What a Difference Five Days Makes

Polar Bear is motoring past Hurry Inlet, the north-south stretch of water that is home to Constable Pynt, about 16 miles up-fjord. The inlet looks much less filled with ice than it did on our last trip here, last Saturday.

As does the entirety of Scoresby Sund. We’re headed back to Ittoqqortoormiit after a circumnavigation of Milne Land. It’s been a trip of grandeur and incredible scenery, and one of never-ending changes.

The primary change is in the ice. Upon Polar Bear’s arrival from Iceland, and a day later, upon our departure deeper into Scoresby Sund, the ice was a major factor. As detailed earlier, vast packs of ice crowded Hurry Inlet and the bay upon which Ittoqqortoormiit resides, making navigation a slow, tedious affair often requiring a lookout in the spreaders. Today, we’ve passed a few large bergs but beyond that, little ice. Perhaps the down-fjord winds of the past three days have blown all the ice out to sea, in which case we’ll have to deal with it next week en route back to Iceland.

We were also forced to thread our way through a maze of ice — large and small — in Fönfjord yesterday. We had anchored in an exposed bay called Ankervig, site of an Inuit summer hunting camp and also home to a couple of Danish researchers. In fact, Ankervig was at the southwest corner of Milne Land and formed the intersection of Fönfjord and Rödefjord.

Rödefjord was so named — Red Fjord — because of the sandstone cliffs and islands along its western edge. In this landscape of black and white and blue, the Colorado Plateau-like red along Rödefjord was shocking; to observe white icebergs in blue water amid a backdrop of Utah red was jarring to the senses and made for some interesting photographs.

The families who had called Ankervig home for the past couple of weeks were busy harvesting musk ox from the hills above, and seals, narwhal and fish from the waters below. Fish dried in racks along the shore, just as they did in Native villages in Alaska and Norwegian villages in the Lofoten. A seal lay on the edge of the beach awaiting it’s dressing out while beside it one of its cousins had already been reduced to what the humans wanted and what they were going to discard. And two Inuit men took turns sawing the horns off the skull of a musk oxen they’d taken earlier in the week. 

Meanwhile, the scientists at Ankervig were packing up in preparation for the twin-engine DeHavilland Otter that was to land on the flats above the tents later in the day to take them out of there. They’d been in Ankervig counting and tracking narwhals, which the locals said they saw (and harvested) regularly in that fjord. A couple of guests tried raw narwhal; the German found it to his liking while the Scottish woman was less than thrilled with the taste. As for the scientists, their work was in advance of — what else? — another wave of oil exploration (who else but the oil companies would pay for extraction via Twin Otter this far out?) here in Greenland.

I’ll not go off on a tangent here, save to say that if this last pristine place in the northern hemisphere, a place forbidding and treacherous and beautiful and fantastic, can’t be left alone, well, what hope have we as a species…and a planet? And I get it: we need oil. I need oil. I get it. Hell, Greenland alone probably couldn’t supply all the diesel we’ve burned on this trip. But can’t we limit ourselves even once? Hasn’t happened yet so perhaps not.

I didn’t get to ask any of the locals but I suspect they’re all for the exploration — and the money development would bring — just as is the case back among so many of Alaska’s Natives (witness: the North Slope Borough, Pebble Mine). And when the narwhals and polar bears and musk ox are gone, Greenland will revert to a lifeless desert, instead of an arctic desert where the tenacity of life serves as an example of what this planet can create and provide.

Sorry. Tangent over.

Prior to Ankervig, we anchored at the head of a fjord that broke off to the northwest from our main route around Milne Land. Harefjord offered a nice little cove with some gargantuan icebergs just outside; the bergs were stuck on the seafloor, too big to get into the cove and as such offered a bit of protection to our perch.

Harefjord was reached after a day’s motor from our anchorage at Bøerne Øer, along the north shore of Milne Land wedged between sheer thousand-meter cliffs on either shore. The walls funneled a stiff headwind into our faces, but the resulting clear skies made for incredible vistas of granite and glacier and blue sky. The pattern was consistent if somewhat irregular: rock leaping out of the sea for a stretch of a mile or two, followed by the tumble of a glacier — tidewater or hanging — and then another wall. Along the north wall, the various layers of rock were visible in undulations that showed the tumult of this land over the millenia, in the grander time time scale beyond those of the glaciers present. Like some sort of saltwater, northern Grand Canyon, the trip down Øfjord was a glimpse into our planet’s, and our universe’s, past. Humbling.

We closed the loop of our Milne Land circumnavigation last evening at the Danmark Øer, the Denmark Islands. In a small cove named Hekla Havn we found a cabin, a couple of small skiffs, and a scattering of 20-liter plastic jerry cans, evidence of the locals’ use of the area, presumably for hunting or fishing. I put the area to use for a quick clean, leaping from the lifeline along Polar Bear’s beam into the surprisingly-not-so-cold water below. No, I didn’t go for a swim, but after pulling myself into the dinghy alongside the boat, I opted to remain in shorts and get some shampoo, which I used to give myself a much need cleansing. And after standing there for a few minutes, wet beneath an overcast that blocked any warming sunshine, I realized that the water was bearable — for a short while. I’d call it high 40s, Farenheit (8 or so in Celsius), and invigorating.

And now we’re retracing our steps of five days ago, this time in reverse as we head to Ittoqqortoormiit, where we’ll anchor and our guests can check out the Native village. The original plan for tomorrow was to head outside Scoresby Sund a bit to explore the pack ice where another boat had gotten up close and personal with a polar bear last weekend: the bear was on ice floes near the boat, at one point passing underneath the bowsprit. But with the ice now apparently gone, I have no idea what we’ll do.

Regardless, we’ll head back to Constable Pynt tomorrow evening so three of our guests — the two German professional photographers and one British woman — can catch their flight out on Saturday. As soon as they leave the boat in late morning, Polar Bear will exit Hurry Inlet and Scoresby Sund, departing Greenland and heading back across Denmark Strait, back to Iceland, the beginning of the final, southward trek to civilization and the end of this summer’s journey.

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