From Ice Sheet to Ocean: Getting Ready for the Arctic Circle Trail in Greenland

Well, it is less than a week away from our “trip of a lifetime” to Greenland and I am nervous and excited. I have wanted to go to Greenland ever since I wrote a report on it in 5th grade. The thought of going to Greenland has stayed with me over the years buried in my subconscious but never disappearing completely.

Location of the Arctic Circle Trail in Greenland

So last year when I was dreamily going through adventure blogs, I discovered there was a thru hike in Greenland called the Arctic Circle Trail. Perfect! I thought to myself. That is the way Ray and I are meant to experience it. We have already hiked four thru hikes and it is what we love to do.

The Arctic Circle Trail starts near the town of Kangerlussuaq and the Ice Sheet and heads west to the ocean and the fishing village of Sisimiut

But right now, with plane tickets bought and backpacks almost ready, I ponder the wisdom of this decision. Do we have everything we need? Is it going to rain the whole time? What if my backpack gets lost on the plane? What about polar bears? And what about that wildfire that was close to the trail last week? It is so easy to let these fears turn into a wall of uncertainty that becomes hard to climb over. But our plane tickets are bought so climb the wall we will. Or maybe bust through. Sometimes you have to do that to your fears.

Photo taken from Anton Abrahamsen of western Greenland and posted on the Arctic Circle Trail Faceboook page on August 18, 2019

So What is the Arctic Circle Trail?

I’ve had a lot of people say “but isn’t Greenland covered in ice?” when I tell them we are going to be hiking in Greenland. The answer is yes, most of it, or 85%. But we will be hiking in the 15% that is not covered by the ice sheet and glaciers. The location of the trail itself is in southwest Greenland, about 30 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Yes, we will be in the land of the midnight sun, or the “Arctic”.

I have also had people ask me if the trail is in a circle because it is called the Arctic “Circle” Trail. The trail does not follow a circle but traverses 103 miles east to west from Kangerlussuaq (near the ice sheet) to Sisimiut, a fishing town on the ocean. I like the idea of walking from the Ice Sheet to the Ocean.

Hikers generally take 7 to 10 days to hike the 103 miles and the trail stays in valleys between lakes and rivers so the total elevation gain is less than 10,000 feet. Ray and I have given ourselves 8 days. This trail is actually a pretty short trail for Ray and I after hiking the Hayduke Trail (800 miles), the Sierra High Route and John Muir Trails (both hikes over 300 miles), and the Colorado Trail (500 miles). But the Arctic Circle Trail is in a very remote location and the weather, culture, animals and terrain are not familiar to us. It is a different adventure to be sure.

There are 12 wooden huts along the trail that can be used for sleeping but we are planning on mostly camping. That is, unless the weather chases us inside. I am somewhat comforted by the huts being there if we need to use them. We will have no phone reception and will need to carry everything with us. That is something we are used to with the hikes we have done.

The Planning

There is a great website for planning the Arctic Circle Trail (https://visitgreenland.com/arctic-circle-trail/), a handy book with details “Trekking in Greenland, the Arctic Circle Trail” by Paddy Dillon http://www.paddydillon.co.uk/guidebook/trekking-in-greenland-arctic-circle-trail/, and 3 hard-copy maps: Hiking Map West Greenland Kangerlussuaq, Pingu and Sisimiut which we had to order on-line.

Hiking maps for the Arctic Circle Trail

We will also be using 2 apps: our Gaia GPS app with maps loaded off-line and an app called Greenland GPS. The maps we have both on the apps and hard copies are not as detailed as we usually like. They are on a scale of 1:100,000 vs. the 1:24,000 we usually get with quad topographic maps. The contour interval on our hard copy maps are 25 meters vs 40 feet on the quad maps we are used to. But, at least we have something. It will be enough for navigation, especially with a trail.

Transportation and Logistics

There is only one way for Ray and I to get to Greenland: by air. Getting to Greenland from Durango, Colorado is a transportation and logistic challenge and expensive on top of that. Maybe that is why there are not that many people from the USA that hike this trail (at least not yet). We will fly from Denver through London to Copenhagen, Denmark on Norwegian Air and stay in Copenhagen one night. Then we fly from Copenhagen, Denmark to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland the following day on Greenland Air. We have given ourselves an extra day at the beginning of the hike in Kangerlussuaq and an extra day at the end of the hike for weather delays. We may also explore the towns of Kangerlussuaq and Sisimiut if we have these extra days and do a commercial tour of the Ice Sheet from Kangerlussuaq.

Gear and Equipment

Ray and I have done a lot of thru hiking and backpacking and have a basic 3-season gear and equipment set up that works for most trips. But Greenland is different. I expect we will get more rain, it will be colder than most of the places we have been hiking, and the hiking will be boggy and somewhat wet.

Waterproof socks by sealskinz

To account for this, I have included waterproof socks from sealskins, and a lightweight synthetic vest and jacket instead of the down lightweight shell from Montbell I usually carry. The sealskinz socks were suggested by my friend Stacy and also by Paddy Dillon in his “Trekking in Greenland, the Arctic Circle Trail” book. The lightweight vest is an arc’teryx Atom vest that is a mid-layer made of coreloft which is quick drying, durable and retains it’s warmth when wet.

The Arcteryx vest is super light, quick drying and durable. It retains its warmth when damp so will be good to have on the Arctic Circle Trail

The synthetic jacket I am using is a Patagonia Micro Puff jacket which is made of plumafill. Patagonia claims it has the best warmth for weight ratio they have ever achieved whether it be down or synthetic. The micro puff is lightweight, very packable and also retains it’s warmth when wet. The combination of my regular hiking shirt, the vest, micro puff jacket and lightweight rain jacket should keep me warm and dry in most conditions. I also have a Zpack rain kilt and Zpack vertice knee-high gaiters to keep my legs dry.

The Patagonia micropuff jacket packs up small and is only 7.9 oz. We are using the dyneema bags from Zpacks to keep clothes dry in our backpacks. These waterproof stuff sacks from zpacks are less than 1oz in weight and keep items dry.

Despite these additions, my base weight of everything in my pack except food and water is 13.7 pounds. With an added 8 days of food and 1 liter of water, I should still be under 30 lbs for my heaviest pack carry on the first day. Here is my full gear list for the trip: https://thruwego.files.wordpress.com/2019/08/kerrie-gear-list-greenland-2019-v1.xlsx

What About Polar Bears and Wildfires?

A friend recently asked me about polar bears. He told me his guide in Iceland never goes to Greenland without a rifle because of polar bears. I wasn’t too worried about polar bears initially. Everything I have read states that polar bears are not found on the Arctic Circle Trail. They are usually on the sea ice hunting seals.

Polar bears are found in Greenland on the sea ice.

But as we have gotten closer to the start of our hike I have become a little more worried. There have been five sightings of polar bears near Kangerlussuaq in the last 70 years. Two of the five sightings have been in the last two years. This summer on June 30th, a local hunter shot a polar bear near Kangerlussuaq that got too close to town. An article from National Geographic suggests that they are moving around and are being seen in places they typically haven’t been seen before https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2018/07/polar-bears-summit-station-greenland-ice-sheet-news/ . Maybe they are moving around a little more because the ice sheet is melting and their habitat is changing. Although it is unlikely we will encounter a polar bear, it is certainly not out of the question.

Researching what to do if you run into a polar bear doesn’t help me feel any better. Here’s what it states in an MNN article (https://www.mnn.com/earth-matters/animals/stories/how-to-survive-a-bear-attack)

“If you encounter a polar bear, keep these tips in mind:

  • Good luck. Polar bears are the biggest bears on Earth, and they’re much harder to scare than brown or black bears. The best strategy is to avoid meeting them in the first place”

Hmm..Maybe we just should have taken a guided tour or picked a place to go where we won’t be viewed as a potential meal by a large carnivore. Kangerlussuaq, where the polar bears have been spotted in the last two years, is closest to the ice and is where we start the hike. If there appears to be a higher danger of an encounter when we get there, we could buy bear spray or a flare in Kangerlussuaq. I guess if we make it through the first day we should be ok.

Photo of wildfire along the Arctic Circle Trail (Jesper Schroeder, Arctic Circle Facebook page, August 12, 2019)

Wildfires was something I hadn’t even anticipated we would have to deal with in Greenland. This summer, though, people hiking the Arctic Circle Trail in late July and early August had to detour to the south because of of a fire. Greenland officials even called Denmark reinforcements to help control the fire. The fire is supposedly mostly out now but the peat did catch on fire which may smolder for a long time. I think the danger of the this fire is past. Hopefully there won’t be more.

4 comments

  1. Getting to Kangerlussuaq, Did you know you can fly Iceland Air Denver-> REK and then fly REK/KEF to Kangerlussuaq on Greenland Air

    Like

  2. Hi Kerrie and Ray
    So lovely to meet you on the trail and then catch up with you again in Sisimiut. We were very inspired by by all your other hikes . Wasn’t the Arctic Circle Trail incredible!
    Love Cally

    Like

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