Nothing beats kayaking in tranquil waters where hundreds of icebergs break loose from an ice sheet every year. The simple act of kayaking next to ice so tall you have to lay back and crane your neck to see the top is a feeling that is hard to replicate anywhere else in the world.
This is an immersion into pure nature and trip like this is not something you will ever forget. Lucky for us travelers, an experience like this is easy to arrange, all you have to do is get yourself to the tiny town of Ilulissat and get ready for some Greenland kayaking.
One of the truest adventures you can have during your visit, it’s an activity with history, pride and exhilaration. Deeply rooted in Greenlandic culture, the experience of kayaking in Greenland is more than just an act of sport.
It’s a way to connect with the destination and the people that live there. We have waited our whole lives to hop on a plane to the Arctic and explore the vastness of Greenland and our adventure started in Ilulissat, with kayaking.
Greenland – the Home of Kayaking
The kayak has become a national symbol in Greenland and no matter what area you visit in Greenland, you will be able to find a kayak rack next to the bay that is filled with new age and traditional kayaks.
The old traditional kayaks are the ones with the true stories. They are the ones that call out to you with their wooden frames and animal bone detailing. It’s hard not to admire the craftsmanship that dates back for centuries.
The kayak, or “qajaq” as it is called in Greenland, has been an essential piece of transportation and hunting equipment to Inuits for thousands of years. We heard many stories during our visit about how the kayak came to be.
Some were tall tales about mighty hunters and lovers being separated by mother nature. Others were more factual, about how the Inuit learned how to adapt their hunting skills in order to survive in Greenland’s harsh environment.
No matter how true or tall the story was they all had one thing in common, hunting.
The word kayak literally means, “hunter’s boat” and thus they were essential for the Inuit’s survival. Ancient kayak’s in Greenland were constructed with a driftwood and animal skeleton frame.
Inuits literally used everything from their takings, including the seal’s skin that was used to cover the outside of the kayak and seal bladders that were inflated with air to make their kayaks more buoyant. Nothing went to waste.
By the mid-1800’s people started to use the kayak for sport and their popularity started to rise among French and Germans across Europe. It was around this time that the traditional kayak in Greenland was modified into more of a sport looking kayak.
This new kayak had a soft-sided frame, kind of what we see today, with a different type of cockpit along with a bulkhead and foot braces.
The sport quickly grew, and people started to have competitions across Greenland and Europe. Competitions included kayak racing (forward and backward), rolls, freestyle type competitions and so much more.
Some traditionalists embraced this movement while others did not. Regardless, kayak games are now an ingrained part of the Greenlandic culture and kayak clubs can be found in nearly every settlement today.
Today the kayaking tradition is going strong in Greenland. Unlike other parts of the world, Greenland has not lost that deep-rooted tradition. Kayaking is in their DNA. Greenlanders learn at a very young age how to control a kayak and how to respect the ocean.
To them, it’s a dance with nature, padding among icebergs and challenging their skills. They still use kayaks for sport and hunting across all of Greenland and kayaking remains a link to the past, a cultural symbol and to dip your paddle into the water is a way to understand Greenland a little better.
Kayaking Among Icebergs in Ilulissat
We have had Greenland on our adventure wish list for years now and while our main goal was to hike the 105 mile Arctic Circle Trail from Kangerlussuaq to Sisimiut, kayaking among icebergs in Ilulissat was an adventure we just couldn’t live without doing at least once in our lives.
This is how we found ourselves in the third largest ‘city’ in Greenland, Ilulissat.
Ilulissat is the picture perfect Greenlandic town, located on an iceberg filled bay that offers easy paddling access to one of the largest icefjords in the world. Designated an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004, the Ilulissat Icefjord is nothing short of impressive.
Despite our many years of paddling experience we had yet to have a kayak adventure in a polar region.
Picking the right company is essential, as you want to ensure they are properly certified, trained and can provide the appropriate gear for cold water paddling. When it came to choosing a company to paddle with we came across PGI Greenland and never looked back.
Our experience started at PGI’s building on the main street in Ilulissat, where we checked in and were kitted up with gear to keep us warm and safe throughout our kayaking trip.
All we needed to bring was a good base layer and wool socks, everything else was provided including a fleece jumpsuit, dry suit with a hood, waterproof gloves, waterproof boots, waterproof bags for cameras and a sunglass strap.
After getting kitted up our experienced guide team went over our Greenland kayaking trip and all the formalities. They outlined what to expect, where we would go, what we would see while kayaking in Greenland along with must know safety features.
The presentation was professional and thorough, calming the nerves of anyone that hasn’t paddled much before and providing essential information to those of that have.
A rite of passage and a Greenland kayaking tradition is waddling across town from the main square to the water like a bunch of ducks in our dry suits with paddles in hand, as locals and tourist smiled at us.
The walk takes about 10 minutes before you arrive at the kayak rack and start putting in for your adventure. At this point, our guide went over safety guidelines once more and gave practical instructions on how to get into the kayak and avoid the ice.
It took us no time at all to get in the kayaks and within seconds my kayak had kissed the first of many icebergs. The goal was not to hit any, not for fear of damaging the kayak but for fear that the underlying part of the iceberg would cause you to tip over in your kayak.
As for approaching the massive big ice, that’s a big no-no as they are prone to calving and can cause serious destruction to a kayaker.
Icebergs are everywhere, in all sizes and all colors including bright blue, starch white and even crystal clear (called black ice) that were near impossible to see in the water. Padding through them can prove challenging when the ice is clumped together.
Luckily, the maze of icebergs started to thin out as we made our way closer to the ice fjord, opening a channel between the land and the majority of the ice in the open water.
On every kayak trip in Ilulissat there is a goal to find whales and the night before we were on a whale watching tour in the same area. Despite our good luck with a pair of Humpback Whales the night before, it wouldn’t be possible for us to get close enough to where they were located the night we were kayaking.
When you’re in a kayak, you have to be very aware of the area you choose to paddle and putting yourself into too close of proximity to big ice can be very dangerous.
Making our way through the maze of icebergs, our local guide shared paddling stories of what it was like to grow up in Greenland. Just like everyone we met in Greenland he was passionate with an intense love for his country and we felt honored to hear his stories.
Our entire experience was magical with the Midnight Sun shining and reflections of icebergs across the water.
To end the adventure our guides thanked everyone for being safe, for respecting Greenland’s nature and in doing so pulled out a bottle of Bailey’s with shot glasses.
Providing chunks of black ice and with a local toast, we closed this epic adventure with a Greenlandic toast, Inuuhiqatsiaq! (Cheers! Good Health!)
Plan Your Own Greenland Kayaking Adventure
No matter if you choose to travel in Greenland independently or on a cruise ship, there is no other way to truly feel Greenlandic. It’s a must do adventure no matter your skill level or age.
Grab your paddle and put in your kayak, navigate through a maze of floating ice chunks, catch a glimpse of some whales or seals and take in breathtaking scenery as you explore this magical side of Greenland.
Book your own Ilulissat kayaking adventure with PGI Greenland
Best Places to Kayak in Greenland
You can pretty much go kayaking anywhere in Greenland. and there really isn’t a bad place to do it. Every location is different based on wildlife and scenery though, so if you have your heart set on big ice then you should head to Ilulissat.
The most popular locations in Greenland to go kayaking:
- Ilulissat, North Greenland
- Narsaq, South Greenland
- Scoresbysund, East Greenland
- The Blue River (Petermann Glacier) North Greenland
- Nuuk Fjord System (Capital Region)
Basic Information about Greenland Kayaking
- No experience is necessary to join guided kayaking trips in Greenland. If you have little to no experience, be sure to let your guide know so they can give you clear instructions and keep an eye on you.
- Very few places in Greenland will rent you a kayak without a guide. This is for your own safety as you are not likely familiar with the local water and weather conditions.
- Greenland’s kayaking sessions runs mostly in the summer months from (June to Oct)
- A normal kayaking trip last 2-3 hours depending on the group. It is possible to take full day trips to explore remote fishing villages near Ilulissat.
- Group sizes range from 2-10 people with a 2 to 1 guide ratio
- Kayaking difficulty in Greenland is a Moderate 2 out of 5.
- There is no minimum age but children should be at least 1.50m tall and always be accompanied by at least one adult.
- It is possible to see a variety of birds, whales, seals and of course lots of ice, during your kayak trip
Polar Kayaking Gear List
Seeing as kayaking in polar waters pose a greater health and safety risk to you than kayaking in tropical places, it is essential that you are prepared and bring the correct gear. Being prepared comes in two segments, your responsibility and the operators responsibility.
- Top and bottom layers- thermal pants work the best in wool or synthetic fabrics
- Thick wool socks (I even used them over my basic sport socks)
- Sunglasses and sun protection
- Any Prescription medications and other personal health items
Keep in mind there are three rules for dressing for cold weather adventure activities:
No cotton. Seriously just forget it. It soaks up water and holds it against your skin, leaving it worthless as an insulator and heavy as a layer.
Layers help trap heat and fend off water. Remember “wick, warmth, and weather” as you arrange your layers based on: light wicking fabrics first, then warm insulating sweaters or fleeces and finally a waterproof outer layer to protect you from the elements.
Operator Provided Gear
Besides the basic items that you are responsible for bringing and the kayaking equipment, the operator will provide you with the rest of your essential gear for cold weather kayaking.
- Dry suit with built-in shoes, hood and gloves
- Life jacket designed for kayaking
- Sunglasses strap, because many people lose their sunglasses while kayaking
- Waterproof case for your phone or small camera
Best GoPro Items For Kayaking
There’re many great GoPro accessories you should have to capture your kayaking adventure. One thing to think about is that you will want something that is fixed on the kayak securely and requires little to no attention by you while you are kayaking.
We’re including our best recommendations below and is the exact setup we have with us when we are out kayaking, anywhere in the world:
If you are looking for something more than a GoPro we also love our Canon PowerShot D30 waterproof camera. This takes great photos in and out of the water. Keep in mind if you are on a tour most tours offer photos provided by your guide.
This is a great option for you to truly feel the adventure instead of fiddling around with your camera gear while kayaking.
More on Greenland:
- Traveler’s Guide to Ilulissat
- Essential Guide to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland
- Traveler’s Guide to Sisimiut, Greenland
- Travel Guide to Nuuk Greenland
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