Part I covered three Greenlandic towns I have visited but my real passion is being out in West Greenland’s wilderness. So this part is about what it has to offer those willing to get out there on foot and under canvas!
I always feel a tingling rush when the spectacular east coast of Greenland comes into sight…a kind of warm feeling of familiarity at being back yet again….!
Greenland’s stunning eastern side, just in from the coast.
Hiking in West Greenland certainly offers plenty of what I was looking for in terms of wilderness, good walking and wild camping but I wasn’t quite prepared for the quality of the tranquility, peacefulness, silence and blissful isolation from modern life in that arctic landscape. It got under my skin so much in 2006 that I returned in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 (May), 2012 and 2014 and by now, this relatively remote part of the Earth that was meant to be subject of a fireside tale later in life has become my familiar summer home for a whole month at a time!
For walkers there is one official trail - the Arctic Circle Trail (ACT), which is the hundred-mile trail between the towns of Kangerlussuaq (near the western edge of the ice-sheet) and Sisimiut (on the west coast). Nowadays I spend my time well off that official trail but it’s a good satisfying walk if you’re new to the area and you can start at either end of course. My usual routine these days is to land at Kangerlussuaq, grab my first muskox burger of the season at the airport cafÉ, (mmm, tasty!), then fly about 25mins west to Sisimiut on the coast (see Part I for photos of Sisimiut).
From Sisimiut, I hike eastwards towards the ice-sheet to an area north east of Kangerlussuaq (our wild geese study area). I still walk the first 3 days of the ACT’s western end before leaving the official trail and disappearing northwards and alone into the wild! There’s nothing like being alone in the vast remote wilderness of Western Greenland and knowing I won’t see another soul for at least a blissful week of total isolation before I reach our research team camp. There is much more to it than I can cover in this article but here are at least some impressions of being out there to tempt you!
After a one-night stay at Hotel Sisimiut, and after my last decent breakfast and last hot shower (for a month in my case!), I set out on the Arctic Circle Trail (ACT).
Shortly, you can turn and look back at Sisimiut and the coast before they disappear from view. For the next 98 miles or so, there is nothing but arctic wilderness and a few huts for shelter along the ACT. This is always an exciting prospect no matter how many times I’ve been here.
Last look at Sisimiut and the west coast…
I have started this walk in a howling gale and rain in one year but hot, windless blue-sky days are more typical in July – not what most people expect. Come prepared for mosquitoes, sunburn and some serious sweating!
Lapland buntings (Calcarius lapponicus) are very common and will often follow your progress for a while, usually hopping along rocks a few feet ahead of you. Apart from a rare aircraft overhead, the only sounds are those of rivers, the breeze and the birds.
The Qerrortusup Majoriaa pass at about 450m. A water-shed and one of my favourite sections of the entire route.
This is a typical example of the huts along the ACT. There are 2 that can sleep 10 or more people and not all of them are on the official map sheets! If you’re lucky you might complete the ACT with the use of a hut almost every night but if you’re new to it of course, you might not know there’s an unmarked hut up ahead.
Expect, big, open country and deceptively large valleys!
The huts are of good quality. It’s first come first served so they are not always free. Rules are simple, treat then with respect; if you must, burn garbage in the oil drums provided and leave the huts clean, just as you’d wish to find them! It’s been amusing reading my entries in the visitor books…each one written as though I didn’t expect to be back again! Luckily, I had this one to myself again this year.
The hiking is not particularly arduous along the ACT nor is it 100 miles of monotony. The terrain varies quite a bit from rocky ridge top to extensive bog/marsh but is mostly dwarf shrub heath. It has its ups and downs but there’s often a clear trail to follow and very little serious steep climbing. (Off the trail in wild country, the walking’s much more demanding with a heavy pack and food for 2 weeks!) There will be rivers to cross. They are not huge but several are just a little too deep for boots-on crossings though I have also been waist deep in some that are off the ACT! However, bear in mind that accidents or mishaps can happen anywhere and once committed, there is no getting the bus back to town…town may be several days walking away! Rescue is on foot or by helicopter if your insurance covers you for that.
River crossings, beware the usual perils like slippery brown algae. The water is very cold though welcomed by hot feet initially!
There are no trees, visibility is far…be prepared for large open landscape and deceptive distances. This is a lake I call S4, it’s about 1.3 miles across and the route swings around it and into the valley to the left behind it. This area is a hotspot for mosquitoes and flies but imagine the peacefulness of being here all alone, far from the maddening crowd!
There’s far more wildlife than you might initially think and still some surprises. In 2014 I had my first sighting in 7 years of red-breasted mergansers (Mergus serrator) in a river.
I call this lake S15 (1.5miles across and 34 miles from Sisimiut). It has both an old as well as a newer larger hut at the other end which are reached after another (wide) river crossing from this direction.
The newer hut on lake S15 on a grey morning. A lady taken ill on the trail had to be airlifted out from here in 2014 after being stuck here a couple of days because of bad weather. Today I will leave the ACT…
This is Tasersuaq, largest lake in the area at about 22 miles long, 50 miles from Sisimiut and the cliffs are 300m in height. The ACT is south of here and briefly touches on its southern side but this is taken on its northern side the day after I left the ACT.
Arctic hares, always a pleasant sight. Some will scamper away immediately, others remain curious and may sit still while you walk past at a safe distance.
I love these quiet peaceful encounters with arctic wildlife.
Being utterly alone in this vast wilderness for 8 to 10 days is magical. Passing through it quietly, unobtrusively, leaving no garbage or mark upon the environment. I feel privileged to be here and thankful for every wonderful wildlife encounter.
In addition to arctic hares and Lapland buntings, there is a wonderful array of wildlife. Birds include Snow buntings, Ravens, Mallards, Canada geese, Greenland White-fronted geese, Peregrine falcons, Ptarmigan, Red-necked phalaropes, White-tailed eagles, Greenland wheatear, Common and Arctic redpolls, Long-tailed ducks and probably my favourite…Great Northern Divers.
There are of course the wonderful arctic foxes but they are generally wary and keep their distance.
The biggest things you’ll encounter are the caribou and if you’re lucky, the muskox.
Muskox (Ovibos moscatus). Be sensible if they have young with them!
There are also wonderful and beautiful arctic plants for the botanists among you which I’ve barely touched on in this article!
When to go:
June/July is a good time to visit. If you want a bit more excitement, try May for frozen lakes and chilling night-time temperatures!
Lakes in a favourite basin of mine with ice cover in May, before the Spring bloom.
The ACT would be routine for me by now but if you plan to do it, it does need some careful preparation. In the middle you’ll be about 50 miles from the only 2 towns in the region and no option but to walk to them!
If you want to take it easy, soak-up the experience and explore as you go, you might want to plan on up to 12 days out? In 2014 I met a Greenlander looking to complete it in 3 days again! Depending on how fast you hike, most people probably take about 8 to 10 days to do it provided all goes well. It would be a shame to race it! Along the route, there are 8 huts but you can’t rely on them being free. (Two are about 11 miles apart on one lake - a whole day’s walking for many!) Being north of the arctic-circle, its 24-hour daylight in summer.
You can expect the weather to be mostly dry and often hot during the day but need to be prepared for anything from howling strong winds in which it would be almost impossible to pitch a tent, to heavy sustained rain and even the occasional snowstorm. I’ve experienced them all over the years. In July, hot, clear blue-sky and practically windless days are not uncommon but you risk being mosquito-bait if you walk in just a t-shirt!
I’m very happy to offer info/advice to anyone seriously thinking of going out there.