– Trail is 167 kilometres long
– Buy the maps and the guidebook. Worth the investment for navigation and knowledge!
– Rocky ascents and descents, some boggy grassland, sand and a few muddy holes
– The path itself is not difficult; it’s the remoteness. Both towns have minimal resources to rescue stranded or injured hikers – it will take time, perhaps many hours or a day or longer
Greenland is an island at odds with its name. Mountains of ice, thousands of miles of snow and blustery weather cover 90% of the country forcing inhabitants and their communities to hover along the coast. There is little green about it. Kangerlussuaq has bragging rights; it is situated at the end of a 190-kilometre-long fjord earning it the title of most inland town in Greenland.
Waiting for our backpacks to unload inside the airport terminal, we noticed two types of people arriving – colourfully geared hikers or camouflage-clad hunters. What a bustling hub! It’s a hotel, a gift shop stocked with camping gas nestled amongst the t-shirts and jewellery, a nursing station, a full-service cafeteria crammed with locals sipping coffee and a fine-dining restaurant. This collective energy electrified the air, hikers and hunters alike thrilled to arrive in Greenland, a dream destination for anyone who loves outdoor adventure.
For us, backpacking the Arctic Circle Trail was the plan. This backcountry trail wanders 167-kilometres in length and travels between Kangerlussuaq over rocky and bumpy terrain to Sisimiut, perched on Baffin Bay, part of the Arctic Ocean.
Depending on the website, blog or guidebook you read, the start of the trail begins either at the airport in Kangerlussuaq or at the end of a dirt road west of town. Some prefer to immediately start their adventure, exiting from the airport and walking along a dirt road for 17 kilometres. Others hail a taxi to a turn-around where a nondescript rock painted with a red half-circle, marks the start of the path, launching hikers off into the wild terrain of Greenland. And then are those who prefer the bragging rights of trekking from ice cap to coast, starting their backpacking adventure at the edge of the ice sheet located 39 kilometres east of Kangerlussuaq down a winding gravel road – the longest in Greenland.
Regardless of your starting point, the landscape changes dramatically along the trail, but it is consistently isolated, treeless and rocky. Red coloured wooden huts spaced approximately 20 kilometres apart provide shelter for those who prefer not to tent. The first 60 kilometres of the trail (not including the road) is hilly in places and congested with lakes -including Amitsorsuaq Lake boasting a Mediterranean picture-worthy beach and on a calm day, stunning mirror glass reflections. The mountains have a soft roundness to their peaks, appearing like rolling waves on an ocean. Refilling water bottles is easy along this stretch, and you can bask in the sunshine when you rest. It is tranquil; no sounds, no planes flying overhead or any faraway human-made interruptions, only the natural world. It’s a quiet that is both startling and magical.
Near the end of Amitsorsuaq Lake, we stopped at the hut to air our feet in the late August sunshine. Blisters just thoughts at this point, we relaxed, our packs toppled over, backs propped against the wood cabin and our faces like sunflowers titled towards the sunshine. I fired up our camp stove inside the spacious hut and cooked a dehydrated meal of fiery chilli.
Day 2 Hiking Along….
Soldiering on after devouring our daily bread was where my brain decided to quit and register only one-kilometre bites at a time. Painstakingly, my husband and I shuffled forward. Several kilometres later, we exited the valley and arrived at the massive bay on Lake Tasersuaq. Gale force winds battered the arctic tundra and our faces. Our weary bodies struggled to pitch the tent without it blowing off like a parachute towards the Arctic Ocean. The sun, lazily dropping out of sight at 9:30 pm, reminded me that the days lingered here. We were happy to be nestled in our sleeping bags while the wind howled, munching on mint chocolate bars and salty almonds.
A late morning swim? We hadn’t planned on it. Views of the Itinneq River Valley, its grassy floor hemmed in by mountains and stubbornly grey skies kept our senses alert. The river presented a dilemma – either hike to a steel bridge that is quite a way off-trail or wade across the river. We opted to wade. It turned out to be deeper and swifter than anticipated, but manageable as long as we kept our grip on the hiking pole, adding in a few theatrical balance manoeuvres. Our prune shaped toes enjoyed a cold bath.
Mid-trail, not long after the river, involved an important decision – to hike the north or south route. It depends on your comfort navigating using a map and compass. Most people backpack the north trail following the occasional half red circle markers splashed on rocks and cairns. A path does not exist for the south route. Continuing north, a climb of 1475 feet rewarded us with postcard views of lakes surrounded by an explosion of bright red and yellow fall colours.
Descending dropped us into a lunar landscape where one hut was lashed down by cables so that it didn’t blast away. Just beyond, a spacious cabin that merits the name “lake house”, perched high on a rocky shoreline offered a welcome respite to cook today’s lip-smacking meal – cheesy lasagna.
Which begs the question – tent or hut? Camping is unrestricted along the trail. We quickly learnt that while you can camp anywhere, the height of scrubby vegetation in places and wildfire risk meant we opted to prepare our main cooked meal mid-afternoon at one of the huts. Some are rather luxurious consisting of bunk beds, bright windows and separate kitchen areas for socializing and playing cards. Other cabins offer cramped, gloomy spaces. We loved our tent and appreciated the solitude, catching the odd glimpse of arctic hares and one curious, playful fox. We did sleep in a hut one night sharing tall tales about life in Germany, Holland, Denmark, and Canada amongst new friends.
As the trail meanders towards Sisimiut, it follows the contours of a valley and river. After the last hut, the terrain becomes shockingly rugged again, a steep descent into a breathtaking broad valley, the surrounding giants steep and jagged. Approaching the ocean, fog and rain are definite possibilities. Fortunately, we limped towards Sisimiut enjoying blue skies, our heels a mess of bloody blisters. A meal, a bed and a shower confirmed we completed this trip! But walking was painful for a few days, so we spent some time at the local bakery enjoying the treats and the comfortable spot to read.
The trail is in its bureaucratic infancy – no advanced registration requirements, sign-in or out trail books or official permits costing money. Between 700-1000 people complete the hike or ski the route during a calendar year. Unfortunately for backpackers, local government is planning to convert the area into a dirt road joining the two communities. If you love wild spaces and cold weather, it’s time to visit Greenland and explore this barren and starkly magical trek above the arctic circle before this wilderness is forever changed.
Things to Consider:
– the north trail is relatively easy to navigate using the topographic maps, the guidebook and paying attention to your surroundings.
– Remoteness should factor into planning – being wholly self-sufficient, prepared and accepting that getting away from it all, literally at the top of the world, comes with risk.