Why Go Paddling in Greenland?
Greenland has some of the most stunning natural landscapes in the world, which makes it perfect for sea kayaking. Towering glaciers, brilliant icebergs, and secluded bays teeming with whales and arctic wildlife await the adventurous. In the summer months, the days are long and the weather is generally pleasant for paddling.
Small coastal villages exist on the East Coast, with inhabitants living a traditional, subsistence lifestyle from fishing and hunting. A village visit gives you a fuller picture of life in these lands. The scenery, the wildlife and the culture makes Greenland a fantastic adventure destination.
Greenland’s East Coast vs West Coast
A country the size of Greenland has many opportunities for sea kayaking, but generally, there are two main regions, the East Coast and the West Coast. Here we’ll explore some of the advantages and disadvantages of each for planning your paddling adventure.
Greenland’s West Coast
The west coast of Greenland is where most of the country’s population lives and is where the capital city of Nuuk (pop 20,000) is located. It also sees the lion’s share of tourism, due to easier access by air and the many large cruise ships that visit the area from the East coast of Canada and the US. There is far more infrastructure here, with larger towns, and the west coast has more of a European feel, with its expat communities.
The west coast is also a lot ‘greener’ with low, rolling hills but is a great place for iceberg viewing, as these giant behemoths calve into the sea on their way to Newfoundland. Due to the west coast’s proximity to the Greenland Icecap, it also tends to be windier with anabatic and katabatic winds occasionally making paddling challenging.
Greenland’s East Coast
By contrast, the east coast is less accessible, more sparsely populated and sees far fewer tourists than the west coast. The landscapes are more dramatic here, with bigger mountains, rocky peaks rising 1500m straight out of the ocean and rugged coastlines. The main town of Tasiilaq has only 2,000 people, a grocery store, a post office, and a small general store. There are numerous very small villages that can be visited via kayak and arctic wildlife is prolific.
Being further from the Icecap, the east coast also tends to be less windy, so if you’re seeking dramatic landscapes with no tourists in sight, more pleasant paddling conditions and Greenlandic culture, we recommend a kayaking trip to Greenland’s east coast.
The Unique Challenges of Kayaking in Greenland
Greenland is a remote and beautiful place, but it poses some challenges for kayakers. The weather can change in an instant, so it is important to be prepared, by having an experienced guide and the right equipment for the environment.
Weather and Conditions
In eastern Greenland, June through August are the warmest months and most pleasant time for paddling, with temperatures between 2-10C, and on occasion as warm as 15C. July has on average seven days of precipitation. You should be prepared for sunshine as well as showers and even snow. Wind is generally light to moderate but can shift quickly.
Conditions are similar in western Greenland, but it tends to be windier, with slightly higher precipitation of about 60-80 mm of rain per month. On both coasts, water temperatures are a chilly 3 to 4 degrees Celsius and you must always be prepared for that in case of capsizing.
Strong currents are not usually a concern in Greenland. There are tidal oscillations throughout the passages and fiords, but these currents are not strong enough to affect your paddling trip.
Polar bears are always a concern in Greenland. Kayakers who are camping need to carry guns and repellents in order to protect themselves in case of an encounter. Night time watches may be necessary in some areas, and using electric fences as a warning system is also an option.
Icebergs can be dangerous as well, as about 80% of the iceberg is under the water. If they roll and a kayaker is nearby, it can potentially harm or kill a person. It is important to have knowledge of iceberg types, which are likely to roll, which are more stable, and which ones to give a wide berth. If you are unfamiliar with Icebergs, give them all a wide berth. Icebergs can also “explode” and send large ice projectiles through the air which can be a hazard if paddling too close. For these reasons, paddling around icebergs is not to be taken lightly.
With water temperatures hovering only a few degrees above freezing, hypothermia within minutes is likely if you capsize. Kayakers need to dress for the water temperature, not the air temperature. Some type of immersion paddling gear, such as a drysuit, is strongly recommended.
Always Paddle with a Guide
Kayak guides in Greenland have the expertise for paddling in these remote areas, know the most scenic routes, and most importantly, have the skills and experience to keep you safe. They will have the training and firearms licenses for polar bears, know iceberg safety, have first aid and satellite phones for emergency situations, and can introduce you to East Greenlandic culture and history. An experienced guiding outfitter will provide the best Greenland kayaking experience.
Different Types of Greenland Kayaking Tours
There are many options available for exploring Greenland by kayak, depending on your budget, skill level, route and the comfort you desire. Day paddling is possible out of the larger towns, but here we’ll cover options for longer excursions.
For the most intimate experience with the landscape, nature and elements, nothing beats the adventure of kayak camping. There are many places for camping on both coasts of Greenland, but you must be fully self-sufficient, bringing all your own food and gear with you as there are no facilities in most areas.
The disadvantages of this style of kayaking are that you will be more exposed to the elements and also polar bears. As well, you will only be able to cover the distance you can paddle each day, so may not be able to see as many areas on a trip.
Large Cruise Ships
Many of the large cruise ships offer kayaking tours to guests on board. These can be a great way to get a taste of paddling for those with little past experience while still having all the amenities of a large comfortable ship as your base.
The disadvantages are that these tours typically have only a 2-3 hour time slot, there will be lots of other people around, and you are limited by the itinerary of the vessel which has hundreds (or thousands) of other guests aboard. You will not have the intimate nature experiences or village visits on cruise ships.
Small Sailing Ships
For those wanting to truly experience the majesty and remoteness of Greenland, while still being comfortable and having a higher degree of safety, a small cruise ship is a great option. With only 10-12 guests on board, itineraries are fully customizable depending on what everyone wants to do. Because of their small size, village visits and a more authentic connection with locals are possible. These trips have more of an ‘adventure’ feel and are less touristy than big cruise ships and if you are sailing in Greenland, you are also traveling in a much more sustainable way.
A great option for visiting and kayaking East Greenland and Iceland in the same trip, is to do an Iceland to Greenland cruise.
The disadvantages of small ships are that you won’t have hot tubs, gyms, bars and all the other features and comforts found on a big cruise ship.
One of the major highlights of a trip to Greenland is all the arctic wildlife you will see. Whales include humpback, fin, minke, sperm, orcas, and the elusive narwhal. Groups of inquisitive white-beaked dolphins often approach kayaks, and arctic foxes and polar bears are seen patrolling ice flows and foraging along the shorelines.
Greenland is a birder’s paradise, with puffins, razor bills, arctic terns, kittiwakes and black guillemots commonly spotted.
With all wildlife, it’s important to remember that you are in their home, so keep a respectful distance and do not disturb their natural rhythms.
There are lots of great places for hiking in Greenland with open landscapes and stunning vistas in every direction.
The Kangerdlugssuaq Fjord, in East Greenland, (not to be confused with the town of the same name in West Greenland) has one of the wildest coasts in the country and is not to be missed. The Lemon Mountain Range–one of Greenland’s highest—lies just north of the fjord. The compact alpine peaks of this vast mountain range offer endless opportunities for hiking and scrambling. There’s also a fantastic hike in the hills of Kræmer Island where there are views of the surrounding fjords, mountains and glaciers.
Visiting East Greenlandic villages is a must on any kayaking adventure here. Many of these communities have a small museum where you can learn a lot about their culture, history and modern day living. There are often carving sheds where local artists create artworks for sale to guests. Dog sledding is still widely practiced and very important here, and meeting with the dog owner and learning about their team is often a highlight of the visit.
Preparing for a Kayak Trip to Greenland
Depending on the type of trip you do, the required paddling experience varies. Kayakers should be comfortable in swell, wind chop and paddling against 15 knot winds. Generally, surf landings are not required. If you are doing a camping trip you should have many multi-day trips under your belt in exposed coastlines. On the other end of the spectrum, If you are on a large cruise ship with kayaking as an optional activity, it should not be your first time kayaking, but you don’t need to have years of experience either.
A good level of fitness will make whatever kayaking trip you choose, much more enjoyable. Be certain to have the right clothing and gear and make sure your guiding outfitter gives you a good packing list.
Getting there and Away
If you are not arriving by ship, flight options are more limited. There are only 5 flights a week into Kulusuk, East Greenland from Reykjavik, Iceland, with IcelandAir, and weather can interrupt this schedule.
West Greenland is much more accessible. Flights into the capital, Nuuk, from Copenhagen and Reykjavik are more frequent. See Air Greenland and IcelandAir.
It is no longer necessary to show a negative PCR test to enter Greenland, only proof of full vaccination.
A Small Ship Kayaking and Sailing Adventure
Expedition Engineering has pioneered small ship, liveaboard kayaking in East Greenland. With deep local knowledge, professional guides, and top of the line expedition sea kayaks and equipment, our trips get you off the beaten path, with intimate nature experiences while having the comfort, safety and enjoyment of being on a sailing ship.
The 12-day, Iceland and Greenland Hiking and Kayaking Expedition runs July 28 – August 8, and August 15-26, 2022. Cost is € 6270. (space is very limited) Contact us for more information.