Kayaking beyond the Arctic Circle

Text & photographs: Marcella van Alphen & Claire Lessiau

Rune comes out of his living room with a couple of dry suits in his arms. Usually, he operates directly from his arctic kayak base, but he decided to go Beyond Limits for Beyond Boundaries, and to welcome us in his home exceptionally to show us a little bit of the behind the scenes. And the timing is perfect! Pretty excited, he jumps on the laptop close to us and reduces the wind forecast page of the area we were looking at, to open a Voice Over IP secured webpage. “Sébastien has been guiding the crossing Greenland expedition for six days now. He is checking in with me thanks to his satellite phone, as he does on a daily basis”, Rune states excitedly. If we are joining Rune today to explore his backyard on a kayak outing, it is his impressive experience as an expedition leader of the polar regions that brought us to Glomfjord, where he operates from, along Norway’s coastal road, just past the arctic circle.

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At only 34, Rune Krogh has already crossed 400-kilometres of the Northwest Passage on skis, followed Nansen’s 1888 route across Greenland three times, reached the North Pole twice, led expeditions crossing Norway on foot in Summer and on skis in Winter, guided adventurous travellers on Svalbard (also referred to as Spitsbergen), and explored all possible corners of his nearby Svartisen Glacier, caved into his arctic mountains and summited some of the most prestigious peaks of Norway countless amounts of times. Rune is a real expedition leader and one out of a scarce 24 IPGA-certified guides in the world (International Polar Guides Association). In other words, only a few are qualified to guide professionally in polar environments where surface travel over ice is the primary mode, and top mountaineering skills are essential to cope with ever-changing conditions.

If he regularly leads expeditions himself, Rune also coaches other expedition leaders, such as Sébastien. The male voice creeks over the connection and in the background, the wind seems strong. They have to wait for the weather to get better as the wind is too strong. “Did I hear 55 meters per second?”, I ask Rune. “No, last night’s wind speed was 25 meters per second”, the expedition mentor corrects me. “But I have had 55 before”, he adds. I do the math quickly: close to 200 kilometres per hour! In Greenland…

Clearly, with such conditions, preparation and gear are critical. After this Greenlander parenthesis that leaves us perplex, we go back to our adventure of the day, studying the thankfully much milder wind map around the Storglomvatnet Lake just above Glomfjord. The lake is dammed, as many in Norway, feeding the prosperous hydropower industry, and sits at an altitude of 600 meters. The Svartisen Glacier, Norway’s second largest, culminates above the lake on top of a plateau, at an altitude of 1,200 meters. The 400-square-kilometre glacier gets as thick as 600 meters at places! Rune shows us the colourful arrows on the screen and explains: “This is the ideal day! See, the wind speeds are pretty low. Even on a not-so-windy day, conditions can change drastically when we paddle on the lake: the air above the glacier gets cooled down by the thick layer of ice, and drops, picks up speed and then hits the warmer water surface of the lake.” In other words, we should get moving fast as even on a calm day, there is always wind falling from the top of the glacier creating unpredictable waves on the lake that can become challenging to paddle.


About 45 minutes later, we are taking our gear out of the Beyond Limits’ van: a dry suit and life jacket, a double paddle, a pair of gloves and one of neoprene boots, added to a few REAL snacks, our Liberty LifeSaver filtration bottle to drink straight from the lake, and our camera gear safely tucked into a dry bag. We jump into the dry-suits quickly and change shoes to hike up to the lake level and find the sea kayaks waiting for us along the shore.

Impatient to try it, I inquisitively look at Rune who nods, and I walk straight into the three-degree Celsius (37.4°F) water. I feel the pressure of the water on the dry-suit as I go deeper. The air is getting pushed up, and when I loose contact with the bottom of the lake, I start floating, staying rather warm and dry! I try to put my head in the water and immediately feel the painful ice-cold temperature. Rune looks at me, amused. “This is the whole reason for the Eskimo roll!” he states. In these freezing temperatures, a few minutes too many in the water can simply be lethal. Eskimos invented the technique to survive their extensive hunting and travelling expeditions in their canoes in the arctic waters. Thankfully, the dry-suits allow us to safely paddle without having to master the technique.

After a few safety instructions to show us how to get back onboard, we head out towards the opposite side of the lake where the lesser-explored arm of the Svartisen Glacier plunges into the Storglomvatnet Lake. It seems to be close, but distances are very deceiving on water and we are very thankful for the lack of wind as we can only imagine what a struggle it must be to paddle against the waves in the cold gust.

We take this opportunity to get to know Rune better. Here, in his playground, the explorer radiates, pointing to his favourite parts of the glacier and talking about caving in the Glomfjord Mountains, housing the largest limestone plateau in Scandinavia, drilled with caves and shafts that are a fantastic terrain for him to have fun. Growing up at 66-degree North just past the Polar Circle, the ice world has been his backyard, and exploring it has been evident for Rune since as long as he can remember. When he was 11 years-old and when his schoolmates were driven to school, he gathered all of his savings to buy an old fishing boat and that is how he would commute by himself! Clearly, he already had a bit of an explorer in him. Since then, he has tried every possible sport in this environment: skiing and cross-country skiing of course, but also kayaking, hiking, dog sledging, snowshoeing, caving, ice-climbing… What fascinates Rune in this ice world is its transient nature: a glacier is a moving mass of snow and ice, almost like a river but much slower. Some glaciers in Norway move up to two meters a day! Conditions are always different: the same location on a glacier that was safe last year can be deadly this year.

As we are paddling side by side, we are now getting closer to the gigantic towers of ice. Suddenly, the calving of the glacier resonates in a low-pitched cracking sound. “We cannot get any closer than where we already are” Rune states firmly. “Other chunks can break off any moment, some as large as a two-story house, creating a mini tsunami that would certainly tumble us over”, he describes. We look around and notice small icebergs drifting away. “Follow me,” Runes says enthusiastically, “we can have some fun there, plus it is quite close to my favourite secret place!”

Fascinated by the glacial mass displaying a colour spectrum from white to dark blue via turquoise, and hues from crystal-clear to glittering and opaque, we continue. After a paddle that was longer than expected to reach the ice chunks, Rune starts climbing them with a grin. They are quite unstable, but he has done that before, and he skilfully balances on the ice.

Exceptionally, and as we are quite lucky with this wind-still day, we land a bit further on a large rock slab, and start hiking up. The iron-tainted rocks provide a challenging access to a hidden arm of the glacier where most likely, Rune is the only one going. We feel privileged to explore this glacier in all tranquillity, as most people take a ferry for a popular hike on the other side of Svartisen, queuing for selfies. Here, only the dripping of the melting ice, the hissing of the water flowing under the ice sheet and the falling of the wind break the quietness.

Rune points out to the surface of the lake where whitecaps are starting to develop while some clouds pack above the glacier. “We should start to head back”, he suggests. After this outdoorsy day, Rune must meet his guests tonight as he is about to set off for an across-Norway multiday hike. Nothing too drastic this time, as his clients will enjoy the comfort of mountain huts, but this is a great way to get to know potential adventurers who may want to follow him across Greenland one day… As the main challenge to successfully complete such an undertaking remains the humane side and the cohesion of the group, a less extreme prior expedition is a requirement. This allows Rune to assess the person’s psychological traits and physical abilities to design the proper training and ensure the success of the crossing of a lifetime. Who knows? Maybe one day…

This article was published in the 12-million reader e-magazine Beyond Boundaries by Xtreme Adventure:

Travel tips:

  • To go Beyond Limits with Rune, check out his website.
  • Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area (short tutorial)!

For more in the Arctic, click on the images below:

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