My husband turned off the outboard engine and we sat in the zodiac, drifting silently among icebergs. Then it appeared – a gargantuan bowhead whale, emerging effortlessly from the icy deep. Astonished, we met its gaze and heard its slow, enormous intake of breath. Three times the grey-black giant surfaced, sleek and unhurried before it raised its barnacled tail and disappeared.
Words & Photography by Kari Herbert | Polarworld
Soon after, a mother and calf appeared and then more, until we were surrounded by these majestic creatures. We lost count of the number of whales we saw that afternoon. The sense of peace and awe, and the look of absolute delight on our six-year-old daughters face, will stay with me always.
You could spend your life wishing for an encounter like this, but as it was, if things had gone to ‘plan’ we would not have been in that place at that time.
It had been a hard winter in the Arctic and our plan to sail far up the west coast of Greenland was impossible. Sea-ice choked the fjords and formed an impenetrable barrier to the north. Instead, we set about exploring Disko Bay, visiting beaches and mountains that few others had set foot on before and making friends in areas well off the beaten track.
I was 10 months old when I first went to the Arctic, so my first memories are of Greenland and its people. My father, Sir Wally Herbert, was a polar explorer. Throughout his life he had been drawn to those places on the planet that seemed beyond reach: first mapping thousands of miles in Antarctica, then travelling in the Arctic. His greatest polar achievement was in 1968-69: a 16-month-long trek across the Arctic Ocean via the North Pole with dogsleds.
Dad felt more at home in the Polar Regions than anywhere else on earth, and it seemed the most natural thing in the world to him to take his wife and child to live with a remote tribe of hunter-gatherers in Thule, the far northwest of Greenland.
For over two years we lived as the Inuit lived: freshwater ice was collected and melted down from icebergs; clothing was made from seal, fox and polar bear fur; and fish, seal and walrus was our diet. Hunting was a natural way of life, with the men travelling by dogsled in the dark ice-bound winters or by kayak in summer under the midnight sun to supply food for the community. These people lived on the fringes of civilisation and were completely in tune with the environment in which they lived. By the time we left I spoke the local dialect of Greenlandic, and believed our neighbours to be my family.
I have travelled back to the Arctic many times since my childhood, and my connection with the polar wild runs deep. This time, however, I was taking my daughter to Greenland for the first time. Although we would not be travelling as far north as Thule, it was a chance to introduce her to this elemental place.
Each day promised new discoveries. Together we followed a track through the abandoned fishing village of Qoornoq. On hands and knees, we discovered tiny buds of Arctic poppies in the tundra grass, walked thigh-deep in snowdrifts and ran our hands over icebergs that had been washed up on beaches by the tide.
In Eternity Fjord we stepped into unmapped territory. We found anenome shells in the heather and found peace beside the glassy waters. In the tiny village of Itilleq we played football with Inuit fishermen and in Kangaarmiut we climbed a mountain and learned how to play a shaman’s drum. We greeted each new encounter with eyes and hearts wide open, and we were rewarded at every turn.
These memories are fragments in time. This is the wonder of travel – each journey builds layers of experience, evoking a sense of place. Better still, they remind you of moments you’ve truly lived. We were fortunate to travel in the Arctic but adventures can begin much closer to home. So pack a bag and get outside.