Olaf Malver, Chief Exploratory Officer of Natural Habitat Adventures, has traveled with some incredible characters while pioneering paddling routes in remote East Greenland, but Boas Madsen was particularly special. Read on to find out why Olaf nicknamed Boas the “Inuit Ice Master.”
Our small, open skiff zigzagged violently to avoid hitting hard pieces of floating glacial ice debris. The impact of even a brick-sized chunk of this blue ice would be enough to splinter the fiberglass hull and leave us flailing in the cold Greenland Sea. But we were not terribly worried. Boas Madsen, our Inuit boat driver, knew what he was doing. He knew how to maneuver with intense alertness, and he had learned that the very hard way six years earlier.
On an early summer boating excursion to collect blueberries with friends in the inner Scoresbysund Fjord complex, Boas and his 8-months-pregnant wife had become separated from their companion boat. At high speed and in the blinding Greenland summer sunlight, Boas lost his concentration for a split second, and the small boat hit a hard piece of brash ice, causing it to flip. After much confusion, he found his first love upside down, dead in the water, but he managed to get her limp body and himself ashore. The tragedy was another testimony to Greenland’s uncompromising grandeur and violent beauty.
This time, Boas and I were on the way to our kayak launch spot to guide the first Western travelers in a 250-mile circumnavigation of Milne Land. This stunningly beautiful island is located in the middle of the world’s largest fjord – Scoresbysund – in eastern Greenland. Boas had been recommended by a compatriot Danish explorer, John Andersen, who 10 years earlier had pioneered an 800-mile kayak route along the northeast Greenland coast with Boas as the front paddler in their double kayak. John enthusiastically described Boas as a quiet soul, a good shot and most importantly, a master of ice. These are all necessary qualities to have when you are together 24/7 for weeks, paddling through polar bear country in the gyrating Greenland coastal icepack.
Boas’ rare combination of these great human assets worked equally well for me. We spoke in broken Danish only when necessary, and when we exchanged words, there was always the added spice of crackling humor sprinkled in. When it rained, the head of his pipe was turned 90 degrees to the side so his tobacco wouldn’t get wet, and when smoking in good weather, the pipe was twisted back to normal. His eyes would always slowly scan the surrounding mountains and waters with a traditional hunter’s patient alertness. Once he paddled alongside me and pointed his pipe toward the huge mountain rising steeply out of the ocean in front of us. “You see those five on a family picnic?” Only after much eye straining and squinting did I notice five small back dots moving along up high – a small herd of muskoxen!
When Boas paddled, his rusty rifle would be tied with green twine to his front deck bungee cords, and he would sit comfortably on the little piece of muskox skin attached to his kayak seat. Ashore, he was an expert in fixing all things – a broken primus, a damaged rudder, or a punctured Hypalon hull were all repaired in an efficient jiffy.
These three basic human traits – humor, alertness, and being practical – are the attractive trademark of most Inuits’ nature-focused behavior and traits that we modern people, working in front of computers, alone and separated from our human and natural surroundings, have completely lost. To watch Boas and learn this wonderful, basic way of responding in nature always made these expeditions with him a truly rich experience.
Paddling in ice was where Boas showed his mastery. That year we were challenged with a particularly thick ice pack, but we succeeded in circumnavigating Milne Land without incident. Boas expertly led us through ever-shifting iceberg alleys, and he adroitly avoided large ice towers that had the potential to tip. It was as if he had a sixth sense of what to do.
At the end of the adventure, we were all picked up with his friend’s motorboats, and we celebrated our success with copious amounts of cheap whiskey. It was certainly sad to see how Boas got so drunk that he fell into the water off the back of the boat, grinning stupidly. The effects that western alcohol have brought to the Inuits’ culture have always been distressing for me to observe. The trip ended safely, and Boas was paid his full guide salary – all of which was immediately spent in the shop in town buying a new coffee pot and a shiny new mountain bike for his granddaughter.
I did not see Boas for many years thereafter, but his wisdom about connecting to nature stayed with me throughout my guiding career in the world’s natural places. Then, one evening I unexpectedly saw his smiling face again. After a long day of work in Budapest, I flopped down on the hotel bed, exhausted, and turned the TV to CNN – and who was right there, beaming on the screen? Boas! The story was about how an Inuit hunter hero had saved the lives of French sports team members who had tried to iceboat across Scoresbysund in the middle of a violent spring snowstorm. The report illuminated the absurd juxtaposition between the traditional polar bear hunter with his dogs and the pink Lycra-clad modern “sportsmen” and their high- tech gear. It was an example of Westerners who are truly out of touch with how unforgiving Greenland’s forces of nature can be.
Boas passed away quietly in Greenland a few years ago from liver cancer, undoubtedly caused by his drinking habits. But he is one of those friends who will always be my Arctic soulmate. He taught me a lot about how to cope with Greenland and its unforgiving nature, and in particular how to negotiate ice when kayaking. His legacy is rooted deep in my heart because he was one of those who gave more than he received. I also smile every time I think about his twisted pipe on a rainy day!