17. East Greenland
Kong Oscar Fjord
In 1996, I paddled with a Black Feather tour group, capably led by company cofounder Wendy Grater, in the Kong Oscar Fjord region on the east coast of Greenland. The scenery is spectacular, with glaciers pushing down from the vast ice cap through craggy mountains down to the coast. Although we saw remnant rings of ancient stone dwellings, no one currently lives permanently in this area or in the rest of the huge park that covers most of northeast and central Greenland.
All along the coast we encountered herds of musk ox. Usually they eyed us carefully as we were hiking, and kept above us, on higher ground. On one occasion, though, I almost stumbled onto a couple sleeping as I came over a ledge. I was very close and could see that they were breathing heavily, perhaps due to the heat of the summer day.
One day a polar bear came into our camp, perhaps drawn by our lunch preparations. It pawed at our tents, testing them. I fired some flares at it while Wendy banged off a few from a badly rusted, borrowed shotgun that we were afraid to fire. The bear was curious about the flares, opened its mouth for a better whiff (polar bears have a special organ in the roof of their mouths that enhances their sense of smell) and pawed the phosphorous smoke from the flare. Perhaps the smell was unpleasant. It then sauntered by our camp, lay down on some boulders and went to sleep. The bang from the flares did not startle it at all. These bears are used to the boom and crack of giant icebergs breaking apart. Some time later it woke up, slipped into the water and swam away. We left too, in the opposite direction. The gun problem: in order to paddle into this big park that covers so much of Greenland, you must carry a gun, for bears. But, you can’t take one on an airplane. So, we borrowed that rusty thing.
Wendy had been using our double kayaks for quite a few years. I had the opportunity to work a bit on the old kayak frames during set-up. Originally she had suggested that I might help with her paying customers, but then her friend and guide Sally came along and I was left free to wander. As agreed I left the group for a couple of days and set off on my own. I didn’t have a tent. I had no concerns about the weather but after encountering the bear I did have some misgivings. While attempting to sleep in my bag I kept having thoughts about a cartoon that I had seen in a newspaper. Two bears are looking down a hill and spy a couple of people sleeping in bags. One bear says to the other: ‘Yum, yum, sandwiches. Soft on the outside, crunchy in the inside”. By the time I rejoined the group Wendy remarked slyly that I looked tired.
Bear unaffected by loud noise
On this trip we had easy access to glaciers and some good hikes on them. The days were long and warm. There was melting ice all along the sides and tongues of glaciers, with no shortage of drinking water. This will only increase as the permafrost continues to melt, the sea water temperature rises, and the whole arctic continues to warm up twice as fast as the rest of the planet.