Tuesday, August 28, 2012

In The Red Sea. A Difficult Decision.

It used to never rain here. Ot at least, that’s what the elders in Qaanaaq have told us. It used to be a desert, an Arctic one. But now we are in the seventh day of rain, and it  seems to  not surprise anyone anymore. June was rainy, and July was too. The rain goes on and off, almost like a tropical one, in the rain forest, except for the fact that it is still no forest here. 


Rain is not an anomality here now. It has become a norm. This morning we were lucky enough to receive an sms with a weather forecast from Searoute – a small French company that specializes on detailed weather forecasts for expeditions. Thanks to Searoute we were able to find out everything we need to know e.g. wind, waves height, but we also learned that it will be rain, rain and more rain in the days to come. 


Aalibarti is still at sea. He tried to hunt a narwhale this morning, following him all the way along the fjord, but he did not succeed to kill him after all. And now is trying to tell us something, but his voice sinks in the roar of waves and moving rocks. 


Now we are seriously concerned about our Irridium Extreme. If the Sun does not come up, the battery will be gone in a day. At the same time we are anxious to receive a message from Uummannaq, but each time we check the inbox we find only emptiness inside.


So, in the absence of news, we are anxiously looking towards horizon as if we could see someone or somewhat that could define our fate. 


The only thing we can see now is that the storm intersifies. And so does the rain.


And this is how quantity turns into quality. Yesterday we still could drink water from the stream running from the mountain. Even though it had sand and little rocks in it, it it was usable. But today as we wake up we find no water. Instread, there is a souplike mesh of mud and dirt mixed with rain. We are filling the bottle – a sample  for further analysis since through this water we can learn so much about this land and all the treasures hidden in it. Greenland’s water should be the purest on Earth and its source should be endless, but here and now we experience thirst again. This is what rain does to us.


Fog, rain and storm, and no news from home – this is our reality now. Do you hear us, Ann? We miss you and we love you!


Another day and another night go by.   Aalibarti is still at sea while we are still on land. He was not able to find a seal or a norwhale, but the rain and storm were so hard last night that we almost lost our boat to the waves. Miracolously Aalibarti woke up in the middle of the night and save the boat. I say “miraculously” because in the middle of the night Else – Aalibarti’s wife has come to him (in his dream) and woke him up. “Wake up Aalibarti, she said. The boat is sinking.” And sinking it was. Aalibarti worked the rest of thei night taking the water out of i. When we finally  met he choose to tell us nothing about it. We found out about  by accident. But again, this is a purely Greenlandic way to deal with this type of issues.

We don’t have an alarm clock. Aalibarti’s gun is our alarm clock, and also the main means of communication. Whenever he needs to talk to us, he reaches us by a gunshot.  But not only. Once as we are out in the field collecting data for the future research he spots several polar foxes trying to penetrate our tent and steal our scarce food. He tries to scare them away and after few shots they not very willingly disappear on the other side of the slope.

Aalibarti is exhausted. And the boats are too. It seems that one of the engines is slightly damaged by a rough landing attempt. And the other boat is leaking. So, we are about to take a difficult decision: instead of going to Etah,  return to Siorapaluk and recover while the Sila is still showing her temper.   


We are back on sea. We are leaving our paradise behind not knowing whether we have a chance to return here again. But it really does not matter. We have been here, we have lived these moments through, and they will stay with us no matter what comes next. We own them, through the paperless ownership, the “Greenlandic way”. 

As we about to leave for Siorapaluk, the sun comes up after 7 days of rain. And everything again changes in a moment. The sea turns dark red; it now seems that we are floating in narwhale’s blood. 


Red, blue and green – these are the colors Neqip Akia Fjord is saluting us with as we are leaving it after five days on water and land. And these are the colors of Avannaa as we know it now.


As we are heading to the corner the wind intesifies again. And the waves are getting bigger than they were just couple hours ago. Will we make it?

Aalibarti and Ole Jorgen are thoroughly scanning the horizon. Can they read what I can’t read? Can they see is awaiting for us on the way? 


Firece splashes cover our boats again. The Red Sea is boiling. And we are in the middle of it. Now we can’t land anymore even if we wanted to.

There is only one option – to go forward. And we will follow this way no matter how hard it can be. We say a final good-bye to Neqip Akia and thank it for its hospitality. Siorapaluk is ahead. Please, wish us luck!

Monday, August 27, 2012

In Neqip Akia. Split By The Sea.

Thirty four hours later, we are still at sea, swinging on the waves that are just too big for our small, open and heavily loaded boat. During the night time were dragged by the wind and currents back and forth across our hiding enclave in Nekip Akia Fjord. 

In the morning, when Sila offered us a shot break  from storm, wind and rain, we succeeded to send an sms over our Irridium Extreme to those who may (or may not) still care for us, but we have not heard back from them. They may have not received our message, but we have used our chance, and we do not have the second one. Now we have to save our battery that is quickly melting down. The only way we can charge it is through a solar panel which in the absence of the sun is just a piece of extra weight. We have not seen sun for a long time, and we don’t know when we see it next.

There are many disadvantages of life on the shaky surface of an icy soup fiercely boiling under the gusts of 25-30 knots Arctic wind. But there are also advantages.  All of a sudden, you stop worrying. You stop assuming or getting mad when your assumptions fail. You stop making predictions. You stop playing god. Eventually, you turn into a human being, an Inuit. Your eyes open, you ears suddenly start to hear.  

Soaked to our bones, thirsty and sleepless, we are now ready to accept and adopt. But of course, we can’t give up on dreaming. And the time passes our dreams get wilder and wilder and sometimes the border between a dream and a reality simply disappears.

Dreams in the cold may be laconic and unpretentious but they are very colorful. All the beautiful things we once saw in life, now come back to us. 

And then suddenly, after 5 o’clock “tea”, Sila gives us a break. The storm miraculously calms down and we decide to take a chance and land. 

It is decided that Bertrand – as the youngest and fittest of us all –  will carry us one by one from the boat to the shore. If this mission turns out to be successful we will put up a tent on the beach where we will spend time till the storm fades out. 

Bertrand succeeds to transport all our valuable and not so valuable possessions on shore and then takes me onto his shoulders. He has to act quickly. This shuttling technique, no matter how simple it may look from aside, involves several dangers for the boat since the surface underneath the water constitutes the barricades of sharp stones. 

One big wave, one wrong calculation, one misstep, and things may go completely wrong. 

A big wave arrives unexpectedly and knocks down Bertrand. He collapses like a Chinese doll and pulls down his rider ( Ole Jorgen ). They are both in the water. A moment later they appear on the surface. It are trying to get on their feet while even bigger waves are coming.

The cold sea bath is just another experince that has been planned for us from above. Waders filled with freezing water are heavier than led and one must be trained as a circus acrobat to know how to get rid of them in a moment.

Beaten and visibly shaken both Bertrand and Ole Jorgen make it to the shore. Aalibarti laughs at their misfortune; this is a typical Greenlandic way to confront a disasaster, not even talking about a small confusion like this one. Of course, you can complain. Of course, you can scream, you can curse and be mad at yourself and  your circumstances. But getting mad will not make things easier. Aalibarti, who 40 years ago had spent many days adrift on a floe of ice alone in the darkest days of the polar night and was officially prounounced dead, knows it better than the most. And that’s why he now laughs so happily. We can hear his voice from afar through the roar of the wind. 

While Aalibarti keeps laughing, we discover the land. And it feels so good! We are anxious to explore the shore that looked so hospitable from our shaky boat. But at first, we need to dry our cloths.

But how to dry our completely soaked cloths under an almost non-stopping rain? We need to learn to do it “the Greenlandic way”. Ole Jorgen secures the rope  between 4 humangous boulders and by thus creates a giant drying machine that works better than any dryer in my building in Manhattan. In an hour or so, if the 25 m per second wind persists, everything will be dry. 

This is the world’s northernmost laundermaut. It is purely ecological. And here for the first time in two days we finally relax and think of the essentials. Drying the laundry is just another way to confront both one’s own greatness and insignificance. Life is good, Greenland is green, and somehow after a 36 hour torture we were able to find our paradise.

We don’t know for sure whether humans have ever landed here before us. But we know that polar bears are around, which means that we have to be on alert round o’clock.

This is how our new little home looks from the sea. One may not even notice a little green dot on otherwise barren shore and may not ever know that  there is life here too.

Time to botanize. It does not take us long to discover plenty of mushrooms, berries and seductively smelling herbs in our nearest “back-yard”. Most of them as we know can be eaten raw. The soil is soft and fertile; walking on it is similar to walking on a Persian carpet. We are thankful to the birds – the sole creators of this wonderful Green Land; tons of shit they leave behind after each season of nesting on these cliffs give us a possibility to survive the storm and enjoy life to its fullest. 

This is a vew from our window, and we feel that we are paying a fair price for enjoying it.

Some time after midnight we are saying good night to Aalibarti. He will be staying at sea with the boats, hopeful to hunt a narwhale somtime into the “dawn”, while three of us will share the tent. Separated by sea, we know that long night lies ahead of us.   

Friday, August 24, 2012

Etah-mut. Misilitsinneq. (The Test).

Today, after 6 days of rains and storms, we are heading to Avannaa-mut (North) again. The rain stopped after midnight and we are anxious to slide into the narrow corridor of smooth seas before the nasty weather returns. On a clear day like ours the journey to Etah should not take any longer than 5-7 hours.  Or so we thought.

We descended to the shore quietly, and yet – as it always happens in Qaanaaq where everyone is watching everyone  – we received a warm welcome from a big crowd: our old and new friends despite the early hour came down to the shore to see us off.

Today is an emotional day for Avannaa. For the first time since Uummannaq our paths will split. Jaaku, Inuunnguaq and Else will stay in Qaanaaq while Ole Jorgen, Aalibarti, Bertrand and myself will be heading North. We don’t know what is awaiting us and neither do those who are staying on shore. 

Yesterday as we shared out last supper Aalibarti said a prayer asking Sila for protection and humility.  We talked about many things, but mainly about wisdom. Wisdom in the High Arctic is a special matter. Here a single nanometer separates life from death, and one often has to make a judgment based on a hunter’s gut feelings and inner instincts rather than on conventional logic.

On the shore Else bursts into tears. Its harder for her to part with Aalibarti than most may think. Yes, he has been a lucky man being able to have returned from the world the others could not.  But again, in the Arctic you can’t take god luck for granted. Two summers ago Else and Aalibarti have lost a son to the sea. It happened just 500 meters from the shore, on a good day, on an almost smooth surface. His body has never been recovered.

As we leave Qaanaaq, the sea shows all its summer colors.  Summer is here, summer is now and we hope that it won’t abandon us on the way to Etah.  In an hour and a half we pass Siorapaluk – the worlds’ northernmost permanently inhabited settlement. Some of our  dear friends live here. Like in Qaanaaq, they manage to keep the ancient ways of life alive, still using kayaks and harpoons to hunt the narwhal.  We are planning to visit them upon our return from the North.

A few minutes later Siorapraluk dissapears from our view; the boat runs fast, and we don’t know yet that just behind the corner another world is already waiting for us. In a blink of an eye the sea gets rocky and soon the boat is flying on the waves like a hopeless splinter. You have to be really fit to survive such a ride. There is nothing to hold on to; and you bounce around like a tennis ball in an empty shoe box.  

We are carrying around 600 liters of gasoline with us – the load that makes our task just that much harder. As the world around us darkens, the bright pink of gasoline stays the only colorful color in the midst of a quickly approaching grey mist.

Some 2 hours since our departure from Qaanaaq our progress slows down as the storm nears our boat.  Fierce waves quickly fill our boat with water; no matter how fast we are emptying it, it seems like we are taking a cold bath and a freezing shower simultaneously under a piercing Arctic wind. And there is no escape from this purely Greenlandic spa.

 The wind intensifies up to 25 knots; and we get closer to our breaking point.

Three and a half hours into the trip Aalibarti calls for a “conference”. We can hardly hear each other because of the roaring wind. But it’s not a good moment for speeches. We unanimously decide that we will try to land and wait for better weather onshore.  But is there a way to land?

We venture into a little harbor in Neqip Akia fjord to see if we can find a good spot.

We make several approaches, but nothing seems to work. The waves are far too large

What to do? Aalibarti bursts into laughter. Greenlanders always resort to such expressions instead of making a dramatic scene. We can’t really change anything, so it means that we are ready to adapt again. We turn our "failed” landing mission into a seal searching mission. We are cold, wet and hungry, and a nice seal – if found - would lift our spirits and help us stay afloat.

We spend an hour or so, scanning the ice, but to no avail. In such nasty weather even seals retreat

And then, in addition to the storm a heavy rain begins. Now we have another task:  to turn our completely open boat into a shelter where we can survive the storm.

Building the roof takes only 10 minutes. With some other small adjustments  we now have a brand new mobile home on the waves where we will be staying for hours and maybe even days to come. Immaqa.

Having the roof in the midst of the roaring sea seems to be a paradise. We are so lucky! We hope that despite intensifying gusts it will stay in place during the night time.

Now it’s story telling time. We will miss a seal blubber lamp, of course, but the night is still white for us. We have many stories to share, enough food to last, but almost no water. There are streams on the shore just some hundreds of meters away from us, but there is no way we can access it.

Thirsty in the middle of the roaring sea, I dream of a can of Coke I had recently on the flight from Kangerlussuaq. With this colorful and pleasant dream I fall asleep half submerged in the cold salty water. We will be having a long night ahead.