In June 2017, Dorthe and Jens Kjeldsen loaded two Danish filmmakers and their bags of camera gear onto the Kigdlua, the couple’s 12-metre-long fibreglass sloop. They were set to travel 90 kilometres east along Qeqertarsuup Tunua (Disko Bay) from Aasiaat, Greenland to Ilulissat, which sits at the mouth of a fjord of the same name. There would be no shortage of scenery for the filmmakers to shoot—the area was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site because of the sheer number of icebergs that calve from the glaciers farther along the fjord.
But the filmmakers weren’t there to capture the dramatic landscapes, even as the foursome motored out of the harbour, leaving the rocky shore peppered with the bright red, yellow, and blue houses of Aasiaat behind them. They were following Dorthe and Jens, both in their 60s, as they embarked on a three-year round-the-Earth trip that would take them through the Northwest Passage, then across the Pacific Ocean to Hawaii, and onwards to Southeast Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and back to Greenland.
The voyage isn’t some amateur bucket list fantasy—the Kjeldsens understand the risks involved in such a trip. For twenty years, the couple shuttled medical and judicial staff in a fishing boat to coastal communities from Thule to Cape Farewell. The Kjeldsens took longer trips to the Caribbean and South America on that same boat. When they returned home to Nuuk after a 2010 voyage, they took stock of their plans.
“Do you want to go out sailing again?” Jens asked.
“Yes,” Dorthe replied, “but not right now.”
“In seven years, when I retire.”
“And where do you want to go?”
“Through the Northwest Passage.”
This journey may not have happened if it weren’t for Hurricane Sandy, which hit the east coast of the United States five years earlier. A British couple had been sailing near Greenland when they were caught up in the fringes of the storm. They sought refuge in a bay notorious for williwaws—a type of squall that blows from mountains to ocean. In the Bay of Kigdlup, which translates into English as ‘inside the cooking fire or boiling pot,’ their boat was wrecked. “There was a hole so big in the hull, you could drive a motorcycle through it,” Jens says. The sailboat was a write-off.
One of the many similarities Greenland shares with the Canadian Arctic is things like sailboats are expensive and difficult to come by. The Kjeldsens thought the sloop could be resurrected and bought it for one dollar. One year and $25,000 later, the Kjeldsens christened their boat after the place where it was wrecked: Kigdlua, the cooking place.
The Kjeldsens were ready to attempt the Northwest Passage.
Ennikeeraq Dorthe Ingrid Cecilie Hegelund Kjeldsen was born in 1952 in Paamiut, a community of 1,500 on the southwest coast of Greenland in a fjord that opens into the Labrador Sea. Her father was a sea captain, and one of her ancestors was Angartaaq, a well-known whale hunter. “She’s got salt in her veins,” Jens says. Dorthe grew up speaking Kalaallisut. She later learned Danish and English.
For Inuit of Canada and Greenland, a history of open and free travel in the Arctic long pre-dates the establishment of settler boundaries. There are only 300 kilometres between the two countries at the narrowest part of the Davis Strait. That distance decreases as you travel north through Nares Strait.
In 1880, Britain transferred ownership of the Arctic Archipelago to Canada. That didn’t stop Europeans and Americans from making incursions north, with little attention paid to Canadian claims of sovereignty. Paranoid bureaucrats and politicians in Ottawa strategized ways to assert control over the region.
All the while, Greenland Inuit continued to hunt as they always had, traversing the frozen-over straits onto what was now Canadian soil. The Danish government did little to discourage this. But Ottawa took action, setting up an RCMP station in Craig Harbour on Ellesmere Island to prohibit “poaching” by Greenlandic hunters.
Canada would later resettle Inuit from Northern Quebec to establish two High Arctic communities—Resolute on Cornwallis Island and Grise Fiord on Ellesmere Island. Inuit arrived with inadequate clothing and shelter to survive in the extreme cold of their new homes, and they were forbidden from hunting muskox. When they wanted to return to Inukjuak, the government refused. The enforcement of territorial boundaries between Canada and Greenland effectively severed the connections between Inuit of the Arctic.
When Dorthe was a child, her family would listen to the news from Canada on medium wave radio. “We call the Canadian Inuit ‘akilinermiut,’ which means ‘those of us who live on the opposite side of us,’” she says.
Dorthe says the once informal and familial connections, no matter how distant, have been replaced by more formal cultural and athletic exchanges, and organized meetings with agendas, minutes and action items. And not necessarily in a common language. “That is all very well, but on an everyday level, something is missing.”
North of Aasiaat, with the rocky bluffs of the shore visible in the distance, someone on the Kigdlua spotted an animal’s head bobbing on the surface of Disko Bay. The sloop motored closer to the wet, glistening head. When Jens turned the boat’s engine off, they heard the woman’s screams.
The young woman’s arms were tucked into the sleeves of a survival suit while the rest of her body was unprotected in the cold and salty water. The water shimmered with the blue-hued rainbow of gasoline and she was clutching a basket that belonged to her father-in-law—she had been on his boat. Jens threw a life buoy towards the woman, but even with four people trying, they couldn’t pull her aboard the Kigdlua and they had to lower the dingy to rescue her from the chilling water. Somehow, the young woman didn’t display signs of extreme hypothermia.
Jens and Dorthe quickly undressed the young woman and wrapped her in a rug. In the boat’s cabin, the young woman asked Dorthe to lie with her and hold her. Without hesitation, Dorthe removed her own clothes and did as she was asked. “I kept talking to her, to keep her from trembling,” Dorthe says. “That’s when she started talking.”
The young woman had been floating in the water for more than two hours and Dorthe learned that she was the sole survivor of five from the same family travelling together. Some deceased family members were long-time friends of the Kjeldsens. The coast guard would find only one body. The young woman talked and Dorthe listened. “I have never ever felt a stranger being as close to me as then,” Dorthe says. “I will never forget it.”
The Kigdlua went east, to bring the young woman home to Ilulissat. “Even though the rest of the trip may be unsuccessful—we may not make it through the Northwest Passage—it is successful because we saved her,” Jens said shortly after.
The first known voyage by boat through the Northwest Passage was completed by Roald Amundsen in the Gjoa in 1906. (Inuit have inhabited the Arctic for centuries, so it’s quite possible the journey had been completed prior to recorded history.) It took Amundsen three years to make the passage. He was motivated by science; he worshiped safety, not speed.
Through most of the twentieth century, icebreakers and schooners were the watercraft of choice for the Northwest Passage. But climate change has started a whole new kind of open-water tourism. The Northwest Passage is now known as the “Everest” of ocean travel, and it’s attracting a mix of travellers—big egos and adventurers, romantics and pragmatists.
Dorthe and Jens arrived in Resolute Bay on July 21. The wind was blowing in from the southwest, and they had no other choice but to be patient as ice clogged the strait ahead of them and flowed into the bay and around their boat. Their years of experience told them to stay put—the Kigdlua was positively tiny compared to the masses of ice surrounding it, startling white against the opal-black water. Jens and Dorthe knew they were early to attempt the Northwest Passage, but they wanted to make sure they could reach the Bering Strait before the fall weather upset its waters.
Sleeping aboard their boat, they took the dingy ashore during the day to visit with people in the community of 200. They would spend the next 18 days in Resolute, but they took the delay in stride. They made friends and they learned about the local culture and history. “When we entered Allie and Susan Salluviniq’s home, they handed me the ulu, and told me to have some frozen Arctic char,” Dorthe says. It’s a common dish in Greenland, as is the dried beluga whale skin the Kjeldsens also ate in Resolute.
Susan’s great-uncle moved from Canada to Greenland and she still has family she visits there. (Allie and Susan were both resettled as kids to Resolute from Inukjuak in the 1950s.)
Besides the food, the Kjeldsens noted other similarities between Resolute and their home: guests entering without knocking on the front door, many generations of a family sitting around the kitchen table, or sprawled across the living room, sharing a meal, a story, or silence. Language was also a connector. “Some of the words I used, they loved to hear because they hadn’t heard them since they were children,” Dorthe says. “Our languages are different, but when we find similarities, they pull us together.”
In Resolute, the Kjeldsens kept abreast of ice conditions. A friend, Victor Wejer, in Mississauga, Ontario, has supported Northwest Passage sailors since 2006. He monitors the weather, shares forecasts and ice charts, and helps plan routes before and during expeditions. He does this at no cost. The ice moves quickly. When Wejer told them via Iridium satellite phone it was clearing up, they set sail within 24 hours. Next stop: Cambridge Bay.
Aside from regular boat maintenance, tending to sails, and mending clothing and gear, day-to-day life on the Kigdlua sounds like a weekend at the cabin. Jens is a sculptor and he’s been carving throughout the journey. The couple records video for Danish and Greenlandic television, takes photos, and corresponds with family members. Jens composes and plays songs on guitar, they listen to music, read, do crosswords and now, thanks to their new friend Susan who re-taught them how to play cribbage, the Kjeldsens think in fifteens. “Jens is a better player,” Dorthe says. “But I usually win.”
But they have to remain sharp despite the monotony of ice and sea and days without night. Arctic ice is notoriously unforgiving and the weather can change in an instant. Between Resolute and Cambridge Bay, the Kjeldsens experienced this first-hand. For 14 hours, the Kigdlua was stuck in a strong current in closely packed ice. They had little control over their craft. “I was afraid,” Dorthe says. “Afraid that the boat should be squeezed, lifted and capsize.” She thought of her children. Then the tiller broke. (The tiller is the long handle at the stern that lets you move the rudder to steer.) Jens replaced it, but it was slow going. “No matter how hard we tried, it felt like we didn’t move because the ice was shifting all the time,” Dorthe says. “We could see the edge of the ice—the open water—maybe 500 metres away and for hours and hours we tried without getting closer.”
Though her father had been dead for almost 50 years, Dorthe felt his presence on the journey through the Northwest Passage. “I prayed to my father to help us get out of the ice,” she says. “Strangely enough, the ice pressure lessened just after I prayed to him, and we were able to push the closest ice surrounding us away and get a bit forward.”
They arrived in Cambridge Bay and quickly set about replenishing their supplies. Local residents helped them out—a teacher let them do laundry and shower in the school’s gym; a restaurant manager opened his home to let them use the internet to send a quick message.
They set sail within 24 hours. The flat landscape of Victoria Island meant strong winds that kept them on their toes. They alternated tiller duties—one during the night, the other during the day. From there it was on to Tuktoyaktuk, NWT and along the coast of Yukon and Alaska. On September 13, less than three months after leaving Greenland, Dorthe and Jens guided the Kigdlua into the port of Nome, Alaska. They popped a bottle of champagne to briefly toast their accomplishment: a safe and successful crossing of the Northwest Passage—a first for a Greenlandic sailboat and for an Inuk woman from Greenland.
They thought about meeting so many people who reminded them of friends and family in Greenland, about the dialects they heard spoken that they understood, and the familiarity they felt that transcended the boundaries of Greenland, Canada and the United States.
“When we get together with the Inuit, we know we are the same,” says Dorthe.
But they didn’t have time to dwell on it. They were headed for the Aleutian Islands. And from there, the rest of the world.