Sunday 30 June 2013

Times that were, times that will be

Memories - the ultimate souvenir. Pictures can only be a support for our recollection of events, places, people. But nothing beats leaning back in a comfortable chair, looking into the skies with unfocusing eyes and letting the impressions drift by as they come. 
Certainly the ones who are leaving us today will do that, images of ice, whales, Greenlandic children, dogs, and marvellous landscapes forming a kaleidoscope of Arctic beauty. 

And as many it will be, that's what we hope, for all of those who arrived today, with their eyes and minds wide open, ready for adventure, ready for weather, ice and - well, Greenland.
We wish you a warm welcome here on MV FRAM. May the trip be a splendid one...
The beginning already is promising: After three days of a very rare phenomenon - rain, Kangerlussuaq presented itself sunny and with a fantastic visibility. So the first boat ride over to the ship was not as wet an episode as it sometimes can be, but merely a joyride. Check-in, jackets, dinner, safety drill and captain's welcome, all this happens under the influence of the great excitement - we are in Greenland!

Saturday 29 June 2013

Back door

Flat calm seas welcome us to the last landing day of this trip, and the most amazing change springs to mind almost immediately: the ice is gone! Was it only yesterday when we had to cancel the landing in Ilulissat? Because of all the bergs and floes that were piling up like there was never an end to it??
This is a vivid illustration of the stunning mobility of frozen water, it could have been just the other way round.
Peaceful conditions now as we are riding into Itilleq, a cosy little village in a cosy little fjord, after a morning with lectures, bridge visits and a crew drill (with a lot of noise).
Strange thought that the mountain range behind it already belongs to the Søndre Strømfjord, which will lead us to Kangerlussuaq during the night. We are literally at the back door of our final destination.
Which does not keep us from undertaking all kind of activities. Not only is there the normal landing in this very welcoming place - everybody is invited to Kaffemik, meaning coffee & cake in the houses of the Greenlanders - but also the Kayaks are on their way shortly after the anchor is dropped. And today we have something special going on: Those who want can go fishing with Norwegian officers, who certainly belong to the world's experts if it comes to these things. 
Out they go, spotting for birds indicating small fish, which in turn shows where the big fish are. And so they come back with about 300 kilo of cod.
Those who stay "in town" are part of the traditional soccer game MS FRAM vs. Itilleq, featuring an enormous number of players on a small soccer pitch; result: 8:7 for - MV FRAM.
And then - believe it or not - it is time to pack the suitcases, a whole week flew by, full of impressions, of all kinds of weather, adventure. Well, we sure hope you'll be back one day. See you somewhere around the world!

The Nature of Expedition

Expect the unexpected. What was used for a marketing slogan could not be chosen better for our kind of voyage. Only reluctantly should the word "holiday" be used - it sounds like beach, planned meals, little umbrellas in colourful drinks and no surprises. We, however, are on expedition, and that is a totally different animal altogether. To think that the entry into the most touristic, most vibrant city of Greenland is granted would be wrong. Like today, when heavy ice was blocking the bay of Ilulissat. In spite of all the efforts we had to turn around at the end of the night and do something else. 
So, instead of going to the crowded touristy hub of the country we went to a place that hardly sees tourists at all - Qasigiannguit (don't try to pronounce it!) And it turned out to be amazing, as the villagers made a huge effort to come up with a wonderful program for us. There was the visit of the village's children, to begin with. 
But that wasn't it:
Not only they quickly printed a small map of the attractions on-the-fly, they arranged for a mask dance, a dog sled presentation, local dances (which is basically a Polka, remnant of the whaling era), and a wonderful choir in the church. 
We even got the chance to sing our very first song - in Greenlandic!
This was more the true Greenland than we had anywhere else before, and so we leave Qasi... (you know, what I mean) with warm feelings.

Friday 28 June 2013

Plan A+

We are travelling in the wild, where the elements are powerful and relentless. And it is certainly no good idea to be stubborn and lean up against them, as it is not wise to see changes as problems instead of opportunities. Sometimes the result can be surprisingly beautiful.
To prove our point, we decided this morning NOT to follow our plan A which would have led us to the admittedly very picturesque glacier Eqip Sermia. The ice situation, however, seemed precarious, it would have taken the whole day or more to get through in the first place.
But why not convert a bad hand into a winning one? Boats to the water, and everybody on board got an ice ride of the unforgettable kind, zig-zagging through the white and blue labyrinth, getting a glimpse of the cold forces that govern our planet on both ends. And as if to underline it, a couple of humpback whales showed up in front of the ship. And on return all faces were glowing with delight, nobody regretted this decision. King Neptune was on our side when he came to visit and baptise the guests.
But that was only half of Plan B. In the afternoon, the mind still full with impressions, we landed in Camp Frieda, named after our Friederike who spent a good part of her early life here, in a tent and researching. It is a pretty plateau at the bottom of a gentle valley. Right into this valley we go with a group of intrepid hikers, while many others joined a shovel-and-book excursion on the topic of tundra vegetation in Camp Frieda, led by - Frieda...
Oh, and shall we forget about our Kayakers? The ones who set off to paddle through the frozen alleys and along the ragged coastline, to brave wind and waves and ice? We wouldn't do that, would we?
So, at the end of the day not a single soul still thought about Eqip Sermia, our initial Plan A.
We instead had Plan A+.

Wednesday 26 June 2013

Higher than ever

We all associate North with "Up" and South with "Down", so up we go, as high as many have never been before. Already in the morning we crossed 70 degrees North, that is about 590 kilometers north of the Polar Circle. After spotting two Fin Whales in the morning we dropped anchor under a cloudless sky, a short boat ride away from Uummannaq, the island that features that peculiar mountain with the big dent on top. Certainly a landmark, and hence the name - roughly translated from Greenlandic it means "Live up", reflecting the relief of the ancient paddlers when they came across a known place and thus weren't off track.
The huge fjords were the Inuit's hunting grounds for centuries, many remains can be found. One of the most remarkable locations is without doubt the tiny post-medieval settlement of Qilakitsoq, where in 1972 seal hunters discovered a cave with the mummies of six women and two children, all extremely well preserved. Only in the 80s the significance of the find was understood and the bodies were subsequently recovered.

All this we learn on a combined History Landing & Ice Ride in the morning, offering insights in Paleo-Eskimo times and great views on huge icebergs. In the meantime the hike to the well-known hut of Santa Claus on the far side of the village gets on its way; the Old Man, however, is not home. Well, definitely worthwhile anyway.
This wasn't it: Still further north we ride after lunch, until the early evening light finds us in Ukussissat, minute little settlement surrounded by the mountains as cragged as it gets. FRAM entertains very friendly relations to this place, and so the villagers, as usual, come aboard to show us their song and dance, and soon the observation lounge is swarming with curious kids who welcome the opportunity to grab a coke and have fun.
Swarming, too, is the landing site where most of us go ashore afterwards - but this time of fish, a LOT of it.
And as the sun goes down (but not all the way, of course) the bed is made for some - out on deck, for a unique sleeping experience in the open air, whilst FRAM is turning south again.

Of Plans and Nature

No, I do not mean planTs and Nature. This is about the power of the wilderness that surrounds us and about us smiling gracefully at our own insignificance.
Blue were the skies and the seas as we pulled into the bay of Qeqertarsuaq this morning. Gargantuan icebergs were lined up on either side, like huge white sentinels. Perfect!
So everybody was looking forward to the activities of the day, like the hikes into the valley of the winds (where Friederike was posted with her enormous shovel to explain the tundra vegetation) or the exciting boat ride among the big cold monuments that gather in front of Qeqertarsuaq beach.
Just when everybody was about to get ready to hop in the boats, a thin white fuzzy line appeared out at sea, getting bigger, higher and fuzzier by the minute. And only moments later everything was totally enshrouded in the Arctic fog that came with unbelievable swiftness. OK, that means standby, see what happens. But the mist just went from dense to thick, so the ice cruises had to be cancelled, much to the woe of guests, drivers and expedition team alike.
But then again - this is it, this is the moment of surprise that makes this voyage an expedition, not a mere cruise. Nature will always prevail, and it should, that's a principal lesson to be learned out in the Wild. 
And hey, look at all the beauty - the subtle contours of the bergs that are around, how they gently appear, only to wane a few instants later. The Kayakers gave it a go, but they had to stay in the close neighborhood of FRAM. However, those who changed plans to join the hike into the valley was surprised that there, where the glacier stream creates a breeze that blows out the mist, the blue skies came back upon the instant. A channel of visibility, in the middle of this foggy world. So shall we rename the Valley of the Winds in Valley of Clarity…?
The on-board activities were not affected by this at all, so in the afternoon lectures were enjoyed, and many a giggle was heard when officers and staff changed into fashion models in the evening, well -  with a few extras, maybe.

Tuesday 25 June 2013

See Sisimiut...

First of all you can see on the map that we have crossed the Polar Circle - southbound. But not by much, tomorrow we will gain latitude again. The fun part is that in this place Polar Circle and Equator are close to each other - but only if it comes to dogs: North of Sisimiut the Greenlandic dog is the only one permitted, for the sake of this powerful, resistant race remaining as pure as possible. 
But this is one of the rather invisible attractions of Sisimiut; the others are hard to miss: When we sail in from the hazy seas in the morning, the fog lifts and reveals the stunning beauty of the mountains that rise around this place as if to protect it. And indeed that was why people settled here in the very early times, the natural harbor offers perfect shelter against the Arctic seas.
We have the honor to moor at the brand-new pier, only finished a couple of weeks ago. From there the various groups disperse, having a city walk or even a bus (!) tour in town. Quite a large fraction assembles to tackle Palaassip Qaqqa, one of the higher mountains in the surroundings. So this blog - for once - is not about old buildings or Inuit Kayakers, but about one of the finest hikes Greenland has to offer.
At the foot of the mountain we set out to first traverse the low shrubs that are so typical for the Greenland tundra. They are criss-crossed with little meltwater streamlets, coming down from the many lakes higher up. This makes a fine drink of the purest water you can imagine.
Then the climb begins, revealing a new perspective at every corner. The mosquitoes are happy to be with us, but a gentle breeze prevents us from being eaten alive.

Higher and higher we go, until finally we reach the crest that eventually leads to the summit. And the weather is just unbelievably good. So, in spite of the demanding terrain that even ate some of the hiking boot's soles away, we have a very, VERY happy group of hikers on top of Palaasip Qaqqa, looking down on "The Place with the Foxholes" - Sisimiut.