There’s something about travelling to the Far North. As the mercury drops, the latitude increases and the invigorating Arctic air wakes up your senses again. It’s addictive; some call it the mysterious polar virus.
This time we’re on our way to the second largest glacial ice mass on Earth, the inland mass of the Greenland ice sheet. Even better, we’ll approach it from the northern top of Greenland on board the legendary Kapitan Khlebnikov. This 26,000-ton Russian icebreaker was one of the first passenger ships to circumnavigate Antarctica in the nineties, until she was pulled out of that area and went back to Russia. The future didn’t look so rosy for this sturdy old lady… Until Quark Expeditions pulled her out of hibernation to circumnavigate once more.
We’re embarking upon a 70-day grand tour of the Arctic. We hop aboard for one of the four legs: 20 days from Spitsbergen to Kangerlussuak in Greenland, together with 75 other guests of all ages and nationalities. “I’ve sailed with the KK six times!” says a fit 86-year old from the States. “I just love her.” A thirty-something lawyer from Russia is dreaming of reaching the northernmost point of Greenland. A retired French businessman says he finally has some time – and drifting around the Arctic for three months is a marvellous way to feel alive. It looks like traveling to remote, ice-cold Polar Regions is pretty hot nowadays.
When we reach northernmost Greenland, the 10-meter-high ridges of multi-year ice halt us. If we try to go any further north we might get stuck, like so many other unfortunate adventurers in the past. A silent polar desert stretches before us. Only the bravest explorers and polar bears survive here. On a helicopter flight we witness the vast endlessness of the frozen Arctic Ocean. We spot a female polar bear approaching the ship, curious and inquisitive. We hold our breath, zoom in and smile behind our binoculars. The Kapitan Khlebnikov lies still in the ice – she loves it here, it’s obvious she’s back in her element. This icebreaker is made for slow travel through thick polar ice, crushing away and boldly going to regions where no other ships can go.
Can we stay here a bit longer? Can we? It’s true: being in the Far North, surrounded by ice, is like a drug. But there’s no other way than to head south. First breaking through more ice and then en route to the stunning east coast of Greenland. We land with zodiacs on lunar-like beaches such as Antarctic Bay and visit remote scientific research stations like Denmark’s Havn. Romance is never far away when we disembark on Ella, an island at the mouth of Kempe Fjord. An explorer named it after his wife, Amy Rafaela (Ella) Windahl, in 1899. An old explorer’s hut is still in use today: small bedrooms with wooden bunk beds, an old stove and paraffin lamps to keep the polar nights at bay. Making things even more dramatic are marks left by a curious polar bear trying to join the cozy party inside.
As we wind our way down to Scoresby Sound, the landscape turns into a lush, mossy paradise where cotton flowers and saxifrage bloom. Beaches are empty, sometimes pebbled or with white sand and azure blue waters. Another helicopter outing takes us to a mountaintop overlooking the Rolinge and Vestfjord glaciers. We sit on ancient rocks watching the drifting icebergs and the sky-high glaciers in the distance. The sound of polar thunder, air escaping from ice, rolls through the late-summer air.
On board the Kapitan Khlebnikov we listen to the true stories of real experts in their field. Nikita Ovsyanikov, a Russian marine biologist, is one of the world’s most eminent polar bear experts. Wearing a gun is not his thing; he guards us on every walk with a stick and his huge knowledge and respect for nanuk, the mighty polar bear. When we visit remote villages such as Ittoqqortoormiit and Tassilak, the Greenlanders always greet us with big smiles. After travelling several times to this impressive island, it almost feels like coming home. We’ve been here in summer and winter, on ships and overland, travelling by helicopter and with a hunter and his dogs, from south to far above the Arctic Circle while experiencing the true hospitality of the north.
As the Kapitan Khlebnikov continues her Arctic Circumnavigation into the high north of Canada, we end our trip in beauty, camping on the ice sheet under a darkening, polar night. Our love and curiosity for the north is undeniably only a fraction of what the true pioneers must have felt for these remote polar territories. But return we will, since the polar virus has nestled itself deep in our hearts.
Debbie Pappyn and David De Vleeschauwer are a freelance travel writer and photographer duo working as partners in crime for several newspapers and magazines worldwide. Read more about them on classetouriste.be.