Arctic Circle Trail – Part I

Could you imagine anything more adventurous than hiking in the remote wilderness of Greenland? Being completely alone among ice-capped mountains, deserted shrublands, and rushing rivers. Simply, experiencing Arctic nature in all its beauty and remoteness.

The Arctic Circle Trail offers it all on the 165 km long hiking route that runs between the Greenlandic towns of Kangerlussuaq and Sisimiut.

The ACT is an absolute classic among experienced hikers. The terrain is varied and hilly, nature heavenly beautiful, and the trail can be travelled between 7 and 12 days depending on your preferences and fitness. To complete the trail, it requires that you are in good physical shape and are familiar with deserted mountainous terrain.

You will need to bring your own food and equipment, while there is plenty of drinking water along the trail from streams, springs, and lakes. Small wooden huts, maintained by the municipality, can provide you with shelter for the night but a tent is strongly recommended. Sometimes you will not meet other people for several days.

In the summer of 2017, Kia Skou Jensen and I completed the Arctic Circle Trail (ACT). In the following you can read about our journey and Greenland’s wild and rugged nature. You will also get some useful advice for your own preparations.


20 km – Easy terrain

On a bright and beautiful morning of June 30, 2017, we arrived in Kangerlussuaq after a four hour flight from Copenhagen, Denmark. Leaving the airport, we had a quick stopover at the local grocery store, Pilersuisoq, and bought some dried fish, rye bread, camping gas (the wrong type we later found out!), beer, and cola. And then straight away, we headed off for the ACT!

In the weeks prior to our departure we spent quite some time and energy packing the best backpacks. We ended up with about 22 kg each, maybe just a bit too much but fortunately, we quickly ate and drank much of it. Our complete packing list can be found here! Be careful to bring warm clothes (even in the middle of the summer snow and freezing may occur). Also, expect that you will be eating 20-30% more on the trek than you usually do.

After leaving “down town” Kangerlussuaq, we walked south-west on a long and dusty dirt road, with willow shrubs on our left hand side and abrupt mountain slopes on the right. About 12 km later, we reached the Kangerlussuaq harbour. We felt great and were just completely excited about being in Greenland and on the ACT.

We had our backpacks adjusted, while sweating under the bright Arctic sun. Following great views over the harbour, which is actually just a simple pier where tankers and cruise ships tie up, we went uphill to the little community of Kelly Ville, about 200 m above sea level. While we walked I was wondering what the seven inhabitants of Kelly Ville spend their time on. But then we saw the first wildlife on our trek: a playful cat and an off-track reindeer!

Kia on the way to Kelly Ville, a community of just seven people. At the bottom right, the run-down sheds at Hundesø.

After Kelly Ville the trail started for real and we noted the first cairn and red half-circle symbol, marking the ACT route. A trodden, narrow dirt path led us the remaining 3-4 km to the Hundesø Lake, where an old, run-down ‘caravan’ with primitive sheds attached, became our first shelter for the night. Apparently, the hot day had given rise to a rich insect life and in the evening we were attacked by hordes of mosquitoes and flies – by the way, the only time on our trek that we had this ‘problem’.

The water in Hundesø is drinkable though a little salty. As we got ready to prepare dinner we realised that we had bought the wrong type of gas cartridge for our Trangia cooking set. Indeed a stupid move but fortunately, a kind-hearted soul had left a cartridge in the cabin that perfectly matched our Trangia.


20 km – Moderate terrain with a few demanding ascents

The night offered a total change of weather and we woke up in the morning to cold rain, sleet, and storm. We didn’t leave Hundesø until late afternoon when the rain and wind had subsided a bit. We walked through typical low-Arctic mountain heath with all the character plants such as dwarf birch, willow scrub, black crowberry (berries still unripe), flowering bog bilberry, and the highly fragrant white-flowered marsh labrador-tea.

The hiking gave us a good sense of the terrain as we followed narrow trodden paths that occasionally disappeared – up and down, around and beyond rocks and slopes. The vegetation was really wet, so despite covering our feet in plastic bags we quickly got soaked. We were also troubled by occasionally hail and rain.

One of ACT’s characteristic cairns with a red semicircle paint mark.

We encountered quite some birdlife, including a hunting peregrine falcon, and we almost stumbled over a nest with three chicks of Lapland bunting. After 13-14 km, we crossed a small river, refilled our water bottles, and then forced a longer ascent up to about 300 m above sea level.

As we got closer to the hut of Katiffik, the sun finally came out and we had the most stunning view over the mountains and the Amitsorsuaq Lake. We reached the hut around 9 pm, pretty wet, tired, and exhausted. At the hut we met a young Danish couple, who were heading the opposite way of us.

The hut at Katiffik.


20 km – Easy/moderate terrain along the shore of Amitsorsuaq Lake

In the morning we enjoyed breakfast and coffee and dipped our toes in the Amitsorsuaq Lake. However, it was freaking cold as both air and water were close to zero! Despite the calendar read July 2nd and supposedly it should be summer, it suddenly started to snow. A rising wind made us give up on using the canoe that someone had left at the lake shore. The waves were simply too high. In good weather conditions, however, one can paddle along the entire lake in the (rare) occasion that one of the around 6-8 canoes available is within reach.

Cairn at Amitsorsuaq Lake (left) and common loon on its nest (right).

So we commenced on the 20 km of today’s walk, which largely followed the entire southern shore of Amitsorsuaq Lake. The weather became slightly better as the snowfall faded and the sun occasionally appeared. But we had strong headwinds all the way, so it became a loooooong walk that day along the never-ending lake. But we were not in a hurry and took several breaks to enjoy nature and the silence. We spotted several common loons and dunlins among other birds on the lake, as well as falcons patrolling the air and a lonely reindeer.

Finally, we arrived at the Canoe Centre, which turned out to be not just an ordinary hut but a whole dormitory with bunk beds and seating for over 20 people. However, we found it empty for people but felt so great to be there after fighting strong winds throughout a whole day.


23 km – Moderate/difficult terrain with a long ascent midway

Early morning we woke up to bright sunshine and no wind – just brilliant! After breakfast we took our chance for a skinny-dip in the ice-cold lake and at noon we left the Canoe Centre following the trail along the bottom of the lake. Approx. 12 km later we reached another big lake, Kangerluatsiarsuaq, which is just 20 m above sea level. We passed a Mediterranean-like sandy beach and above us a white-tailed eagle was scanning the terrain. Afterwards pretty hard ascents followed, where we had to rock climb several times until we reached an altitude of about 350 m above sea level – wonderfully physically demanding!

Arctic bell heather in flower (left) and broad-leafed willowherb, Greenland’s national flower (right).

The next hut appeared in the distance – a tiny red dot in the landscape. As we got closer, all vegetation looked as if burned and when we arrived at the hut, our observation was confirmed when reading people’s notes in the guestbook. In August 2016 a wildfire had raged for several weeks, burning down scrubs, peat, and mosses. Luckily, the small wooden hut did not set on fire, even though the vegetation all around was burned down.

Vegetation slowly recovering after an extensive peat fire in the area in the summer of 2016.

We fetched some water in the nearby Ikkarlutooq Lake and prepared dinner – hot tomato soup with couscous and fried mushrooms we had picked earlier together with tofu and rice.


12 km – Moderate/difficult terrain with a longer descent to flat lowland

During the night the weather once again turned unfriendly and at 4 am we woke up to the sound of a snowstorm! Outside the hut heavy snowfall had started and a strong wind was rising from the west. The bad weather lasted all morning and all through the day. As we didn’t really want to continue in this kind of weather, we just stayed in the small hut without much to do other than getting some rest.

But then it cleared up and at 8 pm we finally left the hut at Ikkattooq. We walked through a beautifully snowy mountain landscape, bathed in the low sun and with dwarf birch and bog bilberry scrubs peeking out of the snow. The wind calmed and we had magnificent views of the Pingu mountain and other snow-covered peaks.

After walking another 5-6 km, a pleasant but sometimes steep descent of approx. 400 altitude metres led us down to a low-lying valley through which Ole’s Lakseelv is flowing. When we reached the river, we decided not to ford it as the water stood pretty high (and was freezing cold) so instead we walked about 3 km downstream until we reached a small wooden footbridge as described in Paddy Dillon’s guidebook.

We crossed Ole’s Lakseelv at midnight.

Scores of Arctic char were swimming in the river but none of them wanted to bite on my spinner lure. I even tried to catch a char with my bare hands in true Greenlandic style by grabbing the fish behind its gills. And I almost made it but unfortunately it slipped, so no fish that day!

The sun eventually disappeared behind the mountains and the frost set in. It was actually really nice to walk on squeaking icy bogland and at 2 am we arrived happily at the hut at Eqaluagaarniarfik. No people around and freezing cold inside, just like the previous nights.


19 km – Moderate terrain with a slightly demanding initial ascent

We woke up to stunning views of the valley and the Maligiaq Fjord. Under a partly cloudy sky, we left the hut at noon and followed the trail upwards to approx. 450 m above sea level. Then, a really nice walk followed with one picturesque view after another.

Rock ptarmigan in summer plumage. In contrast, it’s completely white in winter making it perfectly camouflaged in the snow.

On the way we watched rock ptarmigans, Greenland’s only landfowl, and along one of the rivers last winter’s snow and ice had not melted yet. It looked like someone had spread giant blocks of inland ice over the landscape.

At Innajuattoq we spotted a little hut on a mountain top. Like a deja vu, it took us a lot longer to reach the hut than expected. It felt like we were walking for hours – snail pacing through boggy land and obstinate scrubs. It was tough and we were hungry like horses when we finally reached the hut.

Read Part II of the Arctic Circle Trail HERE.

The guide to the Arctic Circle Trail can be downloaded as a PDF here.




Map of the ACT hiking route. Click for a larger map!
Source: www.conrad-stein-verlag.de/buecher-shop/groenland-arctic-circle-trail/

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