Silent Arctic, Thoughts and Notes Written in East Greenland
The following are entries from my journal. While it may seem that my choice of words is dramatic and over sensationalized, I’d like to ensure you that Greenland cannot be described in lesser words and this voyage’s impact on my own self are written truthfully.
I have also included some poetry, which I have not been inspired to do for a very long time, much less shared publicly. Hopefully these posts will inspire you to consider bespoke travel, kinder to the environment and local culture (as opposed to cruise ships), and East Greenland specifically, an arctic landscape of unequal proportions.
Let me describe the scene. The deck is slowly filling in with our team. With a light blanketing of clouds, the sky is pastel blue and faint pink lies on the horizon. The sunrise hasn’t reached yet. Our ship is slowly sailing forward with its silent electric engine. Traffic today consists of chunks of floating ice and icebergs. They crackle and pop like candy. Ahead, a huge glacier. The air is cold and crisp.
I arrived yesterday on Opal with a group of 10 people (Joe, Gunnar, Richard, Alexandra, Cindy, Bonnie, Laurence, Julien, Jacob, and myself) from various countries and backgrounds. Our flight left the tiny domestic airport in Reykjavik and landed in Constable Point on a muddy dirt track. From there we walked to a dock to be brought onboard by zodiacs. We were introduced to our crew (Captain Haimur, Katherine, Husky, and Arnþór), the ship, and general life on Opal. Each of us with our designated tin cups hanging from the ceiling of the galley by number and our little bunk beds. It’s a thrilling and charming sensation being on this schooner. She is majestic and rustic with her wooden build, endless ropes, grand masts, brass bell and white-washed sides. I feel her crew share the same esprit. I shall share stories, but for now, I’m enjoying my coffee, the sounds and the view of the increasingly large glacier nearing us. What a morning!
Hushed crackle, thunderous rumble
The glacier, majestic and grand
Before it we sail, gracious and humble
Wind pecking cooly
Gently and truly
We sailed to the sun glacier this morning and stood before a cathedral of ice towering over the bay, our ship and the small icebergs below. It occasionally roared. Mother nature reminding us who is mightier in this land. No photograph today could do the enormity of this glacier justice, but I hope my own memory of its sight will so. Onwards, in hopes of polar bears, with the sun on our faces.
I failed to write in my journal about Ittoqqortoormiit. From the airport we sailed down to Itto with the opportunity to discover the little, colorful buildings scattered along the town. With one lone paved road, the town gives clear evidence of its isolation. Children played outside, husky puppies greeted us, and animal skins hung to dry. Thinking back on it, it makes me smile to think each homeowner has chosen to brighten their lives further by painting their home in such distinct color.
The vastness and immensity of this Earth bring spirit to the spiritless, hope for the hopeless, and inspiration for the uninspired.
I sit in front of these immeasurable cliffs of mountains, contemplating life and being undeniably reminded there is something greater and unexplainable in and out of this world. Yesterday went from incredible to indescribable. We silently came into a fjord with a small island of balsamic rock columns (much like those in Giant’s Causeway in Ireland) and there, quietly snoozing, was a single polar bear. The captain navigated this ship around and, in awe and excitement, we all photographed the bear as it rose and smelled the air aware of our presence. We stayed for quite some time enjoying this sight.
When we left, the sails were hoisted and we flew side by side next to Opal’s sister ship, Hildur. We rode out onto the zodiacs to photograph Opal from the sea. A bumpy and fun ride. Dinner was “Schooner Salad”; a delicious mix of quinoa, barley, root vegetables and crunchy cabbage.
This morning I was the first of our group on deck, discovering we were anchored in a heavenly inlet. The sea was a perfect mirrored reflection of the enormous mountains surrounding us. The silence was unreal and I didn’t dare break it, whispering to myself as I narrated a quick video of the panorama. In the distance I heard howling and later, when I inquired, I learned that arctic wolves are indeed making a come back in these parts of Greenland. A seal disrupted the horizon and teased me coming up for air in different places, never quite close enough to see it fully. Eventually the others woke up and the scene slowly disappeared with enthusiastic “Good Mornings!”. A new day introduced and ready. Further adventure and magic continues.
Yesterday continued with a longer morning of sailing along towards the Red Island, whose name did not disappoint. Among the brown fjord of basalt, covered in gentle green brush, Red Island stands, a Utah-like plateau. Our group was split into two upon arriving. Mine was first to ride among Iceberg City. It was immense…truly immense. A picture difficult to describe. With the sky lightly covered by a consistent sheet of grey clouds, conditions were absolutely perfect for photography. It felt like we were tourists on those red double-deck buses trolling through the streets, snapping away at each turn, ready for the next piece of grand architectural ice to appear. The groups switched and now ours walked up a cliff of Red Island to set our eyes on the great “bergs” from above. Along the cliffs, small red, yellow brush and moss cover its sides. I found a few bilberries along the way.
We were accompanied by Arnthor and his father, the former with rifle on hand should we come across musk ox, which are common in these areas. Proof of which we were brought by a boat. An exchange was planned with a couple of Greenlanders who had been staying here to hunt. A bag full of goodies was given to them and in return, a giant striped leg of musk ox. The two children who accompanied them boarded to enjoy some hot chocolate.
The day was made even more perfect by delicious steaks, potato wedges and kale salad. The evening came before I even realized it was time for dinner and I went to bed so content.
A city of ice, a city of cold
Basalt cliffs fortify with
Sky above and ocean below
Arctic cathedrals, wint’ry chateaux
Stillness surrendered, onto
A morning sunrise, cloud aglow
Coffee in hand and a new day ahead
Our ship cuts the surface here
Just like a tailors scissors’ flow
We woke up among slush of ice and the morning actively begun with a trip to photograph an arched iceberg threatening to collapse. When an eventual chunk of its meaty side did fall, the crowd “ey-oh-ed”, the iceberg’s voice boomed and a slow wave from the contact echoed the ripples, making all the small icebergs buoy like happy, unstable marshmallows. A few seals greeted us warily from a distant with little pug faces.
The excitement continued as we moved away along a fjord of red earth. The geology matching that of Red Island. We went to explore a bay, walking about 30 minutes along the stream of a giant glacier ahead. On the way we found large bone pieces; remnants of musk ox bleached white by time, wind and sun.
Back on ship, I got to venture upwards, towards the skies, on the principal mast, past the crow’s nest to touch the very top triumphantly. There there, a bird’s eye perspective, I got to experience a new view of Opal, the passing icebergs and our horizon. It was peaceful and quiet.
We continued along the fjord, had a wonderful dinner and spent the evening as a group, editing photos in the galley. In the middle of the night, after we had anchored, I was awoken to the announcement of aurora borealis. The northern Lights were extremely faint however, Alexandra and I joined the whole crew in the hot tub, eventually participating in my first polar plunge. Profanities were shouted as my brain was anticipating the glacial discomfort the water was going to provide.
Sailing between the cliffs of øfjord can only be described by comparing it to a great fantasy saga film, where the heroes are traversing slowly in the fog of some epic mountains. On either side, mystical peaks showing up through fog and low hanging clouds. We stopped to walk and search musk ox, which we quickly did. In fact, three: a male, female and calf. Aware of our presence, they comically trotted off; their big shaggy coats bouncing along with each step. We returned and anchored near the cliffs with a bonfire blazing on shore. The crew sung Northwest Passage and played the guitar, everyone enjoying each other’s company.
The wind was towards our back so the crew raised the sails. I experienced some sea sickness but we quickly anchored at the Bear Islands to walk around the rolling landscape filled with mirrored lakes and pools. Perfect mild weather under an everlasting golden hour.
Tomorrow is our last full day and I am already so sad for the impeding departures. I’ve loved this experience. The people I’ve met, the sights we’ve seen and simply, life on a schooner. Even with the tight confines, I’ve loved it so much. My mind hasn’t been thinking at all about the future and it’s allowed me to just enjoy the present and live.
Corridor of smoke
Alley of fog
Mountain tops ready to poke
through their blanket
Canyon of suspense
Vista of Thrill
Our ship the traffic from hence
Church of stone and rock
bless the wind,
Driving towards our next dock
Sails full of grace
Maman’s birthday was yesterday and being so disconnected from everything here: people, internet and (more significantly) time, my journaling dates are the only thing that ground me to time at all. No alarms or clocks have made days fly by. Any problem in my life this brief week has been isolated to just this ship (which means there haven’t been any significant problems at all). It’s a different type of isolation, one that is a true rest from life’s hustle. I have enjoyed so much of my summer and I have suffered heartache too but this trip has felt like a true baptism for a fresh start. I feel so much relief and gratitude for all I’ve experienced, the people I’ve met and the change of perspective I so desperately needed to move forward.
Yesterday we anchored at Bear Island, low land in comparison to the earlier fjords. They reminded me of Norway in many ways. The evening brought on a final evening of hot-tubbing and arctic plunges. Most everyone participated and encouraged each other.
The isolation from world and time
is freedom of life’s pressures
Ignorance is blissful
Away on an ocean surrounded
by ice alone
No problems, all worries unknown
The isolation from people and work
is freedom to meet oneself
Solidarity is truthful
Away on an ocean surrounded
by ice alone
Only sea, only wind, only stone
From here on, I didn’t write about our last day in my journal. Like a fast tide, the emotions and anxiety I’d felt prior to my trip rushed back into my head and heart. Though we reached an area with cellular service, I kept my phone in airplane mode for just one more day; hoping to hold onto the peacefulness I’d felt during this experience. It’s easy to become cynical in a modern world, claiming this experience wasn’t fully “realistic” as it ignored life’s responsibilities (bills, work, chores), but in fact, I feel simplicity is, at its core, the most effective medicine. I’ve had so much time to reflect during this sabbatical. Clothes, cars, stuff - they’re all part of a rat race we’re all playing whether we are aware of it or not. I’ve become so sensitive to the kinds of inner dialogue and conversation and emotion that occur now that I’m back in the states. I’m not turning my back on all life’s comforts (that first hotel shower I had when I came off the ship was one I definitely enjoyed), but I know the direction I’m going in involves more nature, more thoughtful art, and lots of fresh baked bread that I now know how easy is to make thanks to Arnþór. My plan is still very much unclear, but like the foggy fjords we sailed; I’m learning to better enjoy the mystery of the unknown and trust that the winds are taking me where I should go.
“A ship in harbor is safe — but that is not what ships are built for.”