Travel Journal

Evening kayaking under the midnight sun in Ilulissat, Greenland

I like etymology, so I'll start with that (hang on - it won't take long). Kayak comes from the Inuit word qayaq, the original Greenlandic term for the light boat constructed from stitched seal or other animal skins stretched over a wood or whalebone-skeleton frame. So when in Greenland, it would seem rude to ignore this heritage. This is how I came to be on the shore in Ilulissat on a Saturday evening, just in front of the Zion Church, about to get into a modern non-whalebone kayak that was floating on the a-little-above-freezing Arctic Ocean.

We rocked up at the PGI Greenland office a little before 9pm, where we stripped down and got into the thermal layers that would go beneath an alluring blue drysuit: both kindly provided by the PGI team. I was flattered to be instantly handed a size S, but then had to upsize upon finding my neck/back/some-combination-of was abnormally long compared to my legs and I couldn't get my head through the allocated slot in the drysuit for it.

"Here's the only medium we have left", said Pete (although TripAdvisor suggests I misheard and it could've been Pill), the cool pro kayaker taking us out today who'd also sat behind me on my Copenhagen-Kangerlussuaq light, "I'm afraid it's the dirty one". So in a baggy blue drysuit with greenish sea algae residue on my ass, we walked from the PGI office down to the water.

First things first, we needed a bit of practice. We pulled our kayaks onto the grass, then hopped in and adjusted the pedals to fit our long and slender/short and stumpy legs.

Then came a quick safety run-through. Namely, what we should do if the kayak capsized. CAPSIZED. The brief summary was something like use your paddle! and your kayak is your life raft! But that left my mind when the Inuit kayak roll technique was introduced. Somewhat inanely, Inuits have a way of righting a capsized kayak with or without a paddle, also using only one hand, or without hands at all (WHAT?) Wikipedia suggests that most pro kayakers can do something similar. However, it was clear that none of us paying customers really fit that bill.

The other guide, Albert the Catalan pro kayaker, pushed the first boat into the water before exiting and dramatically pouring pints of Arctic sea water out of his boots. "This is what happens if you don't zip your boots up". Gulp. I have big calves. Really big calves. One time in a ski rental shop in Andorra I needed two hefty Catalans (I seem to come across a lot of these) to help me fasten the top setting of my ski boots. I am not a gym-going creature, but I do walk a lot. I'll use that as my excuse rather than my capacity for chocolate biscuit consumption.

When I had pulled the "waterproof" kayak boots on over my drysuit, it was instantly obvious that the zip wasn't going anywhere. I mentioned it to the pro kayakers, but a solution wasn't going to appear unless a sewing kit and extra fabric did with it. So I decided that my kayak partner and I weren't going to capsize. Or we were, but only if it came with a cool story involving saving or escaping from an Arctic sea creature, or a tale of a crumbling iceberg in our path that could represent humanity's literal struggle with global warming.

But alas we did not capsize, nor did any Arctic beasts greet us on our path through the icebergs. But holy shit was it beautiful. By the time we were kitted out and on the water it was around 10pm, and we paddled around for over two hours.

The midnight sun was showing off in its full glory, and Catalan pro kayaker was photographer for the group. This was so we could a) focus on not crashing into icebergs and b) make HD memory photos in our minds, which he gave us a very welcome mini lesson in. Photography is great, but I'm glad I didn't see the experience through a camera lens.

Catalan pro kayaker was also barman for our Jägermeister break. With shot glasses. With ice from the water we were kayaking from. Jägermeister on ice in a kayak surrounded by ice! Mind-blowing. For work I write a lot about how tour guides can provide stand-out experiences, and this was a breakthrough moment.

If you find yourself in Ilulissat, I couldn't recommend this evening kayaking trip enough. I loved my time spent hiking in Greenland and the opportunity for lone pondering that came with it, but this was right up there as a highlight of my trip. It was a not-so-cheap DKK 1420 (£150), but it was worth every bit of it.