Between 2009 and 2014, Alain and Nathalie Antognelli kayaked 5500 kilometres (3,417 miles) along the entire west coast of Greenland. The expedition was an arduous undertaking to get to the heart of what it truly means to experience freedom in the outdoors. While the trip was both mentally and physically strenuous, the couple was able to experience this remote island nation like few–if any–have before. We sat down with them to talk about their voyage and how it changed their outlook on the world.
What about Greenland drew you in?
In 2009, we’d been traveling in different parts of the world, hang gliding and paragliding, and what we really liked was big wide-open space. Then a friend told us about Greenland and how amazing it was. When we got there in May 2009, we were astounded how big it was. On the plane in we looked down over the island and saw that much of the sea ice had yet to melt [meaning they couldn’t kayak] and we just thought, ‘what had we gotten ourselves into.’
What did you learn kayaking Greenland that you may not have learned had you explored the country in a more leisurely fashion?
Doing this kind of trip in a different country would have been very different. In Greenland, you are rewarded with massive amounts of space. You are almost always in the middle of nowhere and you can stop almost anywhere. You can’t drive many places in Greenland, so kayaking was a way to be independent, an easy way to move from one place to another. Almost like using kayaks the way you use bicycles.
How does the Greenlandic way of life differ from life in your busy, densely populated home of Monaco?
To really experience how different Greenland is you need to immerse yourself in the culture. Greenland is a whole different world, just imagine a world without cars–it’s totally different. Greenland is also the least densely populated country in the world, so for us coming from Monaco, it is the complete opposite experience.
You visited Greenland several times over many years. What are the benefits that each season offers?
Greenlanders have an expression, ‘June is spring, July is summer, August is Autumn, and the rest of the months are winter’, and this holds pretty true. I liked the winter because we were able to live the life of the people. Of course, summer is also nice, fewer people in the villages and the paddling is much easier, as there is less ice and it’s easier moving from one point to the other. Winter is a time to stay in one settlement, to get to know the local people there more intimately, which is what we did. In the past we’d stay probably only a week in each settlement, but in the winter you’re forced to stay longer, which is how we really got to know the people.
You guys wrote a book about your trip, what compelled you to share your story this way?
The book explains our adventure in Greenland from the beginning to the end. We did the movie first, and the story was so big that it was hard to tell it all, and the book allowed us to express what we’d been through in a different way. It was also a way to share our story with anyone, from our friends in Greenland, to our friends back home. A book is such a tangible object you can give to anyone.
Greenland is on the precipice of climate and cultural change. Why do you think it’s important to visit soon?
Yes, things are changing, we are talking a lot about this in Europe. Greenlanders have a different point of view. The facts are that the thickness of the ice flow 20 years ago was almost always 2 meters (around 6 feet), now it’s barely 0.3 meters or 0.4 meters (less than a foot), it’s a significant decrease. People who want to see ice flow of this magnitude probably need to go soon, obviously it’s not all going to be gone, but it will most certainly be different.
What advice do you have for someone planning a trip to Greenland?
Just go and do it. It’s an easy country and very accessible, plus the Greenlandic people are very accepting. They will welcome you openly. If you do, you need to go visit the settlements and see how the Greenlandic people live. It’s the only way to truly experience the country.
You encountered many forms of wildlife during your Greenland ventures. Which animals were most spectacular to see in person?
The Polar Bear. In the far north, we were so close to a polar bear, just 3 feet away. It was the greatest experience we’ve ever had with wildlife.
Your kayak trips were self-sustained. What food did you pack, and did you supplement it with local food or fishing?
Both of them, we had a plethora of dry food, but when we got to a village we always ate locally. We would also buy stuff in the settlement to take back out on the kayaks, we carried rice, and supplies to last a long time just in case we were to get stuck.
Any unforgettable moments from your trip?
Of course many, one that sticks out is paddling with the whales. Getting very close to them was phenomenal, something that we did many times in the summer. Also, to be out on the ice with the Greenlandic people, living their life was truly unforgettable. You’re able to get so friendly with the people. You’re no longer a kayaker or a photographer, you’re just a part of their culture.
If you had to summarize what you learned about yourself and the world while traveling Greenland, how would you describe it?
I think we learned so much, staying such a long time in the wild changed us. In the beginning we had music, and the things of our culture. But after a while we learned to be alone with ourselves, just the sound of the waves and the ice.