Ice Viewed from the Cockpit - some paddling experiences

Gail Ferris


I don’t know what do you think?  This is one of those dicey little questions about the ice when it comes to paddling a kayak in the Arctic. 

The question is; what will the ice do, will it go out, how much will there be and is it annual or glacial ice?

My first experience with “the ice” was in Pond Inlet at 72 degrees north on the north end of Baffin Island.

Usually the ice, that is the annual ice, goes out of Pond Inlet during the last two weeks in July if the ice is going to go out.

Glacial ice from the immediate area and occasional bergs from Greenland and other glacial sources, just a small percentage of the normal ice comes and goes on the wind and currents any time.

I had no idea when I left Connecticut in late July if the ice had gone out. 

As usual when it comes to travel in the North – all is up to chance.  The airline tickets and excess baggage tickets are difficult to get and expensive – so both emotionally and financially I had a lot on the line - so to speak.

I flew up to Pond Inlet in what was supposed to be open water season but as I looked out of the airliner window I noticed that the open water looked not at all open.  There was ice here, there and what looked like from shore everywhere in Pond Inlet but the ice was expected to be going out any day.

A week later after all but a small remnant of ice had gone out I launched my kayak and paddled southwest out of town along the area which was for a number of miles shallow shoreline beaches. 

Along this coastline I could land anywhere and even walk back to town.  After covering some miles I decided to pull in and camp over night. 

I choose a spot where there was a cluster of annual ice.  I thought nothing of it and I paddled my kayak through the pieces of annual ice near the beach but that was no problem.  The ice was a mix of inches to a few feet thick.

I had no fear of this ice because I thought that even if the ice chunks pack in at the beach when the tide is in again I can just go in the water wearing my drysuit and push them off.  I figured that ice floating in the water cannot weigh much.  Of course I never thought that the wind, even a slight wind, was pushing them into the beach grounding them at high tide while I was asleep in my tent.

Even if this ice is grounded out I told myself that I can just wedge them up to refloat and push them off.  They will not be any obstruction to my kayak.

Next morning there they were, all of them and even more – lots of ice.  Not to worry just push them out and I will be on my way in my kayak.


So there I was in my drysuit wading in the water.  I tired one – nothing much happened, oh well, just try another – right, sure, no problem, just push – oh maybe it is too big, let me try another.  Huh! Nothing is happening, even when I rock them they just stay there, oh they are grounded. 

My! aren’t they heavy, you would think all you have to do is just push on them a little bit, rock them, tilt them and they will just float off into deeper water, out of my way.  Well let me try this little one it is about the size of a five gallon bucket.  It ought to move off without too much pushing on my part.  Oh this is not good, even this small one is not going anywhere and if it is it is just going farther inshore.  The current is carrying it in along with all those others, the bigger ones, that are out there.

Well I just learned it is not possible to just shove icebergs off the coastline it is impossible to do the only thing to do is just wait for the tide and current to carry them away.  Good thing it is possible to walk from here back to town should all else fail.

A day or so later all the ice went away but I learned let the ice move on its own.

Below is a picture illustrating the ice I had to think about.





I learned at Pond Inlet a respect for the immense weight this type of ice has.

In 1992 I went to Upernavik Greenland to paddle where there are icebergs.

Ice bergs are different because they are large and tall.  They can roll over, break up suddenly or drop huge chunks into the water setting up steep waves requiring surfing technique skills.

Before I went I learned how to surf and took lessons in whitewater slalom paddling.  I learned how to handle breaking waves and how to control my kayak while surfing using a solid low brace.  In whitewater paddling I learned how to do eddy turns and how to take advantage of eddies.  I learned from Bart Hauthaway and in slalom racing to trust my brace, in other words to not be afraid to lean out on the paddle.

In Upernavik just as I was amidst crossing to Torssut there was a huge ice berg which dropped a chunk of ice into the water generating a three foot high wave.  I was glad I knew how to surf.  This was one of those moments when I got to apply my learning directly.  The large steep wave moved swiftly upon me and there was no sanctuary.

The photo below shows a similar iceberg to the one just described.



In 1992 the ash from the Mount Pinatubo eruption had a cooling effect of the weather.  Greenland’s ice was much slower going out. 

With so much ice everywhere I was limited as to where I could paddle.

I did not want to believe the reports about iced in areas so I attempted to circum-paddle around Aappilattoq Island. 

I set off from the south end and even though I could see ice to the north I kept going. 

I had set out to see the old town and what it looked like in general on the

As I paddled north at first all seemed well.  Yes there were icebergs but they were spaced well apart.

I had the wonderful experience of watching fulmars feeding on the biota associated with freshwater ice.  Some of them are snails which have no shell called sea butterflies.  They are black and swim with wing shaped appendages.

Then I began to notice that there were more and more icebergs.  They were not all that large and there was space wide enough for me to pass between without risk.

The risk for me was suppose a berg rolls over since the foot is seven eights submerged there is a lot more under the water.  As I paddled among these icebergs I was estimate a safe distance to maintain from them should any break apart or roll over.

Oh well! My luck ran out. 

Now I found myself facing too many icebergs with no alternatives.  They were just packed together much too closely for me to squeeze by and there were no options.  So all I could do was to turn around.

Below is the picture of this situation and you can see what I mean about options.




On my way back away from this ice barrier I headed to the ice free end of the island.  Even though I was disappointed eleven years later, in 2003, I did have the opportunity to paddle along the north side of Aappilattoq and I can tell you it was a cold ordeal with some scary tricky moments.  I had a chunk of ice bob to the surface right next to my bow that had released from the foot of a small berg. 

On the surface the berg was only two feet by three feet.  The chunk of ice was sharp-edged as old clear ice is.  The thrust from the jagged ice could have destabilized or punctured my kayak

In the picture below the sun was at 11 pm and I had the opportunity to take this wonderful picture of an old chunk of clear ice with the sun shining through it.  Had I not turned around I would have never noticed this beautiful image.




I had survived that encounter behind Aappilattoq Island and now I was returning to Upernavik.

My initial anxiety was that from where I was camping on the east side of Atilgssuaq I could see fog over the icefjord east, some miles away.  I was afraid that the fog would come and envelop my campsite and my route back to Upernavik.

I decided to leave and head back west around along the north side.

In the picture below you can see my view when I arrived at the western tip of Atilgssuaq on a warm summer afternoon.

Suddenly I realized that I had to cope with crossing somewhere in front of a huge tabular iceberg.

The iceberg was so gigantic that it was shrouded in fog as you can see in the picture.

All I knew was that this berg was floating back and forth in a crossing I had to make on my way back to Upernavik and that there was fog a few miles away that might also come into this area. 

I was really frightened of this berg because I knew that bergs such as this are moved along by the currents can move at seven knots which is twice as fast as I can paddle.

Later in paddling I actually saw two small bergs cross each other in front of my bow.  They were moving much faster than I had estimated – I was shocked!

I was afraid that I could not get out of the way of this iceberg should I just happen to be crossing exactly where it was coming. 

I was lucky however and the berg stayed where it was while I nervously paddled the few miles to Upernavik.

All the while as I was paddling within range I made sure that I kept track of what that iceberg was doing.  Whew that was scary!




In Arctic Bay I succeeded in getting my kayak stuck in the ice for a few hours before the tide changed luckily in my favor, wow was I ever petrified!

I had played a game of thinking that the ice being brought in would be thinner along the edge of the rock shoreline because of the reverse eddies that naturally occur along shorelines that have currents running down them.

I saw this raft of ice coming in but thought I could buck my way along the last section of the enclosing shoreline and turn the corner heading into clear water.

Wind was behind me but not a factor.

I wound up trapped for a few hours and decided that shore eddies have no effect of circulation and distribution of annual ice moving on the tide or wind.

Below is a picture of the ice margin and the dimensions of the ice close up.

The surface of this ice is granular and slippery but it is possible to stand on some of it but I think much too risky.




Below is a photo of the ice that my kayak was entrapped in just before it went out.  I was very lucky that the ice was not sharp as you can see in the picture.  When I launched I had to take my time getting around Holy Cross Point waiting for the ice to move on the tide ahead of me.  I attempted to cross through some of the ice but I realized that I was playing a loosing battle and would have probably been stuck in the middle of the ice pack for who knows how long.

I reversed course and paddled around the point heading for the open shoreline where I was able to find a safe campsite.  I learned from this experience do not play beat the berg with a pack of ice in a kayak, it is not worth it!





Several years later in 1995, when I was out for an afternoon paddle near Lang Island behind Upernavik I had crossed over to Atiligssuaq Island and was returning.  On my way back Lange/Akia island I thought I might stop at the shallow beach and take a break.

I was just passing what looked like two medium sized icebergs and I was quietly thinking to myself how many areas the depth of the water can range from shallow to extremely deep because of the geologic structure of this area.  So I was just passing blithely by in my kayak when suddenly the nearest iceberg rose up in the air to three times its previous height.  This berg was part of an entire iceberg.  The bridge between the two visible sections of ice berg had been submerged.  I never noticed that there was any bridge nor did I imagine such a structure to this iceberg might exist.  Was I ever shocked.  Never would I have imagined that what looked like two medium icebergs was actually one huge iceberg mainly submerged in the middle

I felt very lucky that I had not pulled into the shallow shoreline moments before.  I would have been either swamped by the waves coming off this iceberg or my kayak could have been washed off the beach.

Being stuck on an island by having lost a kayak to some rogue waves is not a good idea.

Below is a photo of an iceberg rolling over that just happened spontaneously, there was in this instance no sound – nothing as an indicator, the berg just began rolling over.  This picture is taken at Kullorsuaq.

On a trip around the island I saw an arch just a small one but large enough for me to paddle through in this area below.  In just a moment absolutely silently that arch was gone.  I was glad I did not try that trick it would have been over in an instant and nobody would have known.  I would have just disappeared.

For practice I did experiment with paddling around rocks executing various maneuvers pretending that they were “English Gates” but I left the ice alone.

I did take a chance of paddling through small chunks of ice into town once but I still remember the glaring look of Edvard Nielsen when I got to shore.  I could tell that he thought I was being a fool because I could have punctured my hull.  I was just lucky that time.



When I lived in Kullorsuaq I overlooked the bay.  I saw what wind does to chunks of ice in a storm situation.  Below is a picture illustrating ice driven into the coastline by strong wind.

One day there would be no icebergs and the next day the place would be solid with them – all because the wind had driven them in.




In Arctic Bay I had several experiences being entrapped by the tidal travels of annual ice. 

My first moment came when I paddled out to the point next to Society cliffs.  There I got to watch the ice come in on the tide down Adams Sound from Admiralty inlet after I had landed my kayak and set up camp.

I watched the ice swirl around in the whirlpool off Holy Cross Point.  Had it not been for the ice I would have not noticed the gyre.

If I had kept paddling I could have made it down inside Adams Sound but I decided to stop near the entrance and camp.

Next day I saw that ice gone east forming a clog down inside Adams Sound so all I could do was just sit again on the point west of the ice clog and wait for it to come back out past me.

The ice reversed direction went west of me out on the tide and I headed down Adams Sound assuming that there could not be any ice coming down there following me.

Then as I got to a nice place to camp I noticed something I had not thought about all the time I was paddling east down Adams Sound.  All the time I was busy paying attention to what was in front of me the silent annual ice was had been subtly following me all the way down. 

No sooner had I stepped out of my kayak at a convenient place to camp than I discovered that I was getting to dry out once again.  I was surrounded by that certain, very quiet, crowd of annual ice. 

In a very short time there was no escaping back out to the west which you can see in this picture because the ice just packed in a matter of moments.  I could not leave even if I wanted to.




In 2003 as I was paddling along Upernavik Icefjord on my way west to my right was routine sized bergs like chunks of land most of them in the mid fjord were the city block sized ones stay over there thank you!  There were some islands and the motorboats were passing a few miles out maybe 5 miles away.  So I knew the density of the ice was less over there.

I did not worry about the ice density because the ice was not that tall or wide nor packed together. 

And then at the second large peninsula, the ice density started to look much more challenging, oh boy, I can get away with passing between the chunks of ice but I have to be careful not to brush hard against their sharp projecting knifelike edges.  They are mostly erratic shaped chunks broken off from bergs not annual flat ice chunks.  They can be any shape and they are also moving slightly. 

I dropped my rudder more and started taking seriously that I really do not want to crash or graze against these chunks of ice.  I was expecting my boat to turn like a white water boat forgetting that this was my first time in a tight turning situation.  I sort of bucked up and gave myself more manoeuvring room trying not to become confused as to which side I would pass by a chunk.  Confusion was the worst for me I had to consciously discipline myself.  Also I found it very confusing to break my paddling rhythm, but adaptation was my necessary ingredient for not crashing or brushing against ice bits 2 diameter ft and bigger.  Ice weighs a lot more than it appears to.

Then another ingredient came into the picture there were also frozen rafts of 1 foot square chunks of ice here and there.  Not Good!  If I became entrapped between some of these I could see that the only way out is between the rafts.  Those scared me because they were large and I figured they were more mobile because of their larger horizontal surface area. 

In trepidation I just decided not to look so far ahead but to rather just paddle through the immediate groups of ice.  I was not seeing many more of those rafts of bits and to my right it was more open.  I passed by a large berg to my right not registering on my passage, so I realized that I was functioning in tunnel vision the vision fear uses. 

Suddenly in just an instant up to the surface just off my port bow popped a rounded irregular shape 2 foot x 3 foot chunk of vertical clear jagged ice.  No way could I have avoided it had I been closer to the berg measuring 2 feet high 6 feet long x 3 feet wide on the top but 12 feet deep.  This was one of those classic examples of how much ice is on the top and how much is below and that the shape of a berg is constantly changing as the currents erode the ice.  The initial shape of a berg varies as the density and way it was formed in the glacier.  So there is no way to predict.

If I had been any closer that chunk of ice would have slammed up under my kayak.  Wow was I lucky this warned me not to make assumptions because, if I slip into this water nobody will ever know, I will just disappear.



As the sun was sinking luckily I came across only a small area of developing frazzle ice.  This was a small area of fresh water was floating on the more dense salt water. It had probably been a quiet sunny day that caused the melt water from the icebergs to accumulate rather than intermix with the saltwater.

Now that the sun is so low on the horizon it no longer provides radiant heat sufficient to keep the freshwater from freezing into frazzle ice sheets. 

For me in my kayak frazzle ice is like a sheet of razorblades and it can cut through a kayak hull. 

Below is a photo of the low light taken at about midnight



In 2005 one tactic I used with icebergs in Upernavik Icefjord on a foggy day was to take advantage of their spacing and stability while making a four mile crossing.  What I did was to choose a berg that was lined up with my invisible geographic position on Aappilattoq Island take a bearing with my GPS on that berg and sight in another berg at that same bearing which happened in this case to be 180 degrees.  Below is a picture of that particular berg which happens to be stunning with the sun shinning through it.



After clawing my way from berg to berg I was not too sure of what I was doing it was all foggy out I came upon the weirdest vision I could ever imagine.  I wish I had taken a picture of it but I was so anxious I forgot.

It looked like some squiggly telephone poles hanging in the sky.

When you are in Greenland that is not possible especially when you are somewhere in the middle of Upernavik Icefjord.

All had been well until then.  What was going on was I would sight in a berg at 180 degrees paddle to it take another sighting on a berg farther away at 180 degrees and paddle to that one.  I was hopping across the fjord from berg to berg.  I was afraid to leave my GPS on because the batteries might run out and there I would be out there in the fog.

What I was doing was to turn on the GPS get a bearing on a target turn it off and turn it on again once I had made the target and needed another target.

In the fog nothing makes sense so it seems to me.

So encountering what looked like three or four black squiggly lines that only looked like very distorted telephone poles was a little disconcerting to say the least.

My next target happened to be right in the proximity of this apparition so I knew I had to stick to my route anyway and I would get to see this weird thing close up.

Sure enough it materialized out of the fog and what it is you can see in the picture below.




What you are looking at above is this berg that is bands of dirt compressed into old glacial ice as strata and upended.  The actual colors of the berg were pale turquoise blue and gray black stripes.

Nothing happened to this berg while I was near it but this is one of those examples of an unstable berg because it has layers of dirt strata included.  It is called a dirty berg.

I have seen more markedly unstable dirty bergs which had very jagged tops.  These can break up in just moments and they sound like a thunderstorm rumbling away.

I happened to have camped within hearing distance of this berg and I thought there were thundershowers coming all night.  I kept waking up and having to tell myself “there are no thundershowers starting up - it is that iceberg over there breaking up”.  Very amusing all that noise during that particular night and I was glad to get away from the icefjord the next day so that I could sleep in a quieter area.  The rest of my trip was much quieter than my first night out camping on the edge of the Upernavik Icefjord in 2005.

Below is a picture of that particular iceberg.

Everyone in the area gave wide berth to even though the Greenlanders were passing by in fast motorboats and I was told to stay away from it and any iceberg that looked like that with the saw-toothed top.




In 2008 I misjudged the extent of ice in Upernavik Icefjord and I can tell you I never saw so much ice in my life. 

Martin Hjort told me that he spent one hour motorboating into the ice and it took him four hours to get back out.

We both agreed stay out of the icepack.

I saw some interesting bergs but I can say as a kayak paddler it is much colder paddling among glacial ice chunks.  Even getting though them might be possible but I realized in all practicality as a paddler that I was not dressed to tolerate the intensity of cold of glacial ice.  I did not risk paddling among ice where distances were just a few feet between chunks because even if I could have made it through I knew the cold would create hypothermia for me.

Below is an interesting berg within it as a rhombohedron shaped transparent window. 

This was taken in 2008 near Innarsuit Island.



I hope I have written about views from the cockpit views of ice in various places and situations.


Thanks Gail Ferris 1/15/09