An Arctic expedition: paddleboarding Greenland

Bart de Zwart spent a week dodging icebergs above the Arctic circle. Here's the story in his words.
Running the Greenland iceberg gauntlet. © Bart de Zwart
By Bart de Zwart

The fishermen, who had never seen a stand-up paddleboard before, were watching when I made my first paddles strokes out of Ilulissat’s little fishing harbor. They had been very shy and didn’t ask many questions, just looked at me and smiled when I was still preparing to leave. I was packed with food and water for 8 days, safety gear, navigation equipment, my ‘SUP bed’ and plenty of warm clothes.

Loaded up and ready for the commute. © Bart de Zwart

My home for next few days was a 16ft Starboard inflatable paddleboard. Why inflatable? I could take it on the plane with me all the way from Maui. Inflatables can change the way we can explore – now, for almost any destination you can go and use a SUP.

I went to Greenland inspired by the documentary ‘Chasing Ice’, where James Balog shows – with 25 timelapse cameras – mountains of ice in motion as they disappear at a breathtaking rate. In Greenland they have started to feel the changes of global warming. Every year the ice is receding – the glaciers and the sea ice as well. In the last few decades there has been a 3.6% decline of sea ice per decade. I’m glad I had the opportunity to see it before it was too late.

A shiver-inducing selfie. © Bart de Zwart

The start was a perfect arctic day with blue skies and fresh but decent temperatures. In front of me was a 15-mile field of ice and icebergs. Ilulissat, which means “iceberg” in Greenlandic, is situated next to the most productive glacier in the Northern hemisphere.

50 meters a day and 20 billion tons of ice a year, calving off the glacier. I was paddling right between those icebergs. Ice was everywhere. I had to work hard to find a way through it. On windy days this would be a very dangerous task, and there was truly a risk of being crushed by the ever-moving ice.

Small chunks of ice dot the path. © Bart de Zwart

Paddling between the icy giants was very fascinating and in the beginning, frightening at the same time. Every minute you would hear the loud, thunderous, sound of an iceberg breaking off, which sometimes set off chain reactions. I saw a small piece break off, after which the whole 100ft tall iceberg turned upside down in slow motion. An even taller iceberg totally collapsed, and created waves that could easily throw you over.

Everyday, I paddled and took photos until well after midnight. The last few hours of every day was an endless sunset – and then just when you think it will set, the sun starts to rise again.

This was an amazing adventure. The Arctic is an incredible place to be, a place still very unspoiled, raw and remote, and a harsh and difficult climate to live – and an even harder place to paddleboard.

This trip was originally conceived as a crossing from Canada to Greenland, and when poor conditions presented themselves, modified to do a SUP exploration of the Greenland coast, starting in Ilulissat and finishing hundreds of kilometers south of there in Sisimiut.

The land of the midnight sun. © Bart de Zwart

Three days into the trip, the wind turned, and came from the south. My forward speed was reduced to 1.5 nautical miles per hour.

At that rate, I’d never make the next 192km to Sisimiut before running out of food and supplies – and I was exhausted from a severe lack of sleep, and paddling against strong headwinds for two days.

But I’d paddled through icebergs, seen whales and wolves, and endured the freezing temps of the Arctic climate.

My final stopping point? The tiny town fishing town of Kangaatsiaq. I got internet access at a gas station, and found a fisherman heading north, back to Aasiaat around noon. A flight was booked, and I was on my way.

The water back home in Maui would never feel so warm.

This Arctic Expedition was only possible with the help of my main sponsor STARBOARD who supported me over the years in many ways. Thanks to additional sponsors SUPSKIN drysuits, PATAGONIA, MAUI JIM's, POCKETFUEL, and BLACK PROJECT FINS.

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