One of my greatest pleasures in life is traveling. There are so many amazing places on this planet and I want to see as many of them as possible in my lifetime.
I frequently get asked, “Where are you going next?” – and my answers often leave people scratching their head. But one recent response did catch me off guard:
“You’re going … where?”
That is what I got when I told someone I was going to Greenland.
“Why the h*ll would you want to go there?”, they asked.
Why would I? Read on to find out…
Just over a year ago, I was visiting Iceland (one of my most favourite places) and spent some time in a town called Husavík in the northern part of the country. During our stay, we went on a day trip to Puffin Island with a company called North Sailing which we really enjoyed.
After our excursion, I noticed in their brochure that they had a one week sailing tour of Greenland which really piqued my interest. I had heard from several people that Greenland is a beautiful place, especially Scoresby Sund where this voyage was supposed to take place.
Anchored at Ittoqqortoormiit – Scoresby Sund, Greenland – Fujifilm X-Pro1 & XF 18-55mm
After doing a quite a bit of research (plus speaking to the helpful folks at North Sailing), we took the plunge and decided to go to Greenland. As you will find out, it was a decision I am so glad we made.
I have been very fortunate to have visited Antarctica twice in the past few years. As Scoresby Sund (Scoresby Sound in English) is located at approximately 71 degrees north, it is well above the Arctic Circle and entering the northern polar region of the globe.
For my Antarctic voyages, I had spent a lot of time preparing for them (click here to read about it) and I had assumed that traveling in the Arctic would be the same – and it was to a certain degree. We were sent some basic preparation information which really helped us quite a bit.
Here are some other tips (in no particular order) which I found useful when traveling to Greenland:
Greenland is not an easy place to get to, especially the east coast where the Scoresby Sund is located. Air Greenland serves the island (and it is a big one), however, the majority (at least 90%, I believe) of its 60,000 inhabitants live on the west coast.
Fortunately for us there was an airport at Constable Point (45 km from Ittoqqortoormiit, which is the most isolated village in Greenland). North Sailing ended up booking us on a charter flight from Reykjavík, Iceland to Constable Point, Greenland which meant that all we had to do was make our way to Iceland and they would look after the rest for us.
After departing Reykjavík and spending an uneventful two hours in the air, we finally landed on the gravel runway at Constable Point. Awaiting us was our ship, the Opal:
For those of you who didn’t understand why I wanted to go to Greenland, here is the main reason: sailing in the world’s largest fjord system for eight glorious days on a 70 year old oak schooner. That’s why.
If you think that the Opal is beautiful in the above photo, she is even more so in person. She was built in the early 1940’s in Germany and had Danish owners until North Sailing purchased her in 2013. After sailing the Opal to Iceland (from Denmark) in late spring, she was retrofitted and upgraded. And now, we had the opportunity to be one of the first people to sail on this glorious vessel.
I don’t know much about sailing, but after boarding the Opal, I knew I was in for a big treat. I came to realise though, that I had not seen anything yet.
Our first stop was the village of Ittoqqortoormiit (try pronouncing that after a few drinks) which is about 45 km from the airport at Constable Point. It is the most isolated village in Greenland and one of the most remote settlements in the world. As there are no roads between villages in Greenland and the only way to get here is to sail or to hire a helicopter. In fact, supplies often are brought in this way.
Of course, we sailed in and spent our first night here 🙂
We had the chance to explore this bright and multi-coloured town and were warmly welcomed by our local host, Magnus (of BBC fame – he is often the local guide the camera crews employ when they film documentaries on Greenland). We were treated that evening to a traditional Inuit/Greenlandic meal consisting of pork (I think), onions, root vegetables and narwhal. They will sometimes serve musk ox for dinner – it just depends on what the villagers were able to find whilst hunting.
Not your traditional western fare, that’s for sure.
Magnus mentioned to me that it starts snowing here in late August and it finally stops in early June. That’s essentially nine months of snowfall during the year. I guess we Canadians really have nothing to complain about now. One very nice thing about the summers here is that there is plenty of daylight – 24 hours each day, to be exact.
As I stated earlier, we traveled ashore from the Opal via zodiac. The waters of the Scoresby Sund are very tranquil and even though I had brought waterproof outerwear, I never needed it. Quite a change from traveling in the Antarctic.
After leaving Ittoqqortoormiit, we sailed around the fjords and spent a lot of time hiking when we went ashore. One thing that unnerved me a bit (and I was also grateful for it too) was that our guide was armed at all times. See for yourself:
The main reason for the rifle – polar bears. Even though sightings are rare in Scoresby Sund, we still needed to exercise caution as they will stalk humans and kill them for food. Really. Fortunately (and unfortunately), we did not encounter any.
We did see the odd musk ox, but we were quite far away from them, so they were never a threat. Once in a while, you can accidently get close to one (when going around a blind corner on a hill) but they are normally quite skittish and will run away – except if they have young with them. Then watch out and get your rifle ready – they might decide to charge if they think you are a threat to their offspring.
The only wildlife we really got to see up close were
killer ducks and the Arctic bunny wabbit Hare.
Greenland has a surprising amount of plant life – I never expected this much being so far north. Of course most of the flora’s growth is stunted due to the very short summers, however, there is quite a bit of it. We actually found wild berries growing – not only were they edible, just about everyone on the ship (all 12 of us including the crew) ate them every chance we had. Hey, we can’t let the musk oxen have all of the fun 🙂
One of the great things about traveling in the Arctic during the summer is that the sun never really sets, so you will experience 24 hour/day sunlight. For a photographer, this presents a fantastic opportunity although you will suffer from lack of sleep periodically. But hey, where else in the world can you shoot for at least 20 hours a day and not realise it is time for bed?
The evening light is absolutely beautiful and against the icebergs (that you will see everywhere), even more so. I often just put my camera down and just watched the sun illuminate the horizon while sipping a fine Icelandic beer. There is simply nothing else better on the planet.
The Scoresby Sund consists of several fjords and is the largest fjord network in the world. It is simply massive and unlike anything you will ever see.
Greenland has a massive ice cap (actually, several of them) which results in many, many glaciers being formed. And as these glaciers reach the water, the ice calves and forms icebergs. You will see them everywhere as you sail. And many of these icebergs are the size of city blocks. They are simply massive.
Given how remote this place is, I expected to see no one else while we were sailing. To my surprise, we encountered a small cruise ship, similar to the ones I had taken to Antarctica (steel ship with about 100 passengers).
One really great thing about being on the Opal is that she is small, relatively speaking. That meant that we could sail into areas with quite a bit of ice floating in the water. Larger ships wouldn’t dare try doing that (remember the Titanic?) but with our wooden ship (which was actually stronger than a steel one) and capable crew, we were able to sail around the ice with no worries.
That meant we could visit places that very few people on the planet have ever seen.
Being on a ship, use of fresh water was always a concern. Large vessels have desalinization equipment and the Opal is a small wooden ship, so it did not have this capability. For that reason, we were asked to conserve water as much as possible.
Often, the crew would fill the fresh water tanks when they had access to a river. We were due to anchor near a river in a day or so, but our captain noticed a large stream of water running off of an iceberg we had sailed by. He turned the ship around and sent out the zodiac to investigate futher:
The captain and first mate then set up their pump, ran the hose from the zodiac to the ship and started to pump fresh water into the holding tank – straight from the iceberg. Try doing that on a Caribbean cruise!
We were sailing in one of the most remote areas in the world. It was hard to believe that we had this place to ourselves, but we really did. Once I let that thought sink in, I couldn’t help but feel quite fortunate.
As we were sailing in the fjord with Milneland at port, our captain pointed out several formations – and that we were only a handful of people (less than 200) that have ever seen this part of Greenland. Even the locals in Ittoqqortoormiit (about 100 km away) had never been here.
Previous visitors to this area were the massive glaciers during the last ice age. They had filled the fjords and while they receded, the ice scraped the rocks – so much so that they are now smooth to the touch. There were entire cliff faces that were smoothed by these massive forces from a long time ago.
We could see dozens of glaciers as we sailed the fjords in Milneland – and also see the ice cap.
There is a mountain in Milneland called the “Cathedral” – it is one of the most beautiful (and steep) mountains in the area and it looked like a nicer version of Monte Fitz Roy in southern Patagonia. We were fortunate enough to sailing by it during the late evening. Of course, I couldn’t help myself and took dozens of photos as the golden light engulfing the mountain was just breathtaking.
Our regular readers have probably been wondering when I would get to this section.
I have been using the Fujifilm “X” system for the past 18 months as my main travel camera, and this trip was no different. The great thing was that I took two camera bodies, five lenses, five batteries, 160 GB of SD cards, filters, charger, a 7″ tablet, etc. and my entire kit weighed less than 5 kg, including my Think Tank Sling-O-Matic 10 bag (which worked like a dream).
I wasn’t sure how harsh the weather conditions were going to be in Scoresby Sund, especially after spending time in challenging conditions in Antarctica. A very kind gentleman at Fujifilm Canada (thanks, Jerry) was nice enough to discuss this with me and he did mention that my X-Pro1 and lenses weren’t weather sealed, hence he didn’t recommend that I use them in “less than ideal” conditions.
In the end, I decided to chance it as I wanted a lightweight and capable camera system. Schlepping 15 kg of professional DSLR gear in a bulky bag is not much fun; I’d rather schlep 5 kg. Fortunately, the weather conditions were ideal (sunny most days) and I did not have to deal with moisture or extreme temperatures.
I often have people tell me that they are going on a trip and then ask what camera/lenses they should take? My answer is usually, “yes”. I am not trying to be flip – it is that most modern cameras are extremely capable and will produce very good images, even with automatic settings. The only limitation now is the person behind the camera and their creativity.
So for a trip to Greenland, take what you already have – or if you must purchase a new camera, just find one that suits you and your budget. During the summer months, the weather here is not harsh and you will be better served with camera gear that you know how to operate, as opposed to having something fancy or expensive. Just keep in mind that hiking usually involves scaling steep hills (and cliffs, if you are adventurous), so the lighter the camera bag, the better.
I did find that I used the longer focal lengths quite a bit so my Fujifilm XF 55-200mm f/3.5~4.8 LM R OIS telephoto zoom lens (man, that is a mouthful) came in handy.
Just when I thought I had seen the most amazing sights in my life, I then go to Greenland and get blown away. I knew that Scoresby Sund was a beautiful place, I just had no idea how incredible it would be. The sheer scale of everything you will see is beyond belief.
The two things that made this voyage extra special for me was being on the Opal and seeing a remarkable part of the world that very few people have witnessed. I feel beyond grateful to have had this rare experience and can only hope that I get to visit again. I shall remember this voyage for the rest of my life.
So, if anyone ever wants to know why I went to Greenland, this is why. And I would gladly do it all over again.
Many thanks to the staff at North Sailing in Iceland for their professionalism and this once in a lifetime experience.
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