Charles and Jana dropped their folding kayaks in among the ice floes on the morning of Aug. 1, 1981. The day was bright and promising, but there was a two-foot chop—a bit intimidating for such small craft. A stiff wind blew spray in their faces and icy seawater lapped over the decks of the kayaks. Charles and Jana were wet right away, but they had expected that. The big surprise from the moment they settled into their cockpits was the noise that filled what is conventionally described as "the silent arctic."
In his daybook entry for Aug. 1 Charles wrote in a cramped hand: "It is never quiet among the ice. The sound is a roar that reminds me of torrential rivers. Surf on rock is muffled in comparison to swell among ice. It pulses and shivers as flesh and blood. It booms and snaps. It gives off more decibels than explosions or sonic booms. Movement and sound in the ice is alive. We are navigating an organism...."
Jana's daybook entry was more prosaic: "The ice floes groan, growl and burp. One just bonged out there again. Lots of wump! sounds, some like a car door slamming."
But ice wasn't all that was making noise on the Greenland Sea that brilliant morning. "I heard a sound different from the sea or the wind, like a man breathing hard while swimming," Jana wrote. "It caught my ears so that I looked out to it. There in front of me, so close I saw her eye slip beneath the water and a white cheek flash as I heard her exhale and catch her breath, was a whale. She spouted as her back passed out of the water and I could see the blowhole. This whale had a big fin on her back, the dorsal fin of an orca. On her first broach she was only about 15 yards away. She passed off to my starboard side for one more breath and was gone. All in about 30 seconds.... She was so big. I liked her little eye. She looked at me as she passed. I looked at her. Sleek and black. Then she was gone, and the waves went on and I headed out to sea...."
No more whales would broach near the kayaks, but the ice would thunder and moan and clatter and belch—on and on and on—for the next five weeks as Charles and Jana pursued a strange adventure along the bleak coast of East Greenland. Ice became the most pervasive—and the most perilous—element in their lives, but they were also battered by violent weather and found themselves paddling through fog so thick they could scarcely see each other from a kayak-length away. They also lived in constant awareness that the polar bear, Nanuk, roamed the terrain where they camped each night. After a heated and semi-existential debate about whether to carry a weapon and, if so, what kind (their limited choice included a five-shot rifle or a double-barreled shotgun), the travelers had decided to spend $230 of their $500 stake for the rifle, a .243 Parker-Hale, which they purchased their first day in Greenland. However, Charles remained ambivalent about the gun, about Nanuk and ultimately about his own presence in these desolate environs, and he wrote in his daybook: "Were we not here there would be less disturbance...Of course, it is incumbent upon us to give Nanuk every possible out. In that sense the rifle allows warning-scare shots, whereas a shotgun requires the first shot to stop and, one hopes, kill.... Ever the hard questions: Why are we here? Should we be here? Value must accrue. We have spent so much...."
All right, who were these people and what were they doing pitting themselves against the perils of East Greenland by day and filling page after page after page with words by night? He was—and is—Charles Groesbeek, now 50, a loquacious jack of many, many trades, including cinematographer, mountain guide, prep school English teacher, gravedigger, ambulance driver. She was—and is—Jana Slane, now 29, daughter of a Los Angeles lawyer, graduate in psychology from the University of Victoria in British Columbia, skier, cyclist and climber who supports herself by taking photographs of "turkeys"—vacationing skiers—on Vail Mountain in Colorado. Charles and Jana live in Silver Plume, Colo., a mining town 60 miles west of Denver, in a small, rustic house set on a hill just about equidistant from a tumbling creek below and the rumbling traffic of Interstate 70 above.
The idea for the expedition to Greenland came after a lonely, late-fall climb in Canada's Bugaboos. They wanted to create a unique expedition that would test their skills to the utmost. For many years, Groesbeek, an expert mountaineer, had been eager to challenge the rarely climbed interior ranges of Greenland, which are full of magnificent peaks, some of more than 10,000 feet. On the other hand, Slane's California childhood had included a lot of boating. Besides that, both had skied a good deal. So they combined their interests into a trip to Greenland they labeled "horizontal-vertical"—meaning it would include boating (horizontal) and skiing and climbing (vertical).
They tried to make the expedition into something of a cottage industry, getting stationery printed up and writing letters in an attempt to generate funds and equipment. Although they received a lot of supplies, they didn't attract any financial backers and wound up spending their own savings—every penny. The whole thing nearly collapsed beneath the dead weight of delays caused by 1) a strike among Greenlandic air traffic controllers and 2) a Danish bureaucracy (the great island—the Earth's biggest—was a county of Denmark until 1953, when it became an independently governed protectorate), which was in no hurry to give permission to travel along this rarely visited coast of Greenland.
On July 28, when they finally boarded a 500-ton trawler that reeked of fish, and crossed the Denmark Strait from Iceland to the East Greenland town of Angmagssalik (pop. 1,000), their horizontal-vertical odyssey began in earnest. They had decided to use 15-foot Hypalon Folbot kayaks, which weigh close to 60 pounds. These cost about $620 each and are manufactured in Charleston, S.C. Once assembled, the kayaks are remarkably sturdy and efficient, similar to the ancient craft used for centuries by Inuit seal hunters along the Greenland coast. The Folbots are virtually untippable, and in the stern and bow, Groesbeek and Slane could stow sleeping bags, stoves, fuel, foul-weather gear, wet suits, tent, skis, poles, boots, cameras, climbing gear (including 330 feet of rope), the anti-Nanuk rifle and ammunition, and 140 pounds of food for eight weeks, i.e., enough provisions to last for six weeks of scheduled travel, plus two weeks' worth of emergency rations.
Their high-protein diet consisted of a mix of bulgur wheat and crushed soybeans, honey, oil, various dried fruits (their favorite was papaya), assorted nuts, different kinds of tea, dried milk, dried onions, spices (nutmeg, curry, cayenne) and, headiest delicacy of all, six of Slane's brandy-soaked fruitcakes packed in Tupperware containers. They took no salt (plenty in the sea) and cooked their cereal in a broth of half seawater, half freshwater, obtained from streams and glacial pools. They wore their wet suits only on extraordinarily damp days. Their favorite footwear was their Wellington rubber boots, even though they took on a strong and sour odor a week or so into the trip that no amount of washing, drying or airing could remove.