Sitting in the airport watching the rain outside and waiting for my delayed flight to be announced I wondered at the wisdom of heading out into the wilderness with a broken tooth and pondered over what else might go wrong. I was heading to remote and wild west Greenland to walk the Arctic Circle Trail with my wife and could not really afford for anything else to go wrong, especially not anything significant!
The Arctic Circle Trail is the perfect name for the journey from Kangerlussuaq on the edge of the Greenland ice sheet to Sisimiut on the west coast of Greenland. Sitting just above the arctic circle, this trail is a classic, winding its way through some truly wild and spectacular scenery carved out by the now retreated glaciers. Rugged looking hills are interspersed by sparkling lakes, crystal clear rivers, dwarf willow forests and beautiful sandy beaches. There are no roads, dwellings or shops on this 102-mile journey and so anyone planning on walking this trail needs to be fit and self-sufficient as rescue in the event of even a small emergency would not be easy or swift. Fortunately, my broken tooth, which happened that morning at the airport wasn’t painful and didn’t cause me a problem!
Those seeking solitude will not be disappointed although they might not be entirely alone. We saw at least two or three other trekkers almost daily, mostly going the opposite way, and on our last day we even saw a group of about ten people. The low number of trekkers makes this a great trail for seeing wildlife. We had fantastic encounters with reindeer on an almost daily basis. A cheeky and curious arctic fox visited our camp one morning as we cooked our breakfast and we were lucky enough to see the timid but fabulous white arctic hares. Ground nesting birds such as the very well camouflaged and hard to spot rock ptarmigan are in abundance as are other more colourful and active birds. Wildflowers carpet almost all of the trail and there are tasty looking but hard to catch arctic char in the rivers and lakes.
Communication with the outside world is limited with the only real option being a satellite phone. There is no mobile signal whatsoever and so you’ll be treated to a complete digital detox allowing plenty of time to enjoy nature at its very best, for conversation, quiet reflection and perhaps the opportunity in the evening to read a book.
The route is described in detail in the excellent guidebook by Paddy Dillon, Trekking in Greenland - The Arctic Circle Trail and covered by three separate maps (Kangerlussuaq, Pingu and Sismiut). We choose to pretty much follow the route described in the guidebook, starting in Kangerlussuaq and taking nine days to make the journey to Sisimiut. This option appears fine on paper but with average distances of about 12 miles per day for nine consecutive days and the fact that you must carry everything you need for the whole journey; you definitely need to have a good level of fitness. Navigation is fairly straight forward and the route is waymarked by cairns with red paint. That said, we had some low visibility days during which our map and compass skills were tested.
The trekking season in this part of the world runs through the summer, from mid-May through to mid-September. Outside of this window of opportunity you would need to either arrange for a snowmobile or be proficient at multi-day ski touring. We trekked the trail in late June. The snows had completely gone but the weather wasn’t too hot. We had a full mix of weather however, during the first couple of days we had clear periods with intervals of light rain, temperatures were just about warm enough. This was followed by some good clear sunny days, often with a cool breeze but excellent views. Towards the end of our trek, the weather played tricks on us, one minute it would be warm and sunny and the next it could be freezing with heavy rain, we even had hail and snow although none of these showers lasted very long.
As the weather can be changeable you need to ensure that you are properly prepared and carry sufficient clothing. However, since you must be self-sufficient and carry everything you need it is wise to follow the ‘light is right’ principle and take the minimum things you need to survive without being uncomfortable. Whilst there are huts at the end of every day if you follow the route described by Paddy Dillon, there is no guarantee that there will be space in them for you to spend the night, so it is a good idea to carry a tent. You will also need a good sleeping bag, a sleeping mat and a stove and pan. Camping gas and liquid fuels are prohibited on aircraft so don’t attempt to fly with fuel, it is widely available to buy in Kangerlussuaq on arrival.
We took high calorie dehydrated food for breakfast and evening meal to keep the weight down. Not wanting to cook at lunchtimes we carried a variety of snack foods which included cheese, polish sausage and peperami, tuna (in a foil bag not a tin), long-life pitta bread, dried fruit and nuts, chocolate and other sweet treats and snack foods. This worked well and allowed us to eat on the move if necessary due to poor weather. Water is plentiful on the trail except for the first section of the first day where there are no streams and the water in the small lakes by the side of the road is brackish. Whilst we took a UV Steripen with us, we didn’t really use it as the water is crystal clear and very refreshing.
Whilst sometimes, trekking the arctic circle trail was tough, it was more than worth it. The feeling of remoteness was massive, the views were spectacular and, although I wasn’t alone, there was a great feeling of solitude. No distractions from the internet or social media was also a very welcome consequence of the remoteness. Descending out of the mist from the hills above Sisimiut and catching the first glimpse of the ocean and the colourful buildings brought with it a massive sense of achievement and then a sudden realisation that beer and real food was now very very close!
If you are thinking of walking the Arctic Circle Trail but maybe don’t feel confident to go it alone and would like to join a guided group, we have a trip going out later this year – full details can be found HERE