Part 1: Arctic Circle Trail
I have been working on the Greenland ice sheet since 2010, but have only ever been to Summit, Kangerlussuaq, and Constable Pynt. This summer I finally had the opportunity to explore more of Greenland – to experience the wild arctic tundra, sail down the SW coast aboard a ferry visiting numerous small towns and settlements, and visit a few of the towns in South Greenland.
Greenland is the largest island in the world and 81% of its landmass is covered with ice. With a population of just over 57,000 people it is the least densely populated country on earth. It is also one of the most expensive places to travel. Everything has to be shipped in, everything is a limited resource, and there’s just not much infrastructure to support tourism in general. There are no two towns connected by road so one must take a boat or plane to get from one place to another. Outside of the few largest towns there are so few visitors that there might not be any hotel or hostel. I spoke to several travelers who found families to host them, at a cost. Wild meat and fish is cheap, but finding vegetarian meals can be a challenge to say the least. Hiking and camping are free, but maps can be hard to find and there may or may not be any official or marked trails. Guided tours are the best way to see Greenland, but they come at exorbitant cost. There is an official Greenland tourism bureau: https://visitgreenland.com and it has a lot of great information and is a solid start.
I had several friends who had traveled around Greenland in past years so I had quite a bit of advice and recommendations. Traveling solo and on a budget limited my options and made my choices pretty easy: hike the Arctic Circle Trail from Kanger to Sisimiut, take the ferry South, and poke around South Greenland. Due to ferry schedules and budgets I decided to skip the famous UNESCO Ilulissat icefjord and Disko Bay area – something to come back for!
I spent my first day off the ice repacking and organizing my gear in Kanger. I did not have a satellite phone to bring with me, so I made several calls home with instructions of who to call if I did not get in touch by a set date. People have gotten lost along this route.
In the afternoon I tagged along with a few researchers to the ice edge. I had been here several years ago, but in early spring. It was beautiful in the summer. At Point 660 the ice is moving very slowly and it forms a nice safe edge to walk on. Standing on the ice I looked inland – Summit is just over 450mi NE!
Russell Glacier is a little closer to town and a short hike from the road. The terminus here however, is an imposing wall of ice, awe-inspiring in it’s scale.
That evening I got a ride from a friend with a truck out to Kellyville (or as one Dane called it: “Killy Villy”). Kellyville is just 20km from Kanger and home to the Sondrestrom Upper Atmosphere Research Facility. It is also one place to start the Arctic Circle Trail. Alternate start points include Point 660 or Russell Glacier if you want to hike from the ice to the sea, or you can walk the ~25km along the road from the Kanger international airport. I had read that it could take 7-10 days to hike the roughly 100mi and I had a ferry to catch 10 days later so I decided to skip the road walk.
That first evening I passed a hut and several brackish lakes as I got my pack settled and found my pace. I had spoken to several people who had hiked this route years ago and was told that there might not be a visible trail, to expect cold wet days, and possibly to not see anyone at all. I had brought with me the small guidebook by Paddy Dillon and the three topo maps…in the end however, there was definitely a trail, and I saw other people most days. Still, there are some areas with more than one trail and the guide was definitely helpful. This area is one of the largest ice-free regions in Greenland and hosts herds of muskox and caribou. It is a very popular hunting, dog sledding, and snowmobiling area.
Over the next seven days I hiked along brilliantly cold, clear lakes, through scrubby northern willow and dwarf birch, along ridges and down valleys. Late summer is blueberry season and the ground was blanketed in low blueberry and crowberry bushes. In rocky areas succulents, lichens, and rock cranberry found footholds. In a few sheltered spots between boulders along the lakes I found small ferns and moss, though conditions elsewhere are too harsh. I saw perhaps 15 people along the trail, most heading East to West. While there are huts along the way they were of varying quality and cleanliness and swarming with mosquitos and flies, so I opted to camp most nights. The weather was phenomenal and my biggest concern was the lack of shade!
As for wildlife I saw tons of birds – little Northern Wheatears running down the trail ahead of me, Common Redpolls trilling from the brush, molting Canadian Geese, Red-throated Loons, and a few hawks and eagles. I also saw several Arctic Hares and a handful of caribou. Caribou hunting season began halfway through my hike (on Aug 1) so they were pretty scarce however, their bones, pelts, and antlers littered the entire trail. Wolves aren’t found this far south, so I didn’t need to worry about them and while it’s not out of the realm of possibility for a Polar Bear to show up, it is so rare that I didn’t lose too much sleep over that either. I was a little worried about mice or other rodents – not having any secure place to store my food, but I never saw a trace. Mosquitoes and midges caused the most annoyance, but even they were far less numerous or troublesome than I imagined.
Near the end of Amitsorsuaq Lake I encountered a wildfire. I had smelled smoke for several days prior, but when I rounded a curve in the lake and could see the fire I noted that it was mostly just smoldering tundra – more smoke than flames. I stopped for a snack and to watch it for a while, letting a few hikers behind me catch up. We hiked toward it together stepping off trail to give it wide berth. It looked like it had started right along the trail near a canoe rack on the East edge of the lake, most likely caused by someone’s discarded cigarette or burning trash. Unfortunately these type of fires can burn for months underground and Greenland simply does not have the resources to attempt putting it out.
While I did see a few people there were whole afternoons or morning that I saw no one. There are no trees to block the view and most of the hills are gently rounded by ice. You can see for miles. In the evening I tried to find a depression or a rock for shelter and often didn’t even bother with the fly as there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. So immensely quiet. In the afternoon calm I walked past perfectly still lakes mirroring the mountains. At night eerie loon calls echoed around the hills and it was perfectly peaceful until a startled duck or goose tried to take flight clumsily from the center of the lake splashing and screaming. I was close to the Arctic Circle, paralleling it. The nights were short, the sun setting around 11pm and rising again at 4am (times for all Aug. can be seen here).
The trail is marked by rock cairns painted with a red half-circle. Often these are adorned with antlers. The trail wound up glacially carved rolling hills, down long wide valleys, and along numerous lakes. There are a few highlands, which the trails climbs straight up and over, but these only reach about 1,500ft. There is water everywhere and many people drank it unfiltered, but given the number of people using this route, the ubiquitous toilet paper on the trail and in the bushes, and the animal population I chose to filter all my water. There was only one real stream crossing and with the dry weather it was no problem.
I spent one night in the Innajuattoq hut, aka the “Luxury Hut.” Most huts had a logbook where hikers noted their progress, plans, and stories. I had been reading about this particular hut in the logbooks from people before me and it did not disappoint: Newly constructed, clean, with beautiful views of the surrounding unnamed mountains and right next to a large lake. I arrived just after noon and enjoyed a relaxing afternoon swimming, reading, and conversing with two Danish couples that I had seen several times along the trail. We all realized we were ahead of schedule and cooked up a feast for dinner to lighten our food bags.
From here the trail climbs over a pass and then follows a gentle valley all the way to the sea. The last night on the trail I camped along the edge of the Kangerluarsuk Tulleq fjord. Not the flattest campsite, but one of the best views of the hike! Small fishing boats skimmed the water below and the shores were dotted with tiny spots of bright color, little hunting and fishing huts.
The last day climbed up and over one last highland area, Qerrortusup Majoriaa, down past the Sisimiut ski hill, and right into the town of Sisimiut. It was a bit of a jolt coming back into society – walking along the main road past stores and trucks, young mothers pushing bundled strollers and elders waiting for the bus. Caribou carcasses lay in front of houses, fishing boats crowded into the little harbor. I found the hostel and paid for a bunk noting the mountain of hiking boots near the front door. Almost everyone here had just finished or were about to start the Arctic Circle Trail.
If you’d like to read more about the Arctic Circle Trail check out these other blogs:
http://www.northernadventures.co/arctic-circle-trail – This group of guys hiked the trail in late August 2014. Beautiful layout and phenomenal photographs!
https://expertvagabond.com/arctic-circle-trail-greenland – A solo hiker who completed the trail in 2015.