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Lake Fjord 2016 - Unfinished Business


Every summer I am lucky enough to give up the day job and spend a month or so in East Greenland.
I have been exploring the area since 2000 and for the past 8 years have been guiding annual trips based out of Tasiilaq, Angmassalik.
Like me, many of my clients get the bug and over the years return to further explore.
This summer a small team, of what I now consider to be very good friends, embarked on a rather special trip, heading north, off my regular stomping ground, to try and reach Lake Fjord (Tugtilik) where Gino Watkins died in 1932. Two of the team, James and Donna had been part of a team who attempted this with me in 2014, however on that occasion we had been unsuccessful. This year Geoff and John joined us, making a strong tight team of five.
We were keen to save time in order to make the most of a favourable weather window so the trip started with a fast boat drop off in the settlement of Sermiligaq, the most easterly of Tasiilaqs five small satellite communities. Subsistence hunting and fishing is the major focus of life in Sermiligaq - although now mainly done using motor boats, they are very proud of their kayaking culture. We are always made very welcome there and have often been told , with a flexing of their biceps, that we were not tourists - but kayakers. This is obviously as high up the visitor’s ladder as it’s possible to be.
We had checked out much of our route in 2014 and so headed for the few known camping sites, while all the time taking note of any possible landings or emergency get outs, should conditions change and force us to retreat in poor conditions.
The coast is all very spectacular, with high cliffs, calving glaciers, precipitous islands and the constant back drop of alpine style mountains and the Greenland icecap. Even for the Angmassalik region this area is very remote. Few if any kayakers venture to Sermiligaq, let alone past it, and even the local hunters are seldom seen heading north along our intended route. We definitely felt out on the edge.
On trip you soon settle into the simple routine. Breaky, toilet, dry suit on, de camp, wait for someone who’s faffing (make sure it’s not you again) , load and then carry boats as a 4, paddle, paddle, paddle with a bit of chat and a few photos. Lunch, paddle, paddle, paddle, land, have a pee, carry boats, set up camp, cook, chat, read, explore, set bear fence, sleep. Repeat. It’s great!!
Polar bears or Ice Bears as the locals refer to them are a potential hazard in this area – “You can never say there won’t be a bear” – is how one hunter several years ago described the risk to me. At the end of the summer they are referred to as “Ghost Bears”. They are there but you probably won’t see one – then all of a sudden you might.
With my regular teams we have 8 folk on trip to allow for easy night watch rotas, however with a group of five we didn’t have the man power to do a waking shift, so instead relied on a couple of well deployed trip wires and two loaded guns in different tents. Ironically on the way back to the relative civilisation of Kuummiut James and I were woken by the sound of something big wading through the shallow water by our campsite – although inquisitive they are also often easily spooked and our still burning fire probably saved the day.
Our interest in the area and in particular this trip was as a result of discovering the story of Gino Watkins – who explored and mapped the area in 1930 / 32 as part of his research for Pan Am Airways and the British Arctic Air Route Expedition. Watkins learnt his kayaking and hunting skills from the locals, so as to provide food for the members of his expeditions. As a result he was taken in and adopted by the hunters, who acknowledged his talent and skill, which was often superior to that of some Inuit kayakers.
We had brought along several period books and round the fire each night read about the adventures and escapades experienced by Watkins and his team on the following day’s section of our route.
The weather remained settled and although completely devoid of ice the seas stayed calm – Brash and Pack ice is pretty crucial on an exposed coast like this as it keeps the swell down and can give you a landing for lunch or an opportunity to sort stuff out in an emergency. As a result we knew that there would be no landings on the two days just before reaching Tugtiliq and both days would be at least 8+ hours of paddling . Given the potential for unpredictable weather, down drafts from the huge cliffs and the chance of winds and tides funnelling out of the fjords and round the headlands these two days going in and then returning would be the crux of the trip.
Paddling past Ailsa Island into Lake Fjord was an emotional moment (that took over an hour). We first visited the headland overlooking the North branch of the fjord to locate his memorial cross and take some photo’s. Then before we got too cold we headed on into the left hand branch of the fjord to find the site and remains of the base camp. We quickly set up camp and settled in for the night with a warming fire. The next day was spent exploring. High up on the beach, in the winter storm boulders we found the remains of “the Whaler” one of Watkins boats abandoned in 1932. We excavated this and moved it to a safer place on higher ground. Up at the lake John and Donna discovered the site where the Sea Moth had landed and been refuelled in 1931, there were many old empty fuel drums on the lake shore marking the deep water spot where the plane could taxi in. After referring back to our book, and another good nose about, James found the rock behind the hut site, where Watkins details had been calved soon after his death.
Given the forecast and conditions at sea we didn’t want to linger and headed out late that afternoon on the high tide, keen to get past “Hell Corner” and back into some safer areas for the remainder of our trip. The return paddle went well with a slight tail wind pushing us along. We landed at midnight; it was still light but now very cold, and hastily made camp and turned in. The next day would be a rest day, to do some washing, eat and rest up a bit. We had done well and still had over a week left to wind our way back before finally packing up my store for the winter.
There were far too many highlights to mention them all here. It is such a fantastic place I am still impressed after years of exploring the area. And to retrace a route done during the early 30’s, when folk had skin kayaks, and none of the modern day clothing and safety equipment we take for granted these days was pretty humbling. Paddling in using their books for reference and copies of the original maps made it even more special. Thanks to Donna McCready -USA, James Pigdon - Wales , Geoff Murray - Tasmania and John Paschke - Scotland for making the summer such a memorable one. Until next year!

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