Mostly written aboard Iron Bark, Nako Island, 72º30.9'N 54º58.6'W, Greenland
We survived the winter in Greenland! I had hoped to feel a hero, but I have to confess that it was actually a lot easier than I anticipated, in fact, so much so, that I console myself that the brave part was making the decision to do this, rather than the actuality.
We went straight from Baddeck to Greenland with never an e-mail outlet on the way. In fact, we stopped at a little harbour called Flower’s Cove because something had worked loose on the self-steering (an Aries) and it had jumped a cog; this did nothing for its accuracy. Our horror at being forced to hand-steer for several hours was ludicrous! Anyway, we sorted that out, did a bit of shopping and were given ‘lunch’ and deliciously hot showers by a kindly native, that being the sort of thing that one expects in Newfoundland.
I have to say that it was with a certain reluctance that I left to head north. Newfie and its people seemed so much more appealing than Greenland. I wasn’t looking forward to our passage north, either, because when I went in Badger, we’d had loads of fog and had to keep almost constant lookout. With the pram hood, that hadn’t been much of a hardship, but Iron Bark, whatever her manifold virtues, is not set up for watchkeeping out of the elements. However, my fears were largely ungrounded and we had relatively little fog. We also had a distinct lack of wind and resorted to an embarrassing amount of motoring. Trevor reckoned that the Davis Strait is no place to hang around waiting for gales. I agree, by and large, but even so, it was a lot of motoring.
Although we didn’t have a huge amount of serious fog, we didn’t have exactly sparkling visibility, either and we didn’t see much of ‘Greenland’s Icy Mountains’ until we were just about on top of them. We were heading for Disko Island and had clear weather as we approached, on 21st July, which was just as well, because now we began to see icebergs – if not hundreds, then certainly scores of them. We’d only seen half a dozen up until then. We were reckoning on being in by the end of the day, but from flat calm, the wind increased rapidly to a full gale. We pulled the sails down, rolled them up, reefed them or whatever was necessary and cursed our bad luck. We really didn’t want to go careering through a field of icebergs at 7 knots, with waves and spray hiding growlers. Between us and Disko were several relatively shoal patches of water, with bergs grounded on them, so there was really no avoiding them. We decided to heave-to and although the wind took off, we stayed put for a while to see what would happen. By the time we’d decided that the lull was permanent, the wind had just about died, leaving a god-awful jobble behind. We motored and sailed and motor-sailed, feeling generally cross and bad-tempered, but at last made it to Fortune Bay on Disko and dropped our hook just before midnight. Being in the land of the Midnight Sun, at least we didn’t have to worry about saving our daylight.
Before we had left for Greenland, we’d studied charts with thoughts of a wintering place in mind. We had to be north of the Arctic Circle, of course, or otherwise it wouldn’t really count, and the Upernavik area looked promising, with several fjords leading deep into the land, which would keep us well away from sea ice and all the pressure associated with that. It also meant that we would have more opportunity of travelling about come the winter. We confidently expected that all the fjords would freeze, while if we were among the outer islands, gales might well break the ice up from time to time. Trevor said that this had happened to him quite a lot in the Antarctic (where the choice of wintering sites is much more limited) and that it can be quite nerve wracking while it happens. I could well believe that and was more than happy to go along with his idea of getting frozen in once and for all so that we could relax. ‘Once you’re surrounded by ice’, he pointed out, ‘nothing can disturb you.’ It was a pleasant thought to be able to ignore gales.
At about 72° 30' N, there is a long fjord called ‘Laxe Fjord’. Our small-scale Admiralty chart, when studied with a magnifying glass, made it look very promising and the larger-scale Danish one seemed to back this up. Our plan was to head north to this area as a matter of priority and find ourselves a winter harbour. That done, we could potter about ‘exploring’ until such time as we decided to settle ourselves in. After a few days in Fortune Bay, we headed out up the Vaigat, stopping at Qeqertarsuaq (Godhavn) and several other equally unpronounceable places along the way.
Greenland, at least as far as the settlements are concerned, has changed quite a lot since I was here in 1991. There are more shops and they are more European than they were. Yes, they still sell fishing line and bullets, but they also have CDs and fashionable clothes. The villages are much cleaner and tidier than they were, the people less shy and more (although not many) people speak English. Being under benign Danish rule, they are obviously indoctrinated into a healthy way of life and are all slim and very un-Eskimo looking. Part of this is probably because sweets, sugar and so on are all quite expensive. Basic foodstuffs are obviously subsidised and are European prices. I’m not quite sure what they decide is basic and what is luxury. Bacon, for example is outrageous, while eggs are twice Canadian prices. Tinned tomatoes are average international price, as is coffee, but other foodstuffs are two or three times more than one would normally pay, including meat and fresh vegetables. The whole country, of course, is heavily subsidised by Denmark because there is very little paid work here. Fewer people seem to go fishing or hunting in serious fashion compared with 1991. Even so, I think Trevor was surprised at how small and limited the larger settlements are. On the way here, he was talking of perhaps buying some plywood and insulation foam and I don’t think he believed me when I told him that they wouldn’t be available. It appears that people are provided with houses and do nothing more than basic maintenance, although a lot of stuff may be ordered via catalogues and so on.
We arrived in Laxe Fjord in early August and immediately found that our choice was perfect. We were, however, more than a little disconcerted to find that we had selected one of the busiest places in Greenland. Laxe Fjord, as I should have guessed, means ‘Salmon Inlet’ and the place was positively buzzing with little boats full of cheerful Eskimos tending lines and nets, and there were tents scattered around with women and children pottering happily about. This didn’t unduly bother us because we reckoned that they’d all have shoved off by the time we came to settle in.
I should point out here that we didn’t actually have permission to spend the winter in Greenland. We had tried to ‘enter’ the country officially in Godhavn, a major town, but no one seemed very interested. A Dane there, told us of two Norwegians who had spent the winter tied to a dock in the town, so there was obviously in principle, no objection to people staying for longish periods. However, as we wanted to be isolated and remote, we felt that perhaps it might be imprudent to ask if this were OK, knowing how Authorities tend to worry about accidents and so on. Greenlanders, for the most part, are delightfully incurious, so we didn’t feel that we’d have any problems.
One of the ploys that Trevor had used to persuade me to acquiesce to his scheme, was that we would have fuel to keep the heater going throughout the coldest months. I didn’t have any hopes that we would keep the boat at 18ºC or anything like, but I really didn’t want to live as he had done, with frost and ice inside the boat. Trevor reckoned that we’d need 200 l paraffin and 800l of diesel, which would be sufficient to keep the cold at bay and melt snow for water. Having confirmed where to spend the winter, we went to buy the fuel to cache ashore. Once we were set up, we’d cruise around the area and maybe do a bit of charting for the RCC. The business of getting the fuel from a town to Orpik, the name of chosen anchorage, was worrying Trevor a little. Obviously, we needed oil drums, but in the new clean and green Greenland, they weren’t scattered around the settlements like they used to be.
Upernavik is the nearest place of any size. It has an airstrip built on the top of a mountain, which must have cost a fortune because the whole top of the hill has been levelled off to create it. It also has stores, a hospital and so on and seemed a likely spot to provide us with oil drums. Upernavik has been an important harbour for over a century, although why anyone should have chosen to place it there is incomprehensible. It is a dreadful place for a boat. The harbour has been improved by a substantial wall and a breakwater, but is crowded, encumbered by rocks and prone to invasion by bergy bits. On the other side of the wall is a bay with poor holding, wide open to the west and rolly. There is no natural fresh water. We tried securing Iron Bark in several places and the least bad was tying alongside the wall, surging slightly. There were good rubber fenders – not ideal for white plastic topsides, but fine for our stainless rub rail and plenty to tie up to. Unfortunately, the top of the pier was covered in grit, which fell in a steady stream all over our decks, and if one of the locals wanted to get in front of us, he was quite happy to cast off any line that was an inconvenience. However, we managed to locate and obtain some empty fuel drums, with the obliging chap selecting them for us and never showing the slightest curiosity as to why we should want them. You’d think that foreigners came knocking on his door every day, asking for half a dozen oil drums. Unfortunately, however, the local bobby did show some curiosity, when he encountered Trevor. (I was off shopping at the time.) Trevor being a skilled and practised dissimulator put him off the scent, but we decided that we’d better not revisit Upernavik until spring.
We had a somewhat harrowing time taking the oil drums back to Orpik, 30 or so miles away. We dodged a blow in a good anchorage that we discovered on an island near Upernavik, (making one wonder why they didn’t choose this place to settle) and then steamed back in perfectly calm weather, with Barky still lurching horribly on any wave, as well she might with half a ton of deck cargo. It was a relief to get among the islands and deep into Laxe Fjord, where no swell could reach us. Indeed, these fjords must nearly always be calm – the tiniest skerries are covered with a green crown of grass and moss, which would never survive if they were frequently inundated with salt water. I don’t recall ever seeing more than a slight slop in any of them. The wind can blow, but never seems to raise much of a sea.
When I came to Greenland with Pete, we spent some time in Umanak Fjord and as I recall, this was very susceptible to katabatic winds. The area that we explored, between the Kangeq Peninsula and Upernavik, is riddled with fjords, scattered with mountainous islands and close to a very elevated icecap: an ideal, environment, you might think, for katabatic winds. Astonishingly, I don’t believe we’ve experienced a single instance. In truth, it’s a lousy place for a sailing boat. Occasionally you get a breeze sufficient to encourage you to raise sail, but even then, the wind is very fluky and constantly shifting and heading you. Most of the time it’s flat calm and if there’s a real breeze, it’s generally because the weather’s going to hell and by that time you’re more interested in finding a sheltered anchorage than sailing.
Anyway, on this particular trip, the last thing we wanted to do was to sail, so we were very grateful for the calm weather. We dropped the hook about midnight and then felt our way into Orpik, our little, perfectly sheltered pool right at the end of the fiord.
Trevor decided to get all the fuel ashore and set up the drums on the beach. This would enable us to continue ‘exploring’ for another few weeks until it was time to settle in for the winter. It wasn’t a pleasant job, pumping up diesel from a drum into jerricans, then ferrying those ashore and filling the empty one that he’d set up there. There wasn’t much I could do to help, either, apart from make encouraging noises. It took him 2 days to get 1,000 litres of fuel shifted and onto the beach.
This little anchorage was a very pretty spot and ashore we could wander around without being stopped by too many precipitous cliffs or rocks falls. Generally, the countryside is not ideal for walking because it’s very rough and steep, with lots of unexpected and usually water-filled hollows into which you – or at least I – keep stumbling. But the views make the effort worthwhile. We also discovered lots of wild mushrooms and bog whortleberries, as the Pilot describes them – bilberries to you and me. I took a selection of the mushroom and asked a couple of locals which were edible. The most common one was, but I didn’t care for it very much; however, there were two others that were a lot less common, but absolutely delicious. These particular Eskimos (not Inuit here) or Greenlanders, if you prefer, were camping at the ‘Salmon River’, tending the nets that they set from the shore and getting in a supply of salmon. They came by 5 or 6 afternoons to drink tea or coffee with us. Most of them could speak no English and the communication was inadequate to say the least, but they obviously enjoyed themselves and we managed the odd comprehensible joke, question and answer. They very kindly gave us a salmon just before they left and one of them, the first day he came on board, gave us a harpoon head. Not alas, hand-carved out of bone, but cast in aluminium. It was kind and I treasure it.
According to our plan, we duly chugged off and did a bit of ‘exploring’, but when we were nearly back ‘home’ were overtaken by a small boat containing a couple of Wildlife Rangers. They suspected us of poaching their salmon, I believe and although we managed to convince them that we were simply a pair of lunatic foreigners, pottering around making charts, they asked us about the fuel drums. Then, as we were approaching our pool, a group of locals came over in their boat and told us to go no further – ‘it was forbidden because of the salmon’. At least we gathered that’s what they meant – they tried Danish on us and we caught ‘salmon’ and ‘forbidden’. Hmm. So we anchored elsewhere, consoling ourselves with the thought that we could outstay them.
Rather than upset the locals, we left again – the season was due to end in about a week, at the end of August, after which we anticipated everyone would leave.
We pottered off and waited out a gale in a local anchorage. Then we did a bit more exploring. Trevor was a bit concerned about our being so prominent at Orpik and said that if we were told we’d have to leave, the best thing would be to cut our losses and go to Newfoundland. This was a terrible temptation for me, because it would be much more my idea of wintering ‘somewhere cold’, with all the advantages – snow, ice, etc, plus the possibility of company and a much earlier spring. I liked the idea of being isolated for a winter, but I also liked the idea of being part of a friendly community and Newfies are nothing if not friendly.
We were hoping to explore the inner leads behind Upernavik, near where the icecap comes down to the sea, but there was loads of ice about, even at that time of the year, and all the anchorages we checked were either too deep, too small or too encumbered with ice. Not uncommonly, they were all three! However, we did some lines of soundings and sorted out islands from headlands from rocks, which were not always correctly shown on the chart.
Towards the end of August, we went back to our winter quarters. In the last few days we’d had rain and this had fallen as snow higher up; all the mountains now had white tops. Most of the locals had gone and we were getting quite excited about our winter. Each morning, the snow crept down lower on the hills, but we could still find mushrooms and bilberries and the days that were sunny and calm were still delightfully warm. Even better was the fact that the cold nights were obviously having a discouraging effect on the mosquitoes so that going ashore became a real pleasure. We climbed quite high on 1st September and got snowed on! The dwarf beech and the bilberries were turning to rich reds and browns; everywhere was at its best.
A few days later, we chugged off again for a bit more ‘exploring’. We were about a couple of miles from Orpik, when we saw the Wildlife Rangers’ boat again. They came alongside and obviously wanted to talk to us, but we were in a very shallow and winding channel and could neither stop nor anchor. In the end, Trevor went aboard their boat while I continued slowly on our way. Apparently, while their real concern was that we might be poaching salmon, they were uncomfortably curious about our cache and our intentions. When Trevor came back on board, we continued on our way to an anchorage for the night, discussing what we should do.
We were rather worried about so many people knowing our whereabouts and that we had a dump of fuel ashore. The last thing we wanted was for someone to come at the end of September and tell us that we had to move. Even if they didn’t insist on our leaving the country – and the thought of traversing the Davis Strait at that time of the year was far from appealing – they might insist that we go closer to a settlement, which we didn’t fancy. Trevor again suggested going to Newfoundland. I think part of his reason for suggesting it was that Greenland seemed rather more populous than he’d realised and also that the lack of wildlife was a great disappointment. I very nearly agreed, but I thought better of it. After all, I had signed on to spend a winter north of the Arctic Circle and I knew that Trevor would be very disappointed in retrospect, to spend it in populated Newfoundland instead of in Greenland, which would be much less busy come winter. We were anchored in a place that we’d not spent any time in before, on an island called Nako, and I suggested that we consider this place as an alternative to Orpik. It was a lovely spot, well off the beaten track and not likely to be visited by curious Wildlife Rangers. I said that if we saw no sign of anyone for a few days, we could assume that they’d lost interest in us and then we’d go back to Orpik, pick up the fuel and bring it back. Trevor agreed with the idea and when we went ashore, we were reassured at finding no trace of people. The Greenlanders tend to leave rubbish about, so it’s quite easy to work out which places they visit regularly. Having effectively been given the option of backing out, I’d had to make the decision to spend the winter in Greenland, all over again. Of course now I’m pleased that I did it, but for several weeks I wondered if I’d done the right thing.
Anyway, we decided that Nako was the spot and went back to Orpik for the fuel. Poor Trevor had to reload and then unload it yet again, although I did give him some assistance. It was a relief to get the drums off the deck.
We started settling in on 10th September. We could have continued cruising around for at least another 3 weeks, although the days were rapidly drawing in, but were feeling a bit paranoid and felt it was better to vanish. In fact we thought that we’d freeze in sooner than we did, because already we were getting ice in the mornings. As it turned out, this was fresh water ice and in effect we had two freeze-ins, one with fresh ice, the second with salt. September and October also brought quite a lot of weather, with gales and snow. The gales were quite alarming because they caused the ice to break up, which made the most appalling din as it bashed against the sides of the boat. We were by now securely tethered with about a dozen lines ashore, and I kept telling myself that Barky has already been through all this before, but at times it was something of an act of faith.
Getting to and from the boat was interesting. The ice was not solid, but sometimes it was too thick to row through. We had taken Lisa, our plywood dinghy, ashore and turned her over in a sheltered spot for the winter and assembled our ‘Portabote’, which is a collapsible affair, made of some very tough form of plastic. This we used as part boat, part sledge, pulling ourselves along the shorelines. It took to its role well, and saved Lisa from a lot of abuse. Trevor had warned me that we might be trapped for a few days because the ice would be too thick to pull through, but not strong enough to walk on. By the end of October this situation seemed imminent, but in fact what happened was that we had a particularly cold night on 4th November and by the time we got up, the ice in front of the boat was hard enough to walk on. It was a very strange sensation, jumping off the bowsprit and walking ashore. The ice alongside and astern of us was still thin and a bit broken up, but between the stream and ourselves, there was a good, solid layer.
By now we had lost the sun from the boat. There was a spit of land between us and the main part of the fjord, that we called ‘the tombolo’, and if we walked up there, we could still see the sun. The days, although short, were often sunny and fine. Winter, however, seemed to come in a hurry. We were walking ashore, then the heads froze and we had to start using a ‘honey bucket’, as they call them in Canada. In fact, this one was exactly that – we bought a lot of honey to see us through the winter. Trevor likes his cakes, puddings and flapjacks! Temperatures outside were regularly down below –10°C and in the mornings, the boat was at –2°. We didn’t have enough fuel to run the heater 24 hours a day and were anyway being a bit careful with it at first, to see just how much fuel it used. We expected the cold months to be December, January, February and March and I worked out a ration, which allowed us increasing amounts so that we might be able to keep the heater on nearly all the time in those months. To do so meant being a bit mean in October and November, but on the other hand, it enabled me to get more acclimatised to the cold. For Trevor, the idea of having regular heating was a luxury he couldn’t dream of in the Antarctic – I don’t think I could have managed without it. The next thing that happened was that the water tank froze. We have a little tank in the galley, that we usually fill with salt water at sea and this proved ideal for the winter. We fetched water from the stream and filled this little tank so that we had water on tap. We had packed a lot of our food in 6 litre plastic buckets and as these were emptied they became available for ferrying water. In the fullness of time of course, the stream froze up, but we could get water from the lake that fed it. To our delight, we managed to get water from this all winter. Trevor had to do some pretty strenuous work with a pick axe to do so, but it was a lot better than melting snow. We did this once or twice and it’s a slow, tedious business. We ended up with loads of paraffin left over, because of this good luck.
The polar night set in on 13th November. Although the ice forward of the boat was still firm, that around us came and went, cracked, melted from water welling up from below and drifted in and out. At times it was quite alarming and once or twice I cowered aboard, too afraid to risk going ashore. This was the hardest time for me. The cold frankly frightened me and it was still only around –10°; the boat was always cold – about 6°, rising to 9° for a while after I’d cooked dinner; the heater was struggling even at these temperatures and I dreaded what it was going to be like at –30°. My hands had chilblains, going ashore seemed fraught with risk, ice was encroaching in all the lockers and in places in the cabin, where the steel was in contact with the panelling. Life was lived by the light of two oil lamps and two candles and for a while I wondered if I’d bitten off more than I could chew.
Slowly the ice thickened up. Our little bay was the first to freeze, then ice started to form in the north bay. We had to keep our lines free, otherwise they would get pulled down into the ice. This was a continual chore throughout the winter. We were still sleeping in the forward cabin, but were troubled with both condensation and ice. I solved it in the end, by putting a cockpit cushion across the foot of the bed, and lining each side with camping mattresses. I put a fleece blanket against the deck head, securing one end over the bookshelf at the foot of the bunk and the other end I tucked under some trim which held it in place. Occasionally there was ice between the blanket and the deckhead, but we never had any drips after that. The cushions and mattresses froze to the side of the boat and Trevor took it upon himself to chip ice and mop up every few days. We had brought extra sleeping bags and fleece liners for when it got really cold, but in fact we never used them. We slept under two duvets – a light weight and a medium weight one, and, to our surprise, they were sufficient.
Although by the end of the winter, the snow was 10 feet deep in places, we didn’t really get a lot of it. The ‘rainfall’ so far north in Greenland, is very low – semi-desert really – and it took a while for the snow to accumulate. Of course any that fell tended to stay around – we didn’t get much melting, but it was quite a while before everything was thickly covered. However, by the end of November, there was enough that we could start using the skis that we’d bought.
My only experience of skiing, previous to this trip, had been a couple of afternoons in Cape Breton, when we spent the winter there. Trevor had had skis in the Antarctic, but hardly used them, so was little more skilled than I. On the recommendation of a young man at the Mountain Equipment Co-op in Halifax, we’d bought a new type of ski, which was short – 120 cm – and wide – about 10 cm at the widest – and only slightly waisted. For me, this proved to be an ideal beginner’s ski. Because they were was so short, turning was easy and because they had built-in ‘skins’, we could climb up hills with astonishingly little effort. Trevor reckoned that the width and the skins meant that the skis were a lot slower than traditional ones, but that was fine by me. We had a huge amount of fun with these skis and although we never travelled as far as we’d originally hoped, we still covered a fair few miles.
Although we were now firmly frozen in, the rest of the fjord took a lot longer and it wasn’t until Christmas that we looked out to see ice everywhere. This was a temporary state of affairs, however, because upwellings on spring tides often melted and broke up areas of the ice. It was a disappointment, because we’d hoped to do a lot of skiing over the sea ice, particularly during the ‘night’ when travelling ashore was difficult because of the very uneven terrain. My dream of skiing under the Arctic Lights never quite materialised, but on the other hand, once daylight returned, travelling over the land became a delight, immensely more pleasurable than trudging and stumbling about in the summer. I never really got the hang of downhill work, and fell over with monotonous regularity. However, that was partly because once I did get going, I never wanted to slow down. Trevor was much more prudent and so took far fewer spills.
Our cove, which, with startling originality, we called ‘Winter Cove’ was the territory of an Arctic Fox. She wasn’t white, but instead was a soft brown colour. Apparently this is not unusual in Greenland, although there where white ones as well. With even more originality, I christened her ‘Foxy’, although this was in a feeble attempt not to get too emotionally involved with her. It was a failure, of course, but she gave us both a lot of pleasure, trotting down for her breakfast of oats, milk and cheese every morning. She would take food from my hand, but never let me touch her. I think I could have ‘tamed’ her to do that, but felt it an impertinence. Later in the winter, when the snow was really deep, she would come onto the boat and lie on deck. We felt immensely privileged that she should do so.
We celebrated mid-winter day, instead of Christmas, but in fact had so much food left over that we celebrated that too, and drank toasts to absent friends who, we hoped, would be thinking of us. We had lots of prezzies to give each other and even a tree – a small willow, which I felt rather guilty about. But it did look nice. While there was no chance of the orthodox turkey and all our fresh vegetables had been eaten by the end of November, we did have lots of good things to eat. Trevor had decided that instead of a blow-out feast, we should have lots to nibbles instead and it was a great idea. We also went for a short ski in the gloaming and enjoyed the day. Christmas pudding was consumed, of course, but there was some for the 25th, too. I’d also made a Christmas cake, which just about lasted until Twelfth Night. During the dark period, I made lots of excuses to have something a bit special and we never got depressed by the endless night. The weather was generally clear and crisp, which allowed us to see amazing quantities of stars in the crystal-clear atmosphere. And of course, there were some splendid displays of Lights, which had us standing in the hatch gazing out until we got too cold.
One advantage of living in a fridge was that we had a certain amount of fresh food. Vegetables wouldn’t tolerate the alternation between freezing and thawing that happened towards the end of November, but eggs, cheese, butter, bacon and salami kept well. Some of the eggs froze and cracked and we lost a few to mould, but Foxy enjoyed those, so they didn’t get wasted. We had scrambled eggs every week and used them in other ways. They lasted until the end of May and we bought new ones in the beginning of July, so only went without for a month. We had some dried eggs, but I didn’t try scrambling those.
We had laid in a goodly supply of freeze-dried onions and mixed vegetables, which were a great help in adding some taste and interest to our meals. The vegetables were not something that you’d want to serve as a side dish, but were grand in soups, stews and curries, especially pressure cooked. I also had freeze-dried mushrooms and would have liked more. I bought tins of corned beef (to keep Trevor happy!), tuna, sweet corn, tomatoes, baked beans and tomato purée. We had one or two special things like asparagus and half a dozen tins of smoked salmon for high days and holidays. If I’d had room we’d have had tins of spinach, but as it was, the boat was terribly burdened and I could only really load her up with necessities. I overdid it, of course, but not by too much. We also had rice, spaghetti, penne, pasta twists, lasagne and some wonderful dried, sliced potatoes. These last were quite superb, but terribly bulky, so we could only have them every couple of weeks, especially as the cold had us eating huge meals. I’d laid in whole and split lentils, chickpeas, black-eyed peas, red kidney beans, butter (lima) beans and split peas (for soup). I did get frustrated at times, trying to devise meals around these stores, but by and large we ate well and looked forward to our meals. Breakfast was usually muesli, which I mix myself from oats, dates, raisins, dried apricots, prunes, nuts, pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds. I baked bread and I ate it every day, usually as a toasted cheese or bacon sandwich. Trevor often had cake or flapjacks instead. Baking was very much encouraged – not only was the end product much appreciated, but the oven warmed the boat!
I found it cold in December, and the ice inside the boat was demoralising. The other thing that I found hard to handle, on occasion, was the silence. Generally speaking, I would say that I love silence, but what I mean by that, of course, is the absence of artificial sounds like cars, or radios and, I suppose, also the absence of howling winds and breaking waves. But the silence in Greenland was immense. It was total. Often, not a breath stirred, so there was not even a susurration of snow; nothing moved, no birds called, no fox barked. For hours and hours there wouldn’t be the slightest sound. It was rather overwhelming at times.
In the boat, of course, there were sounds. We had no electricity – we didn’t have enough fuel to run the engine, there was no sun for the solar panel and if we’d had a wind generator, it would have been useless in the calm conditions that prevailed – so we couldn’t listen to music, but this never felt like deprivation. In fact it was often quite noisy below, because whenever the ice moved, on the tide or as it expanded, the sound reverberated through the boat. At times it was quite alarming and once or twice it even woke us up. At breakout, we discovered one or two of our lines and chains had snapped and they were probably responsible for those occasions.
In January, when there was sufficient well-packed snow about, Trevor got out his machete and started to build a snow cave over the boat. In case you don’t know, mountaineers often use a snow cave for a snug shelter at night. Snow is a very good insulator and itself stays at a temperature just below freezing; therefore, a cave built under a good thickness of snow stays at about that temperature, which if the outside is –30°C, is snug. The first thing Trevor did, was to carve out frames and lintels for the windows, which he set up on snow piled to the rubbing strake. Then he cut out big blocks and laid them along the side of the boat and in other places necessary to bridge any obvious gaps. After that he shovelled snow over the lot, so that Iron Bark was encased in a thick layer of snow. The difference was amazing. Immediately, the ice inside started to recede and the temperature in the saloon rose to 9°. After I’d been cooking for a while, it occasionally even reached 14°! The best thing, however, was that when we went off for a ski, the boat was still above freezing when we came back, rather than several degrees below, as it had been previously. Life really became pretty comfortable after that until May, when the snow on deck started to melt and create holes. It wasn’t worth building a new cave, but was a grand reminder of what it could have been like.
We did lots of calculations as to when the sun would come back, but they were complicated by the fact that refraction could make a tremendous difference. The first day of February was beautiful, still and clear and we decided to go for a ski up ‘North Col’, the valley to the north of us. We thought that there was a chance that we’d be able to see the sun shining on hills nearby, but as we climbed we realised that we might well be able to see the sun itself. We settled ourselves at a site with a good view south and as we looked, the sun appeared over one of the high cliffs and sunlight poured down the fjord at us. It was a glorious sight. As it moved sideways, the light ran along the snow turning everything into pinks and golds and then poured down the valleys sides and onto the sea ice. It was a perfect day to watch it and we were astonished at the fact that it was on the sea ice. It had been overcast for the previous two days, but before then, the sun had only been glancing off the mountain tops. Three months later and it had stopped setting at all. The Land of the Midnight Sun is a strange place. The moon can stay in the sky for days on end during the dark months and then there is a time of long, long twilights interspersed with bright sunshine. Suddenly you realise that it’s always sunny. Where we were, there were relatively few overcast days and it was strange to be living somewhere that was always sunny. My body clock is regular and prosaic; Trevor’s is anything but and he would be happily pottering about at 4 am when my body was shouting ‘Bed! Bed!’ Then we’d get up about midday with my body shouting, ‘Oy! What happened to breakfast!’ In the end I gave up and went to bed some time after midnight and let him carry on. We were so lucky to choose somewhere with such superb weather. Days and days of overcast, especially in the dark period, would have been very depressing and a lot of wind would have been horrible. As it was we got quite fussy and would sulk and pout if there was a F3 blowing – at –30°C, it soon made itself felt if you stopped moving for any time.
Those beautiful sunny times when we went skiing into the hills were just wonderful. Everything was so pristine, the sky a deep, transparent blue and often the sun would pick out crystals in the snow which, wearing ski goggles, were transformed into tiny prisms, flashing rainbow colours. It was breathtakingly lovely. The snow was different every time we went out, sometimes creaking, sometimes swishing, sometimes crunching. The sun rose noticeably higher every day – each day was 30 minutes longer than its predecessor – and the birds started to come back. I think the first were the Great cormorants, that nested on a cliff close by. Soon after came Black-backed gulls, Glaucous or Iceland gulls (I never worked out which), Snow buntings, Eider ducks, Mallard, Mergansers, Redpolls, Black guillemots, Canada geese, Lapland longspurs and finally, just before we left, the Loons returned, not only common ones, but Red-throated, which I’d never seen before. One seemed to be settling into the High Pond, one of our favourite walks.
Early in May, the temperature was in the low 20s and we were really beginning to wonder if we’d ever break out. We’d found a sledge on the beach on the far side of North Col, which Trevor had cut down and used for ferrying water from Loon lake. We also used it to go and dump some of our bottles and tins in deep water beyond The Skerries. To do this, we had to dig a hole through the ice and Trevor had a long crowbar for this purpose. He’d had an eye welded to the top of it, so that he could tie a line through it and to himself so that he wouldn’t drop the crowbar into the water, when it went through. He was busily digging away, this day when for the first time the crowbar slipped and then, to add insult to injury, the knot slipped in the rope and it plunged into 100 metres of water. The moral of the story being that if you tie bowlines in slippery rope – put a stopper knot in the end first! This accident made life more difficult, because most times Trevor went for water, he had to dig out the ice that had formed. He’d already broken off the sharp end of the pick-axe that we’d brought and besides, pick-axing is very wet work, once you’ve hit the water! We consoled ourselves by returning via Cormorant Cliff to have a close look at the cormorants there, which looked very dapper in their breeding plumage. It’s not often that you can approach so closely. Cormorants are not the brightest of birds, by any stretch of the imagination, and we were amused to see cormorant-shaped marks in the snow, on the sea ice, where they had crash landed. I couldn’t help thinking that the stupid birds had probably forgotten that the funny-coloured water was actually solid and had tried to land on it.
One of the things that I could never really get over, was the fact that although the sun was very warm, it seemed to make not the slightest difference to the snow cover. Day after day, it shone on the hillsides and nothing seemed to be happening. In mid-April we were excited to see drips falling off the rubbing strake and indeed, we cleared the snow off the boat, because now it was often warmer outside than in, and the insulation was working the wrong way. Early in June, we looked around and could not believe that in a fortnight’s time, the ice would be melted. It seemed an impossibility and we were becoming convinced that it would be a late ice year.
Suddenly, however, things changed. We woke up one morning to find the stream from Loon Lake had broken out from the lake and was flowing into our bay. It was a glorious sight of rushing water and I spent hours making channels through the snow and ice and watching the water flowing into them. It was like going back 40 years and playing at damming streams in the Yorkshire Dales. A few days later, we went up to Loon Lake and across to High Pond. The snow was now in a sorry state, soft and wet and we could no longer use our skis. Even on snowshoes we frequently plunged up to our hips. The lake was still largely frozen, but we could see that there had been a burst of water over the surface of it. As we rounded a bluff, we saw the most tremendous cataract leaping out of the side of a mountain about a mile away. An ice dam must have disintegrated only a few hours previously, and the water, that had been held behind it, was pouring down the mountainside, into the valley and flowing down to Loon Lake. By the time we were back at Winter Cove, our stream was a raging torrent and the sea ice along the shore was cracking. The stream had made a pool at the head of the bay, which was now occupied by a pair of mergansers. It flowed along the tide crack to the south of us and ice was breaking off by the shore and filling this gap. Our path from the bow was still solid, but the water was encroaching on it.
A couple of days later, we found we could no longer go ashore by this track. We could still get ashore easily on the north shore and with a bit of dodging, on the south. Foxy was finding it more and more difficult to get to us for her breakfast – she hated getting wet – and a young fox that we called Scratty, who used to hang around hoping that Foxy might not quite lick her bowl clean, was entertaining us with wonderful leaps from floe to floe. Foxy was much more cautious – I suspect that she’d fallen through on one occasion, but Scratty had no concern as to where he landed. He got away with it, as far as we could see, but I suspect that he too will fall through one day and learn prudence.
The sea ice was now covered with pools of melt water that had run down the hillsides. Some of
these went right through and the whole business of travelling on it was fraught with difficulty as far as I was concerned. I turned my attention ashore and found that hillsides that had seemed unclimbable in the autumn were easy going now. Above the cove was a sort of plateau and I spent some time, one afternoon, sitting on a sun-warmed rock, with a ptarmigan, still in snow-while plumage, sitting on a rock about 12 ft away, convinced that he was perfectly camouflaged, while snow-buntings flew around, singing their little hearts out and a pair of longspurs courted among some rocks a few feet on the other side. I could see down to High Pond where a couple of mallard were splashing round in the pool that had formed. It was like paradise.
At the beginning of June, we walked onto the sea ice and looked north. At midnight, the sun shone over North Col and lit up the sea ice. A few days later, it shone on the boat. Spring seemed to be with us at last . We went ashore onto The Tombolo, the next day, and almost got trapped coming back. We had to leap from floe to floe, and some of them tipped alarmingly when we landed. Kicking off pushed the floe away as did landing with any enthusiasm. Some of Trevor’s steps were jumps for me, as I followed behind, but it was great fun. Later in they day, Trevor was trying to free the starboard stern lines which were trapped in the ice. He was using the Portabote to get across the open patches, pushing it over the ice in front of him. One time he did this and fell through the rotten ice. It was frightening to watch, but he soon got out and was back aboard. It was so warm in the sun, that he could strip off his clothes, soaked in freezing water, on deck. The ice was certainly no longer safe. Our trip onto The Tombolo showed us that the water was now clear of fast ice, beyond The Skerries, as far as we could see.
I reminded Trevor that we’d intended to have a bonfire on the ice. Better do it now, I suggested. I got our one of our remaining 1 litre boxes of Spanish wine and mulled it. We gathered up bits of wood – many of them offcuts from when we’d cut the sledge down – and lit the fire. It burnt merrily and we sat round it in the sunshine, sipping our wine. Although it did melt a little pool under it, there was not enough water to put the fire out; it’s a remarkable phenomenon and hard to believe until you see it. Foxy came by and scrounged some cheese from us and the Scratty also wondered by hopefully, so he got some too.
The next morning, 8th June, Foxy had a real job getting to us. She tried several routes and I was sure she wouldn’t make it, but she persevered and got a big bowl of food as a reward. A little later, Trevor went to free our port stern lines, that were trapping floes drifting out of the bay. He fell in again and I told him that this time he wasn’t going to have his medicinal rum, because he’d obvously done it deliberately! Dried and dressed, he went off to see if he could free the starboard stern lines and eventually decided to cut them. The result was dramatic. Suddenly, our stern slewed across to the south side of the cove and big sheets of ice started moving out on the north side. This reduced the pressure on the rest of the ice, which now started jostling and moving. Some of the pieces were pushing against Iron Bark and I started fending them off. This kept it all in motion and because the boat was no longer held in one place, the ice could move past more easily. Trevor came back on board and we pushed and shoved, grateful for the fact that it was flat calm. It was great fun, in fact because there was no risk to the boat and we were having a wonderful time. There was a big pile of ice jammed around the bow and we broke lumps off and pushed them to one side. Trevor was bashing at one particular piece with the boat hook, when the stress split off a huge piece. This spun off down our port side and all the stuff to starboard started moving. Within a few moments, the whole mass of ice in Winter Cove was streaming out and into the main part of the bay. An hour later, only isolated floes remained. It was astonishing. It was hard to believe that Foxy had been eating her breakfast on the ice a few hours previously. Now, the snow ramp that I’d walked down to feed her was several hundred yards to the east of us, complete with sledge. (We’d decided that this deserved to go back to sea whence it had come.) The next day, all the remaining ice in the bay flowed out and a few hours later had completely vanished. It happened so quickly that I could hardly credit it.
We let go our lines and went back out to anchor. Some of them were still stuck fast in the ice and we went off for a few days’ cruise to let them melt for a while. The highlight of this was going up the Icecap, where it flows down to the sea near Upernavik, a little to the north of us. We explored up the fjords and then found ourselves sailing in open water which, according to the chart, was solid ice. The ice has actually retreated 3 or 4 miles inland. It was very exciting to be exploring what were literally uncharted waters. We followed the line of the ice cap round, for several miles and then decided to see if we could get out to the west. Several times we found the channels blocked solid by ice: everything from tiny pieces of brash to enormous great ice bergs. We took it in turns to climb up the ratlines 20 feet above deck, which gave us a much better view over the ice. I thought that I could see a way out, but it was no go. However, I had better luck the second time and could direct Trevor at the helm so that we wriggled our way through the floating and grounded ice and finally got ourselves out through a narrow channel where the depths of 13 metres were too shallow for the big pieces of ice. It was a wonderful day, all the better for ending up without our needing to back track. We decided that such a high note was where we should end. A few days later, we collected our final ropes from Winter Cove and said goodbye to the place that we had spent 9 months.
I had been worried about the trip south, but after one false start, we carried a fair breeze and sunshine down to Disko I. Here we spoke to new people for the first time in ten months. In spite of Trevor’s dire prognostications, we didn’t catch even as much as a cold. (When Trevor was in the Antarctic, he picked up some infection when the first cruise ship of the year arrived, and was quite ill from it.) Although we’d promised ourselves some fresh vegetables, they were so expensive and looked so weary, that we put it off until our arrival in Newfoundland. However, it gave us the opportunity to send out some letters and postcards, announcing our continuing existence to the rest of the world! It also gave us the chance to buy some rather expensive wine, but we reckoned we deserved it.
We finally left Greenland on 6th July. I wanted to be in Newfoundland for my 50th birthday and we both wanted to see more of that island. We had 5 days of glorious weather, fair winds and sunshine. We later paid for this with calms and headwinds, but had no gales. We stopped for a night on the Labardor and arrived in St Anthony on 21st July – exactly 1 year after arriving in Disko. And what a wonderful year.
Blue Water Medal
Books By Annie Hill
- Brazil and Beyond
- Voyaging on a Small Income
- Annie Hill
- New Zealand
15 May, 2006
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Hi! I Love the blog, Thanks for sharing it with us! how about some photos of the boat and the journey and dare I say the crew?
Thank you for that fantastic blog, I have been refitting for 6 months, what I belive to be the second Wylo 2 built, it is called TaiTaki2.
Thank you for all the wonderful information that you have shared, I got given by my father a copy of Voyaging On a small Income. It reinforced to me that the world is a place of opportunity.
As a result we got the chance to buy TaiTaki.
After a lot of saving, hopefully we will able to head within 12 months to Canada in her from Melbourne Australia.
Thank you again for living an individuals life!!!!
I'm so glad I did a Google search for you and found your blog. My "Voyaging on a Small Income" and "Brazil and Beyond" copies need a rest! Can you do a comparison of IRON BARK and BADGER? Strong Points, Weaknesses, etc.
Thank you for the inspiration you've provided for so many!!
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