Monthly Archives: November 2018

Arctic Cruise: Baffin Island and West Greenland Part II


We crossed the Davis Strait at night and woke the next morning to the dusky mountains of Disko Island emerging from the fog. Absolutely massive ice bergs sat serenely in the ocean water, deceptively static. Our first stop in Greenland was Qeqertarsuaq, a classic Greenlandic town with brightly painted houses clustered around winding roads and a sheltered harbor for the fishing fleet. Dog sleds sat idly in yards green with summer grass. The dogs themselves were chained up in their area of town – these are working dogs, not pets.


Next on our itinerary was the town of Ilulissat, Greenland’s tourist hub and home of the famous Jakobshavn Glacier, the largest of all Greenland’s glaciers, and the unique ice fjord – a World Heritage Site. It was a slate grey day with a heavy drizzle falling. Rain or no the ice fjord was not to be missed! We hiked up along the short boardwalk to the overlook arriving just in time to see humpback whales playing amongst the ice bergs. The Jakobshavn Glacier itself, like most of the world’s glaciers, is retreating at a startling rate (covered in a great article by the Washington Post in 2017). However, due to a shallow moraine just beneath the water at the fjords mouth the giant ice bergs that have calved from the glacier are prevented from floating out to see. Every now and then one will slip over and eventually they melt enough to sail across, but for the most part the entrance to the fjord is choked with ice. It is a remarkable sight and so thick with ice it’s easy to forget that it’s not actually the glacier.


Cold and damp, we walked back into town. Only inside a Greenlandic café is it normal to 20180809-IMG_6817smsee a huge piece of humpback whale baleen and seal fur cushions. These animals are hunted for their meat and fur and to preserve their disappearing cultural traditions. Whaling is a significant part of Greenlandic culture and has played a major role in their history. While it’s still legal today, it is far from a free-for-all; the whaling permits and licensing is tightly controlled and can be found here: Seal populations are much more stable and it is common to see seal meat in markets and grocery stores. The fur is usually saved and treated for use in clothing.


The Ilulissat Harbor

From Ilulissat we sailed out of Disko Bay, weaving around giant ice bergs, and south to Sisimiut. In the summer of 2017 I hiked from Kangerlussuaq to Sisimiut (on the Arctic Circle Trail) and it was nice to visit the town again. Sisimiut is a bustling town with a high school, a hospital, and large harbor. It is a rare community with an open harbor year-round, but still with enough ice to run dog sleds in the winter. We had an afternoon to visit the museum and walk around town. The sun broke through this day as well and we had a celebratory dinner on the back deck.


The Akademik Sergey Vavilov in Sisimiut

That evening we sailed down to the mouth of the Kangerlussuaq fjord. At 120 miles long it is the longest fjord of Western Greenland. All night was spent working our way inland to Kangerlussuaq. The first part of the fjord is lined with remarkable and dramatic walls with glaciers peaking from behind. Further inland, the terrain has been smoothed by the ice cap and the awe inspiring cliffs give way to gently rolling rounded hills.


Kangerlussuaq, our last stop of the trip, is notable for it’s proximity to the Greenland ice sheet. I have spent a fair bit of time in this town as it has the largest airport and is the primary logistics hub for science support in Greenland. Perhaps the most exciting activity in Kanger is visiting the ice edge – where you can walk onto the ice cap itself! It is a relatively short ride via truck or bus to the most accessible point of the ice know as Point 660. I have written about this here. On the way to the ice edge we saw musk oxen, caribou, and even an arctic hare!

Stepping onto the ice is a little surreal. The edge itself is hard to locate exactly as it blurs into the bordering muddy moraine – mud and gravel slowly slowly becoming frozen mud and frozen gravel and then gradually becoming more ice than rock. The scale is hard to describe and the significance of this place was not lost on our group – the ice we stood on is part of the Greenland ice sheet covering more than 656,000 square miles, or 3 times the size of Texas.

The ice on the surface of a glacier has a rough texture. This is because after the snow fell it was buried  by more snow and ultimately compressed to form essentially an unbroken block of ice the size of the glacier’s base. This can be seen in ice caves where looking into the walls can look almost like looking into water. As this ice nears the glacial terminus, and the layers above it melt, the great pressure is gradually released and fractures form along the ice crystal planes, resulting in roughly ice cube sized chunks. This fracturing also brings light into the surface making it appear white (like when you chip an ice cube and the cracks are white).


At last our trip had come to an end and we returned to Ottawa by plane.


The view from the plane looking down over the West Greenland coast

Baffin Island and West Greenland

Our Group on the Arctic Cruise – photo by One Ocean photographer Dave Sandford

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Filed under Arctic, Greenland, Kangerlussuaq

Arctic Cruise: Baffin Island and West Greenland Part I

Part I
Less than six months after leaving Summit Station Greenland, thinking I might never return to the Arctic, I found myself headed North once again. Never say never!

A few weeks prior I had received a call asking if I would be available to fill in as the trip leader on a 12-day alumni trip with my alma mater: a cruise to Baffin Island and West Greenland. I would be expected to give several lectures on my experience in the Arctic and be the point person for our group. Due to the size of the ship this would be a combined trip with alumni from three other colleges as well. I jumped at the opportunity.


After meeting as a group in the Canadian capital city, Ottawa, we continued via small plane to Iqaluit, Canada. Iqaluit sits near the head of Frobisher Bay and is the capital of the Nunavut Territory. At 63°44′55″ North and 68°31′11″ West it is south of the Arctic Circle, but the soil is so bare there are almost no trees. The landscape surrounding the town is comprised of glacially scoured hills dotted with lakes and ponds. That first day we got a tour of the town and had some time to explore on foot. The population of Iqaluit is roughly 8,000 and it’s economy is based on fishing, tourism, and the airport. Art is valued in communities all around the Arctic, and Iqaluit is no exception. Statues and sculptures can be found scattered around town and large colorful murals cover otherwise bare walls.


A giant polar bear mural


St Jude’s cathedral in Iqaluit

There are three official languages of Nunavut: English, French, and Inuktitut. While the spoken language is somewhat related to other Arctic Inuit languages the written Inuktitut language is based on the Cree syllabary in contrast to Greenlandic and the Alaska Inuit languages which are based on Latin.

Later that afternoon we were brought via bus to a beach where we were met by a handful of zodiac skiffs and crew. We boarded in groups and off we went!
The ship was the Akademik Sergey Vavilov – a retired Russian research vessel now used primarily as a cruise ship in the Arctic and Antarctic with oceanographic researchers on board during their transits between the two poles. Our luggage was already onboard and we were met with a welcome and safety briefing before settling into our cabins.
The next few days were spent sailing along the South Eastern shore of Baffin Island. Sea ice, high seas, and heavy winds prevented the first planned shore excursions, but we sighted several Bowhead whales, many sea birds, and some dramatic views of the rugged shoreline through the clouds.


Disembarking the zodiac


The Akademik Sergy Vavilov

Our first stop was a small village called Pangnirtung, Nunavut located just north of Frobisher Bay. Here we were given time to explore on foot and treated to several demonstrations at the local community center of traditional throat singing, some of the Arctic Winter Game events, and the lighting of a qulliq lamp by one of the elders. In town we toured craft shops displaying beautiful carved statues and jewelry as well as a collective weaving workspace and a renowned printmaking shop.
At the head of the bay is Auyuittuq National Park, a dramatic glacially carved landscape with tall peaks, sheer walls, and winding fjords.


Pangnirtung nestled beneath the fjords walls


Auyuittuq National Park in the distance

Our final shore excursion on Baffin Island was at Cape Mercy. Once a Cold War Distant Early Warning (DEW) line site, the now automated radar station still stands forlorn atop the hill. It was a grey day with a biting wind blowing, yet beautiful and raw. We spent several hours hiking around the beach and hills. One of the most exciting sights was the discovery of polar bear remains. The presence of the claws and skull indicated a natural death (these are the trophy items poachers rarely leave behind) and the dead grass around the bones suggested the skin had rotted away in place. The bones had been scattered likely by scavengers such as fox and eagle. On the zodiac ride back to the ship we cruised around impressive ice formations admiring their surreal shapes and brilliant light.


It was a quick visit and soon we returned to the ship and headed back into the Davis Strait. The hope was to sail North to find more solid sea ice, where we might also find polar bears, before turning East towards Greenland. During this time at sea, and throughout the trip, each of us leaders presented lectures on a variety of subjects: Current events and political issues, Marine mammal adaptation to warming ocean temperatures, Arctic Climate Change in general, the History of Arctic Exploration, Ice and Marine Ecosystems, Arctic Science Support and Winters on the Greenland ice sheet.

It was during this segment that we crossed the official Arctic Circle: 66°33’ North. Unlike the arbitrary lines of longitude, the Arctic Circle, like the equator, marks a physical aspect of our planet. Above this line the sun never sets on the winter solstice. Many of the guests on board had never crossed into the Arctic and were very excited. A small celebration was held with toasts and photographs.
After a day and night spent chugging through thick fog and rolling seas we finally reached the sea ice edge. All eyes were glued to the horizon as we scanned the sea ice and fog for polar bears…there were a couple of false alarms, until we indeed spotted one! It turned out to be a mother, with two cubs. She moved slowly, navigating through the rough and broken sea ice, her cubs in tow. We edged as close as we dared, given the ice and waves, and there they were: unmistakable through binoculars and zoom lenses! Our polar bear sighting achieved we departed Canada and sailed East for Greenland.


Fog, sea ice, and waves


First Polar Bear Sighting


The professional photographer


A mother bear and two cubs


Filed under Arctic, Canada