to give us a guided tour on the premises. Apart from the small museum and the old trapper's cabin we learn what life on the Sirius team is all about: Dogs and equipment that hopefully never fails. They build everything themselves, from riflebag, to tent, sleeping bag, clothes. They can sew, repair, build, splice, take care of wounds - and cook. Mothers-in-law, stop sighing! These guys are out and about for years…
Then there's the dogs. The subtitle "man's best friend", here it is doubtlessly true. Every team has a pack of 13 dogs, each of them with a distinct character, place in the hierarchy, and unique qualities. Man and dogs are a perfect unit, and they obviously love each other. A lot. And here lies the unavoidable dilemma: The dogs can go and work for 8-9 years maximum, getting bred and fed and trained and healed by their proud owners. Until the day comes when it is time "to say good-bye". Our guide looks to the ground as he explains, carefully avoiding any other term. There is no alternative, they cannot stay behind or brought to some other place (maybe except one or two that go to Mestesvig). It is a dark day for the team, it means loosing a true and loyal friend, no less. These men are doing one of the toughest outdoor jobs in the world, but as they all agree - this is the most difficult part of it.
On a happier note we get to know about the sleds. These are also built by the team, from scratch, no pre-cut parts involved. It takes 80 hours of work and getting one ready is a big event. This is your vehicle, your transport, your key logistic item. You don't want to be sloppy here. The final act is the baptizing. Look at this one: it's got the name of a Berlin hockey team. Die Eisbären, how appropriate!