Welcome to this week’s Postcard From – the feature where I chat to some lucky explorer about their recent travels.
This week, I’m very excited to be sharing a Postcard with a bit of a difference – with not only photographs but also sketches and paintings from Jens of Letters from the Field. Jens is an archaeologist and – this may probably come as no surprise here – an avid traveller. Already getting around for work quite a bit – having participated in research and excavations from Scandinavia to the Balkans and the Middle East – he could not hold still in his spare time either, keeping travelling on the lookout for even more traces of past and current cultures. Being also an avid climber, hiker, kayaker, and scuba diver no journey could be to long or challenging as – to just serve the cliché – often enough the journey is the destination. When embarking on adventure, Jens never leaves without his hat, journal, and travel sketchbook – as you may convince yourself with his virtual travelogue and on twitter.
Hi, Jens! So, where are you sending this Postcard from?
Hi, this is a postcard from Greenland. The world’s largest and – to some degree – most chilly island somehow does not stop mesmerizing me. Ice, mountains, fjords; ruins of a Viking past and evidence of a colourful present Inuit culture – it’s not hard to understand what could be so fascinating about this spot. In fact that fascinating, I already ended up here for the third time last summer. Our third kayak expedition leading us deeper into Greenland’s picturesque fjords and again closer to its mighty ice sheet. Honestly, could there be a better place for some kayaking than the very birthplace of the kayak itself?
I don’t think so – that sounds incredible! So, is it always cold there?
Yet alone to make the most of daylight, summer somehow was naturally preferred period for our Arctic kayaking adventures (especially beyond the Polar Circle the sun barely reaching the horizon). And even in Greenland summer really could mean nice 20-something degrees Celsius. T-shirt- and, yes, even sunburn-weather – Erik the Red did not lie to his fellow Icelandic Vikings when describing the countryside (at least those rather lush south-western fjords) as a ‘Green’ –land. Of course, this could change quickly as we also learned, spending more than one day in rain, mist, and heavy wind.
Where did you stay?
Most of the time: In our tents – pretty much anywhere. That’s the great thing about roaming the wild: You learn to appreciate that you actually really don’t need much in the end of the day. In case of this kayak-expedition it basically just needed three things to be happy: A shore shallow enough to disembark, a small spot dry and flat enough to make camp, and some fresh water or ice to get some drinkable water. The rewarding view these campsites often offered was a welcome bonus.
The simple life is definitely best! What did you get up to?
Paddling among icebergs is hard to beat and probably only beaten by paddling among whales. A quite stunning experience when these majestic animals suddenly emerge next to your tiny boat, snorting a bit and then waving goodbye with their giant flukes before submerging again. To be honest, I was not only curious but also a bit nervous thinking about where thy might surface next and whether they got a look up first.
Of course, you also really cannot keep this archaeologist guy away from ruins, so a closer look onto almost any remains Viking homesteads, Norse churches, Eskimo dwellings and burials along the way was a necessary stop-over whenever the going was good.
Now I’m really jealous! Do you have a highlight from the trip?
The wake-up-call one morning. Suddenly some puffing and blowing from the water just outside our tent was heard which – after sneaking a sleepy-eyed peek outside – turned out a couple of whales just passing by. Best breakfast entertainment ever.
My experiences of camping have always involved pretty rubbish food. Did you manage to find anything good to eat?
Well, the average kayak day menu was rather dreary and simple. As we had to carry everything with us we intended to feast on these three paddling weeks, meals mostly consisted of (rather straightforward) shares of instant soups, cereal bars, freeze-dried ready meals, and (absolute highlight) a square of chocolate every now and then.
Besides that, I’m also rather curious when it comes to ‘cultural delicacies’, so having a look into and taste from the saucepans of the locals is an opportunity I seldom let go. Among other indigenous peoples, the Inuit of Greenland are whaling – in contrast to quite some industry nations however not for commercial reasons but strictly for subsistence. And, yes, being of the opinion that local eating habits are key to learn about a culture, I also tried that. Well, not whaling, but whale meat. While you probably wouldn’t note much of a difference from a good whale steak to some beef (both mammals, after all), I’m honestly not developing a preference for muktuk (raw whale skin and blubber) which is considered very healthy and an important source of vitamins, but … well, tasted like old diving suit to me. Utoqqatserpunga, Kalaallit Nunaat.
Gross! Stay away from the muktuk then! Can you recommend any unusual things to do in Greenland?
The possibilities are endless and the peculiar scenery really invites to do some outdoorsy stuff. In a country where helicopter and boat rides count as public transport, you really get a different perspective on distances. From hiking solitary valleys, climbing rough and steep summits, and kayaking one of Greenland’s numerous fjords, there’s actually not much you cannot do. It should be hard to not catch a glimpse of passing whales or curious seals, and the polar fox is an often seen fellow too. Sometimes in spring the average polar bear encounter cannot be even in the more southern parts, but I’m not sure if this is the kind of activity everybody would look forward too.
Wow – you have me very desperate to visit Greenland now! Do you have any tips or advice for anyone headed there?
Since I’m convinced that we can only understand and appreciate what we know, I highly suggest to take the time to really experience Greenland and its culture and nature. A short stopover or shore excursion would probably be not enough to really internalise how strong this landscape is in all its untamed beauty – yet how endangered at the same time: Glaciers retreating, environment and habitats changing. If you get the chance to visit the Arctic, do it responsible – and you probably cannot but commit yourself to its protection.
Did you read any new books on your trip?
As admirer and collector of old travelogues I took Nansen’s legendary “Farthest North” with me – a thrilling and as entertaining as instructive read from the ‘Golden Age’ of Arctic exploration.
Rather shedding a light on the darker side of this age of the great explorers is Ken Harper’s “Give Me My Father’s Body” about the fate of Minik Wallace, an Inuk child who was – together with father and four other Inuit – brought from Greenland to New York by Robert Peary. While also an interesting account, it raises quite a number of ethic questions about the early exploration of these uncharted lands.
And finally… what do you love most about travelling?
The best answer I can come up with is: Being on the road. Seriously, the constant flow of impressions is what makes travelling so peculiar to me: Seeing foreign places, meeting new people, engaging different cultures. And finding the moment to just sit down for a quick sketch and some reflection in the journal.
NB – all images are owned by Jens.