Arctic Circle Trail, Part II

Day 4 to N67º03 x W52º38

Drying out at one of the huts

Drying out at one of the huts

We got rained on only once, but it was a killer––ten hours of downpour, observed restlessly from the tent, before deciding we couldn’t bear to wait it out. We spent a while strategizing how to cook breakfast and break down our camp most dryly and efficiently, but of course we were soaked through upon departure. Fortunately, the hut we hoped to make by evening was upon us by mid-afternoon, but the last hundred yards involved a rushing river crossing that had me going face-first into the water. In the end, the hut made everything better––a Greenlandic family was already hunkered down, the kerosene stove roaring. They kindly cleared space on the clothesline and pretended not to be grossed out while I bandaged the foot I’d sliced up on the sharp rocks from the river. We learned later that the mother was a superstar athlete––an annual competitor in Greenland’s grueling Arctic Circle X-C ski race––and felt a bit sheepish about our drenched and sorry state. We ended up staying all afternoon and evening, reading Tolstoy, drinking whiskey, and eating chocolate.

Day 5 to N66º59 x W52º21

One of the last cairns we'd see on Day 5

One of the last cairns we'd see on Day 5

On this afternoon we missed a cairn and climbed steeply up a hunting trail, surprising a mother duck who did an elaborate pantomime of wounded flight to distract us from her vulnerable ducklings. Realizing our wayfinding mistake, but refusing to go all the way down again only to climb the ridge elsewhere, we decided to plunge ahead with the map as our guide, following a river and then a shoreline with the intention of meeting up with the trail again by evening. It was sort of an unwise improvisation, but it paid off in one of my favorite moments of the hike. Bushwhacking through dwarf willow, swatting helplessly at bugs, I thought I spotted a cairn very high on a ridge. It was too soon to be the trail, but we climbed up to it anyway, discovering that it was much longer and lower than the other piles of rock. Gazing out at an incredible view––the lake spread out towards the horizon, birds diving from the edge of the rocky bluff––I realized that it was a grave. The National Museum in Nuuk had mentioned how, for centuries, the Inuit buried their dead under stones, and always at the mouths of rivers or overlooking large bays. This fit that description exactly, and although I would see a number of such graves in the weeks after, none was as haunting––or with a view as breathtaking––as this one.

Day 7 to N66º55 x W51º31

Paddling on Day 7

Paddling on Day 7

There is one leg of the hike where you can cheat magnificently. There are eight or so canoes on one of the long glacial lakes that the Arctic Circle Trail traces for a good 15 miles. Because everyone for some reason hikes the trail going the other way, the boats tend to pile up at the west end of the lake. We hit this point on Day 7––shoulders and calves screaming, sick of walking, desperate for any other possible mode of transport. Seeing the aluminum canoes shining from atop a ridge was great, but the paddling itself was even better. We stowed our bags between the gunwales an slipped into the glassy water. For part of the afternoon the surface was so still that the reflection of mountains and clouds was eerily exact––it was so impossible to tell up from down that it felt like we were paddling through the sky. We camped on an isolated spit on the far end of the lake and listened to the loons call back and forth all evening.

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