In the Ice: Kayaking in the Arctic

“Listen.”

I hear the ice: the rustling crackle of the small floating pieces against our hulls; the swoosh-bang of water sloshing over a shelf on an iceberg; faint, distant crashes, muted to the point where direction was uncertain, only that it came from the frozen reaches of Icefjord.

Paddling through the ice at Ilullisset

Here in Ilulisset, 250 km north of the Arctic Circle, the Greenland Icecap reaches the sea. The Icefjord, where the Sermeq Kujalleq Glacier calves more than 35 cubic kilometres of ice a year, is a UNESCO world heritage site.

It’s one thing to read that, another to actually see it. From land, it is magnificent. From the water, from our small, plastic kayak, it is overwhelming.

Icefjord

I have been in ice before on this trip. We were escorted by an icebreaker when we first left Iqaluit in Nunavut, travelling through light pack ice in Frobisher Bay. Later, we circled two giant icebergs in the ship’s Zodiacs, the 4 metre long rubber boats used for landings and excursions. They were my first icebergs, and I marveled at their complexity and size, so bright against the blue of sky and ocean.

First iceberg in Lancaster Sound, Nunavut
Calving glacier at Kangerlussuatsiaq

Later, we would travel in the Zodiacs through heavy pack ice in the middle of Baffin Bay. Our ship quickly disappeared in the sea fog that hung over the pack ice and small bergs that drifted mystical in the greyness. We see a harp seal, and where there are seals there are polar bears. With my phone I’m lucky if my picture is recognizable as a bear, so I am grateful that a fellow traveller with a real camera shares his images. I can see that these three, a mother and her two almost-grown cubs, hundreds of kilometres from land, are obviously well-fed.

Pack ice in the fog in Baffin Bay
The diagonals used to be the waterline, until melting changed the balance and the icebergs rolled

But it is from the kayaks in Ilulliset that I most feel the ice. Now, while we drift in a meditative moment, there is another sound: the unmistakable blowing of a whale.

“There!” Someone spots them, two humpback whales repeatedly surfacing, fishing between us and the ice wall. We all watch, entranced, until with a final flip of the tail flukes they dive and disappear.

That is not land in front of us.

We are wearing dry suits but we have been sitting still, not paddling, for a while, and I have had my gloves off taking pictures. By the time we transfer from kayak to Zodiac for the last part of the trip back to the ship, I am shivering so hard that they sit me tight between the two largest men in our group. I’m glad for a hot shower and warm clothes, and try to imagine what kayaking must have been like for the Inuit, when they were hunting the whales.

Trains of icebergs

Despite the chill, despite the aching shoulders and back from the paddling, I happily go kayaking again in Crocker Bay on Baffin Island, when we are back in Canada. In glorious sun we travel along the face of a glacier.

Crocker Bay, Baffin Island

And now that I am back in the south, I still dream of paddling in the ice.

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