Unfinished Business 2018

Unfinished Business 2018 A sea kayak journey to the BAARE base site at Nativit East Greenland. I have harped on about Gino Watkins now for many years, however his exploits have been a significant inspiration for me and over the years have inspired several of us to thoroughly explore the Angmassalik region of East Greenland. Although much of my regular touring area around Tasiilaq was explored and mapped by Watkins team in the 1930’s, there was still one major area for us to visit and explore. The site of the original “1930 British Arctic Air Route Expedition base”, Which was established south of Angmassalik Island near the old settlement of Nativit. For a small group of us, this became the focus of a trip this summer. The team consisted of Sonja and James and Donna who had been with me on my Lake Fjord expedition in 2016.
The sea ice had moved out from the coast early this year and although this increased the potential of much greater sea swells, effecting exposed headlands, conditions fortunately remained calm and settled. We all know the Angmassalik area very well, however from Nativit at the west side of Sermilik fjord, we would be on new and unexplored ground. Nativit was the site of an old Inuit settlement and comprised of over a dozen large turf houses which would each have housed an extended family. Several of these (probably during the time of Watkins) were remodelled to have a wooden house inside the walled structure. This remote settlement is mentioned in “Northern Lights” (F S Chapman) and we were keen to stop and see if there was anything interesting or recognisable left.
After what had turned into a rather long day we were pleased to discover a very small (modern day) hunter’s cabin in the channel between Nativit and the outer islands. Although cramped, this was still a real bonus as it saved us having to do a bear watch that night. We had, had a bear encounter a few days before (neither party came to any harm) on the west side of Sermilik fjord. Although justifying all our previous night watches it meant bears were definitely in the vicinity. This area feels extra remote and by now we were on our guard, each of us doing two hour bear watches during the night, which soon becomes exhausting. We were also setting trip lines around our camp at night. James commented that this was the only place he had ever needed to take a gun and a camera with him when venturing off to the toilet.
While exploring that evening we discovered two substantial wooden posts that had been placed vertically in the ground and about 6 meters apart. Although I can’t be certain, we would strongly suspect these were used as the vertical supports for Inuit rope training / kayak agility training / games. None of us had ever seen anything similar before, but all agreed due to their location in the settlement that there would have been very little other explanation for their purpose.  
It was also interesting to think that several of the old wooden huts may well have been built using materials scavenged from the BAARE site when Gino and the team abandoned it in 1931. Wood and timber is a valuable commodity in this area, even now, and an empty hut would soon have been re purposed. The atmosphere is very dry and timber takes a long time to rot.
A late start due to further exploring saw us paddling the final 14 km into the fjord to locate the BAARE base site. The outer coast had been pretty free of ice bergs, however from here on in the fjord was packed with them. These were some of the largest and most impressive bergs I have ever encountered, and quite why they were here remains a bit of a mystery to us, as conditions and tide didn’t account for their presence. Dog Island, where Gino tethered his sled dogs before off loading supplies was easy to identify and we landed on the smooth rock slabs where the Quest would have unloaded her cargo in 1930. After an initial recce, and as we intended base camping for several days, we decided to lug all our kit up to the hut site and establish our camp there. It was a strange feeling, walking up and down the smooth flat rocks from the kayaks to our camp, thinking of all the times this route would have been trodden in the past. There is a wide uniform band of smooth black rock which is just like a paved path and your eye always goes to it and you end up walking this line, whether you want to or not. I am sure this was also the case in 1930. After all this time we could still see bits of coal that had escaped from a burst or overfull sack and had lain hidden in a rock crevice, unobserved or thought about for over 90 yrs. That evening we set up our trip line round the tents – if walked through a taught line would pull and activate an audible alarm, this was to give us a heads up, rather than scare any bear away. It’s a simple system I have developed myself and is easy and lightweight to carry in the kayaks.
The next few days were spent soaking up the atmosphere, everyone pretty much did their own thing, mooching about and looking for artefacts. There is very little left to see, however once you trained your eye in the outline of the hut was very clear. Donna had brought out her copy of “Northern Lights” and we all got a lot of pleasure from identifying the exact spot from which all the original photos were taken.
It made us smile when we realised that several of the shots were very staged and taken from the rocks at the landing site. Understandable I suppose given the heavy camera gear they were using at that time. The back drop to these photos is unchanged and was easy to identify. There was only one good fresh water source and unbeknown to us we had already found it on our paddle from Nativit into Dog Island. Again it was strange to think of folk inevitably walking the same route we did to get drinking water.
Donna was a real sleuth with her book, even finding the remains of the post (snapped off but still embedded) which held up their original washing line and the metal rings used to anchor the radio mast.
The site is littered with broken bits and pieces, these included :- spent ammo, paper shot gun cartridges, broken beer bottles, medicine bottles, roofing felt, wood, hinges, the remains of the stove, lots of window glass, coal, pottery, wire, electric cable, battery plates, bits of big earthen wear storage jars, dog harness buckles, shoe / boot soles, a bracket from a Seagull outboard motor, various unidentifiable bits of metal work, what looked to be radio parts and most exciting of all bits of broken gramophone records. Everything was photographed and left on site, apart from the bits of gramophone record which I took and will try and find someone to help identify the songs for me.
It was very noticeable how the growth of any plant life testified to the extreme conditions regularly experienced here. NW behind our camp was a rocky hill which gave great views in all directions, including out to sea – in the day this was undoubtedly a well visited summit. Watkins would have been checking out conditions and looking for returning boats, planes or sled teams. For us this was a great site to observe and photograph the ice cap, icebergs in the fjord, and locate our route up onto the inland ice.
We spent a day paddling into the head of the fjord to check out the original route used in 1930 to access the ice. It was an amazing feeling looking up from the beach at the “gully route” and scree which was their start point for any trip inland. However for us at least the way up “Bugbear Bank” as it was affectionately named, is now impassable, as the ice has receded so much, leaving a huge rock moraine and boulder field.
As a result the following day we paddled over to the far side of the fjord to investigate another area we thought might be more promising and one Watkins had used when travelling by dog sled to Isatoq. Negotiating the colossal icebergs on route was a daunting prospect as we had previously witnessed huge collapses and seen the effect the resulting waves had had on other small bergs in the area – it was certainly not a place to linger. Interestingly though, these very significant waves didn’t affect the landing site, and our kayaks, like Watkins boats and planes were safely sheltered by the buffer of rocks at dog island..
Reaching the far side we managed to locate a gently sloping tongue of ice which gave us good access from a sandy beach onto the ice cap. We brought the kayaks up to a safe position and secured them with lines before changing from kayak to mountaineering gear. It was good to explore the area, view and photograph it from the ice and although we didn’t gain any major height by mountaineering standards, it was a fantastic experience.
At the last minute Stephen Spencer Chapman (Freddy S Chapman’s grandson) had been unable to join our expedition, However the family did provide a very unobtrusive plaque acknowledging the 1930 expedition team. We chose a good location overlooking the base site, protected from the elements and secured it to a flat, vertical piece of bed rock.
One overriding memory from this trip was the silence of it all, which was only interrupted by the sound of the huge icebergs rumbling and collapsing behind our camp. During several days of pottering about and taking photos, it was hard not to notice that the base site is now on a direct transatlantic air route – with several high altitude flights (too high to hear) going overhead every day. Ironic that the very reason Watkins came here was to gather weather information for PANAM Airlines.
One day a local family out hunting stopped at the rock slabs for lunch, inviting us to join them for a meal of cooked seal meat and blubber. This was a first for several of the team and quite a highlight too. They were very interested in our kayaks and that we had come to such a remote place, like their ancestors, travelling by kayak – although they used the rocky look out to check on conditions and look for seals, they were completely unaware of the fact that the remains of the base site were there. Freddy S Chapman’s account of the BAARE is called Northern Lights, so it was a fitting finale that we experienced several great displays of this phenomenon, not least on the final night before we paddled out.
Our journey into Nativit and the BAARE base site felt like such an adventure, all the more so knowing the heritage associated with it and the feeling of being so isolated and “out there”. Remarkable to be again be following in the same steps and standing on ground that had been such a significant part of other people's lives during the 1930s. It's hard to put into words the feelings and emotions associated with this journey. At times you could hear a pin drop. The silence and peace of the place was inspiring and thought provoking. Frequent reflections into what life must have been like to live here during that time regularly crossed our minds. The drama associated with the enormous collapses of ice from the icebergs in the fjord entered our conscious and unconscious sleeping minds on a regularly basis due to their regular roar and thundering.

BAARE 2018

This summer, 2018, again has the potential to be another very exciting one. A few of us have a personal project planned, where we hope to kayak F S Chapman's grandson, Stephen, into the original 1930/31 BAARE base camp. Things are now gearing up to ship out extra equipment and kayaks for this adventure. Very pleased and extremely humbled, that the Managers of the Gino Watkins Memorial Committee have nominated this expedition as the A & J Simpson Expedition for 2018.

Lake Fjord 2016

As time was limited and a weather window had opened we arranged for a boat drop of near the settlement of Sermiligaq. The coast between Tasiilaq and there was old ground to us and would take at least 3 long days to cover, so time saved now would give us more scope to sit out bad weather should it come later. The ride out in two fast boats owned by local hunters was fantastic. Greenland at its best, with clear blue cloudless skies and mirror calm, sparkling crystal seas. Our drop off was on some previously visited flat smooth rocks, where we could organise and pack our kayaks. Camping and the water supply was good, should we not be able to fit everything in our kayaks a secure food drop could be stashed for later pick up, as we intended paddling back this way to my base in Tasiilaq on our return. When kayaking in Greenland, mileage, distance, effort, commitment, time until lunch, a landing or break stop are all measured in “Thumbs”. On average we paddle one thumb an hour. With a fully loaded kayak a typical day where landings were numerous for rest breaks would involve perhaps a five or six thumb day. Our route into Lake Fjord however had limited opportunities for landing and finding camping sites at the end of the day and we knew we were in for some long days. Pacing ourselves was important; paddling with a partner to chat with is an obvious technique to avoid fatigue and boredom. (I’m not sure boredom is the term applicable when kayaking in such a stunning environment, but you know what I mean) We also agreed to keep close together and raft up on the water for a 5 minute snack or comfort break every hour. Daily progress was good and constant notes were added to the maps as we went. Any new potential landing sites or water sources would be useful information to have on the return trip. Usually when I guide commercial trips in this area we aim to have a team of 8. This allows for reasonable bear watch shifts during the night. However with just five of us this was not practical, especially as we would be more fatigued and require a good night’s sleep. In an attempt to safe guard ourselves, but perhaps as much as a psychological measure, we would set up trip wires around the campsite at the end of the evening. These were very sensitive and were often set off by the wind, fox’s or folk going out for a pee. Not ideal, but for sure better than nothing. We also carried two pump action saw off, 12 gauge shot guns, with solid slugs on the kayaks in specially made waterproof gun sleeves. Depot Island was a major mile stone for us. James and I had been there before in 2014. Unfortunately on that occasion James had become ill and I had had to arrange his evacuation to hospital. As a result he had some serious ghosts to lay to rest. We knew the landing on Depot was poor and that the sea covered the small stony beach for much of the tide. However we landed perfectly on time and rushed to empty the kayaks, so we could haul them up onto safe ground. The first time I came here in 2002 there had been an old hunter’s cabin on the point – sadly this is now long gone, so we set up camp and spent the evening exploring the remains of some old turf houses and graves. The next day was foggy, very foggy. Paddling on the GPS was perhaps not essential, we could have managed. However we had a long day and didn’t want to waste any time going out of our way. Also there were a lot of huge icebergs guarding the route ahead and we didn’t want to increase the risk these posed us by being in the wrong place or in fact any place longer than we really had to. The island of Stor and the old settlement at Sartermit was our objective that evening, a long exhausting day, but with the prospect of a hunters cabin at the end of it to save time camping. Also a bear worry free night. Although rarely visited, this hut is still occasionally used in the winter by hunters. Unfortunately it was full of their rubbish and mess and the smaller original hut had for some reason been partly dismantled. I am not adverse to cleaning house before I move in, but on this occasion we were all too exhausted and elected to paddle on and find a nice clean campsite. Three hours later saw us back near the huts setting up the tents. It’s quite amazing how a section of coast can be impossible to land on, even from a kayak and have such a lack of camping potential. So a long hard day had just become even longer. (8 hrs + on the water) Not what we had wanted the day before our crux and longest day. Stor Island to Lake Ford was in my mind the crux of our route and would involve a 9 hr day with no landings. About 6 hrs in we would have to pass the headland referred to as “Hells Corner”, if this proved impossible we would have to retrace our route. If it was negotiated we would then be committed to a not insignificant crossing of Nigartusuk Fjord, where winds can funnel out to sea, before reaching Ailsa island which marks the entrance to Tugtilik (Lake Fjord). Conditions were clear, although once out of the shelter of Stor Island the sea became a little lumpy and kept us on our toes and caused us to worry of what might be in store later in the day. We landed on the point and were pleased to discover the cross still standing from 2010. After a suitable reflection and photo session we paddled up the left hand branch of the fjord to set up camp by the remains of Watkins base camp. We were lucky that the tide was high – I had completely overlooked how far it went out and ½ mile of mud would have been the last straw at this stage in the day. We had intended spending several days mooching about and exploring. It’s a pretty intimidating place though and we all recognised how exposed we were, and considering the conditions how it would be very easy to get stuck here for some time, if they changed. Or, if we went at the wrong time, how easy it would be to have a real epic or worse, trying to get back to Stor Island. So we made a plan and agreed to explore as much as we could that evening and then the next day, which could also be spent as a bit of a rest if folk needed too. Then at high tide (1600) that same day, we would launch and return while we still could in calm conditions. Initially exploring the remains of the hut site we found the foundations, timbers, stove pipes and tins, coal and general rubbish from the 1932 expedition. We were sure Gino and the team would not begrudge us a fire that evening after our long day, so carefully selected some of the more rotten wood for our fire. The next day we managed to salvage the remains of the whale boat from the beach. (Although it is mentioned in the books, it’s never been confirmed that they took it back to Angmagssalik) I knew it was there from my visit in 2010 and was keen to get it up onto higher ground where it would suffer less damage. John and Donna walked up and round the lake and discovered a number of old 45 g fuel drums, which can only have been placed there to re fuel the sea moth during the 1930/31 expedition. James and I started looking for my missing link, the carving on the rock done by a crew member of the Maagen. There was no sign of it anywhere. In desperation having re read the passage in the book, I said to James, “well, where would you carve my name if it was you” He shrugged and gestured halfheartedly to a slab of rock. As I glanced at it the sun caught the rock and there it was – so faint it was barely visible, we had found it. Trouble was it was too faint to photograph. So again reasoning Gino wouldn’t mind we used some of the coal left from his base camp and highlighted the carving. We strongly believe no one would have seen this since 1932, other than when Riley and Rymill (by then old men) returned in 1982 by boat to mark the 50th year of Gino’s death. It would have been too faint to see if you didn’t know exactly where it was or were seriously hunting for it, as we were this summer. So it was a great success, we had reached the memorial cross, camped at and explored his base camp, rescued the remains of his boat from the storm boulders on the beach, discovered remains of old fuel drums at the lake, left there for the sea moth in 1931 and located the inscription on the rock slab behind the hut site – now we just had to get out and home safe. It was a quiet team that launched and paddled off that afternoon on the 4 o’clock high tide. Everyone with their own thoughts of what would transpire during the next 9 hrs. Also thoughts of what had inspired them to come here in the first place, and thoughts of what it would have really been like, back in the day with no satellite phone, Epirb, Gortex drysuits or GPS. Quite humbling! The sea was pretty lumpy and the tide strong, but as the evening set in we were rewarded with a fantastic light and sun set, such as it is at this time of year. We only noticed how late it was when we started to get cold, by then it was midnight and we were back on the relative safe side, with “Hells Corner” far behind us, guarding a very special place, few ever venture into. The next day was designated as a rest day and faff about with kit day. We were at a fantastic camp site at the head of the fjord, where huge icebergs go to die and the noise all day of breaking ice was a constant reminder (not that we needed one) of how insignificant we were. Heading back to Tasiilaq over the next 2 weeks was an adventure, but of little interest to others so I won’t go on about it here. However we stopped again at Deport Island, for old times’ sake and investigated several other areas mentioned in the various Watkins books. All in all, another great summer. So to plans for the future..... Geoff is off to Antarctica in Feb 2017 with Caffin and Edwards, on a mission to retrace some of the “Southern Lights” expedition. Donna is also going on a kayak trip to the Antarctic in 2017. I will be back in Greenland guiding three expeditions in 2017 during this time we plan to visit the 1930 BAARE base camp and recce a route onto the inland ice. In 2018 I am planning a sailing expedition from Shetland, going into Lake Fjord to recover the remains of the whale boat and then sail down to explore the 1930 / 31 base site and put a team up onto the glacier . It is hoped that James will accompany me on both adventures. As yet John has made no plans, but I am sure he will be back in the future.

Angmagssalik area and beyond.....

This past summer was another great kayaking season in East Greenland. The weather and ice conditions were good allowing us to explore some new exciting areas. Sermilik and Johan Peterson Fjords were relatively free of ice, as was the coast north of Sermiligaq towards Lake Fjord. As usual all the folk were great, forming a strong team and we had some real adventures, pushing things as far as it was safe to do so. Unfortunately we didn't reach Tugtilik (Lake Fjord) this time round, but already have plans afoot for 2016.
This summers adventures (2015) will concentrate on the area south of Sermilik - down towards Isertoq and we hope to take in the DAARE base site at Nagtivit. There is one place available for this coming summer and bookings already being taken for 2016....info@seakayakadventures.co.uk
This picture is upside down - thats how calm it can be at times.

Greenland dates for 2014

Revised date options for 2014 Depart Iceland 18th July - returning to Iceland 31st July Depart Iceland 31st July - returning to Iceland 13th August.

Greenland 2014

Suggested date options for 2014 are as follows... 5th - 18th July................. 19th - 1st August................ 2nd - 15th August

Angmagssalik Ice Conditions

http://www.dmi.dk/dmi/index/hav/satellitbilleder.htm This web link will give you real time updates of the changing ice conditions in the Angmagssalik area. Interesting to see how it changes as the spring sets in.