A lot of us have probably been thinking about what it would be like to move out into the wilderness for a longer period. The curiosity about how it would be tickles the thought, but it rarely becomes reality. Except for Svante Lysén and Oscar Andersson.
We have been here for six months now. It is the first time that Oscar Andersson – boat builder, sailor and kayaker, with experience of several trips to Spitsbergen – leaves civilization to live in the total wilderness for as long a time as a year. For me, it is the third time, but the first time to move in to an already completed cabin. Already nine years ago, I went Canada with my friends Rolf, Renata and Pia. There we built our own house for overwintering – Sandy Hill – on a sandy ridge overlooking the great maze lake, Nueltin Lake, in the border district between forest and tundra about 30 miles west of Hudson Bay. The year in the wilderness gave me a desire to experience more of life close to nature and the freedom it brings, so a couple of years later I did it again – this time with Leena Björklund – in the most northern part of Spitsbergen. There we put up a cot for overwintering. To make sure that the cot would function during the hard winter, and at the same time keep out curious polar bears, we built an octagonal log house outside the cot with an entrance that made it all look like a church. We had a great time there, comfortable and nice, but simple. In winter we covered the outside of the house with snow blocks, turning it into a three-layered house, which made the name “ The winter palace” seem right. The base camp here in the Scoresbysundfjord on the east coast of Greenland is South Cape, an earlier trading station, which lies perfectly between the high alpine mountains to the west and the great lowland areas in Jameson Land to the east. A few kilometres out in the fjord an lies an archipelago rich in birds. To the north there is a number of great river deltas and a few miles south the Bear Islands, with several spectacular dragon-back shaped summits.
Preparations for the winter.
We arrived here with our fully loaded zodiac for the first time at the end of July – just a few weeks after the fjord had become free of ice. Summer and early autumn were spent on a pleasant combination of small journeys of discovery in the vicinity and transports back and forth between South Cape and the town Ittoqqortoormiit at the mouth of the Scoresbysundfjord, to get the food, supplies and solid fuel needed for a whole year, a trip of 185 kilometres each way. The fishing turned out to be excellent, the fish filled up the nets in no time and we quickly realised that it wouldn’t be a problem to gather a good stock of dried and salted char for the winter. In the beginning of September we received unexpected help from the Russian cruise ship M/S Professor Molchanov, which carried the rest of our gear from town to Sydkap. Usually it is almost impossible for boats, except icebreakers of the highest class, to sail into the Scoresbysund fjord. This is because its entry if blocked by the Great Ice – a 100 kilometre wide barrier of drift-ice, which drains the Arctic Ocean of ice floes 3 metres thick, which slowly drift south along the entire Greenlandic East coast. But this year the unusual thing had happened, that the Great Ice had retired and left open space for passage of all kinds of ships. When all equipment and food finally was at the right place, we started a long-awaited trip along Milne Land, which is a mountainous island, the same size as Gotland. The sun is shining and the weather reminds of summer when we turn on the 50 HP engine and start the journey in the Zodiac “Paddan” (“the turtle” ), which was named after its turtle-like profile. A few tens of kilometres to the south, we pass by the peculiar Bear Islands, where the peaks on some islands points directly into the sky up looking like the back of a dinosaur. We reach the mouth of “Island fjord” just as the foen wind dropped in the early evening. The foen wind is a good-weather wind that starts around midday when air flows down from the icecap and out into the valleys with increasing strength. The next day is overcast. The foen wind is conspicuous by its absence and in absolute silence we continue along the Island Fjord's enormous 1500 metres steep slopes, which makes us pinch each others arms more than once. After 8o kilometres of sailing, the fjord widens and the mountains fade away. We stop at a beach, wander across the moor, the great land of the musk oxen, to film the magnificent animals. Early in evening it starts raining – a rain that by noon the next day has turned into heavy snowfall with a very bad visibility; at the same time as icebergs and pieces of ice gather and close the western part of the fjord in front of Milne Land. After an hour, the snow starts covering the ice cold sea, where it freezes to thick slush within a very short time. Everything happens faster than we can imagine. From sailing easily over the open water, not worrying about anything, we suddenly face a problem we could never had imagined this early in the year. Finally, the new ice surrounds us from all sides; at the same time as glacier ice in all sizes surround us, and in the end it is impossible to continue our journey. In this position we cannot do anything else but to head for the shore, camp and wait for better times – either that the ice breaks up or until its strong enough to cross by foot. After two days both the weather and the ice improve. We criss-cross to the other side of the fjord to find a passage through the ice and a route that continues south. We cant find such a passage though, and after having searched half the day we just have to realise the bad reality and retire the roundabout 100 kilometres we’ve been sailing the last few days. The weather clears up and the foen wind, which now is coming from the rear, provides us with a good fair wind through the big waves in Island Fjord. We don’t feel like ending our journey just like that, so we camp at one of The Bear Islands and later continue on in great weather along the eastern coast of Milne Land. We are being blessed with a few days of great experiences along the coast and among intense autumnal colours on the land. We’ve almost been around the island, going up on one side and coming back on the other.
Feeding frenzy on cinnamon buns & whale watching.
Back home, the weather turns bad again. We bake a huge amount of cinnamon buns and sit down by the great window in the big room, to eat some of them with freshly made coffee. This is a good place to meditate and have coffee breaks. The view over the fjord is the best possible and the view changes constantly with the white icebergs floating back and forth with the tide. Suddenly there is something in the water. We run out and realise that it is a big group of narwhales heading south. When they disappear we go back inside to continue our coffee break. But just like before, the whales suddenly dive out of the water again. They have turned around and are now coming back. We run out of the house, this time with our cameras ready. We are lucky. The whales stop 15 metres from the beach, start fencing with their spears and roll over each other in kind of a collective love battle, which is being accompanied by sounds of grunts and blowing. It is experiences like this one – to live close to the nature and to be able to control your own time - that makes it so fascinating to live like this for a year. We spend a lot of time filming and photographing. Before we left Sweden, we made a deal with the TV programme “In the centre of the nature “, to send documentaries from our year in the Greenlandic wilderness. We edit it all on a portable computer, which is being charged by a wind generator and solar cells, which even provide us with power for a short-wave radio and powers the battery chargers for the other equipment.
Last trip to town.
The 26th of September is the day for the last trip to town, to buy the last supplies before the winter arrives, mail our films to Sweden and pick up our 3 overwintering friends; the sled dogs Turner, Naala and Bamse. It is about time. All geese and other migratory birds have already left for the south. It is sunny and quiet but a few foggy areas. Even the broad Hurryfjord 15 kilometres from Scoresbysund, where there almost always is a strong wind, lies still as a mirror. The only worry is the new ice that is starting to settle in patches, but there is not much we can do about, but to hope that the route is reasonably open for the return journey. In town we meet friends and do our shopping and when it is time for the return trip after a few days the weather is still sunny and quiet. Even the wide Hurry Fjord, 15 kilometres from Scoresbysund, is calm and quiet. This is very unusual, since it is almost always windy at the mouth of the fjord. “The Turtle” is fully loaded with goods, but the dogs – which have never tried to sail before – are behaving nice and sit put. Suddenly the dogs wake up, lift their paws and strive purposefully on to the goods. Then we realize that the boat is leaking like a sieve. In that position there is nothing to do but to return to town immediately. In spite of the quietness the waves are high and break onto the beach. The water is soon filling the boat, despite of the emptying-system. Eagerly trying to empty the boat, we use two camping pots and manage to just keep up. But the water makes the boat too heavy, so the return trip to Ittoqqortoormiit takes about two hours. Safe on land, we find out that a repair patch has fallen off. We fix the boat and make a new and more successful effort to return home the following day – this time in very windy weather.
Back home at South Cape, we find out that the arctic foxes had been busy while we were away. They have eaten almost all the dried fish and furthermore chewed the antenna for the radio into little pieces. It doesn't cause any bigger problems. We spend a few days picking up driftwood along the beaches. Then we can start to relax and look forward to the ice settling, late autumn and winter.
The winter arrives.
After all the transport journeys between the town and South Cape, Oscar and I can finally relax. Now the fjord ice can freeze over as it wants to. Since we have been together a lot lately and both of us are longing for being alone, each of us decide to make a three-day journey, while the other one is looking after the dogs. Oscar goes first, then I, and after that a longer trip with the dogs. Since the end of August the snow has fallen, covered the ground and then melted again – all within ten days. When Oscar leaves on the 8th of October, the ground is free of snow and the weather is nice. Oscar's destination is “The glasses of Holger Danske” ( Holger Danskes Briller); two long lakes, which look like a pair of glasses on the map. The “Glasses” are situated in a deep, beautiful valley, between the 1000 metre high Pythagoras' Mountain and the 1500-2700 metre high Staunings Alps. In the evening it becomes cloudy and during night it starts to snow heavily. After two days of non-stop snowfall, Oscar starts the tough return trip, sinking through ½ a metre of snow and with a very bad visibility. The next day, the sun is shining from a clear, blue sky. It feels like spring. This time the snow is not melting again. The winter has arrived as if by magic. While the snow is settling, we spend a few weeks alternating between skiing and building beds, putting up shelves and renovating the old shed. The 15 metre long old shed is reduced to half its size and equipped with a carpentry room, fuel depot, a pile of firewood and a storage area. In the middle of the month it is time for my trip. I put on my skis and head north to the attractive silhouette of Karstryggen Mountain. The trip is on relatively flat ground. The snow is not very good for skiing, so when I in the early evening see a flock of seven musk oxen grazing on a river bank a few hundred metres away I stop and camp in the hope that they will still be there by the next morning. The night is quiet and clear with northern lights and nice 5-7 minus degrees. The next morning, the musk oxen have left and a strong wind has started blowing. After a few miles the wind drops and the weather stays like this for the rest of the trip. But I suspect that it is only locally. To the south I can see giant clouds of snow blowing off the slopes all day long. Two hours later I reach the spot that is my destination. I put up my tent on packed snow and spend the rest of the day skiing easily in the surrounding mountains without my backpack and in minus 5 degrees. On the third day it is time to return. Like before, there are a lot of musk oxen on the way. So far, none of them has shown any aggressive tendencies. If I try to approach them, they flee running, with their fluttering fur in a graceful way, which is difficult to connect to such great animals. 10 kilometres from South Cape the snow changes radically. It is much icier than two days ago, and there are holes as if huge floes have been lifted away. Back home, Oscar tells me that we have a problem. The night before a storm wind destroyed three of the wind generator's six blades and the ring that connects them. He also tells that it has been stormy weather at South Cape for the last two days and that the temperature sometimes has been close to +9 degrees! A few days later the wind generator is working again with new blades. As time passes by and it becomes colder, we are surprised to see that the long-awaited ice-cover still won't settle. It does freeze over over and over again– one day with a promising cover of ice, but the next day it is open water again, regardless of the temperature. Even on days with minus 15 degrees and no wind the ice cover can suddenly disappear. Probably because of the currents and warmer water from the deep that is rising to the surface.
Dog sledding in snowstorm.
At the end of October we are ready to put harnesses on the dogs Bamse, Turner and Naala. We put them in front of the sled, which is loaded with most of the things we’ll need for a week-long trip in beautiful weather and minus 12 degrees. The destination is Schuchert Valley, which in the summer is a 10 kilometres wide and 60 kilometres long delta land with treacherous quicksand, which now lies frozen and flat. It takes the dogs two days to remember that they are supposed to pull the sled. In the same time, the temperature is falling drastically. In the evening of October 31st, there are just as many degrees below as days of the month: 31. At the same day I achieve the first serious frost damage of my life. It starts a bit innocent when I loose the perception of touch in my feet. When the blood starts flowing back during the night it hurts like I’ve never felt in my entire life. The next day, my feet is swollen and the two smallest toes on my left foot look like balloons. A few days later it is time to start our return trip, but the barometer falls dramatically, the temperature is raising and the wind is starting to blow. That we are carrying one of the most wind-stable dome tents on the market is only of little help. The tests made with such tents are mostly made when the tent is already erected. To actually put it up in strong wind is something totally different. In our case, the wind is too strong. The tent poles are folding and one of them cracks. It is not possible to build an igloo or to bury ourselves with only 3 decimetres of snow. So we use the sled and the gear as a “wall” against the wind and the tent fly as a roof, and try to hang on to the whipping canvas. The storm continues unabatedly during the night and the snow is packing around us from all sides, while we try to fight back with kicks and fists. Never before have Oscar and I spend a night so intimate, as we lye there like herrings panting from lack of oxygen, under the airtight canvas. At four in the morning, the wind becomes a bit better. Outside the snow depth has doubled and is packed hard, so we just put up the tent and cook a meal. The rest of the return trip is without any problems. Two days later we sit in a nice, warm house, eating pizza and drinking wine. Talk about contrasts !
Mid winter and darkness.
The sun disappears under the horizon on he 18th of November. But the fjord ice keeps on playing tricks with us. Meanwhile we kayak a lot until the beginning of December, when the sea starts to freeze more thoroughly. Finally we can get out the long-distance skates. For 3 weeks, we enjoy fantastic skating among the frozen icebergs in the fjord. There are clear and quiet days with evening lights which makes us lyrical. Especially a week before Christmas, when peculiar nacreous clouds paint the sky in all colours. We are curious about what this means. Two days later we know. In the morning of this day we are sitting in the house drinking coffee before doing a trip to a big hole in the ice, where we want to fill up the dwindling stocks of seal meat for us and the dogs. As we sit there, looking through the window the wind starts blowing and a single wind melts the frozen ice on the window. A look at the thermometer shows a surprising + 10 degrees. Half an hour earlier it had shown – 9 degrees ! We wonder if we have misread it. But as we stand there, looking, it lowers to – 5 degrees and shortly after it raises to +12,4 degrees. And it keeps falling and raising like a yo-yo. When we go outside it is warm like a summer day. Another gust lets the temperature plummet to freezing and it feels like the temperature differences are larger than what the thermometer manages to register. Neither Oscar nor I have ever experienced anything like it. We had never imagined it would be possible. During the evening, the temperature becomes stable and stays between +8 and +10 degrees. The storm continues during the night and in the morning – the day before Christmas – ten big pieces of seal lies underneath the drying rack, having been blown off it. It turns out that the dogs – who hadn’t been chained up during the storm – already have started their Christmas party. We find them bloated, with their stomachs hanging and hardly able to walk. The worst is the bitch Naala who walks like an old woman. It is nit until the evening that the dogs start moving a bit more normal again. But we are no better ourselves. The next day our own Christmas party ends up in almost the same way.