Born to be wild! Trekking Greenland's untamed Arctic Circle Trail

Away from the polar bears and ice cap is a little-known hiking trail that traces the line of the Arctic Circle. Intrigued, Phoebe Smith packed her sense of adventure and headed north...

6 mins

There are some places in the world that seem to have truly earned their name. Consider the Valley of the Rocks in southern England, a place defined by its castle-like stone structures; or the Land of the Dawn-Lit Mountains (a literal translation of India’s Arunachal Pradesh), a state famed for its iconic undulations, which do indeed catch the morning light in spectacular fashion. But when it comes to Greenland, I’ve always felt its name was something of a misnomer. Renowned for its icebergs and huge ice sheet (the second-largest of its kind outside of Antarctica), not to mention polar bears and epic expeditions across its frozen interior – surely Whiteland would have been more apt?

So, when I heard that this country, a land defined by a frosty tundra I had only ever spied through the porthole of an aircraft en route to North America, was home to a hike called the Arctic Circle Trail, and that it required neither crampons nor the ability to perform a crevasse rescue, I was intrigued. And so it was that I found myself stood on the aforementioned ice sheet, 20km from the town of Kangerlussuaq airport and with solid fields of white stretching out to the horizon.

One of the trail markers (Phoebe Smith)

One of the trail markers (Phoebe Smith)

Mountains and lakes are a constant companion (Phoebe Smith)

Mountains and lakes are a constant companion (Phoebe Smith)

Faced with classic Arctic terrain, I was yet to be convinced I was in the right place for a summer stroll. Known as Point 66, this is the only place you can access the great ice sheet by road, albeit by using an all-terrain vehicle. Without requiring even ice grippers, a small group of us explored these frozen hillocks for a few hours until, with the light fading, the cold got the better of us and we headed back to town, passing the woolly shapes of behorned musk-oxen as we went.

That night I would be staying in a hotel, but the next morning I would start my journey to the ocean, one that would take me eight days on foot, without passing through a single town or village until I reached the settlement of Sisimiut 165km to the west. With the first part of the hike following the route of the road, I decided to take a taxi up to the last hamlet, known as Kellyville (population: 7).

“Good luck,” said the driver as I waved him off, wondering if that would be the last conversation I would enjoy over the course of the coming week. As I took my first few steps, the only sound I could hear was the increasingly distant hum of the car’s engine as it disappeared from view and the pop and crunch of my boots on the unpaved road, which transformed very quickly into a muddied line among a terrain of long grass and broad-leaved willow herb, the purple national flower.

Walking the great ice sheet (Phoebe Smith)

Walking the great ice sheet (Phoebe Smith)

Who needs luck?

When it comes to names, the appellation ‘Arctic Circle Trail’ (ACT) is pretty on the nose. Situated roughly 40km north of the circle proper, it follows an invisible line the entire time you’re trekking. Despite its evocative name, just 300 people come to walk this path every year; this means that, though marked by cairns sporting semi-circular red shapes (a nod to the Greenlandic flag), it’s not a boot-beaten, crowded route. For the first hour I didn’t even see another footprint, and the silence was more noticeable than ever before in my life.

Many people who attempt the ACT opt to go in a group or hire a guide. But being a keen wilderness walker, I decided I wanted to do it alone, desperate to experience this wild unfettered by small talk. So you can imagine my surprise when I arrived at the first of nine hiker’s huts that line the route and saw two people waving to me.

It turned out to be a retired couple – the Whittakers from Lyon (via North Wales) – who’d decided to trek it in reverse, wanting to avoid ‘crowds’. Hundeso hut is actually a cluster of caravans and sheds that resemble a kind of post-apocalyptic shelter that wouldn’t look out of place in a Mad Max film.

“We’ve been camping rather than staying in them,” said Elyeri as she drank the coffee she’d just cooked up on her stove. “They’re great for sheltering from the rain and making some food, though,” she admitted.

Offering me hard-won advice about upcoming river crossings, wildlife sightings and the importance of enjoying the experience, I left, eager to reach the next hut by the end of the day.

Though a light drizzle hung in the air, it wasn’t cold, and I removed my hood to take in the surrounds. To my right, a yawning lake stretched out so far that I couldn’t make out where it ended. Above it, peaks coated with grass and boulders stretched up to the sky and reflected in the water below, so that they appeared to double their size. It made something in my soul stir.

Peaks stretched up to the sky and reflected in the water below, appearing to double the size. It made something in my soul stir.
The still waters create incredible reflections (Phoebe Smith)

The still waters create incredible reflections (Phoebe Smith)

It’s not easy being green

If the landscape was impressive, then the wildlife encounters took it to the next level. I spotted my first reindeer – a stag – as I neared a point where the path crossed from one rise to another via a slither of land, creating an hourglass shape in the turquoise lake. I stopped to watch it run, its chest puffed out and pushed forward as though showing off. It was graceful, nimble, elegant and… running my way.

I froze, unsure what I should do – especially when I spotted an entire herd following up behind it. I remembered the advice I’d read: make yourself look big. So I stood behind a pile of stones, raised my walking poles to make myself wider and began to shout. But it only seemed to spur them on. As they came closer and closer, I knew I had to try to send out a clear message I was a human. And so, lowering my poles and stepping out from behind my rocky barrier, I began to sing.

It worked. They stopped in their tracks, clearly confused by this melody-making oddity. The doe began to retreat. The stag stood his ground, so I belted out another verse and he finally, with a glance over his stocky, furry shoulder, ran away.

Adrenaline racing through my body, I finally let out a breath of relief. That first encounter set the scene for the next few days of trekking. By the time I reached the Katiffik hut, a little red shelter on the shores of a lake that I would be trekking alongside the entire next day, I had scores of Arctic hares curiously hopping alongside me. Their ears were marked with the remainder of their brown summer fur, the rest of their bodies already transformed white in preparation for the oncoming winter – despite it being late August.

A reindeer puffs out its chest to impress (Phoebe Smith)

A reindeer puffs out its chest to impress (Phoebe Smith)

Later in the evening a Greenlandic couple – Agnes and Eric – arrived. They had turned back after Eric put his back out by carrying too much.

“Is it normal for the wildlife to come so close?” I asked them as we watched the stars appear that evening.

“I’ve never heard of anything like that before,” laughed Agnes, “you must have a green aura.”

Whether my aura was green or not, it kept attracting wildlife over the next couple of days. From the white-tailed eagles and peregrine falcons that swooped overhead as I completed the day’s walk alongside the lake at the sprawling Canoe Centre hut, to the little northern wheatear and common redpoll that kept fluttering out of the Arctic scrub, I was surrounded everywhere I went.

I left the building, deciding to head further into the glorious sunshine and camp on the lakeside of Kangerluatsiarsuaq. So warm was the weather that I found myself sat outside my little canvas cocoon, spreading my damp clothes out on the rocks as I rubbed my toes in the sand. I washed in the cold water and sat and ate my meal while my hair dried in the dusk. This wasn’t the Greenland I had imagined.

The following day took me over a pass to a deserted beach with golden sand and water so clear it felt Caribbean in character and would surely have swarmed with tourists had it been anywhere else on Earth. I climbed up to a rocky plateau to be greeted by reindeer once more, but this time, rather than fear, I felt fascination and – while singing of course – I headed towards them to watch the herd scatter among the permafrost hardened ground.

Camping by Kangerluatsiarsuaq lake (Phoebe Smith)

Camping by Kangerluatsiarsuaq lake (Phoebe Smith)

Casting shadows on the golden sand (Phoebe Smith)

Casting shadows on the golden sand (Phoebe Smith)

Wet & wild

The next hut sat on a promontory from where I could just about see the ocean, and my first glimpse of it made my heart leap. On the way I found a bushel of crowberries and stopped to collect some to add to my porridge for breakfast. The couple I’d met at Katiffik had shown me a ‘canoe plant’ – so called because its leaves curl upwards – which could be used for tea, so I picked a bunch of those, too. That night, from the steps of the red hut, I was drinking in the landscape in more ways than one.

In the morning I met a handful of hikers who’d arrived late and camped outside: two brothers, who were attempting to run the trail in a crazy four-day crossing; a 50-something couple from Lancaster, who were stretching it out over ten days; and a solo hiker in his 40s, who had heard about the route and was intrigued by its remoteness.

Bidding them a good hike, I left the cosy conversation we enjoyed in the hut and was alone once more. Soon I descended to a huge stretch of fairly boggy ground, towards the notorious halfway point of the trail at the Itinneq (or Ole’s Lakseelv) river.

Known to be a tricky crossing after heavy rain, I approached its banks with trepidation, having been advised already to avoid the signposted footbridge, which is only accessed through an overgrown and quivering quagmire. On the riverbanks I began to change into my water shoes, but then I heard a voice calling me. A group of eight German men, all in their 20s and 30s, had found a boat and a rope, and offered me passage across the river. I happily accepted and made it to the other side without so much as a wet toe, noting how the wilderness had a happy way of bringing out the best in people.

High on a plateau at the mid-point of the trail (Phoebe Smith)

High on a plateau at the mid-point of the trail (Phoebe Smith)

My dryness wouldn’t last long, though; the rain began to set in, so I opted to stay inside the four walls of Eqalugaarniarfik hut (complete with an inside toilet) on a comfy sleeping platform.

Here I found half a book, which I read while snuggled in my warm sleeping bag, eating a dinner of hot pasta while the rain hammered down outside. I couldn’t have been more content.

Matching my mood, a rainbow greeted me the next morning as I negotiated a series of climbs and descents, tracing more lakes and rivers and willing the sun to come out. Though for a few minutes it looked like it would, soon the mild breeze and blue sky was replaced by the fast changing conditions that this region is famed for. The rain fell hard and fast, the sky went so dark it felt like day had transitioned to night, and the wind whipped water both from the sky and the ground beneath my boots to soak me right to my skin.

By the time I reached the hut affectionately known as ‘The Lakehouse’, the water on which it sat resembled an ocean, its waves crashing over the windows despite it being raised up on stilts.

I set about hanging up my gear, to attempt to dry it out. A couple of hours later, the party of German boys arrived, having abandoned their planned camp. Any reservations I may have had about sharing the space with them soon dissipated when they managed to find some fuel to light the stove, instantly transforming the cold space into a heated sanctuary. They seemed to have an endless supply of coffee, which they shared with me generously, and even baked bread using the leftover flour and oats that they had found in a cupboard. I laughed as they handed me some slices – as I never thought I’d be eating oven-fresh baked goods this far from civilisation.

An Arctic fox (Phoebe Smith)

An Arctic fox (Phoebe Smith)

I left some food for them as a thank you when I rose at dawn and continued on, once more enjoying the silence, though with the memories of the company I’d experienced still warming my heart.

The going was hard in the still-atrocious weather, and it was tough to look ahead as the hail fell. But a sudden cry of a bird distracted me from my discomfort and had me searching the skies until I realised it came not from above but from below. I looked down to see some rock ptarmigan, coloured in such a way – grey and white – that they were almost completely camouflaged among the rocks.

Hard times on the trail were unavoidable, but I couldn’t help but notice that after each one, something wonderful – like seeing the ptarmigan – would happen to make me forgive them. Whether it was the kindness of the German boys or the sudden appearance of a stag reindeer, or the curious approach from a coal-dust grey Arctic fox, nature, it seemed, always repaid my efforts.

The hut was full that night, and so I camped further down the trail – the reward was having my German trail mates alert me to their catch of Arctic char – grey and orange, glistening in the dusk – which they kindly then offered to share.

The following day, when the rivers were fast-flowing and difficult to cross, the pay-off was that I later found myself walking through a landscape where the grass had transformed from lush green to an autumnal palette of reds, ochres, ambers and russets. The hut on the hilltop, which I had all to myself following a struggle over rough, saturated ground, even contained extra food left behind, so I could celebrate with a larger-than-usual meal. And later on, a pair of German ladies in their 40s – both called Melanie – decided to stay and keep me company, meaning we had a fantastic night of gear talk and the sharing of trail stories while a storm raged outside.

The two Melanies leave Eqalugaarniarfik Hut (Phoebe Smith)

The two Melanies leave Eqalugaarniarfik Hut (Phoebe Smith)

What’s in a name?

My last day was typical of the last days on any trail: excitement at finishing mixed with a reluctance to do so. Despite the two Melanies offering to accompany me, I wanted to finish the walk as I’d begun – alone.

It was raining when I left, with merely a gentle breeze coming in from the fjord, but the ACT had one final challenge. As I reached the higher ground, the wind grew into a blustery gale and a thick fog rolled in. For the next few hours I was staring into the mist, tracing the way forward by looking intently for the friendly red emblems of the trail. I was just a handful of kilometres from the town but it felt like I was as far from civilisation as it gets.

One last river crossing and I finally found a more reliable-looking path. I followed it and soon spotted the disused chairlifts at the ski centre – closed for summer – where the path became a wider ATV road. I looked at the contours on my map and realised I was no more than a ten-minute walk from civilisation. So I stopped and sat for a minute on a rock, in the rain, to commune with the landscape for just a little longer.

Ahead of me was the second-largest city in Greenland, with a population of just over 5,500. Once there, I would pick up the certificate to say I’d completed the trek, and the next day – despite my tired legs – I’d wander its coastal cliffs where, other than some Inuit ladies picking berries, I wouldn’t see another soul.

As I ate my final cereal bar and finished the last of my stream-sourced water, I thought again about the name of this incredibly wild land. Apparently it was always supposed to be a misleading one – it was given to it by Scandinavian settlers who wanted to attract more people to move there. With a countrywide population today not much larger than that of Canterbury, it clearly didn’t fool many. But I was glad. For here, just a stone’s throw above the Arctic Circle, where there are no roads and foot travel is the only way to go, lies wild walking on a truly grand scale, where reindeer, fox and hare all outnumber the people. So really, it does deserve its name, because its bounty of wilderness is enough to make any other country deservedly green – with envy.

Sunset over Sisimiut (Phoebe Smith)

Sunset over Sisimiut (Phoebe Smith)

The Trip

When to go

Winter (mid-September to May) – the trail is accessible only to snowmobiles or ski-tourers. Short days, very cold, but the northern lights are visible.

Trekking season (June to mid-August) – midnight sun means long walking days, but temperatures can soar and midges and mosquitos can be a problem during daytime hours.

Shoulder month (mid-August to mid-September) – a good time to avoid the bulk of walkers and the biting insects. But it can be cold at night.

Walking the trail

The Arctic Circle Trail (ACT) takes eight-to-ten days to hike. It’s beautiful but wild and remote, so committing. There are red semi-circle waymarkers on cairns (piles of stones) that help direct you but you must take a map as confusion is possible in some places, particularly during bad weather.

Be sure to tell someone responsible when you expect to arrive in Sisimiut, so they can raise the alarm if you don’t show up – you may want to consider hiring a satellite phone as a back-up or an emergency locator device. It is also recommended that you write in the visitor books in the huts, so there is a dated record of your whereabouts.

Be prepared that if the weather turns, you may want to wait it out in one of the huts, so always take more food than you need and factor a couple of extra rest days into your schedule. You can walk the path in reverse, though it’s less popular and hard to follow if using the guidebook.

A handful of walking guides are available to hire in Kangerlussuaq, although not always free to walk the entire route.

Please note: This article was first published in issue 185 of Wanderlust magazine in 2018, and refreshed online in March 2023.

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