Being Followed by Fjord Cod,

The Wonders of Wandering About in a Kayak in Greenland

Gail Ferris


I had not thought much about the fact that global warming has an effect on glaciers by speeding up their delivery of icebergs into the water.  The increased melt water beneath the glacier acts like a lubricant making the glaciers calve off icebergs much faster.

In 2008, once again there I was in Upernavik Greenland where there are several active glaciers. 

I blithely thought that that global warming would not have much of an effect on me.  All I was going to do was to go paddling in my kayak across the icefjord and up north of Innarsuit.  I assumed that I could just paddle or be shuttled by motorboat straight across the icefjord. 

The Upernavik icefjord is seven to four miles wide.  My experience since 1992 was that the icefjord always had random icebergs here and there but that there was no lack of open water.

I did not have any problem in 2005 when I camped next to the icefjord and crossed it.  Then I only encountered just a few icebergs but no concentration of icebergs great enough to be concerned about paddling among in my kayak.


01 Followed


Coming into Upernavik via airplane I looked out the window on the landing approach and noticed that there was a huge conglomeration of icebergs somewhere out there.  Then from the airport on top of Upernavik Island I saw about 15 miles away northeast of Aappilattoq tons of icebergs clustered together in that general area.  I have seen plenty of icebergs come and go, still I did not think anything of this ice thinking all that ice did not matter, by not bothering to really check with my binoculars to see the full range and extent of the ice in the icefjord or ask anyone about all this ice over there so many miles away.

The photo below was taken in 2003 of Upernavik Isfjord from the airport of that general view toward Aappilattoq and Puguta Island.  To the middle and far right is the icefjord.  In 2008 the density of ice did not look like this but I thought to myself “Oh that is over there, nothing to worry about for me”.

02 Followed


I figured it would be easier, as I had done in 2005, to hire David Thorliefsen with his motorboat to take me across the Upernavik Icefjord to Puguta Island. 

In the photo above Puguta is just behind the center island to the right.

Launching from Upernavik is not all that easy for me and I had done this all too many times before as I find it a little nerve wracking to find people standing over my shoulder as I put on the dog and pony show while I go through the ordeal of putting my kayak together and packing it.  I would rather go to an island set up my tent, leisurely put the kayak together and launch when I felt like it

Starting out from Upernavik all seemed just fine as I put all of my equipment – tent, camping gear and folding kayak into his motorboat along with David’s family.

In the photo below is taken in 2005 looking north from Upernavik harbor is where we launched from.  In the center is a motorboat similar to the boat we used. 

Far away is some ice in the icefjord and among the islands.  Upernavik is about five miles south of from the icefjord.


03 Followed 2008 journey to Innarsuit camp


Just a few short miles away among the islands on the edge of the icefjord, we started to see a number of icebergs, more than usual.

Then on our way closer we started to notice that we had to alter our route to avoid the clustered icebergs.  David resorted to taking in a very narrow passage between two tall rocky islands where the icebergs could not accumulate in enough density to bare our passage. 

The narrow vertical passage between the islands, Qagsee and Natsisat, echoed like the inside of a cave as water dripped from the rocks and icebergs.   A couple icebergs nearly plugged the passage but we edged by them.

We emerged from the passage and wove our way across the fjord.  It was very difficult dangerous motorboating because only an expert Greenlander familiar with getting through icebergs surrounded with ice chunks could safely figure out how to get us through without damaging the hull or the engine accomplish.

We had some scary moments and some tough judgement calls as David decided how to get us through. 

At first we broke out into a corral of ice similar to the photo below taken in 2005 but then the ice became even denser.


04 Followed Upernavik 2005 1968


We had a moment when we were among an expanse of sizeable chips of ice ranging from half a foot to three feet, something not to hit with a motorboat.  We were terrified sitting there debating how to get through when we heard a berg too close to our boat make a deep boom signifying that it was about to break apart.

I looked at Emilia, David’s wife, and expressed how I am afraid of these icebergs by slapping my arm across my chest to show how terrified I really was.  She said the same thing in the next moment.  We were both scared. 

What if we accidentally rammed a chunk of ice in such away that we put a hole in the boat hull?  What if we were trapped in the ice and could not get out?  What if we damaged the motor and could not get away from the ice?  It was cold very cold because we were among the ice and we were scared.

As we got near to Puguta Island I realized that camping there was just impossible, too cold and too dangerous being more than likely a place to be entrapped with my little kayak forever. 

Getting trapped by ice while on shore is called drying out.  

In 1994 when I was in Arctic Bay, Nunavut, Canada I was forewarned before I got on the water that I might get to “dry out”.  I naively asked how long I would get to dry out and they told me I would be there as long as the ice stays which can be any length of time.  My only advantage in chancing drying out was that it was at the beginning of the summer.

I had that experience several times in Arctic Bay.  Once I even became trapped in the ice I mistakenly thought I could buck through and had to wait for the tide to go out, so I already knew better than to try that foolish maneuver again.

On the north side of the Upernavik icefjord we saw ice everywhere.  I knew from all my past experience that this was unusual to be seeing this ice, especially so much ice.

In front of us motoring northward we encountered more and more ice.  Icebergs were everywhere with no expanse of open water between them.  Lots of chips of ice spread about on the water from icebergs breaking apart.  Icebergs were not all that large but they were cracking and breaking up, typical of icebergs in the late summer, July and August.

I decided that Puguta and the area was impossible and we ought to head west and then north to Naujat.  Maybe there we would find less ice.

Naujat was a tiny settlement I had wanted to visit, having never been there before.

As we neared Naujat I could see that there was just as much ice and that this ice was the typical, more threatening sort of tall icebergs typical of the Kangerdlugssuaq, Nunatakavsaup and Alangorssup glaciers to the north.

I told David that we would have to motor to Innarssuit Satup akia Island where I had camped in 2005.


05 Followed campsite 2008

This was a protected passage where I knew water was available a very precious scarce commodity not available elsewhere to my knowledge in the area.  The area was protected from the icebergs because it was a U shaped quarter mile wide passage where wind and current would unlikely carry any icebergs.

My campsite was on the way to the settlement Innarsuit, so people would pass by on the outside and on the inside on their way back and forth to Innarsuit.  This would offer me safety with the opportunity to be on flat ground protected from most of the weather and fog on the more open water to the west.


06 Followed looking out


“Whew was I lucky I knew of this place I thought to myself but now that I am here what am I going to do for paddling?”

David dropped me off and was glad to be headed back to Upernavik, now 21 miles away and across a wider portion of Upernavik Icefjord.

I set up my tent and leered out of the doorway gawking at all those icebergs out there and the fog that was just starting to show on the open water.  Yes sure enough the fog was at first going back and forth but then it began building up so that only the tops of some of the larger icebergs were peeking out – how ominous.  At least it was a pretty purple color and the water was blue-gray with a blue sky above.

I could just relax for now in my nice tent, eat, doze, think about nothing and listen to the snow buntings chibbering about the hillside behind me.

The next day I put my kayak together.  The kayak was just fine, so now there I was without any doubts or excuses committed to doing some sort of paddling. 

I asked myself “What shall I do for paddling now that I know for sure that I cannot paddle in my old style of paddling which was to paddle miles and miles relocating my campsite from place to place because there is just too much ice everywhere?” 

“As I look out of my tent I see icebergs floating past on the outside passage.  I really do not want to play with them or get lost in the fog among them.“

“They are too big to play “beat the berg” with in my kayak because I cannot race by them anywhere near as fast as I could if I were in a motorboat.  In my kayak I am limited to only paddling at 3 to 4 knots while the berg I am trying to race past can be moving along on what can be a 7 knot current or being pushed along by the wind.” 

Another nasty thought is “What I do if a berg decided to break up right near me I cannot escape its explosion of ice across the water or the steep waves it will make.”

Next question is where in this region would there be any water.  The last time I camped on an island to the north I had to trap water flowing over a rock drop by drop.  Waiting for a chunk of ice to melt on the beach in some sort of container is a very slow process.  Melting ice wastes my very limited stove fuel.

Then I started thinking to myself “I shall do detailed paddling because here is a unique opportunity to just see things from my kayak in as great a detail as I wish.  I do not have to rush anywhere.” 

After all I asked myself “How much do I actually get to see when I am rushing about when I what I am really interested in doing is exploring, seeing things I have never seen before - especially little things and things in detail.  I need to do slow paddling.  Slow paddling will be much more rewarding because I can stop and look down in the water, up at the cliffs and into the sky noticing any details I can see and thinking about why they are there.”


07 Followed kayak


On this journey I will have plenty of time to think about what I see as I am out and about.  If I had an unanswered curiosity I could just hop in my kayak on another afternoon to go revisit the place I was curious about.  I could take more pictures and video shots to answer my questions.  That is my goal for this trip” 

In this new way of paddling, what fun I have because I could just float along, think about what I am viewing and just look.  This technique amounts to what could be called “detail paddling”.  My focus was to paddle each afternoon not necessarily very far, but with the goal in mind to find new things in the water, the air or anywhere that I have never seen before.


08 Followed berg in passage


“Ah such fun how great a relief it not to have expend all sorts of energy and adrenaline by forcing myself to rushed paddling just so that I will be somewhere before I run out of energy from shear physical and mental exhaustion.” I said to myself.  “No wonder I see so little when I paddle rushing around too anxious about getting to another campsite that I do not know is where to start with not daring to risk the time to stop and look.”

It was a sunny lovely day as I started out from my campsite padding south-eastward down the passage looking at the snow-covered 1000 foot mountains on Qagsserssuaq peninsula.  These mountains were just as high as Sanderson’s Hope which is another very unforgettable landmark near Upernavik.

At the end of the island just a few hundred yards away I turned southwest heading out through the passage that ended in the open water.

This was a small circular area rock cliff faces on the east side of what is Innarsuit Island.  The island that I am rounding is unnamed on my Saga 1:250,000 map and on the map it looks like it is part of the island Innarssuit Akia because the 10 foot wide passage is too small to show on this level of enlargement. 

At the eastern tip was a somewhat flat area that showed rich dirt on somewhat level ground with willows rooted in what were originally the walls of sod houses. 

I suspect that people had dwelt right there on this corner in ages past because this corner is ideally protected from the winds on the open water and it is relatively easy to get up off the water onto for people arriving via umiaqs, kayaks and dogsleds.  It was a good lookout for all around as well another very important factor for the hunters.

Whenever I have ever stayed with an Inuit hunter I have noticed that a hunter is always looking out over the water for birds, ducks, seals, walrus or whales.  Their whole life is dependent upon any animal that can be hunted for in the form of food and materials.

The east side was flanked with endless, bare, dark brown, fine-textured granitic stone rising from the water straight up a hundred feet of rounded shapes punctuated with crevasses.  In other words this east side had absolutely no plants just stone going straight up completely hostile in character from the west side that had some flatter areas with plants, soil and sod house wall remains.


09 Followed house remains


As I turned the corner paddling along the east facing wall I noticed that there were plenty of sea urchins, mussels and seaweeds on the shallow bottom.


10 Followed mussels urchins


I was delighted with seeing all these sea urchins and mussels on the bottom.

Then I paddled along the east wall which was mostly a straight line out to the opening at the end of the passage.  What fun there it was the opening I was never really sure about from what I could see on the map.  Now I knew that I was camping on an island, an unnamed island at that.

From the outside to the west I had paddled right by it never seeing it.  It was one of those microscopic paddling situations calling for me to dip in and out of even the tiniest indentations all along the way.  From the outside this opening looked like nothing.  I couldn’t imagine anyone other than someone very familiar with this area running passage with a motorboat because It was very shallow about three to four feet deep and narrow, just only ten feet wide.

I poked outside the passage narrows just to see it all and then I turned around.  I figured I would run that area another day.  Today I wanted to closely look at this little interior area before the restriction.

Just after I turned around following along on the opposite west facing side just near the opening I happened to see in the shallow water a large sea scallop with dark blood red shell and tentacles its shell was 6 inches diameter anchored among the seaweeds. 

Next I saw a few six inch diameter sea anemones with tan dark-red tipped tentacles.  These looked just like the anemones I had seen off the islands just east of Upernavik in a shellfish rich area.  I also think that I saw some sea cucumbers embedded in the soft bottom.  All these biota told me that the water is very rich here and the salinity is close to open-water salinity of 32 ppt.  Sorry I forgot to take a picture.

Now that I have seen these creatures I thought to myself that I ought to just paddle around on the semicircle shaped eastern side of the passage.  “Who knows what I will see” I said to myself.

Here inside there was an especially rare ideal viewing the bottom situation.  The water surface was absolutely flat calm and the clear sun light allowed me to see the bottom perfectly and from my many moments on the water in the past in this area, such conditions are not all that common either the water is too deep or it is disturbed or it is overcast. 

So, to take advantage of this rare situation for viewing the bottom with the least disturbance, I paddled as lightly as possible so that I would just glide over the surface and used my rudder to direct my semicircular path along the eastern wall.  I propelled my kayak as minimally as possible with my paddle just fast enough to glide over the surface disturbing it as little as possible because I wanted to be able to look straight down over the side without any riffles disturbing my view or alarming those who were residing below.


11 Followed bottom edge


So gently, ever so gently, just as if I was tiptoeing in my kayak I paddled along with my cameras at the ready in my lap, for who knows what I would see.  And very lightly I directed myself with my foot operated rudder just enough to keep me from grazing the occasional rocks just beneath the surface here and there or colliding with the rock walls.

I know what you are thinking, “who ever heard of tiptoeing along in a kayak, now really, what is this all about?”  But really all I wanted to do was to be able see the bottom because after noticing those really unusual sea scallops and sea anemones I was excited. 

I had seen sea scallop shells on the bottom just once before years ago in Upernavik but never have I seen them actually alive before.

I can tell you that there are just too many times have I foolishly disturbed the water just enough to ruin my viewing.


12 Followed bottom

So there I was gliding along ever so effortlessly and I looked down to see a fjord cod just hanging in an open circle of seaweed.  Then I saw some more cod below in 5 foot deep water.  Wow how nice!  I have not seen fjord cod for years.  The last time was in 1993.  I told myself that I will just glide along so as not to frighten them in anyway because the last thing I want to do is loose this moment.

Next thing I knew about six fjord cod were swimming toward me in great curiosity like I was some playmate.  They were adults between one and two feet long.

What a delightful experience I could not believe my eyes as I found myself being followed about by this group of codfish. 


13 Followed Fjord Cod


I barely dared to paddle at all, lest I frighten them away.  As I floated ever so gently along I took still pictures and video footage over the side as quietly and with at least as little motion as possible not even daring to look through the viewfinder.  I just roughly aimed and clicked pictures and grabbed video footage. 

The cod and I had such wonderful time looking at each other, what a thrill.  I never thought that cod could be so curious.

I wonder if I will ever have a moment like this again, it was such fun.

14 Followed Fjord Cod

I have had fun with sculpins, called Ulk in Greenland, that we call sea robins in Connecticut.  They are really very social fish but fjord cod I never expected such comical curiosity.

They followed me some fifteen to twenty feet before they left off and returned to their hideaways among the seaweeds. 


15 Followed Fjord Cod


It is moments like this that makes all the effort of going all this way to Greenland worth it all.  There is nothing more fun than floating around in a little boat looking at what is out and about, you just never know!

Gail Ferris 2/20/09