Greenland by Kayak: An Immersive Wilderness Experience

February 5, 2019 Acacia Johnson

One by one, the kayaks soared through the mirrored water, their wakes trailing through a galaxy of ice. There was not a breath of wind, and the subtle music of the Arctic could be heard across the ocean surface: the lapping of the tide against the icebergs, the chorus of crackling as ancient air bubbles released into the atmosphere. Apart from the whispering ice, it would have been silent – if not for the stroke of the kayak paddles.  

Point of view from a paddler's perspective. Photo by Acacia Johnson

In Gåsefjord, East Greenland, the Paddle Excursion Program explores a tranquil seascape of glacial ice.

To experience Greenland by kayak is to delve into the heart of nature, immersing oneself in the wilderness with all one’s senses. Far from the noise of motorized watercraft, a kayaker is keenly aware of the gentle pull and flow of the current; the quiet ripples of sea animals, and the distant thunder of calving glaciers. What’s more, it’s an ancient cultural tradition perfected over a thousand years by the Thule people, the ancestors of modern-day Greenlanders, or Inuit.

Custom made traditional Greenlandic kayaks sit on top of a rack. Photo by Acacia Johnson

Kayaks in Ilulissat, West Greenland. The tradition of building one’s own kayak – perfectly suited to the paddler’s body size –
is still alive and well in Greenland.

When the Thule migrated across North America around 1200 AD, they brought kayaks with them, and thrived in Greenland more successfully than all who had come before. Kayaks allowed the Thule to navigate waters with high densities of ice, traveling vast distances in pursuit of the animals they needed to survive. Today, hunters in northwest Greenland still hunt by kayak, passing on these traditional skills from generation to generation. It’s a sport perfectly designed for the Arctic environment, and the perfect way to experience the breathtaking beauty of this remote coastline.

In many Greenlandic communities, a local kayak club can be spotted near the shoreline. Greenlandic kayaking has recently undergone a revival as a competition sport, especially the impressive array of underwater rolls that mimic challenging scenarios that hunters once faced. Watching a Greenlandic kayaker roll over with a hand behind his back, for example, you can imagine that his prey, attached to a harpoon line, has swum behind him and pulled him over. Awe-inspiringly, he surfaces time after time, squinting saltwater from his eyes with a smile.


A Greenlandic kayaker, wearing a waterproof sealskin parka pictured in Ilulissat, West Greenland. Photo by Acacia Johnson

A Greenlandic kayaker, wearing a waterproof sealskin parka, demonstrates his skills to a group of Quark Expeditions
passengers in Ilulissat, West Greenland.

While traveling in Greenland with Quark Expeditions, the opportunity to go kayaking was a highlight of our expedition. A small group of dedicated paddlers in the Sea Kayaking Program took to the water every day that conditions permitted, forming a close-knit community throughout the voyage.

The chance to kayak, however, was available to everyone: paddlers of all skill levels could join the Paddle Excursion Program for a single, unforgettable adventure in inflatable, sit-on-top kayaks. At water level, absorbed by the stillness of the landscape, all paddlers could marvel at the sculptural icebergs receding far below the surface: a refreshed awareness of how much more there is to Greenland than meets the eye.

An epic sunrise takes over the sky, with kayaks on the foreground. Photo by Acacia Johnson

On an expedition to Greenland with Quark Expeditions, a spectacular sunrise dawns over the kayaks used by the Sea Kayaking Program.

POV of Quark Expeditions passengers Andy and Africa enjoying their Paddle Excursion Program.

Quark Expeditions passengers Andy and Africa enjoy a one-time Greenlandic kayak experience through the Paddle Excursion Program.

Passengers in the Sea Kayak Program paddle into the sunset in Fønfjord, East Greenland.

Passengers in the Sea Kayak Program paddle into the sunset in Fønfjord, East Greenland.

Our kayak guides, whose achievements set them apart as professional adventurers, brought a spirit of exploration to every excursion. Days before our voyage began, our sea kayak guide Tara Mulvany had finished a 3-month kayak expedition along the coast of Greenland; in 2015, she completed the world’s first kayak circumnavigation of Svalbard. Likewise, as guide Jane Whitney led the Paddle Excursion Program, she burst with stories from over 30 years of kayak expeditions in the Canadian High Arctic – some of which she undertook with her children when they were toddlers. The jubilant, intrepid spirit of our leaders was infectious, changing perspectives about what is possible.

Kayakers paddling through sea ice in the evening. Photo by Acacia Johnson

Iceberg ahead! Quark Expeditions guide Tara Mulvany shares the spirit of adventure with paddlers in the Sea Kayak Program
during a sunset paddle in East Greenland.

Quark Expeditions guide Jane Whitney prepares to lead the Paddle Excursion Program through a bay of glacier ice.Photo by Acacia Johnson

On a glorious morning in East Greenland, Quark Expeditions guide Jane Whitney prepares to lead the Paddle Excursion Program through a bay of glacier ice.

 Sea Kayakers traverse the vibrant coast of Skipperdal, East Greenland. Photo by Acacia Johnson

A world away from the sounds of the ship, the Sea Kayakers traverse the vibrant coast of Skipperdal, East Greenland.

Perspective from the waters as paddlers enjoy a sunny excursion. Photo by Acacia Johnson

The Paddle Excursion Program soaks up a sunny morning in East Greenland.

Over the course of the voyage, Tara explained, the kayak groups often morph into circles of newfound friends. Aside from the opportunity to soak up the silence, it’s also a great way to spend quality time with adventurous, like minded people.

“By the end of the trip, it’s not always as quiet,” she smiled. “There’s usually a lot of laughter.”

Feeling the weight of the water against our paddles, we watched musk ox grazing by the shore, undisturbed by our quiet presence. Paddling together, breathing in the clean air, a deep sense of peace took hold. It was easy, in those moments, to understand how kayaks were designed to explore Greenland: to feel connected to an ancient tradition, a community of exploration, and a true immersion in the Greenlandic wild.

Plan an expedition trip to Greenland and explore its icy coastlines the way they’ve been explored for thousands of years – in a nimble sea kayak. Browse itineraries today.


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About the Author

Acacia Johnson

Acacia Johnson is a photographer, artist and writer from Alaska, focused on human relationships to the earth's Polar Regions. A graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, Acacia has made over 55 expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctica, both as a guide for Quark Expeditions and through her personal photographic projects. Her long-term work with the Inuit of Baffin Island, begun on a Fulbright grant in 2014, has inspired a lasting passion for the inhabited regions of the North. Today, her work is exhibited internationally, held in the collections of the Anchorage Museum and the Smithsonian Museum of American History, and has been featured by many publications, including National Geographic.

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