Arctic Circle Trail Day 10: Kangerluarsuk Tulleq to Sisimiut

This was it. The last 12 1/2 miles. The last day on the trail. Charlotte’s trio set off about 25 minutes before us and we followed their progress at they became dots weaving across the landscape. The waterproofs were on as it was another day of boggy patches but progress was slow as it was also incredibly scenic and we were taking photographs every few steps.

Kangerluarsuk Tulleq fjord

Kangerluarsuk Tulleq fjord

We saw the two cheery Germans with fabulous teeth, and the American man and his partner (both of them still looking freshly scrubbed – how?!) and thoroughly radiant.

Kangerluarsuk Tulleq fjord

Kangerluarsuk Tulleq fjord

After about 3 1/2 miles there was a fairly major hoomphf, but this was the last significant one of the trail. The rain of two days previously was a distant memory and it was once again hot and sunny. We stopped for snacks on a rocky crest and tried to soak up as much of the last day as we could.

Mr Tetley on a cairn

Mr Tetley on a cairn

 

The descent down to the river was steep, but manageable, and after a quick stop for lunch we boulder-hopped our way across without falling in.

The return to civilization was gradual. We found markers and debris from the Arctic Circle Race – bits of sledges, ropes – and passed the truly strange sight of the ski lift. The area of bouldery scree was difficult in places to cross and seemed to go on for a very long time.

The view toward Sisimiut

The view toward Sisimiut

Then we glimpsed the runway of Sisimiut in the distance and dropped down toward the town which appeared to be simultaneously very close and far away. We heard the discordant howling of the sled dogs tethered outside Sisimiut and then found what looked horribly like the beginnings of an ATV track…

We passed two other hikers crashed out in the grass and stopped to chat briefly. They were German. (Or possibly Austrian). (OK they were German). And like the others were going to take the boat north to Ilulissat. Like everyone else, us included, they hadn’t booked accommodation in Sisimiut and were just winging it.

Sisimiut did not quite delight on first encounter. This was partly because we had to walk through ‘the ghetto’ as Charlotte put it, but mostly because of the contrast with days of wild walking. We plodded through town, looking for the harbour as that seemed the most fitting point to declare the trail was at an end. Some people smiled as we passed them, but most looked at us as if we’d arrived from another planet. We saw no other hikers on the way in, and as we made our way down a steep hill I was profoundly grateful to be walking down it rather than up it. Eventually we meandered our way down to the harbour, found a bench next to a funky purple moped and declare the trail complete.

Mr Tetley completes the Arctic Circle Trail at Sisimiut harbour

Mr Tetley completes the Arctic Circle Trail at Sisimiut harbour

P.S. Of course the moment of triumph was short-lived. There was no accommodation nearby and we ended up hoomphfing our way back up the hill to Hotel Sisimiut who were unbelievably lovely and helpful in finding us a room. Not only did they not mind the state we were in (the hotel is really lovely and beautifully presented) they even gave us a discount for walking to them! The room was fab, the hot shower divine, the restaurant food incredible, and all the staff wonderful. Well worth walking 125 miles for.

 

Arctic Circle Trail Day 9: Nerumaq to Kangerluarsuk Tulleq

(August 2016)

Awake and breakfasting early we saw the occupant of the lone tent by the hut up and stirring also. There was a lot of standing around in the large group of tents and no signs of activity in the hut. The guidebook described a boggy route that may have added excitement in wet weather due to the number of willow thickets to be ploughed through. I started off in hiking trousers and waterproofs but soon got very hot.

Willow scrub

Willow scrub

The willow scrub was fairly tall, mostly up to my chin, but occasionally over my head which was quite a contrast to days of ankle high vegetation. The path was obvious and easy to follow but there were also lots of trunks and exposed roots underfoot. The colours were yellows, golds and greens marking a change from the autumnal russets, ochres and ambers of the previous days.

Birch scrub in the valley

Birch scrub in the valley

We were weaving in and out of the folds of the mountain with lots of boggy sections where streams ran down the inner most points of the folds. Sometimes it was possible to see where to stand other times it was guess work and the threat of soggy boots.

We met two German fellows with wonderful teeth, bursting with enthusiasm and setting a cracking pace. They were very jolly and always said hello or waved when they saw us. We also saw the American chap, from the lone tent by the hut, and his French partner who was always smiling and looked spotlessly clean. I was covered in mud and still unable to recall brushing my hair at any stage. Their joy at discovering we weren’t German knew no bounds. It later turned out that Germans were getting fed up with meeting other Germans and other walkers were getting a bit frustrated with the lack of variety in nationalities on the trail. Maybe there was an unofficial nationalities bingo card I didn’t know about? Anyway, you didn’t seem to score any points for meeting a German as they weren’t a rarity.

We stopped by a handy rock to have a snack lunch and then headed toward the cotton grass fringed lake. Walkers had drawn pictures and left messages for each other in the sandy shoreline. We skipped over these, or tiptoed around them and then decided which of the two available huts we would head for. The largest involved a 500m detour (adding extra distance to the following day) and was reputed to smell of fish due to frequent use by fishermen. The smaller hut was the more practical option but had some comedy instructions on how best to reach it (avoid a direct approach due to overly boggy ground). Somehow, we failed to follow these instructions and approached it arrow-like. Like much of the rest of the trail this year, reports of its bogginess had been greatly exaggerated, and I suspect it was much drier now than it had been in the past. I did finish with some damp boots though.

Boots drying outside Kangerluarsuk Tulleq Hut 2

Boots drying outside Kangerluarsuk Tulleq Hut 2

We had a bit of downtime to ourselves before the others arrived. First into the hut was Andreas (who had opened the door to me yesterday) followed by his brother Christian and then Charlotte, from France, who had been hiking alone until she was adopted by the brothers. We had such a great time talking to them! Nearing the end of the trail we were a bit more relaxed and swapped stories of our trials and tribulations, recommendations and tales of adventures elsewhere.  Charlotte, a genuine stylish French woman from actual Paris, cheered me immensely by declaring herself heartily in favour of the socks and sandals combo. She was also a fan of Tiger Balm, which it had taken me until this trek to truly appreciate for rubbing into tired feet and aching muscles. It turned out to have been banned in Europe for many years due to some ingredient in its formulation, which is why I’d been oblivious to it. The German brothers extolled the virtues of their solo stove (which went straight on our wish list) and all three recommended the Trek and Eat style dehydrated meals and expressed sympathetic horror at the sheer amount of weight I’d packed. Christian entertained us with stories of his cycling days across Europe and discovery of cider while he was exploring England.

We commented on some of the entries in the hut guest books, marveling at the groups with 8 or 9 or even up to 17 people in them. It seemed a strange choice to do a wilderness hike in such a big group and comments from other hikers were generally not favouable. We then discovered that the large group of 14 camping at the hut last night were also all German and this was the nub and gist of most of the annoyance. It seemed that hiking en masse was against the spirit of the thing and they were felt to be letting their countrymen down. Since the trail had been mentioned in a Lonely Planet book it had exploded in popularity and this group were being led by someone scoping the route out for commercial potential for larger groups. Whilst his navigational skills were superb there were difficulties in locating suitable camping pitches for such a big group. In this case the group all camped atop the hill, which gave them great panoramic views, but also made privacy for toilet stops difficult!

One of my favourite entries in all the guest books had been made recently by Kaylene Chadwell (see her blog cheerstotraveling.com) and her boyfriend which took the form of a Q&A coversation about M&Ms. Would Kaylene share  if she found a bag of M&Ms? Would she eat one she found in the mud? This folks, is the ultimate test of any friendship or relationship on a wilderness trail.

Mr Tetley on the hilltop Kangerluarsuk Tulleq Hut 2 in the background.

Mr Tetley on the hilltop Kangerluarsuk Tulleq Hut 2 in the background.

We found a good sheltered camping spot lower down and set ourselves up for the night. We struggled to get to sleep after all the exciting chit chat, but dozed off eventually, only to be woken again by a howling gale. Jamie popped outside at 1.45am to check the ropes were secure enough. I heard “oh wow! the sky is amazing” and was soon struggling into my coat and sandals also. The wind was not actually very strong at all, but the angle our tent was pitched at exaggerated the effect. This was the first time I had seen a proper night sky since we arrived in Greenland. A half moon shone brightly, and the curiously stationary wisps of cloud soon revealed themselves to be the aurora borealis. We spent some time looking at all the constellations we could name, before something caught my eye just below cassiopeia. At the time I hoped it was the ISS but having checked, I think it was just a satellite. As we had the celebratory funsize toblerone that I still had in my jacket pocket from the flight over, we saw a shooting star flash over the hills.

 

Arctic Circle Trail Day 8: Innajuattoq 1 to Nerumaq

(August 2016)

This was a day of mixed fortunes. On one hand, hooray!, we had made up the extra miles and were on course to finish. On the other, I hopped off the sleeping platform, still in my sleeping bag, to see grey and cloudy weather outside. As I put my sandals on I found I was standing in water and the end of my sleeping bag was now soaked. I couldn’t see a leak anywhere but Jamie quickly spotted that pressure on his pack had caused the platypus to drip slowly on to the floor all night. So, now we had wet things, but not much water, and a big hike down to the lake if we wanted to replenish stocks.

We then narrowly avoided disaster when Jamie got into a fight with a meatball in the trangia pan. The stove was knocked, spilling lighted meths all over the counter top and sending up an impressive whoosh of flash flame which frazzled the ends of Jamie’s eyelashes, turning them into little pom-poms and almost catching his hair alight.

The hut survived, and here are some photos to prove it. Fans of ‘faces in things’ will be pleased by the interior.

Innajuattoq 1 Hut.

Innajuattoq 1 Hut.

Interior of Innajuattoq Hut 1.Interior of Innajuattoq Hut 1.

Interior of Innajuattoq Hut 1.

Everything about this day felt more familiar. It was rainy. It was windy. It was inconsistent so that you had to stop every 20 minutes to put layers on or take them off again. The scenery was stunning. It was like being in Wales. But with more flies. Flies that could evade the raindrops and still pester walkers. The midge nets stayed on.

We called in at the roomy, and empty, Hut 2 to sign the guest book and do a bit of sweeping and mopping up.

Lake by Innajuattoq Hut 1

Lake by Innajuattoq Hut 1

The day was variously cold and then not cold, raining and then not raining, but some of the ground was boggy underfoot and the thickets of willow scrub were taller, denser and very wet.

There was a bit of an ascent, and then we followed a ridge through the valley. All we need to do was get to the end, chuck a right, walk on a little bit and boom! there would be the hut.

As we rounded the corner I spotted a bright shape ahead. It was someone in a rain jacket talking to someone else. As we got a bit closer I saw a tent… All day I’d been looking forward to reaching the hut in good time – it was only a ten mile day – and finally having the chance to unwind. Maybe even brush my hair for the first time in…er…how many days? We had talked about where to camp if there wasn’t room at the smallish hut, but I hadn’t really believed that there wouldn’t be room. After all, every single hut we’d been to so far had no one at it when we arrived.

Mr Tetley on a cairn before Nerumaq hut.

Mr Tetley on a cairn before Nerumaq hut.

As we got nearer I saw a whole encampment of tents. One chap was wandering around by himself and did eventually grunt a ‘hello’ after several attempts to greet him. All the others resolutely ignored us. There was little sign of activity near the hut, and my heart rose, but soon I could see things in the window. I knocked, and when the top half of the stable door was opened it revealed a room packed full sardine-like with walkers. I asked for the book, scribbled our names in it and a cheery ‘camping!’ and handed it back with a stoically British ‘oh goodness me, no, we didn’t want to stay in the hut. We’re camping! See! A tent!’ while gesturing wildly in the direction of my backpack. I slumped over to Jamie, and explained, entirely unnecessarily, that of course, the hut was already full of Germans.

We climbed steeply down the bank, crossed the river, climbed steeply up the bank the other side and found a flat, damp and fly-beset tent pitch.  I went to bed disgruntedly bemoaning the magical wizardry of Germans that meant they always got to everything first – and promptly had my best night’s sleep of the whole trek.

Arctic Circle Trail Day 7: Ole’s Laksleev to Innajuattoq 1

(August 2016)

We woke up in a nest of cushiony plants amongst the dwarf birch and headed downhill toward the valley floor. In terms of the guidebook, we were halfway through day 5 of the trail proper. This is the shortest day, at only 6 1/2 miles (11km) our plan was to complete this day and do as much of the next one as possible, to make up some ground. The weather was bright and sunny again but with the prospect of the river fording and boggy ground ahead.

Before we got there, another foe presented itself – flies. We had seen midges a few days back but they were the most lacklustre midges in history. They didn’t bother us in the least. It’s like they didn’t even know how to midge. Later we discovered that due to freak weather patterns earlier in the year, the mosquito population had been decimated before it really got going and a hotel manager in Sisimiut excitedly told us she had not seen so much as a single mosquito this year. Not one. This left an attractive niche for the flies to fill. And fill it they did. With gusto. On went our midge nets, and they stayed on for several days.

We covered a bit of half-heartedly boggy ground and then reached the river. A much less formidable prospect than in the spring, when the fast-flowing icy cold water reaches chest height on a normal sized human, never mind a 5 footer like me. It was, nevertheless, an entertaining 30 minute faff to get across. I opted for sandals-with-no-socks, Jamie opted for some strange invention involving old inner-soles with socks over the top.

Fording the river.

Fording the river.

It was slightly slippery underfoot, but at first wasn’t so bad – just under knee deep for my short little legs. However, halfway across my shin bones suddenly noticed how cold it was and I started to feel sick and slightly panicky. It was a great relief to get out the other side and dry off my partially numbed feet.

 

 

We had another close encounter with a young reindeer and it’s mother and saw plenty more flies on the way to Eqalugaarniarfik Hut, which was deserted, like all the others, when we arrived. Jamie fired up the trangia and we enjoyed a cooked lunch before ploughing downhill through thick vegetation in search of water from the spring.

Setting off again about 1.30pm, we were now on day six of the guidebook trail and really needed to get to the end of the 12 mile (19km) stretch. There was an initial hoomphf for the first 4km and a few instances of losing the trail on the hill and the bulldozed track for a nearby dam. It was slow going and we paused for some dried fruit at the top of the climb.

Soon we were walking across the Iluliumanersuup Portornga uplands looking down on lakes and glimpsing snow patches in the hills opposite. A steep descent bought us to the shore of a lake which we skirted round, but with the sun glare in our eyes it was hard to see whether our footsteps should be up or down. Well, that’s my excuse for lunging about in a haphazard fashion.

We walked the length of the next lake and stopped at the headland in the evening sun for another hot meal before tackling the final 4 1/2 miles. Martin, from the Netherlands was solo wild camping nearby and popped his head out of his tent to greet us and ask us about the fire as we passed. Fortified by a good meal, we set off full of determination at about 8.30pm. I had Bruce Springsteen’s Thunder Road playing on a loop in my head for a good three hours, and it was a perfect pace to walk to.

The path broke up, disappeared, reappeared an became increasingly boggy as we approached another lake with great northern divers bobbing about on the surface. Passing well to the left of the lake the ground continued to alternate between boggy and squidgy as the sun set and fleeting shapes of reindeer moved in the twilight gloaming.

I thought we still had another section of mountain to go round when Jamie said ‘there’s the hut!’. I hadn’t even been looking for it at this stage, but there it was, perched atop a hill. There were three reindeer near the hut, and a smaller shape that I’d like to think was an arctic fox, but the sun was down behind the mountains and it was too dark to see properly.

Sunset seen from Innajuattoq 1

Sunset seen from Innajuattoq 1

We climbed our way up to the hut under a sky streaked red. The small hut was lashed down with cables and had a lovely view over another lake below. Mercifully it was also empty, although there were plenty of pitches outside had we needed one. Although we were tired, it was hard to switch off as I constantly expected other walkers to arrive at any moment.

 

 

Arctic Circle Trail Day 6: Amitsorsuaq Lake to Ole’s Lakseelv

(August 2016)

This was a day full of treats and one of the most distinctive on the trail. I was still struggling physically, and perhaps a bit mentally too, but there are so many great things to look back on. Firstly we had the satisfaction of having chipped a tiny bit off the extra miles we had to cover. Admittedly it wasn’t much, but it was a good psychological boost. Secondly, we had our best wildlife sightings. Not long after leaving the lake we heard and then saw an aerial battle between four or five peregrine falcons. Jamie thought it looked like two adults chasing juveniles out of the adult’s territory. They were mobbing the younger birds with their talons outstretched and this was a thrilling start to the day.

Then, walking through the valley toward the lake, there was something on the hillside that threw a slightly different shadow to everything else – finally! We had our musk ox! I was so desperate to see a musk ox but we’d already passed though the areas where they are more commonly seen, with no luck. I’d had plenty of false sightings as mostly they look like boulders when they are sitting down. Do you know how many boulders there are on the trail? Loads, let me tell you.

He (I don’t know for sure he was a ‘he’, but he struck me as male) was some distance away, but we saw him easily through binoculars. He just stood on the hillside, looking around occasionally. He looked a big, old, shaggy, weatherbeaten thing and when he did start to shuffle haltingly downhill it was clear to see that he had an injury to his front right leg. He hobbled along, looking for all the world like an elderly and much-loved sheepdog whose place has been taken by a younger pup, but still stoically makes his way over to greet his master at the end of a long day. (Cue sentimental music, it’s possible I am wildly over-romanticising this). Unfortunately, the direction he was shuffling in was directly into our path and we couldn’t get stuck there for hours if he started grazing so we set off in order to pass safely in front of him. Doubly unfortunately, there was a small ridge between him and the path, and he clocked us when he got to the top of it. (Cue scratching noise of sentimental music stopping suddenly). He gave us a look of dismayed surprise and shot back up the hill like a gazelle. I could not believe the speed with which he moved. This is why, if you are trying to pass a musk ox, you do so downhill. When they panic, they run uphill and you don’t want to be in their way. If you get too close, and they have young to protect, they may charge you and humans really aren’t built for such an encounter.

The route undulated a bit, and then there was a mini hoomphf (hill or incline needing a bit of oomph to get up) before we reached Caribbean Beach. So called, because it looks like a Caribbean Beach.

Hilltop overlooking Caribbean Beach

Hilltop overlooking Caribbean Beach

It is incongruous to say the least. We stopped here for lunch here and noticed how much windier it was than previous days. There were small fish in the lake that swam right up to our fingers and it would have made a lovely camping spot if we could’ve stayed.

We set off again, this time with the chorus of Caribbean Queen playing on a loop in my head, but it morphed into Billie Jean after two lines because I don’t really know the song very well. Sadly I only knew about four lines of Billie Jean so that quickly became a bit tiresome. There was a gradual winding ascent towards the major, three part, hoomphf of the day which looked bad enough on paper, hideous in real life but was actually tremendous fun to scramble up.

After some more undulations and views of lakes we stopped by a cairn for a brief snack and to put our fleeces on against the wind. As we set off again we found we had been very close to a reindeer, just out of sight below us. Initially slightly spooked, he soon settled down when we kept still, and happily wandered up and down the hillside next to us.

Reindeer

Reindeer

We continued on to Ikkattooq Hut, visible through the smoke streaming towards us. The fire,  which had been spotted 5 days previously down by the lake when it was small enough to stamp out, had raced across the hillsides with the strengthening winds. Flames were visible in some places, but mostly the fire was smouldering in the ground and had burned away the path in some places. We were able to walk through without much discomfort; I had my sunglasses protecting my eyes and my buff pulled up over my face. The hut itself was up on stilts and had been surrounded, but spared,  by the fire. Notes in the guestbook indicated that some walkers had opted not to stay because they felt it unsafe – the hut had many abandoned canisters of camping gas and bottles of meths and benzine. Others had stayed but kept watch in shifts overnight. The hut was surrounded by litter – food packaging, wet wipes and toilet paper. It looked as though some attempt had been made to burn litter in an overflowing oil drum but some litter had been blown out by the wind or pulled out by wildlife.

The wildfire near Ikkattooq Hut

The wildfire near Ikkattooq Hut

Mr Tetley on the edge of Ikkattooq Hut

Mr Tetley, out of focus as usual, on the edge of Ikkattooq Hut

Later in the walk we met a French girl who had joined a group to detour round the fire , which took an extra 2 1/2 hours, and another couple who had also tried to detour but turned back.

Needing to make up our miles we left the hut and the path swung away to the right, up a steep slope to give us a view of the area covered by the fire. It was another big hoomphf up the slope, but not really too difficult other than the trail being easy to lose on the smooth rock, necessitating some squinting into the sun to spot the cairns. The hoomphf peaked at about  450m and then descended steeply on the other side. This was hard going on tired legs and knees and some motivational snacks were deployed. As we hit 8pm, with the valley floor below us lit up by the evening sun, we found an acceptable camping spot just off the trail  and settled down for the night.

Arctic Circle Trail Day 5: Katiffik Hut to end of Amitsorsuaq Lake

(August 2016)

78.5 miles to go. This was the morning that the mild panic and frustration set in. Ideally we should have been walking beyond each hut as we were a day short of the average time taken to cover the trail, and needed to make up the miles. However, we were running into some problems:

  1. We were carrying too much weight due to the heavy MREs I’d packed. This meant:
  2. We were going slowly (ave 2km/hour – though this is what others commenting in the hut guest books were also averaging).
  3. It was hotter than I expected (low-mid 20s) despite reading exactly this in the guidebook.
  4. Due to slow progress there was no downtime or chance to unwind which meant:
  5. Sleep was poor due to aches, pains and anxieties.
  6. We didn’t have a good routine and striking camp in the mornings took far too long

So, the pressure was on to get beyond the Canoe Centre and reach the end of the lake. As in, the same lake we were currently camped at one end of. The other end was about 14 miles away. I am not used to lakes that I can’t see the entirety of in one glance. This was fairly mindboggling. There is an option, should someone have arrived from the other direction, of covering this leg by canoe. But no canoes were to be found and so we set off, skirting around the end of the lake, feasting occasionally on pathside berries and trying to ignore the looming bouldery bits, which turned out to be very manageable. I’d crossed the first one without even noticing it and the second was more like a beach scramble. The water lapping at rocks sounded so beautifully soothing that we stopped a while to listen. The third rocky section was easily bypassed by climbing uphill over the cliff. This also gave a great view of the rock formations:

The rock face (in profile)

The rock face (in profile).

and I was very pleased with myself for making an excellent word-play comment about rock faces.  So excellent, in fact, that I had to explain it to Jamie. Mr Tetley was not amused and kept a stony silence. See? See?! Stony silence! I think I should maybe have stayed off those berries.

The route was, of course, beautiful but not massively varied. There were no great hoomfphing climbs either, which was a bit of a relief. We saw a few great northern divers out on the water and found a small flock of geese huddled into the rocks ahead, eyeing us warily. They stayed put as long as they dared and then flapped off to the safety of the middle of the lake – straight into the path of an oncoming canoe (the only one we saw all day). Their noisy exasperation at encountering two sets of humans echoed across the water for miles.

There were many reindeer antlers scattered along the path, especially near the cairns, and the tall cairn mentioned in the guidebook is still standing, though possibly only after several rebuilds. Another noteworthy feature was the island, situated just before the halfway point of the lake. Sadly it seemed to recede with every step I took toward it. Don’t look at the island! You’ll feel like you’re on a treadmill!

Tall cairn by lake Amitsorsuaq

Tall cairn by lake Amitsorsuaq

Some walkers were camped at a spot down on a little peninsula and we caught the whiff of smoke as we passed by. I thought this was their campfire. Wrong.

Later, as we approached the Canoe Centre (a palatially sized ‘hut’ sleeping 22 people established with the aim of launching a canoe hire business on the lake) I caught up with Jamie has he was talking to a German man, now living in Sunderland. The man glanced at my London Marathon training top (disclaimer: I have never run the London Marathon, but I am building up quite the wardrobe of ballot reject tops) and asked “are you from London?” “No”, I wheezed out (I was struggling a bit). “Not Biggleswade perhaps?” he asked encouragingly. I haven’t the slightest idea where Biggleswade is and greatly feared he would name half the towns in Britain before I summoned enough breath to disappoint him with my obscure village background. Happily though, he moved on from this random exchange to tell Jamie all about THE FIRE which was burning around the Ikkattooq Hut. It was causing a lot of smoke, but he had passed safely through.

The Canoe Centre is one of the more obvious places for people to linger and Mr Tetley and I spent a happy while reading through the guest log books. Someone had written multi-page story based on a walker they had met in Sisimiut. It was left to the reader to decide how much was truth and how much fiction. Someone else had written of watching arctic foxes out of the window and I looked up to behold our German friend, some distance away but easily discernible in his resplendent fluorescent yellow top, repeatedly lying flat out on the ground and then bouncing up again. I supposed he was looking for a camping spot. If so, we was very choosy as this went on for a while.

Revived after a rest, and sadly canoeless, we carried on the extra 3.5km to the end of the lake. The path here was not always obvious, and there were some energy sapping detours over spongy ground, but we finally made it, only to be confronted with the usual fandango of finding a suitable tent pitch. In time-honoured fashion, the best pitch had been snaffled by a couple of German chaps who had been put off by the fire and turned back. Happily, this had not spoiled their trek and they were cosily tucked up in their tent chattering away and giggling uncontrollably.

As we set up camp, two other walkers appeared who confirmed the fire was passable with care. As we ate our meal we watched them scout around for a water-worthy canoe, effect some repairs and fashion two paddles for themselves. After an hour’s labour they pushed off quietly into the water and I wished I had something more impressive to launch them with than a cheery wave goodbye.

 

Arctic Circle Trail Day 4: Hundesø Lake to Katiffik Hut

(August 2016)

I got up just before 6am and went outside with my journal to discover an utterly changed landscape thick with cool fog. This suited me, for I was an utterly changed person. Sometime the previous evening I had tried to keep my aching and blistered feet warm in a pair of thick hiking socks. But then I had the problem of moving around outside when I was trying to give my hiking boots a breather. Almost without really thinking about it, I put on the size-too-big and far-too-heavy Merrell sandals I had been terrified into purchasing from an English teacher in 2007 (“You’re going to Africa, you’ll need sandals. My daughter wore these on her World Challenge trip. She needs money for uni. That’ll be £5”). And lo, the scales fell from my eyes. In a moment akin to a dystopian book character recognising the lies of a totalitarian Government thus did I understand how the conventions of British society had withheld from me the glory of the socks and sandals combo. I care naught for your scorn and disdain, Britain. I have discovered who I really am. And I am someone who delights in wearing socks and sandals on the trail.

I also very much liked the fogbows, which appeared and disappeared as the fog thinned, shifted and reformed.

Fogbow at Hundesø Lake

Fogbow at Hundesø Lake

We waved a cheery goodbye to Pete (sawing up a reindeer antler to make a knife handle) and Stuart (eating cold chicken korma for breakfast) as the last vestiges of fog vanished. The going was slightly spongy underfoot and we saw flocks of ducks and geese on Hundesø and Limnoesø lakes. By 10am it was getting very hot again and I struggled to keep going without frequent breaks for snacks. The scenery was beautiful – reminiscent of the Scottish highlands – and dotted with lakes. The route was undulating and consistently gorgeous, but after 1pm I found it difficult to look at the surroundings due to having the sun full in my face. It was down to Jamie to spot cairns and the occasional reindeer trotting along, spooked by hunters a few hills away.

The guidebook had mentioned boggy patches of ground and a stream that needed fording, but the ground was so dry I was across the stream before realising we were at that point of the trail. Shortly after our picnic lunch we met Sue from Boulder, Colorado, owner of the tent in a particularly picturesque wild camping spot. With only a few days to spare she had decided it was better to experience a little of the trail rather than miss it all, and had greatly enjoyed her walk out to the Canoe Centre. She had also picked her own body weight in berries and shared them with us whilst reassuring me about the ‘tricky’ boulder crossings we would encounter the next day.

We said goodbye to Sue and when we reached the fork in the trail she had warned us about I left some arrows on the ground in case Pete and Stuart were not so fortunate as to bump into her.  I was desperately hot by the time Katiffik hut hove into view, but alas, the romans didn’t reach that far north and the trail meandered in and out of the hills before finally we got there.

The hut was lovely, and slept three people on the platform, and three on the floor below. So, six sleeping spaces, but we’re British, remember? and so there was no question of invading Pete and Stuart’s privacy. The tent it would be.

We stashed our bags there temporarily and, knowing Pete and Stuart weren’t too far behind us, we quickly hoofed it down to the stony shore of the inviting Amitsorsuaq lake. Lacking a swimming costume, I returned to the good old days of 1980s first school PE – vest and pants. In I rushed, squealing with delight. Out I rushed, squealing with cold. I’d made in it about halfway up my shin before the shock was too much. I took photos of Jamie instead, who plunged about making noises that suggested an imminent cardiac arrest. He splashed about heroically for a while, and declared that it was sandy not so far out. I paused for thought. When would I ever again get the chance to swim inside the arctic circle? I screwed my courage to the sticking place and tried again, while Jamie took some immensely unflattering, but to me hilarious and triumphant, photos of my achievement. Sadly, my joy was short-lived as the pictures were devoid of scenery, which rather diminished things, so I had to go in for a third time in order to get proper photo evidence.

It was all rather invigorating, to the point that I didn’t much care that I was still wandering about in my thermals and fleece when Pete and Stuart arrived. We chatted to them, set up camp, arranged the laundry, cooked a meal and then finally crawled into our sleeping bags.

Arctic Circle Trail Day 3: Kangerlussuaq to Hundesø Lake

(August 2016)

Day 3 did not go according to plan. I woke up after a chilly night, wishing I’d worn my thermals. Would I ever be wearing the wretched thermals at the right time? I tried not to look at my full-to-bursting backpack as I popped over to use the campsite facilities. Through the curtainless windows I espied a man sitting in the common room looking at me quizzically. I say common room because at this point the penny still hadn’t dropped that the endearingly written notice saying ‘if I am not in the house ring ###’ was to be taken literally. I raced back to the tent and grabbed the 120Kr camping fee.

“Hello”, I yelled, charging into the common room, “are you Frieder?”  “Yes” replied a very calm Freider, clad resplendently in a black t-shirt and, I now saw, matching black Y-fronts. “Ah” I said, slightly less certainly due to this unexpected sight, “I owe you 120Kr” and thrust the money at him whilst babbling on about arriving late and seeing the lovely notice but not having a phone etc. etc. Frieder was unflappable. “And you are…?” he asked politely. “Emma” I said, and decided that the only way to deal with accidentally accosting a chap in his underpants in his own living room was to Britishly ignore all the pesky details and opt for a very formal handshake.

After breakfast, Frieder came over to collect some information from us. The Arctic Circle Trail is under threat from a proposed all terrain vehicle route which is planned to share the trail with hikers at the east and west ends but then divert the hikers on to the dangerous and exhausting southern route in the middle. I hadn’t even heard of the southern route, and for good reason, the German language guide book exhorts hikers not to use it. It must be extreme if the Germans say it’s a no go. I later read something by an Australian hiker to the effect that ‘basically it’s not even a route, it’s just a cliff face’. So, no thanks then.

Frieder could not have been more lovely. After signing his petition he invited us in to look at the gigantic map covering one wall of his living room, where he pointed out lots of features describing river crossings and huts. The Paddy Dillon guidebook (2010) is slightly dated now that so many more people have used the path (updates are available here on the Cicerone website) and Frieder updated us on weather conditions and their impact. This snowballed into making us tea. And giving us extra meths. And debating the pros and cons of getting a taxi to Kelly Ville to miss out the less glamorous bit of the trail. And offering us dried vegetables and other foods. And telling us about which lakes to get water from. And offering to look after any things we didn’t want to take and where to find the key as he’d be on the trail for his 12th crossing when we got back. He was so sweet, it was like being dropped off at university again by my parents. I think perhaps he just didn’t much rate our chances of survival.

After a run down on the history of Greenland and the dodgy goings on of Erik the Red and power-crazed Olaf of Norway we finally hit the trail. Not for us the taxi to Kelly Ville. My backpack, sadly, was about 15kg which I found was rather too heavy to enjoy walking with. But hey, I was stuck with it so just had frequent stops for snacks. The first 10 miles are along the road and the passing drivers all waved to us. I don’t know if it was a greeting, encouragement or apology for covering us in dust. The route was a little more scenic than the guidebook suggested, but not in comparison to the rest of the trail. We made good progress although there was a rather demoralising switchback just before Kelly Ville.

After Kelly Ville (current population: 7) was a hideous hill and I demanded a rest stop in the shade of an old concrete mast base, despite the gnawed remains of a reindeer leg laying nearby. Shortly afterward we encountered the first marker cairn for the trail, and left the road for good. Jamie went into hunter gatherer mode, filling the water bottles from a lake and foraging for berries.

Even allowing for our late start, it seemed like a long day, which planted some nagging doubts at the back of my mind. I was greatly relieved when we found the first ‘hut’  – a peculiar hybrid of a caravan and some sheds overlooking the lake. We were joined a little later by two fellow Brits, Pete and Stuart who were doing the trek over 12 days and would be stopping to fish later on. “Ah,” I said, trying to sound wise-woman-of-the-woods knowledgeable “for char is it?” I know nothing of fishing, bar enthusiastically watching River Monsters, but I’d seen char mentioned in the book. It turned out that the only fish to be found in inland waters are char and sticklebacks. In addition to the fishing rods they had also bought…a harmonica. Don’t leave home without one.

The caravan hut near hundesø lake

The hut at hundesø lake

At some point we’d talked about having a break at the hut and then pushing on for a bit. We had only eight days to do the trail proper, rather than nine (fitting in with the placement of huts) so needed to catch up some miles. But…we’d started late, we were tired and hungry, there were beds in the hut which would save us time faffing with the tent, so, we stayed. I am so fickle.

Each hut has one or more guestbooks. There is no permit system in place but trekkers are asked to ensure that someone knows their planned itinerary and can raise the alarm in the event of non-appearance on the expected completion date. In addition, trekkers are expected to sign in at each hut, putting the date, direction of travel and useful information even if they are passing through rather than staying there.

Guest book at hundesø lake hut

Guest book at hundesø lake hut

Arctic Circle Trail Day 2: Hunter’s Camp to Kangerlussuaq

(August 2016)

Greenland in August: it’s light when you go to bed, and light when you get up. Good luck judging what time it is. It turned out to be 6.45am when I wriggled out of the tent, journal and pen in hand, to see a wild landscape and no one in sight.

There were, however, dozens of very excited small birds (snow bunting and wheatear) flitting about the place apparently daring each other to approach our tent as closely as possible. It was a bright, chilly morning but we warmed up quickly when we set off at 9.20 after a breakfast of noodles, hot drinks and a chaser of Soreen. We stopped a few times to adjust layers of clothing and watch an arctic hare which appeared on the path in front of us and tolerated us approaching quite closely.

For most of the route we were following the unpaved road back toward Kangerlussuaq. There were no settlements behind us, but I still kept instinctively checking for traffic. We did see a very few vehicles taking tourists to the ice sheet, but otherwise it was just us, and the tracks of the animals who had gone ahead of us. We saw musk ox, reindeer, arctic hare and arctic fox prints, and only a couple of human footprints.

The annual Running of the Musk Ox half marathon takes place mid-August and we found some excellent mile markers by the roadside.

Half marathon mile marker stones painted yellow with '5 M' to mark 5 miles. One stone painted red with a funny face on it.

Mile marker for the Running of the Musk Ox half marathon

The Paddy Dillon guidebook mentions an alternative route, which we took, to avoid some of the road. The views were good, as promised, but it was a steep slog up the path and it looks like jeep use has taken its toll on the path. This deviation also meant that we missed the aircraft crash site, so were glad we had stopped to find out the story on the outward journey. We still had to cross the desert to get back to the road, which was a pleasingly surreal experience after standing on the ice sheet the previous evening. By this stage I was regretting still being in my thermals as it was far too warm to wear them. The desert experiences the greatest temperature variation in Greenland, +25 Celsius in summer, -51 Celsius in winter.

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Mr Tetley in the desert

We stopped for lunch by a pond on the approach to sugar loaf mountain, which we had initially planned to trek up but went off the idea in the heat with heavy packs and just walked past it instead. The last notable sight on the way into Kangerlussuaq is the golf course. Mostly it is notable for being the most northerly 18 hole golf course on the planet. I am utterly clueless about golf, but it didn’t much resemble any other golf course I’ve ever seen.

Photo of Kangerlussuaq golf course, it looks like a desert with a flag in it

Kangerlussuaq golf course

We were glad to finally reach Kangerlussuaq, but not quite so pleased when we opened the locker we had hired at the airport (40Kr/day with 200Kr deposit). Our stuff seemed to have multiplied. Where had it all come from? Why did we have so much stuff? What were we going to do with it all?

The campsite owner was nowhere to be found, but we pitched up anyway (beside the airport runway; Kangerlussuaq is only a small place) and Jamie set to cooking while I spent a forlorn half hour rearranging our poorly chosen food rations in a bid to make them both smaller and lighter. Even with Mr Tetley’s supervision it was a task doomed to fail and I crept into my sleeping bag feeling mildly panicked about how much weight  I’d be carrying over the next hundred miles.

 

 

Arctic Circle Trail Day 1: Ice Sheet to Hunter’s Camp

(August 2016)

Our adventure started well before we even got to the ice sheet, 23 miles from Kangerlussuaq airport. I’d arranged transport with WOGAC (a cheaper option is to take a taxi from Kangerlussuaq – it’s a set price no matter how many of you travel) and our truck was splendidly full of a group of Faroese 17- and 18-year-olds on a school trip. One of the students had a harmonica and we were treated to a variety of sea shanty style folk songs en route. We stopped a few times to explore the area, including the crash site of a T-33 Lockheed aircraft in the desert. In 1967 eight T-33s were due to arrive at the normally clear Kangerlussuaq airfield. Five landed but a snowstorm blew in and three aircraft found themselves having to circle above the storm, until, with no clear weather, they ran out of fuel. All the pilots parachuted down safely and were rescued. Today, the aircraft wreckage is a vivid reminder of the dramatic events of the past.We stopped for a short while at another glacier before pressing on to the ultimate destination of Point 660 – the most accessible point of the ice sheet. Our guide bid us a hearty farewell as we hopped off the truck, and looked mildly surprised that we wanted to actually stand on the ice sheet first. We stashed our backpacks at the bottom of a moraine and scampered up on to the ice sheet which was like an adventure playground with a contoured surface of crunchy ice, criss-crossed with little streams of meltwater. We hovered about, exploring and taking an absurd number of photos until the school group had moved on and we were the only people in sight.

Mr Tetley on the ice sheet

Mr Tetley on the ice sheet

We retraced our steps, collected our backpacks, had three false starts due to toilet breaks and faffing around with layers of clothing and then finally began our trek at the crack of nearly 6pm. Whoosh! We were off! not that quickly really as our packs were quite heavy, so we started making inroads on the snacks (thumbs up to the japanese rice crackers, half marks to the dried mango which was delicious but really stuck to our teeth) and I immediately realised I would be walking with the sun right in my eyes. Pro tip: do not pack a hat with a brim that catches the top of your pack and is knocked off your head with every step. #lifetipswithtetley

We hadn’t gone far when Jamie spotted a reindeer trotting along, chin aloft, eyeing us suspiciously. It capered around the hills posing photogenically on crests for almost long enough to focus a camera before disappearing off in the late afternoon sun. Excited as we were, the trek did turn into a bit of a plod as it had been a long day travelling. We trudged along the dusty road listening to the musical honk of ravens, the cries of an unidentified bird-of-prey and the occasional boom and crack of the glaciers.

I didn’t have a clear idea about where we were going to stop, and had got a false impression of the distance having driven along the road earlier so I was very grateful when we finally reached a spot between two lakes, with a spectacular glacier backdrop on one side and a temporary camp of reindeer hunters on the other. The group of adults with learning disabilities visit from the Sisimiut area every summer and love having tourists to wave to! As an almost newbie to wild camping, I hadn’t bargained on the 40 minute circling around trying to find a flat and comfy bit of ground to pitch up on. It nearly sent me over the edge.

We cooled down quickly once we had stopped walking, and as the sun began to dip behind the hills we threw on extra layers and cooked up some hot, spicy food. I celebrated the first night of the trek with a mini bottle of red wine that early morning me had saved from the flight from Copenhagen. Well done early morning me. Sunset me really appreciated this sophisticated addition to my glacier watching.

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