Charles and Jana dropped their folding kayaks in among the ice floes on the morning of Aug. 1, 1981. The day was bright and promising, but there was a two-foot chop—a bit intimidating for such small craft. A stiff wind blew spray in their faces and icy seawater lapped over the decks of the kayaks. Charles and Jana were wet right away, but they had expected that. The big surprise from the moment they settled into their cockpits was the noise that filled what is conventionally described as "the silent arctic."
In his daybook entry for Aug. 1 Charles wrote in a cramped hand: "It is never quiet among the ice. The sound is a roar that reminds me of torrential rivers. Surf on rock is muffled in comparison to swell among ice. It pulses and shivers as flesh and blood. It booms and snaps. It gives off more decibels than explosions or sonic booms. Movement and sound in the ice is alive. We are navigating an organism...."
Jana's daybook entry was more prosaic: "The ice floes groan, growl and burp. One just bonged out there again. Lots of wump! sounds, some like a car door slamming."
But ice wasn't all that was making noise on the Greenland Sea that brilliant morning. "I heard a sound different from the sea or the wind, like a man breathing hard while swimming," Jana wrote. "It caught my ears so that I looked out to it. There in front of me, so close I saw her eye slip beneath the water and a white cheek flash as I heard her exhale and catch her breath, was a whale. She spouted as her back passed out of the water and I could see the blowhole. This whale had a big fin on her back, the dorsal fin of an orca. On her first broach she was only about 15 yards away. She passed off to my starboard side for one more breath and was gone. All in about 30 seconds.... She was so big. I liked her little eye. She looked at me as she passed. I looked at her. Sleek and black. Then she was gone, and the waves went on and I headed out to sea...."
No more whales would broach near the kayaks, but the ice would thunder and moan and clatter and belch—on and on and on—for the next five weeks as Charles and Jana pursued a strange adventure along the bleak coast of East Greenland. Ice became the most pervasive—and the most perilous—element in their lives, but they were also battered by violent weather and found themselves paddling through fog so thick they could scarcely see each other from a kayak-length away. They also lived in constant awareness that the polar bear, Nanuk, roamed the terrain where they camped each night. After a heated and semi-existential debate about whether to carry a weapon and, if so, what kind (their limited choice included a five-shot rifle or a double-barreled shotgun), the travelers had decided to spend $230 of their $500 stake for the rifle, a .243 Parker-Hale, which they purchased their first day in Greenland. However, Charles remained ambivalent about the gun, about Nanuk and ultimately about his own presence in these desolate environs, and he wrote in his daybook: "Were we not here there would be less disturbance...Of course, it is incumbent upon us to give Nanuk every possible out. In that sense the rifle allows warning-scare shots, whereas a shotgun requires the first shot to stop and, one hopes, kill.... Ever the hard questions: Why are we here? Should we be here? Value must accrue. We have spent so much...."
All right, who were these people and what were they doing pitting themselves against the perils of East Greenland by day and filling page after page after page with words by night? He was—and is—Charles Groesbeek, now 50, a loquacious jack of many, many trades, including cinematographer, mountain guide, prep school English teacher, gravedigger, ambulance driver. She was—and is—Jana Slane, now 29, daughter of a Los Angeles lawyer, graduate in psychology from the University of Victoria in British Columbia, skier, cyclist and climber who supports herself by taking photographs of "turkeys"—vacationing skiers—on Vail Mountain in Colorado. Charles and Jana live in Silver Plume, Colo., a mining town 60 miles west of Denver, in a small, rustic house set on a hill just about equidistant from a tumbling creek below and the rumbling traffic of Interstate 70 above.
The idea for the expedition to Greenland came after a lonely, late-fall climb in Canada's Bugaboos. They wanted to create a unique expedition that would test their skills to the utmost. For many years, Groesbeek, an expert mountaineer, had been eager to challenge the rarely climbed interior ranges of Greenland, which are full of magnificent peaks, some of more than 10,000 feet. On the other hand, Slane's California childhood had included a lot of boating. Besides that, both had skied a good deal. So they combined their interests into a trip to Greenland they labeled "horizontal-vertical"—meaning it would include boating (horizontal) and skiing and climbing (vertical).
They tried to make the expedition into something of a cottage industry, getting stationery printed up and writing letters in an attempt to generate funds and equipment. Although they received a lot of supplies, they didn't attract any financial backers and wound up spending their own savings—every penny. The whole thing nearly collapsed beneath the dead weight of delays caused by 1) a strike among Greenlandic air traffic controllers and 2) a Danish bureaucracy (the great island—the Earth's biggest—was a county of Denmark until 1953, when it became an independently governed protectorate), which was in no hurry to give permission to travel along this rarely visited coast of Greenland.
On July 28, when they finally boarded a 500-ton trawler that reeked of fish, and crossed the Denmark Strait from Iceland to the East Greenland town of Angmagssalik (pop. 1,000), their horizontal-vertical odyssey began in earnest. They had decided to use 15-foot Hypalon Folbot kayaks, which weigh close to 60 pounds. These cost about $620 each and are manufactured in Charleston, S.C. Once assembled, the kayaks are remarkably sturdy and efficient, similar to the ancient craft used for centuries by Inuit seal hunters along the Greenland coast. The Folbots are virtually untippable, and in the stern and bow, Groesbeek and Slane could stow sleeping bags, stoves, fuel, foul-weather gear, wet suits, tent, skis, poles, boots, cameras, climbing gear (including 330 feet of rope), the anti-Nanuk rifle and ammunition, and 140 pounds of food for eight weeks, i.e., enough provisions to last for six weeks of scheduled travel, plus two weeks' worth of emergency rations.
Their high-protein diet consisted of a mix of bulgur wheat and crushed soybeans, honey, oil, various dried fruits (their favorite was papaya), assorted nuts, different kinds of tea, dried milk, dried onions, spices (nutmeg, curry, cayenne) and, headiest delicacy of all, six of Slane's brandy-soaked fruitcakes packed in Tupperware containers. They took no salt (plenty in the sea) and cooked their cereal in a broth of half seawater, half freshwater, obtained from streams and glacial pools. They wore their wet suits only on extraordinarily damp days. Their favorite footwear was their Wellington rubber boots, even though they took on a strong and sour odor a week or so into the trip that no amount of washing, drying or airing could remove.
Amazingly enough, though Groesbeek and Slane were toughened veterans of many wilderness excursions, neither had done any serious kayaking before. Hearing this, people who knew a little about where Groesbeek and Slane were going called them stupid. And so it seemed they were, because it cannot be emphasized enough just how forsaken is the area they intended to visit. For one thing, even detailed maps of East Greenland's coastline and topography are a joke. It's a region seldom visited by anyone except native Greenlanders. There have been a few expeditions in recent years: In 1970 20 Englishmen set out in a flotilla of kayaks and covered about 120 miles, round trip, in a full month of hard work; in 1980 two Britons equipped with a Zodiac inflatable raft and double outboard motors took three weeks to make a round trip of about 250 miles between Angmagssalik and a small island east of Sermiligaq, the northernmost outpost on the east coast. Groesbeek and Slane, the neophyte kayakers, proposed to cover more than 500 miles by kayak—meaning unassisted muscle power—in six weeks, which would include several days off the water, climbing and skiing in the mountains.
East Greenland was largely unknown and virtually unsettled and unwanted by Europeans until less than 100 years ago. It is said that East Greenland is only a little more than one generation out of the Stone Age. This is literally true. When Eric the Red sailed from Iceland at the end of the 10th century, he skipped the ice-choked shores of the east side of Greenland and founded settlements, such as they were, on the south and west coasts. The Norsemen clung for almost 500 years to that bare, green land, and then vanished. One theory is that they were annihilated by marauding Eskimo hunters, moving down the west coast from Canada to follow migrating herds of caribou. Eskimo legends tell of fierce battles about that time, but the true fate of Eric the Red's settlers has never been discovered.
In the early 1700s, Danish missionaries arrived—but, again, only in West Greenland. From then on that part of the island came under the influence of European culture. In the unexplored east, the Eskimos continued to live as if time had stood still: They wore sealskin clothes in winter, went almost nude in summer, lived in rude shelters of animal hides and sod, made kayaks and umiaks of sealskin and hunted with stone-tipped harpoons and spears or bows and arrows. Occasionally, a few would make their way to the civilized west side of the island where they were viewed as aliens. They spoke a bizarre dialect that was all but incomprehensible to West Greenlanders, and because of grotesque stories the Eskimos told of how they had survived through the darkest, hungriest winters, the sophisticated westerners labeled the wild men from the other side of the island inuktorumarsat—cannibals. Not until 1884 did a European explorer come upon the settlements on the east coast. That year Gustav Holm, a Dane, traveled up the coast from Cape Farewell, Greenland's southernmost point, with an expedition paddling umiaks to Angmagssalik, about 60 miles below the Arctic Circle. There he found a community of 416 Eskimos who were so primitive they had never heard of iron. They were sick and hungry, clearly on the brink of extinction. By 1895, the Danes had established government health and education programs in hopes of saving the rapidly dwindling population, and the Stone Age gradually receded from East Greenland.
The first evening of the horizontal-vertical expedition, Groesbeek and Slane were socked in by dense fog at sea level and camped along the Angmagssalik Fjord, about 14 miles from where they had started. In the nearly endless summer dusk—the sun sets about 11:30 p.m. and rises again at 3 a.m. in early August—they roamed along the shore to a point looking out to sea, and there they found the ruins of an Eskimo hunter's sod-and-skin-roofed house. During the next few days and nights, they stopped at a couple of settlements, tiny, trashy clusters of wooden shacks where a notable proportion of the inhabitants seemed to be on a perpetual drunk. The travelers saw no other kayaks on the water, just several fiber-glass powerboats driven by Eskimos.
On Aug. 5 the pair arrived at Sermiligaq (pop. 60), 30 miles below the Arctic Circle. There they encountered a Greenlander named Ulrick Manikufdalik, a professional mountaineer and relentless pessimist who was depressingly negative about their plan. He told them, "Dangerous. Impossible. I think you don't come back." As if on cue, it began to storm and rain. Groesbeek and Slane spent the next three nights and two days stuck in Sermiligaq, staying at the home of Thorvald Taunajek, a native Greenlander who is the pastor and teacher in the tiny town. They talked a lot about the ice to the north and whether or not the kayaks could get through. Ulrick had told them that they should have gone in July, that the ice would set in solid by late August, that they were too late to make it in and out. But Thorvald said, "No. Ice go away at August moon and not come back till October moon." At Thorvald's, Groesbeek and Slane dined on blubbered seal (boiled meat with a layer of fat left on) and whole sea trout (meaning truly whole—eyes, tail, gills, innards, etc.) and heard sobering news of a local family of seven that only three days earlier had returned to Sermiligaq from a hunting trip begun the previous October. The family had misjudged the onrush of winter ice and had been forced to camp the whole winter in the north.
Finally on Aug. 8, under "Colorado blue skies," Groesbeek and Slane set out again. It was almost hot. He paddled wearing only a Patagonia pile-lined vest. They threaded their way through thickening ice formations, zigging and zagging to find open channels—called "leads"—through the stuff. Sometimes they navigated carefully, deliberately; sometimes with swift, powerful emergency strokes to avoid trouble. Charles wrote in his daybook: "Ice. Ice. Ice. Which way to move? Any direction is filled with ice. Even thinly scattered ice merges solid at the horizon. It always looks like we are frozen in. Still, we make good time despite intricate jigsawing amid pack ice and bergs. You think your eyes are deceiving you. Whole rivers move amid the pack. The ice sometimes seems to be moving faster than we are paddling."
Swift or slow, the action of the ice was rarely predictable. That same day, a football-field-size section of ice suddenly moved so fast into a lead Slane was paddling through that it shoved her kayak up against a wall of rock and popped paddler and boat out of the water.
The sudden "calving" of the glacial ice on shore sent vast slabs plunging into the sea without warning, creating monster waves that upset the balance of the ice for a mile or more. "Hippos" occurred when some unseen collision or gradual erosion in the freezing silence far beneath the surface of the Denmark Strait would cause an enormous chunk of ice to break off a berg and come bursting to the top in a massive eruption of water, noise and destructive force, much like an angry hippopotamus.
The laws of physics dictate that the fraction of the iceberg mass visible on the surface is a mere one-ninth of the iceberg mass in the water below. With or without the threat of hippos the size of fire engines suddenly surging up, this is a statistic so startling as to be almost beyond imagination. The size of icebergs above the surface sent Groesbeek into the far reaches of architectural simile to describe their mass: "The smallest are like grain elevators on the plains, the largest like the office buildings and high-rises of Denver.... Scattered about were masses like the hangars at Boeing in Seattle.... They were great lumps that reminded us of shopping centers.... Sometimes I felt like I was walking through the buildings in the Wall Street district.... Bergs the size of courthouses clogged the channel." And Slane added her slightly calmer observation: "They are like huge floating mountains with towers twisted and tapered by storms in the north.... The peaks of the towers are pointed. Holes have been blown through creating tunnels and caves."
As they paddled through this protean and fantastical ice- and seascape, the days began to meld together. Clock time had become quite inconsequential early in the trip because of the nearly endless hours of daylight. Neither of them ever bothered to look at a watch; they more or less kept track of the passing hours by means of the tides. Nevertheless, there was a definite urgency involving time. Mid-August in Greenland is the brink of winter. When that fearsome season laid on its full freezing white force, the ice pack would tighten up and become impassable—to trawlers, powerboats and eventually even to 15-foot Folbots propelled by nothing but musclepower and wit.
Although these ice-choked waters were conspicuously bleak, there was a distinctive arctic lushness to the land. Greenland has no trees as such—only scrub bushes grow there; what wood there is has either been hauled in by boat or drifted across the top of the planet from Siberia. But the island is far from barren. On Aug. 15, after they paddled to the finger-end of a five-mile fjord that wasn't on their maps, Slane wrote: "Flowers everywhere. The brightest are pink like fuchsias, and there are some like violets and tiny buttercups. We walked above the moraine and it was green everywhere! Heather, scrubby willows and blueberries. Fireweed and harebells."
They named the place Spring Flower Fjord, but pretty and delicate as the flora may have looked, the country had a more ominous side: This was Nanuk territory because of the blueberries. It was also utterly virginal terrain. Groesbeek again gave voice to his uneasiness over his role as a trespasser: "How many millennia has that rock lain there till I move it for my bed? It is disturbing to be a disturber. Our presence—walking only—has a calculable impact."
A nearly disastrous mishap occurred at the tip of Spring Flower Fjord. Groesbeek and Slane had decided to reload their kayaks and paddle to another, nearby campsite, from which they intended to travel up a huge glacier to a towering mountain range beyond for their first attempt at the vertical element of their trip. His craft was loaded but Slane had most of her portion of the equipment on a rock shelf just above the water. The waters of the fjord had been intermittently swelling, a consequence of calving. Groesbeek was about to climb into his kayak, and Slane was beginning to load, when a particularly huge mass of ice suddenly fell into the water. A series of waves followed by a four-foot swell washed over them. The swell lifted Groesbeek off his feet for a moment, sent Slane's equipment afloat and threatened to sweep them both into the icy fjord.
Miraculously, Slane stayed on her feet. She quickly gripped the line from her boat in her teeth and managed to hold down much of the equipment with her hands. A cook set drifted off, but Groesbeek retrieved it and threw it to higher ground. When the great swell subsided, they found they had lost nothing but two drinking cups.
The next day Slane was ill with laryngitis, but nevertheless they headed up the glacier to high ground in preparation for a climb in the splendid peaks they had been viewing from the sea with growing anticipation. Groesbeek hauled a lot of equipment while Slane rested atop the glacier. The following day they both hiked up about 16 miles, skis strapped to their packs. That night they camped on the glacier at 1,500 feet, and the change in the atmosphere was abrupt and shocking. "The camp is quiet!" Charles marveled. "The sites on the fjord were bombarded with several shock waves an hour. Ice never stopped falling. Here we hear water courses ripple and gurgle."
Groesbeek was filling his daybook with an often nearly incomprehensible or pretentious outpouring of verbiage that came in such profusion that by the end of the trip he had inscribed something more than 85,000 words—a short novel's worth—on some 425 notebook pages. He dealt with a wildly diverse variety of subjects. He wrote about his and Slane's desperate financial condition: "We are more than broke.... But if I can't succeed in confining those anxieties from my consciousness, they can become dangerous and threaten life itself." About the French existentialists: "Grand indulgence in nihilism became a too common affliction among them.... Why did Albert Camus die so young?" About being the first to climb a mountain: "What of the mystique of first ascents? I think it is all mixed up with this virgin stuff from Judeo-Christianity." He quoted from Robert Frost: "Something there is that doesn't love a wall." And Robinson Jeffers: "...Baltic Beowulf/like a fogblinded sea bear/Prowling the blasted fenland in the bleak twilight to the black water." He saw ravens, and he wrote about death: "There is comfort to death here in Greenland. Death is far easier to accept if you are assured your body will pass immediately into the food chain."
Slane's entries tended toward no-nonsense observations of what was happening and what she was seeing: "I raised my head and there were ptarmigan sitting in a patch of harebells. A mother and half a dozen young. I saw a kind of rock we haven't seen before—black crumbly stuff, like crumbled asphalt. Charles' barometer reads 3,000 feet. Tomorrow we go across the glacier to climb the mountains there.... My fears. Got to control them."
On Aug. 21, they at last began to do some mountaineering. The peak they chose was "a blob on the map" which they named Sharp Pyramid. Underfoot as they started the climb was bizarre, volatile corn snow, its granules as big as marbles. Groesbeek stepped onto the snow and the treacherous stuff ran out from beneath him. Had he lost his footing, he might have slid down the slope and over a cliff with a sheer drop of 1,000 feet to the glacier below.
Ultimately, Groesbeek and Slane climbed the face without incident and kept going higher and higher until they were above all the other peaks in the area and could see miles out to sea. The map had indicated that the highest peak in the range was slightly more than 5,500 feet, but Groesbeek's barometer indicated that the summit of Sharp Pyramid was higher than 6,000. It was about 10 p.m. when they finally reached the mountain-top, and they decided to descend immediately despite the approaching twilight. As they followed their morning footprints across the glowing snow, back to camp, a half-moon rose over the peak that they had just climbed and the northern lights set up a pattern of dancing ribbons on the glacier.
The next morning, Groesbeek and Slane climbed a nearby outcropping to photograph some plants, but the wind rose gradually until the gusts were perhaps 60 mph. So they returned to their tent. At once the day became fierce and dangerous. Groesbeek wrote: "Yesterday it was fall, today winter. We are in a high-wind blizzard. Visibility less than 100 meters. The skudzy glacier is whitening." He worried about the tent, an ancient thing that Groesbeek had owned for years and that had innumerable pinpoint holes from hundreds of nights and days of exposure to the elements. It flapped and whipped and cracked, yet it held even as the wind rose to frightening velocity. Slane described the noise of the gale this way: "I can hear it coming, a big blast from above and beyond like a locomotive." Groesbeek heard something entirely different: "It reminded me of the old tracker pipe organs in Yankee churches.... It fills up to a pitch, then a demonic musician lets go with a crescendo. Blast!"
Their camp was on sheer rock, one of the worst sites Groesbeek had used in 40 years of outdoor life. But they couldn't move for another day and night. Then, before dawn, on Aug. 24, Groesbeek wrote: "It has stopped. A winter wonderland. Cold. An arctic high has frozen everything. Silence. Time to move. Duck and run. Get out of the fjord system before we get trapped."
That meant an exhausting haul down 3,000 feet of vertical drop, and then hiking more than 17 line-of-sight miles in a day. The snowfall had stopped only about 500 feet below the campsite, but below that it had rained and the ground was hard and icy. They made it back to Spring Flower Fjord, where the kayaks had been beached. Now they became aware of the abrupt, almost violent change of season. "The willows have yellowed," Groesbeek wrote. "We moved from summer to winter in seven days. It is undeniable. The impact is foreboding, ominous if you let it get to you. Winter is pushing us."
They reinforced the kayaks with strips of Hypalon, dried out their equipment and set forth on the fjord once more, heading to the open sea. Again a storm blew out of the mountains, rain and wind, and they were forced to put in to camp on a beach in the fjord. Eventually the storm eased and settled into a cold drizzle mixed with sea fog. On Aug. 27 they began paddling to sea again and experienced one of their hardest days. As it turned out, it was merely the start of the most testing ordeal of the expedition.
The day's trip was long, and the ice was very tough to get through. They covered 20-plus line-of-sight miles, but paddled at least 30 real miles as they worked their way through the swirling currents and out of the fjord. In the open sea, huge bergs lay to the east. The thickening ice made it hard to find a route, and Groesbeek and Slane had to bash and shove through pack ice. Frequently the shore was obscured by mist and fog. "The day demanded more in arctic sea wits than I knew I had," said Groesbeek.
Rain had been pouring all day, and though both wore wet suits and foul-weather gear, they were so wet that the slightest pressure squeezed streams of water from their clothes. Groesbeek was shivering, and he felt that his movements were becoming slightly clumsy—the first signs of hypothermia. They searched along the coast for a place to set up camp, but saw nothing but forbidding rock cliffs against which the ice-choked surf smashed and clattered with frightening violence. They reconnoitered a small indentation in the rock and found what Groesbeek described as "a cauldron of cliffs, sea swell, cataracts and ice." It was a wild place—they would come to call it Storm Cliff—but there was a ledge on one of the cliff walls and beyond that a fault in the rock that could be used to climb to the top of the cliff where they hoped to find a usable campsite. Groesbeek brought his kayak alongside the ledge, waited until a swell lifted his boat even with the narrow shelf, took the kayak line in his teeth and quickly hopped onto the ledge. Then with a nearly superhuman burst of strength, he picked the kayak, fully loaded—maybe 200 pounds—out of the water and swung it onto the ledge next to him. Quickly he unloaded it, hefted it to a higher shelf and directed Slane through the same rhythmic use of the rising sea swell, followed by the quick hop onto the ledge and the lifting, by the two of them, of the kayak.
Rain pelted down. Darkness was falling fast. They lashed the boats to four Chouinard climbing anchors that Groesbeek embedded in the cliff. The kayaks hung there above the stormy seas, well above even the huge tidal rise that spans 12 feet from low to high. Later Groesbeek wrote that the kayaks strung on the cliff were "horizontal on vertical—an epitome of incongruity."
Meanwhile, Slane climbed the slippery cliff with the tent under her arm. It was a climb that Groesbeek says would rate as a 5.2 class (intermediate) ascent in the Shawangunks of New York, although, as he points out, "Those cliffs have neither tide nor sea growth and are almost never climbed in the rain." Slane put up the tent, and they brought up their equipment and with great relief, settled down.
By morning—Aug. 28—the weather had changed. "The sunbeams are bouncing off the storm clouds," rejoiced Slane. But later Groesbeek noted something else: "The pack iced us in. Seals were coming with it. Seals mean Nanuk. I went to check the ice once again and found no lead...."
The ordeal had begun. Groesbeek and Slane were, at least for the time, trapped. Ice was the enemy but so were the spring tide and the bad weather and, more than these, the onrushing arctic winter.
On Aug. 29, Groesbeek wrote: "Evening. One last trip to the promontory to check for a lead. None. Sea fog shadow hung several miles out. The water was full of small ice, sealing all the passages between big ice."
Aug. 30, Slane: "We got packed up this morning, but when we walked to the headland, we saw no way out again.... We hope to get out tomorrow morning."
Aug. 31, Groesbeek commented on the constant thundering of surf and ice against the cliffs: "The rumble travels underground, and you start as if from a nightmare: 'I've got to escape this trestle before the train hits me!' Conditions at sea continue to be the worst. High surf continues despite ebbing tide. The cauldron is jammed with broken, decayed bergs and slush.... It looks grim...."
Sept. 1, Slane: "Ice, frozen at the shore. All that crushed ice has thickened and is making new pack. It's so heavy. Need a lead badly. Charles tried the boat in the slush. It was like wet cement. He could not get the boat to move...."
Sept. 2, Slane: "Some of the bigger bergs, I think, have moved at the shore-side perimeter of the pack. But for the first time it's worrying me that we won't get out of here, that the breakup is a tease and it'll get worse again. That's hard to bear. We're cutting our food consumption to one meal a day."
Finally, Sept. 3, Groesbeek wrote: "Out prowling in the night. If an arctic night can reveal anything, we are free! The cauldron has begun to empty. The seascape of tethered hulks has changed dramatically. The strip of solid ice and slush seems to have narrowed...."
By noon they had removed the kayaks from the skyhooks in the cliff, loaded them and dunked them into the thick, heaving slush. They were about to make their escape from Storm Cliff prison. But there was nothing easy about the early going. They shoved and muscled their way through the ice, paddling in crazy zigzags as if caught in some kind of lunatic's labyrinth. Groesbeek wrote: "I kept trying to maintain an illusion of progress, as if we weren't going in circles as it sometimes seemed. There was one fear I had to fight: 'Charles, if you let this confusion of twisting get to you, you are all done. The ice will have won.'...We hit a series of open leads and were seduced into heading south too soon. More pack. More slush. We worked back to the north and northeast.... Leads began to break open toward the edge of the ice. Large swells would raise the ice up as a wall before me, a full, vertical wall."
Finally they gained the open sea and, with the swell to ride, glided swiftly out miles from the coast and soon found themselves moving along with the smooth flow of the Greenland Current. The weather turned warm, dry and sunny—"Riviera weather" they called it—and Slane wrote that night with something approaching euphoria: "I have never paddled so well. Smooth and straight, running with the swell, running with no resistance anywhere, with hundreds of feet of water beneath me, and the ocean spread all the way to the golden horizon...."
Altogether they paddled more than 50 miles that day, out to sea and toward the south. They camped on Amaqalit Island that night. The next day at sea, they sped south, propelled as much by high spirits as by their paddles and the powerful current. They spent the following night on Tikivigpik Island, having covered more than 40 miles. Then, after paddling about 20 miles on Sept. 5, they arrived at Sermiligaq where Taunajek's wife and children and some of the village men met them at the dock.
After a two-day layover, Groesbeek and Slane headed back to sea, going ever southward, and found the weather ever more pleasant. They put up for a night in an itinerant hunter's cabin on an island and then left the next morning on an ilimanarsertivaligajikkalivarimmiit—the Eskimo word meaning "a smooth, silky sea that drives hunters blind."
On Sept. 10, they paddled into the Angmagssalik Fjord and decided to camp on a tiny skerry, picked arbitrarily from many on the route. Here they stumbled upon the most remarkable discovery of their entire trip. As Groesbeek wrote: "Each campsite has been a privilege, but this one is a trust. Best to be silent."
They had come upon the ruins of an abandoned village. There were graves and human bones. It seemed possible even that Groesbeek and Slane were the first people to visit this ghostly settlement since the last living inhabitant had died or departed Lord knows when. Standing on the island's highest point, they could make out the ruins of several houses—sunken pits lined with stones or sod, with trenches leading into them. Beyond the houses, on what seemed to be something like a village green, were two or three sets of rocks set in double rings, a little like ancient sun wheels. All of these rocks were coated with black lichen, evidence that it had been many years since human hands had moved them.
At the grave sites Groesbeek and Slane saw no fewer than eight skulls. One grave contained three skulls, seeming to indicate multiple burials. "This might suggest far-reaching tragedy," Groesbeek wrote. "A few of the bones are obviously large, my size or better. Could these be remains from a Viking incursion?"
The next day Groesbeek and Slane paddled up the Angmagssalik Fjord in rough water, but still covered the 20 miles to town in just about four hours. There would be no more horizontal, no more vertical on this trip. They talked seriously of kayaking 500 more miles to the south, outrunning winter on the way, but, the Danish Ministry for Greenland refused permission. On Oct. 10 they flew back to New York from Reykjavik and one of Groesbeek's last entries, on page 139 of his fifth daybook, was this: "1900 to 1930. The cold coast of Greenland has passed below. We seem to be passing quite south of Angmagssalik. There is very little ice."
CHARLES HOLMES GROESBEEK AND JANA SLANE
CHARLES HOLMES GROESBEEK AND JANA SLANE
In Sermiligaq, Slane washes down the kayaks before continuing the horizontal phase of the trip.
CHARLES HOLMES GROESBEEK AND JANA SLANE
A crevasse in a glacier near Spring Flower Fjord temporarily stops Groesbeek's vertical progress.
CHARLES HOLMES GROESBEEK AND JANA SLANE
Slane grips the tip of Sharp Pyramid after taking in the sun in Spring Flower Fjord. Groesbeek peers in a puddle to chop at his stubble on Stor Island.
CHARLES HOLMES GROESBEEK AND JANA SLANE
At Storm Cliff camp the kayaks were anchored above the tide, hut pack ice moved in and paddling was impossible.
CHARLES HOLMES GROESBEEK AND JANA SLANE
The Arctic fireweed at Spring Flower Fjord.
CHARLES HOLMES GROESBEEK AND JANA SLANE
On an island near Sermiligaq, a curious Arctic fox calls at the travelers' camp.
PAUL J. PUGLIESE
The odyssey included only a relatively short stretch of East Greenland's coast, but covered 500 miles as the kayakers wove in and out of fjords.
PAUL J. PUGLIESE
[See caption above.]
Spring Flower Fjord
CHARLES HOLMES GROESBEEK AND JANA SLANE
Groesbeek paddles past an iceberg sculpted by wind and wave.
CHARLES HOLMES GROESBEEK AND JANA SLANE
The bones of early Greenlanders lie amid the lichen-covered ruins of their village.