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.
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.”
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.
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.