SAILING INTO THE UNCHARTED
February 18, 2018
Words: Martin Edström/
Photos: Martin Edström/Katja Adolphson
I’ve rarely watched a boat sail by without wishing I was on it. A sailboat seems to be the epitome of exploration and travel: seagulls screaming as you leave port, the mainsail fluttering in the wind as you gather speed, the inescapable sense of excitement and nerves that comes with setting off on a journey…
As we left the picturesque port of Ísafjörður in Iceland, I was awash with the feelings described above. Captain Siggi plotted out our westward course while everyone else was busy making plans for the largely unmapped territory we were heading to. Do we really need ice-axes? Will we be doing more rock climbing or alpine climbing? Is it worth weighing down a daypack with a thermos?
Talking about the upsides of adventure, enjoying the sun – the first hours of sailing on the Arktika were pure bliss. But the waves slowly grew taller. And taller. We soon stopped talking. Many of us began to look at the horizon, trying to stabilize, while our guts felt the full onslaught of the seasickness that had come out of nowhere. Despite the lovely weather and company, we went down. One by one. And I went down the hardest.
For two days I lay flat in my bunk, apart from when I made the occasional sub-minute sprint to fetch a sandwich before getting sick again. Now and then some of the crew were able to enjoy a meal sitting up. The rest of us couldn’t make it to the table. But on day three the violent rocking of the boat that at times had me struggling to keep from falling out of the bunk settled into a gentle swing.
“Icebergs!” someone called from up top.
Despite my gyrating head, this was something I simply couldn’t bear to miss. Scrambling out of my bunk, I heard a distinct scraping noise, like something brushing or bashing against the boat’s hull. As I emerged in the fresh, cold air for the first time in 48 long hours, I saw the vast band of icebergs Siggi was trying to steer us through. I also saw something that took my breath away.
Looking through the binoculars, I traced jagged peaks – sharp black mountains rising from the sea, littered with snow and chunks of ice of an almost incomprehensible size. I was looking at our final destination: Greenland.
"It was as if we’d just taken off our shoes to enter a temple; our whole team stood silent in awe. When faced with such immense beauty, there's only so much you can do."
EXPLORING UNCHARTED TERRITORY
And so began 10 days of discovering Eastern Greenland with the rest of the crew. Pure exploration! As a photographer, always travelling on assignment with pressure to produce, it's a rare privilege to be on a trip without a plan, especially in such a unique and remote place as Greenland. Yet there I was, ready for whatever the trip might bring, without knowing more than the current heading of the compass.
After a morning in Taasilaq, one of the larger settlements of Eastern Greenland, the Arktika made its way to the first stop we’d spotted on the horizon: Polheim, a small but nonetheless inspiring peak along the coast.
Having packed light with a little alpine gear, a few layers of wool, and a MerinoLOFT™ jacket for the summit, I also had to get used to carrying a new sort of equipment: a rifle! We had two for our group. Knowing polar bears were around gave traveling in Greenland an extra edge. But having two excellent mountain guides – Stephane and Raphy, whom I'm glad to call my friends – we felt ready for anything.
While climbing Polheim turned out to be a breeze, reaching its summit proved to be one of the most surreal experiences I've ever had. Not because of altitude or hardship, nor because of difficulty. But because of the location, the context. Before coming to Greenland, we all had expectations and preconceptions of what it would be like. But standing there, looking at the mammoth continent of ice and rock that spread out under us, was something completely different.
On one side was the Greenland sea, the Atlantic and the fjords riddled with icebergs as far as the eye could see. However, what really struck us, was on the other side – looking north. After tracing the largest mountain range we’d ever seen, we tried to focus on what was beyond: a massive block of white, almost invisible against the sky. The massive ice-cap of Greenland, spread out before us – reaching the horizon and continuing up into the Arctic.
It was as if we’d just taken off our shoes to enter a temple; our whole team stood silent in awe. When faced with such immense beauty, there's only so much you can do.
"As I emerged in the fresh, cold air for the first time in 48 long hours, I saw the vast band of icebergs Siggi was trying to steer us through. I also saw something that took my breath away."
A SPIRITUAL JOURNEY
The rest of our expedition aboard the Arktika took us past a few of the largest fjords in Eastern Greenland, the long abandoned WWII base of Bluie East Two and some of the largest glacial systems in the world. Walking the glaciers by day and spending the evenings flipping through photos in historical books, we realized how much the nature of Greenland had changed. Climate change has melted some of the glaciers beyond recognition – to the point where you can now sail through fjords that were covered in kilometer-tall ice just a few decades ago.
But some things haven't changed much at all. Stopping in the small town of Tiilerilaaq proved that even though all of Eastern Greenland freezes over every winter, some people are hell-bent on living here. Hunting, fishing and guiding the occasional tourists, the fewer than 150 people living in Tiilerilaaq dwell in the most remote and breathtakingly wild places I’ve ever set foot in.
After 10 days of exploring the fjords, we gathered on deck for the final stretch of Greenland before setting sail back to Iceland over open water. None of us wanted to leave. As Siggi carefully steered the Arktika through the Sermilik fjord, we took in the twilight reflecting off a thousand icebergs sailing alongside us, most of them a hundred times larger than our boat. You’d think 10 days among such mammoth icebergs would somehow make us used to their presence. But all of us were still struck with awe.
"Knowing polar bears were around gave traveling in Greenland an extra edge. But having two excellent mountain guides, we felt ready for anything."
The trip back was harder than even our captain had anticipated; avoiding two storms saw us stuck at sea for a full four days before reaching Iceland. Most of us were floored with seasickness yet again. I didn't go above deck for almost 96 hours.
Would I travel to Greenland again? Of course. As I climbed below deck on that last day in the fjord, I knew I’d been blessed with a remarkable experience. When people ask me about faith, I usually claim nature is my chapel. That metaphor, however, doesn't really do Greenland justice. Greenland is more of a cathedral.