Greenland west coast 2009
Witness – Listening to the people of Greenland
At the end of May 2009 we flew over the pack ice on our way to d’Upernavik, the departure point for our trip, many questions filled our heads. Will we be equal to the challenge? Have we thought of everything? Have we not set off too early? But once we have landed, there is no room for any doubts – the preparations take priority – taking delivery of the kayaks, checking the equipment, checking certain information about the route, finding a rifle……
The project had been growing in our minds for a long time, but had only really taken shape eight months earlier. We gave it the name “Witness”, and it consisted of visiting and getting to know the people of Greenland aboard two sea kayaks. This would be done in several stages, and over a number of years. The first part would take us from the town of Upernavik on the N 72, as far as Ilulissat on the N 69 in the bay of Disko, a journey of 500 nautical miles (1000 kilometers), and we would cover a similar distance each year. The aim was to visit the numerous villages on this coast, in order to create a photographic record, and to publicise the opinions of the Inuit people about the condition of their land, the changes they had observed, and their fears for the future of their way of life and their environment.
Nathalie and I, both of us photographers, are used to spending long periods in a natural environment. Our experience has been gained over many years, in countries as varied as South Africa, both coasts of Canada, Alaska, Scotland, Iceland, Norway and the Svalbard archipelago, and through activities including delta wing, hang gliding, husky-drawn sledging, cross country skiing, and of course sea kayak.
Nonetheless, when we set foot on the little airport of Upernavik, we were about to embark on one of the most difficult expeditions of our lives. There were many unknowns, and a lot of question marks remained. The climate and the timing of our project were the first challenges. Then there was the snow on the heights and the temperature which remained around zero. The Inuits confirmed to us that winter had not ended.
Prince Albert II of Monaco and a dozen other partners showed their confidence in the project by becoming our sponsors. Nigel Dennis (Sea Kayaking UK) was one of the first. Our priority was the quality of our equipment, which was entirely of anglo-saxon origin, and which we had used on previous expeditions. The kayaks, still in their original packaging, arrived directly from Great Britain. It was an emotional moment when we first saw them. Like two children, we opened our presents. The excitement quickly turned to disappointment – one of the kayaks was damaged by a tear of around twenty centimetres at the level of the forward hatch and needed to be repaired. The unforeseen had happened, and we had to deal with it. Delayed by the Whitsun weekend, it took us sometime to find heated premises which would provide suitable conditions to work with resin. There was also the possibility of meeting polar bears and musk oxen. We needed a rifle! The calibre which we were looking for was no longer available in the shops. We placed an advertisement, and told as many people as we could. The day before we were to leave, a hunter sold us the rifle we were so desperately looking for.
For several days, the weather has consisted of one short depression after another, with horizontal snowstorms. With the stress of the final preparations, and the launching from the rocks of our two 70 kilo “Explorer” kayaks now over, we glide along in silence; the adventure so long awaited has begun.
In surroundings worthy of the most beautiful winter sport centres in the Alps, the first stage which takes us to the village of Appilattoq sets the tone. From the beginning, it has been impossible for us to land, as walls of granite fall directly into the sea. At two o’clock in the morning, the village finally comes into view, behind a labyrinth of ice – a vision which was not unwelcome to us. We look for a place to land, but are obliged to pitch camp outside the village. In the morning, a young boy comes specially in a motor canoe to offer us drinks and cakes. This welcoming gesture is the first of a long series.
We had thought that the fjords at this beginning of our trip would allow us a gentle start to the voyage. This was not the case. The topographical maps, on a scale of 1:250000, do not allow us to identify places to sleep. Stopping places, even temporary, don’t exist. Long cold days of eight to ten hours succeed one another, without our being able to get out of the kayaks. In one day we cover forty five kilometres. After travelling for five days, we decide to follow the coast. There, another surprise awaits us – the Arctic fog. Crossings of fjords of more than an hour in the open sea are navigated with instruments. This start to the trip, with long stretches under winter conditions puts us to the test. Nonetheless, the choice to follow the coast quickly turns out to be a good one. We spend a week in the village of Kangersuatiaq, and on June 21 we take part in the festivities for the National holiday, which this year coincides with change in status of the country to a higher level of independence. To mark the occasion, we offer a present which is a souvenir of Monaco. The gesture is spontaneously returned. We also collect new opinions and ideas. For the first time, we sleep under the roof of a local person. Although this will happen several times more, this first occasion is a moving experience.
There follows three months of sailing in the middle of the ice, with stops in the villages of the Inuit people. Several times, we sail for fifteen days completely alone, along the wild coastline. We also have many close encounters with whales, where we become friends, and pass several hours together. At the end of 43 stages totalling 600 nautical miles i.e. over 1100 kilometers, we reach the village of Ilulissat, the end destination of our first journey.
We brought back with us around twenty statements of their ideas and opinions from local inhabitants, collected all along the trip, and many photographs. The most beautiful images are however in our minds. If we had to choose only one, it would certainly be that of the children of the little village of Sondre Upernavik, with whom we shared a bit of the road. They have an innate joy and optimism. We played together at marbles, hopscotch, and their laughter still rings in our ears. The concerns of their parents are nonetheless real. To continue to listen to them, we’ll take to the water again in June 2010, with our route going in a southerly direction towards the capital, Nuuk. In that way, we should find again our friends and continue the adventure.