Quelling the Skeptics

Paddling in Greenland

By Chris Brinlee Jr.

Skepticism. That's the best way to describe the looks that Andrew Yasso and I received upon revealing that we would be paddling 16’ corrugated plastic boats 100 miles throughout a remote fjord system in eastern Greenland--just a stone's throw away from the arctic circle--on a two week-long, unsupported expedition in an attempt to climb the unclimbed.

Kayaking in the arctic

In some regards, maybe the skepticism was warranted: Andrew, an expert climber, had never paddled before. I had done a bit more myself, but wasn't much better off.

Kayaking gear top photo

Kayaking vacation town

There was also the fact that we hadn’t done a load test with our Coast+ Kayaks before departure. I had paddled one before during an attempted channel crossing to Catalina Island--but on that day trip, my boat definitely wasn’t loaded down with 100+ pounds of climbing and mountaineering gear, camping equipment, cameras--and two weeks’ worth of food. Honestly, we didn’t even know if everything would fit.

Kayak flight in helicopter

Kayak adventures with a friend

There was also the concern of polar bears: alpha predators that hunt down humans for food, which had been encountered in the area. The only way to deal with a polar bear is with a 12-gauge shotgun; though we happened to be carrying one, it was unloaded during each paddle day and stored between our legs in the kayak. How fast can polar bears swim?

Unloading kayaks after a long day paddling in Greenland

More realistically still was the thread of a walrus attack. Just a couple of months earlier, a kayaker passed too close to a walrus (thinking that it was a rock)--startled it; and the walrus reacted by puncturing and capsizing the boat with its tusks. Fortunately, that was on a supported, guided trip; the victim was able to make it out safely. How would we fare against one of the enormous beasts?

Kayaking into the unknown

That brings us to another important distinction between adventure in Greenland--compared to say, its neighbor, Iceland. Eastern Greenland in particular is incredibly remote. There are no roads connecting neighboring villages. Transfers between must be done by boat--or by helicopter. All supplies that come into the eastern side of the world’s largest island must be shipped into Tasiilaq (eastern Greenland’s largest town: population 2,017;) then distributed by smaller boat amongst neighboring villages. Until the 1980’s, the entire population sustained off a meat-only diet of whale, seal, and fish--because no crops can grow in its harsh tundra, which is covered in snow for most months out of the year. Supermarkets now exist, but much of the population still relies on hunting for food.

Kayaking camping arctic circle

There’s little-to-no cell phone coverage outside of the towns. The only hospital is in Tasiilaq; other villages make due with a part-time nurse. The network of fjords which connect the area is vast. Travel between villages by motorboat takes hours; travel under human power takes days. Parties venturing into eastern Greenland’s backcountry must be able to take care of themselves for these reasons--help is always far away.

Kayaking in another world

Back to the boats. My experience paddling (almost) to Catalina wasn’t very fun. In fact, it was almost entirely miserable. I suffered from extreme seasickness--vomiting at least half a dozen times throughout the 20-mile day. It was also exhausting--and for the most part, pretty boring. However, that adventure gave me great confidence in the Coast. It moved swiftly through calm seas; it didn’t take on water when the ocean became rough. Nor did it buckle upon encountering overhead swells. Best of all, I discovered how incredibly portable they were; Andrew and I would be able to carry them on our backs and check them onto a plane--first to Reykjavik, Iceland. Then onto Kulusuk, Greenland: a tiny village of fewer than 250 people, noteworthy because of its gravel airstrip that was constructed by the US Army during World War Two. Tasiilaq can only be reached from the outside world by air via Kulusuk; these two villages would mark our end and start points, respectively.

Kayak route finding

As you’ve probably already begun to imagine, simply arriving in eastern Greenland is an adventure in itself--but the logistical challenges continued once we arrived in Kulusuk. American Airlines lost Andrew's bag en route from Las Vegas to Los Angeles; it took five stressful days--riddled with countless phone calls and seemingly endless hours on hold for it to be reunited with us in Greenland. The bag didn't have anything important in it either: just Andrew's mountaineering boots, his sleeping bag, and our climbing ropes. You know, nothing crucial for putting up new lines on alpine rock routes with glacial approaches.

Best kayaking trips

Eventually it all came together though--and miraculously all of our gear fit into a plethora of kayak-specific SealLine dry bags. With the boats loaded, we would soon be under way.

Kayaking Greenland Fjords

Though Andrew and I overcame real challenges just getting to Greenland: the old adage still rang true: real adventure doesn’t even begin until one leaves the safe harbor behind, in search of the greater meaning of life. We would find that beneath the Greenlandic sky.

Kayaking deck strap gear

Whether he’s climbing around the world or writing from the road, Chris Brinlee, Jr. can’t stay put for long. Follow his adventures on Instagram.

Kayaking expedition duo