Visiting Western Greenland. Part II – Western Greenland on Foot!

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….! 

 

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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.

 

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Last look at Sisimiut and the west coast…

 

 

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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! 

  

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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.

 

 

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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.

 

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Expect, big, open country and deceptively large valleys!

 

 

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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.

  

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River crossings, beware the usual perils like slippery brown algae.  The water is very cold though welcomed by hot feet initially!

  

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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!

  

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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.

  

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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.

  

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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…

  

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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.

 

 

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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.

 

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I love these quiet peaceful encounters with arctic wildlife.

 

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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.

 

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(Arctic Fox) 

 

The biggest things you’ll encounter are the caribou and if you’re lucky, the muskox.

 

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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!

 

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Arctic willowherb.

 

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!

 

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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.

 

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It's an amazing story, Huw, with beautiful photographs that really made me feel part of your travel experience.

 

I love your sense of adventure.  Thanks for sharing this special place with all of us!

 

Are there any polar bears in Greenland?  And if so, what precautions would a hiker take.

 

One last question.  How heavy was your backpack when you started this journey.  The weight of food alone must have been substantial.

Twitter: @DrFumblefinger

"We do not take a trip, a trip takes us".  John Steinbeck, from Travels with Charlie

Hi, yes I do.  Very handy for crossing rivers with a big pack and they certainly take a bit of a load off your legs.  I find I quickly get into my rhythm and can then keep my steady pace going.  I would definitely recommend them.   One unusual use for them last year was to fend off a deranged arctic fox that came into 'goose camp' 8 times and was trying to bite team members.  I have video to edit and stills to post yet!  Looks a little comical as it was little bigger than a domestic cat but serious because the population carries rabies.

I have no concrete plans (yet), but may be interested to hike the ACT with some off-trail extensions here and there.

Do you think it is worth-while to take a packraft? There's of course the extra weight to consider, but on the other hand a packraft opens additional possibilities and adds excitement.

Do you have any suggestions about areas off the trail that are particularly nice or interesting?

Thanks.

Hi. Thanks for posting important information. By the way could i ask some questions? I'm planning to trek ACT in early may or early june though i am little worried about getting lost red paint to easily find the way to. Is it visible at this time. Second, about snow. At this season is it dangerous to walk ACT due to snow? how about the lake for canoeing if the lake is already iced, it means only have to walk. In this case how many hours or days more needed and is it possible in early june?? Third crossing river by walking or bridge. I heard anyway one river (height about to chest??) has to be passed, is this river also in iced? and how more hours needed passing by bridge. Final is about insects in early june. Are they still waiting for birthing or are there full of?? Thanks for reading for planning early may or june for ACT. 

Minho Park posted:

Hi. Thanks for posting important information. By the way could i ask some questions? I'm planning to trek ACT in early may or early june though i am little worried about getting lost red paint to easily find the way to. Is it visible at this time. Second, about snow. At this season is it dangerous to walk ACT due to snow? how about the lake for canoeing if the lake is already iced, it means only have to walk. In this case how many hours or days more needed and is it possible in early june?? Third crossing river by walking or bridge. I heard anyway one river (height about to chest??) has to be passed, is this river also in iced? and how more hours needed passing by bridge. Final is about insects in early june. Are they still waiting for birthing or are there full of?? Thanks for reading for planning early may or june for ACT. 

Hi.  Got your enquiry.  Busy tonight but will reply in the next day or two. )

Racing_snake posted:
Minho Park posted:

Hi. Thanks for posting important information. By the way could i ask some questions? I'm planning to trek ACT in early may or early june though i am little worried about getting lost red paint to easily find the way to. Is it visible at this time. Second, about snow. At this season is it dangerous to walk ACT due to snow? how about the lake for canoeing if the lake is already iced, it means only have to walk. In this case how many hours or days more needed and is it possible in early june?? Third crossing river by walking or bridge. I heard anyway one river (height about to chest??) has to be passed, is this river also in iced? and how more hours needed passing by bridge. Final is about insects in early june. Are they still waiting for birthing or are there full of?? Thanks for reading for planning early may or june for ACT. 

Hi.  Got your enquiry.  Busy tonight but will reply in the next day or two. )

Hey Minho Park, if you're going to ask questions and people take the time and trouble to give you the benefit of their advice and experience, especially when it's not easy to get detailed advice based on lots of on the ground experience about somewhere like this, the least you can do is return to read it.  It's been a week now so I have removed it.

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