How We Made Expedition Travel History in Greenland’s Nordvestfjord

February 11, 2018 Daven Hafey

The Captain of the Ocean Nova traverses the ice-choked waters of Nordvestfjord

The Captain of the Ocean Nova traverses the ice-choked waters of Nordvestfjord, the northwesternmost fjord in the Scoresby Sund region.
Photo: Daven Hafey

Expedition: A journey undertaken by a group of people with a particular purpose, especially that of exploration or research.

In the early days of European polar exploration, any attempt to travel through the Arctic and Antarctic was indeed an expedition. They were journeys into the unknown, with the purpose of understanding the world and its systems. Its lifeforms and waterways, unknown lands and unknown peoples. Its magnetism and physics. And for better or worse, its potential riches and ways to exploit them for gold and glory.

For hundreds of years, any European expedition into the polar regions took years of planning and preparation. Proper planning not only included finding or commissioning the most capable vessels, but also organizing years’ worth of tools, resources, and provisions. And most importantly, organizing a skilled team that was tough and competent enough to adapt to change, to respond well to adversity, and to take advantage of unexpected opportunities as they arose.

Keeping the Spirit of Expedition Travel Alive

In many ways, traveling with Quark into the Arctic and Antarctic keeps the tradition of expedition travel alive. It’s definitely possible to visit the polar regions to “tick” the boxes and see the places you’ve long dreamed of visiting. You go further and deeper, too, with a certain adventurous spirit, relentless curiosity, highly skilled determination, and the ability to seize opportunities as they arise. Maintain that hunger to see what’s around the next corner, and relish in the feeling that every polar expedition is truly unique.

Nordvestfjord and the Daugaard-Jensen Glacier offer rare, authentic opportunities to explore the Arctic in true expedition style. Photo: Daven Hafey

I’ve been on nearly three dozen polar expeditions and can say with full confidence that each one has been its own unique journey. Each one has its own story, its own characters and variables, its own life. That’s what makes each of them independently beautiful and memorable in their own right.

This September was no exception.

Stunning Greenland Fjords Begged to be Explored

To glaciologists, geologists, and polar adventurers, the names Nordvestfjord and the Daugaard-Jensen Glacier are nearly mythological. The Nordvestfjord (aptly named, as it’s the furthest northwestern fjord in the Scoresby Sund region), is the longest fjord in the world. The Daugaard-Jensen Glacier is one of the most active, if not the most active glacier in all of East Greenland.

Aerial view of the Nordvestfjord

Aerial view of the Nordvestfjord with the waters full of icebergs from several glaciers, the most important of which is Daugaard-Jensen. Photo: Wikipedia

These are nice superlatives, but what makes these places so incredible is that until September 2017, they had never before been visited by boat or ship. A handful of dog mushers from the Greenlandic community of Ittoqqortoormiit visit occasionally in the cold spring months, and surely some of their Thule predecessors did the same. Even fewer world-renown geologists and glaciologists have seen the region by helicopter, and one team camped above the fjord for two weeks studying ice movement in the 1980’s, an expedition that was supported, again, by helicopter.

A stunning iceberg calved from the Daugaard-Jensen Glacie

A stunning iceberg calved from the Daugaard-Jensen Glacier, carved out by the punishing Arctic conditions and tinted a brilliant blue, greets Greenland expedition passengers in the Nordvestfjord. Photo: Daven Hafey

But nobody had seen these world treasures from the water. No one had ever sailed the length of the Nordvestfjord and floated at its uppermost reaches, face to face with the glacier that generates the massive tabular icebergs for which Scoresby Sund is famous.

Nordvestfjord, Daugaard-Jensen Glacier and Our Thirst for Expedition Travel

What I love most about working for Quark is the relentless curiosity. The authentic spirit of adventure. The passionate enthusiasm, the determination, and the highly developed skills and experience to not just visit the well-known places, but to continue to explore and see the world’s wonders, its raw and unknown landscapes, with virgin eyes. The spirit of the expedition in its true sense.

It is this combination of traits that made the Nordvestfjord and the Daugaard-Jensen Glacier attainable goals. The thirst for adventure, the passion for exploration (both personal and collective), the Wonder, as well as competence and skill that are only developed with years and years of experience.

The terminus of the Nordvestfjord and its mighty Daugaard-Jensen Glacier hadn’t ever before been visited by ship before for a reason. It’s an extremely challenging place to operate. The upper reaches of the fjord are constantly choked with icebergs, ranging from small growlers to massive tabulars that dwarf passenger vessels in size. The ever-present brash ice and young pancake ice, and the constant shifting and drifting of ice conditions at the mercy of winds and currents provide additional challenges. Oh, and the fact that the upper portion of the fjord is entirely uncharted. No depth soundings.

Early explorers didn’t have the advantages that we have today. Cutting edge sonar that reliably sound depths of uncharted waters. Weather forecasts accurate enough to anticipate calm spells and approaching storms. GPS. Telecommunications. But they had skill, determination, and grit.

Authentic Arctic Explorers: Following in their Footsteps

I don’t mean to make any comparison between us and those hardy souls like Erik the Red, draped in nothing but wool jackets and leather boots, dipping weathered lead lines into icy waters to determine depths. But those men were resourceful, they had skills and tools, and they made the most of what they had going forward into unknown waters. Similarly, Quark Expeditions and the Ocean Nova are equipped not only with the 21st century technologies, but also with a highly experienced captain and his team of officers. A captain who doesn’t just come to work every day, but also shares that authentic spirit of adventure and Wonder.

Summer in the Greenland coast circa year 1000, a Carl Rasmussen (1841-1893) oil on canvas. Source: Bruun Rasmussen

Following in the footsteps of those who came before us, we were resourceful, and tactical. We sent out a scouting party up a hill to investigate ice conditions. We took pictures of the ice and reviewed them carefully. We studied the region’s topography and extrapolated the features of the fjord.  We gathered all available weather forecasts. And we relied on decades of experience, something that can’t simply be conjured up out of nowhere.

Although we were in an area seldom before seen, and only by dog sled or helicopter, we made a calculated decision to press forward. The captain and the Quark team had been studying this area for more than five years, and decided that the conditions were right to make a push for the fjord’s terminus.

Inch by inch, iceberg by iceberg, we slowly navigated through these unspeakably beautiful uncharted waters. The ice was amazing, which is saying something, considering I spend a huge portion of my year looking at ice. And although I’m no geologist, the rocks and promontories and mountainsides were like something out of a medieval tale. Naked geology swirling with metamorphic activity, dusted ever so gently by ice, fresh snow, and an occasional willow. It had a very real feeling of entering into a hauntingly beautiful fairytale, where unknown forces were up to their unknown activities. It was magical. Truly expeditionary.

Geology left behind by ancient glaciers

The fascinating geology of Greenland’s ancient fjords is that much more beautiful reflected in the icy waters of Nordvestfjord. Photo: Daven Hafey

And of course, we eventually made it to the end of the fjord. The first ever passenger vessel to reach the full length of Nordvestfjord and come face to face with the mighty Daugaard-Jensen Glacier.

The first to reach the Daugaard-Jensen and complete the Nordvestfjord by ship. Ever. It was a victorious event that we’ll all carry with us for the rest of our lives--Quark Expeditions, the M/V Ocean Nova, and all of her passengers, staff, and crew.

Other ships may follow our lead and see this magical place themselves. But this season’s first captures the spirit of what it means to travel with Quark. An infectious curiosity and spirit of adventure, combined with skill, good judgment, and determination to experience the polar regions to their fullest.

This is what it means to travel with Quark.  We go on expeditions.

Quark has led the way in many respects and counted a number of firsts in expedition travel by passenger vessels. We were the first ever tourism vessel to successfully transit the Northeast Passage, the historic route across the Russian arctic, all the way back in 1991. Six years later, we were the first to circumnavigate Antarctica by passenger vessel. Check out more ‘Quark Firsts’ here and start planning now to join us for a first of your own!

Explore Authentic Arctic Expeditions

About the Author

Daven Hafey

Daven is a professional guide, writer, and freelance film maker who feels most at home in wild places. He has guided on more than 40 polar expeditions in the Antarctic, Greenland, Arctic Canada, and Alaska, and has a strong admiration for the people who call these wild lands home. Daven studied political science and ecology in university, and he believes in the power of a good story. He’s worked six amazing seasons for Quark Expeditions and always carries a deep excitement and reverence for the wild lands we explore.

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