Arctic Circle Trail Day 1: Gneiss Bands in an Ancient Land (Kangerlussuaq to Qarlissiut Lake)

Arctic Circle Trail Day 1 from Kangerlussuaq to Pond Near Quarlissiut Lake
Ray and I at the start of the Arctic Circle Trail in front of the Youth Hostel in Kangerlussuaq.

It is cold when Ray and I leave the Youth Hostel Vandrehjem. It was a great place to stay, we got a private room but shared a bath and kitchen with others. The caretakers take good care of the place and make everyone take off their shoes when they come in the front door. That is hard to enforce when you cater to backpackers, hunters and snowmobilers but they run a tight ship. I look at the shoes lined up by the door. Mostly boots, they make my Hoka OneOne Speedgoat 3s look like Peewee Herman in a muscle builders competition.

My Hoka OneOne ultrarunner shoes look out of place amongst the boots

My Hokas have served me well on long thru hikes in the USA, scrambling over car-sized boulders in the Sierra mountains of California, and wading through muddy rivers of the canyon country in Utah. But this is Greenland. A different land in a different country with arctic tundra and bogs. Yes, bogs, the wet spongy areas that are made up of mostly mosses.

A bog in Greenland with a few cotton grasses. The bogs in Greenland are peat bogs that are mostly comprised of mosses.

We called them muskeg when I worked in Alaska. Walking through bogs is like walking on a stack of wet sponges. How will my Hokas do in that? Although I am an experienced hiker I feel uncertain here. Maybe my dry socks will help get me through the bogs I think to myself.

The Kangerlussuaq Youth Hostel. The buildings in Kangerlussuaq are very utilitarian and are made with thick walls.

We are starting from the Youth Hostel in Kangerlussuaq and will hike about 103 miles to the fishing town of Sisimiut on the ocean coast. The first 10 miles are along the road. Our plan today is to start early and hike about 21 miles to an area between 2 lakes that is marked as a tent pitch in Paddy’s book. This is farther than most people hike the first day. Most people use the huts as a guide which are along the trail every 10 to 12 miles or so.

The Eqalugaarniarfik Hut, one of the 12 huts along the trail, is about 62 miles from the start in Kangerlussuaq

If you stay in a hut or camp near one every night, the hike takes 9 days. We have planned on 8 days but are hoping for some off-trail hiking and exploration time. I also know from my time in Alaska you have to be prepared for weather and may need to take cover. We will see how it goes.

Hiking the road from Kangerlussuaq to the start of the Arctic Circle Trail. Our packs were heaviest this day with 8 days of food.

As we start down the road, it feels like late fall as a cool breeze blows down from the ice cap. The road follows along a fjord parallel to the the dark rounded mountains.

The Kangerlussuaq fjord carries silt and glacial flour from the ice cap to the ocean.

The mountains here do not wear the ruggedness of youth. They have been smoothed and polished by the grinding and weight of several thousand feet of ice sheet which has been retreating since the last glacial maximum around 20,000 years. Although the glaciers have left a recent mark on the land, it feels ancient here. Maybe it is because I am a geologist and know that the rocks here are some of the oldest in the world. I marvel at the 3.6 to 3.8 billion year old Iksaq Gneiss that surrounds us. It is banded and deformed; white and black swirls reflect a complex history.

The 3.6 to 3.8 billion year old Iksaq Gneiss

After several hours and 8 miles of hiking we see the harbor off in the distance. There appears to be several adventure ships in port. It looks like the cruise ship comes into the dock and people are bussed down the road to Kangerlussuaq where they either stay at the hotel and/or take tours to the ice sheet.

The harbor Umiarsualiviuk is about 8 miles from Kangerlussuaq. Arctic Circle Trail hikers can either walk this part (and the next 2 miles to Kelly Ville) or take a taxi.

I wonder if Greenland will become a tourist destination like Iceland has become. It is not there yet but I see the potential. People are always looking for the next best undiscovered place. Perhaps Greenland will be it.

Snow buntings along the road. Can you see the second one? (hint: it blends in with the green/yellow northern willow bushes)

After 10 miles of road walking, we start on the official trail. Some people take a cab and skip the road walk but I am glad we hiked it. It is a nice introduction to the landscape where you can look around without watching your feet.

The first cairn on the Arctic Circle Trail.

As we leave the road and start heading down the trail, I stare at the dark and undulating landscape. It reminds me of whales or dolphins porpoising in the ocean. Only it is a land, frozen in the moment but not in time.

The smoothing and grinding from the glaciers give the landscape a rounded appearance, like porpoising whales or dolphins.

Add to it a few splashes of maroon like someone took a wine glass and flung it recklessly. And yellow streaks of color mostly following the grooves between rounded ridges. It is like a Monet painting, a smearing of colors. The red is from the dwarf birches and blueberry bushes in their full Fall colors. The yellow is from the northern willows which practically glow in the low angle sun of the Arctic north. Greenland has it’s own charm. Not Alaska like I thought it would be but more like the Scottish Highlands. I am won over and the hike has barely started.

We ended up hiking the Arctic Circle Trail during the height of the Fall colors. It looked like a Monet painting.

The first 3 miles of the trail follow an ATV road. There is talk of developing this and constructing a dirt road capable of carrying quad bikes (ATVs) all the way between Kangerlussuaq and Sisimiut. The plan includes a hotel in the middle and lodges near the ice cap. There are now poles spaced along the ATV track for the first 3 miles of the trail to the hut at Hundeso Lake.

Is this the start of a more developed Quad Bike road?

Is this the beginning of the road development? Or are they mainly there for hunters that use the hut on Hundeso Lake for hunting reindeer and musk ox in the fall? Either way, I am glad to be here now before this place changes too much.

The trailer (or first “hut”) at Hundeso Lake

We arrive at the hut on Hundeso Lake around mid-day. It is really an old trailer with wood additions. This hut or the area around it is about 12 miles from Kangerlussuaq and would be the end of the first day for most but we travel on.

Inside of the “hut” at Hundeso Lake.

We leave the hut and begin to contour around Hundeso Lake. Ray stops and says ”I see something moving by that rock out there”. The rock he points at is several hundred yards off in the distance and is about the size of a garden shed. He pulls out his camera to zoom in. “It is a musk ox!”

The musk ox blends in with the surrounding rocks but Ray spots it off in the distance.

We are both very excited and hurry towards the rock as the beast moves over the ridge and out of sight. As we hurry in the direction of the musk ox I think about the tourists in Yellowstone when I was a Park Ranger who ran towards bison and elk, often putting themselves in danger. Every year there is a story of someone getting too close and getting gored by a bison. Selfies with wild animals are not worth it. Too dangerous, and you end up harassing the animals.

Musk oxen were hunted in this area almost to extinction. In the 1960s, 27 young musk oxen were reintroduced. The numbers of musk oxen around Kangerlussuaq are now estimated at over 10,000.

We will not get too close I think to myself. But I now understand the excitement of seeing a wild beast in a distant land I think to myself as we hurry towards where we last saw the musk ox.

We end up hiking at least a mile off trail and over several ridges before we see the musk ox over the next ridge by Brayaso Lake.

A musk ox. They can be dangerous and come after you if you get between a bull and his herd or a mother and her calf.

It is an amazing beast to watch. The fur is long and dark brown and drapes down the sides of the ox to just above its knees. As the musk ox moves, the long fur swings back and forth. It reminds me of a hula dancer with a grass skirt swaying to music.

Ok, I say to Ray. We have seen a musk ox, our trip is a success and we can leave now. I am joking of course but seeing a musk ox is a highlight of any trip to this area. Everyone wants to see one. According to Paddy Dillon (http://www.paddydillon.co.uk/guidebook/trekking-in-greenland-arctic-circle-trail/), musk ox sightings along the Arctic Circle Trail are rare. Our guide on the tour to the ice cap said they only see musk ox in 1 out of every 5 trips. I feel fortunate to have seen one and even more fortunate to be able to come here and experience the arctic in Greenland.

Sheds from reindeer are quite common on the Arctic Circle Trail and are often placed on the rock cairns that mark the trail.

The rest of the day we wander up and down hills and over the tundra. It starts to drizzle late in the afternoon and we set up camp next to a little pond across from Qarlissiut Lake. Qarlissiut means “Trousers” in Greenlandic. The lake is shaped like a pair of pants on the map and seems fitting.

Qarlissiut or “Trouser” Lake looks like a pair of trousers on the map.

We drift off to sleep with a light pitter pat of drizzle on our tent wall.

Campsite first night on the Arctic Circle Trail

Daily Data and Feature Map

August 28, 2019
22.5 miles today
22.5 miles total
1882 feet ascent
1285 feet descent
People seen on the trail: 13 (10 part of large group from the Czech Republic)
Kangerlussuaq to Pond Near Qarlissiut Lake

9 comments

  1. I didn’t know about the lake name meaning trousers! And I also thought walking on the road was a nice intro. I felt it was a perfect beginning-you could look around, you got to start walking right from your front door and when you leave the road to the trail, you really feel like the hike is starting. We never saw any ships in the harbor near Kellyville.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Kerrie! This is Jenn (from Jenn & Houston the Canadians-we met you in Kangerlussuaq and went to the Ice Cap with you and Ray on the tour). Wonderful post, I really enjoyed reading it and reliving our similar day on the trail. We also absolutely loved the trail. I even have the same picture of the rock with dark swirls! But of course I just thought it was a pretty rock and had no idea of the geology behind it. With your both of your backgrounds I’m sure the hike was even more fascinating. Looking forward to reading more!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Jenn! Great to reconnect and am glad you guys had a great hike! I am following your blog now as you have me intrigued about the East Coast Trail. We may have to check that one out.

      Like

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