From far above, Scoresby Sund could be an open hand poised to grab a chunk of East Greenland. Its fjords extend hundreds of kilometres inland, are 1450 metres at their deepest and have an overall surface area of around 38,000 sq. km. It’s a place of calving glaciers, icebergs that can drift out into the Greenland Sea, peaks up to 2000 metres high of rock more than a billion years old, vertically challenged vegetation and some seriously charismatic megafauna: polar bear, muskox, whale, walrus. Birds include pink-footed goose, puffin and snowy owl. Daytime temperatures in September hover around zero.
Our expedition leader – geologist and former Berlin-based detective Steffen Biersack – realised prior to this sailing that none of his team had been to East Greenland and recognised “that’s not good enough; guests on board deserve local knowledge”. He contacted the Ittoqqortoormiit community hoping a representative of their choice could join the expedition team for the few days Fram planned to explore their backyard.
Niels wears a self-made traditional white anorak to introduce himself to passengers that evening and deliver verbal snapshots of being raised in a village of under 500 people. In Denmark, for some of his education, Niels loved the novelty of trees to climb but ‘felt empty’. In Ittoqqortoormiit, he’s a self-proclaimed odd jobs specialist who hunts in his free time.
“I really do enjoy this way of living; it’s my way of living,” he says before describing how close he gets when stalking musk oxen and how many hours you may need to sit on a half-dark midwinter shore at –18°C “waiting for the next meal, waiting for another seal,” to feed the extended family.
Love me tendered
When we’re tendered to Hekla Havn on Denmark Island the next morning, Niels fields questions outside the lone hunting cabin we’re free to explore. Assistant expedition leader Helga Kristiansen is onshore, too, and like most of this expedition team is Nordic, nature-loving and a qualified Arctic guide. They all deliver lectures, facilitate boat transfers, stand armed at strategic highpoints looking out for polar bear whenever we’re doing shore excursions.
On this particular journey, Fram will venture deeper into Scoresby Sund than any Hurtigruten vessel has before; along the narrow Fonfjord and around a gigantic bend into Rode Fjord towards Harefjord. Bare-naked geological features of various colours and textures decorate these fiords with their blacks, greys, browns, oranges and Uluru-reds. There are snow patches and light white dustings at higher altitudes.
Icebergs on the horizon
Early the next morning, groups in thermal suits board Polarcirkel boats and skim away from the mothership across glassy water. In unadulterated sunshine we approach glacier faces, frozen falls, blue bergs and circumnavigate small islands. A faraway herd of grazing musk oxen is spotted. On our return to Fram we find the 11.5-tonne ship dwarfed by an iceberg.
Rocky shores and sea ice
More landings are ahead: Rødepynt where some of us swim in –1°C water off a red beach; Bear Islands to walk across wild-flowering tundra and over rocky outcrops; and South Cape late one afternoon when everything has an orange glow. There we see summer-dried muskox skeletons Niels knows intimately and out on the horizon over 100 icebergs up to, possibly, 80 metres high.
On the last full day in Scoresby Sund the weather is suitable for kayaking. Our instructor, Laura Bjerre, is also a glacier instructor, mountain guide and an outdoor education teacher when back home in Denmark. Despite all this experience, paddling from a rocky shore into the sea ice of Vikingebukt backdropped by black mountains striated with snow is, she tells us, “so different from anything I’ve done before”.
Hurtigruten’s heartfelt talks
Somewhere in amid all this is a heartfelt talk by a Hurtigruten executive whose grandfather spent some winters here last century. Monochrome images show solitary cabins and husky pups, wooden dinghies and Norwegian men, highly strung pelts of polar bear and fox. Øystein Knoph asks that we try to view these hunting expeditions within a historical context: income from trapping allowed his grandfather to purchase a remote hut in Northern Norway where the family bunkered down (and babies were born including Øystein’s father) during World War II.
When Niels is tendered back to Ittoqqortoormiit the expedition team feels they’re losing a limb. But Steffen already has plans to invite him back on board and Niels is already ready to say yes.
Photography by Elspeth Callender