Kayaking in the Arctic

by David Mausolf 34447

In August 2011 I was on an Aurora Expeditions trip from the top of Norway to Greenland; with sea kayaking supplied by Southern Sea Ventures. We departed from the town of Longyearben on the island called Spitsbergen – all very foreign and fascinating. Our ship, the Polar Pioneer is an ex-research vessel, and so was very sea worthy and was basic, but comfortable. There were approximately 50 passengers; and only 10 were doing the kayaking while the rest travelled around in inflatable Zodiacs.

The scenery was spectacular from the start, and to be kayaking in fjords, among brasch ice and sometimes near to icebergs was a great experience. The water was around zero degrees, so dry suits were essential, and surprisingly, we all quickly got used to wearing them while paddling. That is not to say we got into them quickly – that was a bit of a chore, with layers of thermals and polar fleece underneath. Another paddler and I tested our dry suits during a morning break, by walking from a beach into the water and simply floating around for a few minutes – lots of fun.

We used plastic kayaks – Rainbows or Prions; and took turns in either of the singles, or more often, shared a double. All paddlers had some previous experience, but varied greatly in skill, confidence and stamina. Our leader was Al Bakker, the founder of Southern Sea Ventures, and a very experienced kayaker and leader – I was happy to be an unofficial helper.

We saw whales in the distance from the ship and paddled near lots of seals; plus had a closer-than-planned encounter with a polar bear.

The ship stopped near the side of a bay so we could explore the ice floes that were close to a rocky headland. Three Zodiacs went first and weaved their way in between the floes, following lines of open water, called ‘leads’. As the ice floes move with the wind or tides, these leads open and close to make a moving maze – all good fun. Except that all the leads closed up (we think the tide changed) with three Zodiacs and a few of us kayakers in the bay – not such good fun, especially if ice floes squash your kayak, or capsize you and close up over the top. So we quickly climbed onto the ice and slid our kayaks over the floes to open water.

We were wondering what the Zodiac passengers were going to do when a call came over the radio that a polar bear had been seen on the ice, near the Zodiacs – definitely not good. So Al landed his kayak on the ice and took his rifle from the front compartment (all guides and Zodiac drivers carried rifles and flare guns) and walked back toward the Zodiacs, We were joined by the last two Zodiacs that had not entered the ice. When we got a good view of the polar bear, we decided to paddle a bit further away and then were ordered back to the ship. These two Zodiacs came with us and sent their passengers up the gangway.

Not wanting to miss all the fun, I talked my way onto a Zodiac as a helper and we returned to near the ice. This was acually a reasonable idea, as I could drive the Zodiac while the driver was on the radio or if he needed to use his rifle. By now, the trapped Zodiac drivers had been busy with flare guns, firing off ‘bangers’ and even some live rifle rounds in front of the bear, which finally got the hint and wandered off.

Next, believe it or not, a sea mist rolled in (just like in a B grade movie) and visibility dropped. Everyone played a game of ‘where’s the bear’ for a while until the ship came to the rescue. The captain did a fantastic job of steering his ship carefully in among the ice (it is not really an ice-breaker) and reaching two of the Zodiacs without pushing ice floes onto them. One of the Zodiacs drifted close to us, so the passengers could walk across the floes, but this was a bit risky because the edges of some floes were thin – as I demonstrated by stepping straight through. I jumped up prettty quickly and we all stood on our little floating island for a couple of minutes until it drifted back close enough to the thick edge so we could cross to the Zodiac. Back on board the ship we all headed to the bar – was a memorable day.

Other highlights were seeing the midnight sun early in the trip; then later, when we had travelled south below the Arctic circle, we were woken at 2am to come on deck and see an aurora – only faint, but it was the real thing. Some of us went in for a ‘polar plunge’ by walking down the gangway and diving in for a very quick swim – was invigorating. The sauna afterwards was great.

We visited some East Greenland villages where hunting is still a main source of food – not exactly to my taste. Kayaking is only slowly making a comeback here – we saw one canvas-on-frame copy of an original design and some photos of school kids having a come & try session in modern plastic kayaks.

The weather was variable – especially crossing from Norway, but in the fjords we were usually fairly sheltered and even sometimes ‘warm’ and sunny. Often it was overcast and or misty with occasional windy spells – some katabatic winds down off the glaciers.

Overall, this was a fantastic trip for any kayaker (with some experience) who is looking for a totally different experience.