Call it an insane addiction, yet we find that stalking icebergs is cool (literally), entertaining, enlightening, and leads to high adventure. After three summers of weaving through and avoiding collisions with ice in Labrador’s waters we developed a voyeur’s fondness for this transient Earth Art. The icebergs off Labrador often recall Henry Moore’s pieces, their textures, turrets, and needles smoothed by winds and waves during the long voyage from their birth places in the far north. To see them at the very freshest, most complex shapes we pointed the bow at the mid-coast of western Greenland.
Greenland looks so far away—why not head for its closer southern coast? The truth is that a landfall too far south brings the boat into notoriously violent weather and fog-concealing heavy ice. This ice comes from the east coast, rounds Cap Farvel and then, helped by northward current, tacks along the southwestern shoreline. By the mid-coast of western Greenland heavy ice floes disappear. Only a few of the grandest bergs survive the long drift through Davis Strait and into Baffin Bay. And there, in northwestern Greenland, numerous suicidal glaciers shed huge chunks. These then drift westward and end up in the Labrador Current, flowing south. The hoary bergs we admired in Labrador may have traveled the long circuit of Arctic waters over several years.
Unwilling to take the old ice head-on we shaped our course toward the more manageable, yet equally grand, iceberg parades of Disko Bay and Umanak Fjord. There, stupendous tidewater glaciers slide from the ice cap toward the sea. Undermined by water, they drop walls of ice the size of New York City blocks. This calving, as some glaciologists term it, actually rumbles more like a terminal battle of desperate giants. Even a single drifting berg does not stay quiet for long.
Wrapped in a sticky cotton-candy kind of fog, we have just reached 66 degrees and 33 minutes North—the Arctic Circle. Ash Buchannan and Nick Berner, our young companions on this trip, began their initiation of a crawl, a dance, and a drink of giant-squid blood to earn an Arctic Circle certificate. I was droning King Neptune’s warnings and welcomes plagiarized from the Royal Navy archives when a cannon boomed, sharp as thunder. In the completely calm air the sound carried far—this berg, probably about to crack and roll over us, was three miles away.
July, the best month for pleasuring on yachts in this part of the world, had just begun. Two weeks earlier we departed Hawke Harbor in Labrador hoping to go straight to Aasiaat, a harbor on the south edge of Disko Bay, about 1,000 miles away. We carefully had studied the grib forecasts for Davis Strait and on this, our sixth crossing, the weather was unusually kind. The northerly wind, a headwind, began to stir, when in swirling fog we already had closed on the Greenland coast. Not to worry, Fiskenaesset, a tiny town and port (pop. 230), was just a few hours away and one night at anchor there ushered in a sunny calm day. The concept of night actually didn’t apply here since in summer at these latitudes the sun just wheels about and up and down without setting; hence the famous midnight sun of the Arctic.
Ten hours from Fiskenaessaet in a protected sound hides the Polar Oil depot, the most convenient fuelling place on the coast, and the friendliest. Tanks topped up again, we moved on to lunch of pickled herring, smoked mackerel, and pickled beets, adding a Danish slant to our smørrebrød. Faeringhavn, now an abandoned port barely a mile away, once served Faeroese fishermen. From its protected waters we enjoyed a sample of western Greenland landscapes. South from the anchorage rose distant high mountains, ice and snow highlighting the high ridges. Nearby, low hills led to a ghostly abandoned settlement complete with the wreck of a fishing cutter, its oak bones weathered silver and, at the head of the bay, high and dry, the rust red hulk of a sailing ship.
By then the coastal waters were mostly free of ice. During the passage north on gentle seas rolling under patchy fog, the only excitement came from the heavy breathing of unseen whales, and the frantic splashing of seals following feeding dolphins. The last 80 miles on the inner route to Aasiaat meanders through a maze of skerries, islets, promontories, and lots of ice. The forces that wedged enormous towers of ice so far inland defied imagination. A few low growlers penetrated into Aasiaat’s harbor and bumped into the wharves. Not daunted, the local kayak club put on a show of cold water seamanship. The Irish expedition yacht Killary Flyer brought sea kayakers with them. Greenland’s famous champion demonstrated for them all 31 Eskimo roll recovery techniques, qajaq after all is an Inuit invention a few thousand years old.
Out in fog-bound Disko Bay the radar painted frightening armadas of solid blobs. All these icebergs were coming from a tidewater glacier in the southeast corner of the bay. Fog in the lee of icebergs emitted a ghostly glow. On occasions the dark sea suddenly gleamed green—a color of danger—some seven-eighths of a typical berg hide beneath the water, with shallow spurs jutting out. When the fog thinned, we saw ice castles, arches, dry docks and amphitheaters ahead, behind, to port, and to starboard—the seascape scintillated. Now, whenever we passed near a particularly threatening berg, Ash and Nick jumped in for a quick dip. Afterward, they declared, the cold breeze on deck felt almost tropical.
While the summer weather stayed calm we pressed on along western Disko Island, still in dense fog. Then suddenly, like a curtain yanked up into the blue sky, the fog vanished. We entered Umanak Fjord—a line of sawtooth mountains punctured the horizon ahead. Icebergs were everywhere, many reaching for the sky with abrupt spires rivaling the spiky heights of the mainland. The glaciers from Greenland’s ice cap reach Umanak Fjord and inevitably, like ancient redoubts, crumble. The loose ice blocks drift about on unpredictable currents. Qeqertat, a cove we used before, was plugged by a malicious berg stuck on the bar. Forced to find another anchorage we powered along Agpat Island, its sheer walls thousands feet high. At the southeast tip a slot opened into a bottomless bowl under vertiginous cliffs. Eventually we found a tiny 75-foot-deep shelf to attach the boat.
Shy patches of flowers added color to a steep hillside off our bow. We had to crawl on all fours to reach the crest. The 270 degrees of view took our breath away—the icebergs that previously towered over the boat now looked tiny, snowflakes on the blue canvas of the sea. In the distance, apparently at eye level straight ahead, glowed the mighty mainland ice cap. On the closer high islands, raw umber rock bastions of abutments rimmed the whole scene. A pastel patchwork of homes on a pancake of an islet far down marked a village. It lacked any protection from the sea, weather, and ice so we decided instead to visit Ummannaq, a small town with a harbor about 20 miles away.
Outside the canyon walls of Agpat the wind hit hard, yet the seas stayed low. The white line ahead gradually hardened into unending procession of floating islands of ice. After rounding Umanak Island it became clear the harbor must have been totally blocked. However, Spraglebugt, an ice-free bay on the west side gave us shelter. Overlooking the anchorage was a hut where, the Greenland propaganda claims, Santa Claus lives. As visitors out of season we must report Santa and reindeer gone. A walk via rough trails and a back road brought us to the ice-choked town port; a fleet of wooden fishing cutters trapped in piles of bergy bits the size of SUVs. A small ship made it in to the wharf despite the formidable lineup of tabular icebergs poised to obliterate the community. Rocky reefs outside the harbor must have prevented, once again, the annihilation of Uummannaq, a town of over 1,200 with a fairly long history.
Greenland attracts adventurers on boats. In Aasiaat, three yachts were getting ready for the Northwest Passage, but you never know who else could lurk within the archipelagoes on this vast coast. In the evening, Dodo’s Delight II powered in. All of 34 feet long, it has served Bob Shepton as a chariot for high-latitude voyages, Arctic, Antarctic, Cape Horn, Northwest Passage. Reverend Bob, 80 now, and four extreme rock climbers called The Wild Bunch, just finished several firsts on some impossible walls in western Greenland—just a warm-up for a crossing to Baffin Island and more climbing. Armed with a flute, mandelin, a squeeze box, a harmonica, and spoons, they put on a rousing concert when aboard our “voluminous” 44-footer.
In all of our three visits, Umanak Fjord seemed to generate better weather than most of the west coast. Calms prevailed, interrupted by short spells of fresh breezes, and the absence of fog kept the formidable alpine landscapes on display. No wonder that here Rockwell Kent, a prominent American artist, produced his best work. Never mind that he first reached Greenland by way of a friend’s boat wreck. From his base on Ubekendt Island at the mouth of Umanak Fjord he explored and painted for two years, summer and winter. In a 2016 trip we crunched through brash ice almost to the very shores of Karat Island, Kent’s favored location. His home in Iglorssuit village has changed into a tiny, lively community with boats on the move, huskies a-howl, Arctic char drying on the racks, seal skins stretched in the sun. Even though the warmth of evening sunshine painted purple the mountain over the village, we were already heading south.
Ash and Nick risk a quick dip in the frigid waters.
The dark and brooding mountains of Disko Island stood clear ahead. Vaigat, a large strait that separates Disko from the mainland, opened up. Three years earlier, on our first attempt of Vaigat passage Nancy had excitedly begun counting the icebergs: 35..ah…75… ah…and soon gave up. This time we could see only three bergs and changed course into Vaigat’s mouth hoping to anchor in some of the fjords on the mainland. It can be a tricky passage. The winds tend to blow hard in the funnel between high mountain ranges. Twice in the past, caught in the thickening ice of floes and icebergs we couldn’t detect and avoid low growlers lost in the sun glaring on the sea of white caps and had to turn back. This time, off the north shore of Disko Island, under 2,000-foot mountains brooding over winding valleys, the molten silver sea suddenly rippled into steep chop. The wind came up from the east too strong to keep the course.
Along the escape route back on the western shores of Disko lies Nordfjord. Following the radar line of land to port we cheated the fog streaming seaward from somewhere ahead. Then the rain came down in torrents. It beat down the fog so a cove in the foot of a valley came in sight. Before long, flash floods rushed down the fjord setting off currents that strayed into the anchorage. A bump against the hull brought me on deck just in time to grab the ice pole and push off a good size growler that swung in on one of the offbeat whirlpools. The rain must have dislodged some ice in the mountains for we did not see any sea ice when entering.
On the 24th of July the sun sank below the horizon after midnight and emerged orange over the mountains to the northeast at 0345. Earlier, the pink rosy moon rose, then slowly went across the bows where it hovered in the blue haze on the western horizon. Despite the warm air, at about 40 degrees Celsius, it felt that summer was perhaps having its last fling. The buttes over Fortune Bay on the south shore of Disko Island shimmered red in soft light. Hiking toward the heights opened a view of white bergs marching west. The old whaling port of Godhavn (now Qeqertarsuaq, pop. < 900) was only two miles away. Now and then a small motor boat swung by with food for the huskies marooned for the summer on the islets nearby.
About 200 miles south of Disko Bay, we reached the entrance to Hamborgersund, an area of inaccessible mountains bordering narrow deep-water passages. In good visibility the view is staggering but instead we had the thrill of groping through wet woolly fog, the islets in the approach vague as ghosts when only yards away. Late in the day the belt of fog shrank to a luminous bolster over the sea. Across the channel from our anchorage at Agpamiut appeared a row of brave jagged peaks all gilded in the westering sun. A short dinghy row to a stream provided water for baths and tanks, and fresh, literally, since it came from the melting ice higher up. Near by, at low tide, Ash and Nick discovered beds of the largest and tastiest mussels in Greenland.Towering icebergs suddenly look like ice cubes bobbing in the ocean.
One arm of this network of fjords leads to Sermilinguaq and its extensive glacier. The snout of the glacier has retreated and drops most of its ice into a sort of small lake. To find proper depths for anchoring we had to come close to the submerged parts of the moraine, where the anchors held well in mud and sand delivered by two rivers. The glacier made its own weather—cooled in the night, the air at dawn was wild with wispy low clouds swirling in the golden light of sunrise.
On the ocean edge of this area sits Manitsoq, a busy town and port of about 2,500 people and our last port. On the way out of Sermilinguaq, rookeries of thousands of gulls and kittiwakes looked like snow patches over the green meadows. After turning south into the main channel the lower hills to starboard looked in shape, color, and texture like mud heaps squeezed between the fingers of primordial giants. Manitsoq Harbor offers yachts a floating dock with decent depths—a rarity on this coast. Two grocery stores, a clinic, a hospital and a hotel with good Wi-Fi make it a convenient stop. About 400 miles to the west across Davis Strait stretches the northern Labrador coast. By now in mid-August it should be mostly clear of ice so we headed directly toward it.