Why you should trek the classic Arctic Circle Trail, with a few top tips from Paddy Dillon
There might be big changes coming to Greenland’s Arctic Circle Trail, so now would be a good time to start making plans in order to experience the ‘classic’ route, says Paddy Dillon, author of the Cicerone guidebook.
At the time of writing the temperature on Greenland’s Arctic Circle Trail is a chilly minus 25ºC. A few weeks ago it was a bitter minus 40ºC. Nothing to worry about, if you intend walking the trail in the brief summer months, when the temperature and weather are actually quite pleasant and not unlike a cool British summer.
The Arctic Circle Trail is a wonderful wilderness walk of 160km (100 miles) across a broad swathe of tundra. It can be stretched from the western edge of Greenland’s enormous ice cap all the way to its west coast, taking the distance close to 200km (125 miles), involving up to 10 days of trekking. Part of this area was recently designated by Unesco as the Aasivissuit – Nipisat World Heritage Cultural Landscape. It has a long history of use as an Inuit summer hunting ground, and hunting for reindeer and musk ox still takes place.
For many decades, Kangerlussuaq has been the base for Greenland’s international airport, but new international airports are planned and Kangerlussuaq might be downgraded, making it more awkward to reach the start of the trail. For many decades, the construction of a dirt road linking Kangerlussuaq with Sisimiut has been discussed.
If this happens any time soon, then at least three days of the trail will run concurrent with the road, and the road won’t be too far from other parts of the trail.
So, let’s have a look at how the trail looks at present, and let’s hope that a good number of you readers might be able to experience it before things change. A bit of forward planning helps, ensuring that outward and return travel plans allow enough time to trek the trail. While the trail itself is undoubtedly in a remote part of the world, it proves within the capabilities of ordinary trekkers provided that sensible plans are made, while the weight and bulk of packs are kept to a minimum. The more you carry, the less you will enjoy the trail, but you mustn’t skimp on food and comfort. Aim to carry less than 20kg (44lb). You’re doing well if you get as low as 15kg (33lb). As half of that will be food, your pack should weigh half the amount at the end. Don’t worry about water, which is clean enough to drink from rivers and lakes.
Greenland is an expensive place to visit, with no real budget options for getting there, but it is worth keeping an eye on Air Greenland’s offers. All services and goods in the country come at a high price. Trekkers who set their sights on the Arctic Circle Trail can try to get the best deals on flights there and back, then aim to buy all their trekking food in their home country and limit their spending in Greenland. Fuel can’t be transported by air, so that needs to be bought on arrival and hopefully the supermarket will have whatever fuel you need, otherwise you’ll have to re-think. Having an alcohol stove in reserve is a good ploy if you were intending to use a gas stove but there are no gas canisters left to buy.
As for the trek itself, there are all sorts of options for starting it, and my favourite plan is to get a tour bus to the edge of Greenland’s enormous ice cap, and simply follow a dirt road back to the airport at Kangerlussuaq. Those who prefer to start from the airport can follow a dirt road to Kelly Ville and step onto the tundra beyond. An expensive taxi ride could get you that far but at some point you have to set foot on the tundra and accept full responsibility for keeping yourself fed, watered and safe for a week or so.
Mobile phones don’t work, so either carry a satellite phone or accept that you won’t be in touch with anyone for the duration of the trek.
Provided that the weather is good and trekkers don’t carry uncomfortably heavy loads, the trek itself shouldn’t be a problem.
Despite its remoteness, the trail isn’t actually that difficult. Most of it is a narrow, trodden path, marked by cairns and occasional signposts. Some of it is wet and boggy, and a few parts cross bare rock, but gradients are seldom steep for long. The greatest altitudes barely touch 450m (1475ft). It helps to be fit and in good health, bearing in mind that aid won’t come in a hurry if you have a serious accident. In such a sparsely populated part of the world, there aren’t many people capable of flying a helicopter who can spare the time to come for you.
In high summer, July and August, the weather will usually be good. The weather in June can be good, but this is also when the snow melts, raising river levels to a point where they flow deep, fast and cold. September can be good, but as the weather deteriorates snow can be expected. Of course, high summer is when mosquitoes and biting flies assume plague proportions, but there is usually a decent spell of good weather, and far fewer insects, between mid-August and early September.
Accommodation at either end of the trail, Kangerlussuaq and Sisimiut, includes a couple of expensive hotels, a couple of remarkably cheap hostels and a mere handful of in-between options. On the trail itself, basic, unstaffed wooden huts appear roughly every 20km (12 miles). These are equipped with bunks and offer good shelter from bad weather, free of charge, and you share them with whoever else is using them. Most trekkers carry tents, which can be pitched anywhere on suitable ground, and a tent is good insurance against a hut being full. Some of the smaller huts can be considered as ‘full’ with only four trekkers inside!
A good plan and carefully thought-out pack contents ensure that trekkers can enjoy the Arctic Circle Trail and its scenery. The apparently endless tundra furnishes occasional sightings of reindeer and other wildlife. Views stretch from nearby lakes, bogs and rocky hills to more distant mountains, occasionally streaked with snow. With the trail generally being visible ahead, despite being narrow, navigation is rather easier than some might imagine. As for maps, the best maps of the trail were made by Harvey, which are familiar to most British outdoors folk, and extracts are included in the guidebook.
The large lake of Amitsorsuaq offers a break from trekking. If someone has left a canoe at one end of the lake, feel free to load it up with your pack and paddle to the other end of the lake, leaving it for the next trekker. Of course, these canoes have suffered over the years and the handful that haven’t got lost or sunk should be checked for safety. If lifejackets are available, please use them.
Ten years ago, I followed the Arctic Circle Trail in both directions, meeting six other trekkers on the outward trip and only three on the return. I walked for five days without seeing anyone at all! Those days are long gone, as the trail has become better known and busier as a result. These days, it’s more usual to meet a dozen trekkers per day in high summer, and while most of them will finish their days at one of the huts, the tundra has more than enough space for everyone.
Those who camp should always be able to find a splendid, scenic pitch all to themselves.
One thing about packing lightweight and low bulk is that food tends to be dehydrated. It fills the belly, but it doesn’t have the same appeal as a decent meal. It’s worth bearing in mind that traditional Greenlandic meals can be enjoyed at either end of the trail – for a price. If you’ve never tasted reindeer, musk ox, whale or seal, then order all of them at a restaurant at the start or finish of the trail. On the trail itself, some trekkers fish for Arctic char, while others are content to boost their dehydrated meals with fresh mushrooms and a selection of berries, or experiment with the wonderfully fragrant ‘Labrador tea’ that grows throughout the tundra.
Is it all good? Well, I wish people wouldn’t dump rubbish around the huts, or use the trail as a toilet. My entire stash of rubbish at the end of the trail amounted to several plastic pouches that packed flat and weighed very little, plus an empty plastic fuel bottle. As for toilet waste, it’s buried where no trekker will ever find it. Some of the huts have ‘bag’ toilets, and if you use them, then you have to accept responsibility to change them when they’re one third full.
There’s no reason for anyone to trash the trail, especially in such a wild and remote place, so it’s sad to see that happening.
As for the future of the trail, there are various plans in hand. Should a dirt road ever be rolled out across the tundra, the trail could be re-routed in order to preserve its wilderness essence, and there is talk about ending the trail at the little coastal village of Sarfannguit, to avoid having to follow the projected dirt road to Sisimiut. The idea is for some sort of ferry to be established to run from Sarfannguit to Sisimiut. My guidebook is fully up-to-date, but given the nature of the planned future developments, it might not be long before I find myself back on the trail, chasing it in an entirely new direction.
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