Arctic Circle Trail, Part I

Four days from anywhere, on the Arctic Circle Trail

Four days from anywhere on the Arctic Circle Trail

The 100-mile trek between Sisimiut and Kangerlussuaq is variously described as a “backpacking classic” and “one of the great walks of the world.” I’m a sucker for just that sort of thing, and decided early that the hike would be central to my proposal. In the past, I’ve found that after three or four days of continuous walking my feet and mind slip into strange and productive new rhythms, difficult to otherwise replicate. And because my project is in some sense about an altered state––an epistemological crisis, an imagined obstruction of ice and rock that occurs only after many weeks at sea––it seemed somehow important to enact my protagonist’s voyage in miniature. Plus, in less lofty terms, a 100-mile walk across wild Greenland just seemed ridiculously romantic to me. I mean, right?

A reindeer blazes a false path

A reindeer blazes a false path

Well of course it’s one thing to like the sound of something and another to be doing it––day in and day out. Emily, my companion for the trek, and I have done multi-day hikes before, but by the end of just the first leg it was clear that this was something beyond what either of us was used to. In Greenlandic terms, the route is enormously popular (most days we’d encounter one or sometimes two parties, almost always going the other way). Even so, the trail itself is often just a rumor; cairns are clustered together in some places and altogether absent in others. Making this much harder is the fact that the route is crisscrossed with misleading reindeer paths. We often found ourselves moving briskly away from a cairn before noticing heaps of scat, and a path quickly narrowing into untrodden marshland.

The terrain at 66º North

The terrain at 66º North

The terrain this far north––just above the Arctic Circle––has some definite pros and cons. For one, there aren’t any trees, which makes contour map-reading terrifically easy. On the flip side, the walking isn’t quite a stroll through a rolling meadow; much of the low-elevation hiking is through boggy swamps with beautiful but challenging mounds of moss and grass. These hillocks are spaced about a stride apart, and covered over so that you can’t see the ankle-cracking crevasses between them. Even apart from these traps, the surface is spongy and absorbent to such a degree that it feels like walking through knee-high snow . I read somewhere that it’s like “walking on basketballs,” and that totally nails it.

A rare moment free of the headnet

A rare moment free of the headnet

I wasn’t accustomed to multiple river fordings per day, mosquitos so persistent that headnets were an absolute must, or having many days between latrines (there are huts, but they’re irregularly spaced, and only two in 100 miles have bag toilets). So, it was a little rough out there, but we made it out okay––9 days of walking, 100.2 miles on the GPS odometer, plugging away with 50 lbs. (minus our diminishing food) more or less on each of our backs. We’re pretty proud it’s behind us, and have decided that the only way we’ll ever do it again is via the 3-day winter dogsledding option.

Because no one wants to read a minute-by-minute (or even a day-by-day) account of a 9-day, 100-mile hike, I figured I would pick out three highlights––the best moments of an epic walk. I’ll post those next.

38 Comments

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