This is a reproduction of a short piece I wrote for my employer’s intranet when there was a focus on mental health and how people look after it and remain resilient…
Imagine being alone in remote wild countryside for 17 days and nights. With only a rented satellite phone for emergency purposes you’d have no access to media and therefore no idea what’s happening in the world you left behind…at all. How does that grab you?
Apart from the throw-away “Wouldn’t it be nice to get away from it all” – how many people I wonder actually believe that kind of isolation is an appealing prospect, or does it sound like a solitary hell to you? Is there anything good about being that alone and isolated? I think so…
All that noise…
Our lives are incredibly ‘noisy’ and hectic and we’re constantly connected to the buzz through various media. Two weeks of sunshine in the Med might be the ideal ‘switch-off’ for some people, but I enjoy a bit of complete isolation from all of humanity for several weeks at a time. This article is about what I find in such a place and the meaningful value of solitude as a very positive thing for me. I am never sure whether it suggests a healthy state of mental health/ life balance or whether I’m just a little close to the edge of human society! You may judge for yourselves…
Friends know that I often spend between three and five weeks in the summer in West Greenland, north of the Arctic Circle. There are just two towns in the region, one on the coast and the other a hundred miles inland. Since I started visiting the region in 2006 there has been nothing between them but arctic wilderness. No road, no rail, no villages, no hamlets – just one official hundred mile hiking trail. A further 14 miles inland from the second town is the edge of the Greenland ice sheet. (However, as of 2020, the construction of a dirt track road to connect the two towns has been started…).
Reconnecting with the ‘real world’…
Contrary to some perceptions, during 19 nights of wild camping in 2018, with 17 of those being without seeing another human soul at all, I was neither physically nor mentally bored.
The landscape is vast, and you can’t miss the absence of trees, the far-seeing and the immense expanse of silence. To me, it’s not an eerie or lonely silence. It’s a natural, reassuring silence of peace in the arctic world – the peace of a world without the jarring intrusion of human activity! It feels odd to say it, but this is a silence I can ‘hear’ as my ears become so aware of the absence of noise on this geographic scale.
This is such a different world to mine and very quickly, with my mind granted freedom from the usual daily necessities, I become completely immersed in the landscape. I draw delight in just noticing and observing the little things about the natural world around me.
This is pristine arctic habitat and existing in it without doing any harm makes me appreciate a connection we’ve lost while cosseted in our artificial environment. We now live so divorced from the nature that nurtured us, but for a while out here, I feel just within reach of an inner calm and respectful connection to unspoilt nature that I feel my society in general has lost sight of.
Every day (in 24 hour daylight) I walk and explore, part-purposefully searching for wild geese back in their summer breeding grounds. But also, I am just ‘being’ day by day with the greatest and most unburdened simplicity. No urgency and with no compelling reason to do anything at all. At times I appreciate just breathing clean air or feeling a cold bracing wind coming straight off the ice sheet while I take in the landscape. During my visits, I embrace a fabulous sense of complete and utter freedom in an unspoilt wilderness.
As the blissfully quiet days pass and I have no contact with the affairs of humans, it all becomes incredibly serene and peaceful to just “exist” in this practically undisturbed arctic world. Far from sensing any loneliness, being away from the ‘human world’ is a brief but wonderfully satisfying illusion. I’m imagining being in a world before humanity put its mark on it, changed it, began to manipulate it, began to meddle with its long matured ecological balance. I’m imagining being a part of Earth’s nature before humanity polluted and scarred it. Satisfyingly while in this frame of mind, what day it is and what time it is become irrelevant and I have never felt more relaxed and mentally at peace with life and nature combined.
Encounters with nature…
This year, I didn’t walk the hundred miles from the coast to get here, instead I stocked my camp for 20 days and then walked all over the local region which I know very well. North, just off the map sheet, I visited somewhere I had been intending to go take a look at for sometime and had a wonderful encounter with a muskox mother with a small follower from this year and two older siblings.
Caribou are generally seen singly or wandering in small numbers of less than ten, but here, off the map, I found a herd of well over 140 or 150 animals with lots of new-born young that had most likely just seen their very first human.
On several consecutive evenings, I sat at my tent having a coffee and waited until around 8pm for what I dubbed “bushy-tailed fox” to appear and head off purposefully up the ridge in front of my camp; stopping frequently to scent-mark. Another often appeared from the south-west. With its narrow face, darker fur and those burning orange Arctic fox eyes looking very evil…I dubbed that one “the Devil’s own pet” in my journal!
On a couple of rainy days and a morning of snow, I sat in my tent and observed the preening, roosting and comical diving/feeding behaviours of a pair of resident long-tailed ducks on the little lake. Also to entertain me were visits from geese, mallards and wandering caribou and muskox. Was I bored for a night, a whole day and another night in the confined space of my tent? Not at all in this beautiful tranquil wilderness.
On fine days, my camp at nearly 500m looks across lower ground towards the vast ice sheet; blanketed across my eastern horizon and then stretching out in front of me for 550 miles. It’s an incredibly beautiful and spectacular view to see when you ‘open the curtains’ in the morning!
On fine evenings, I’ll sit here with a coffee and just absorb the scenery and the creatures that move in it. In those moments in time, the deeply enriching pleasure of knowing this beautiful remote place on the planet’s surface is mine alone, and it’s special.
Back to my reality…
On my return to the UK, I am physically fitter and usually a little bit lighter! Despite heavy backpacking and plenty of ‘wild walking’, my back never feels better. Mentally, I am in such a good place. I feel secretly privileged and rewarded once again by this place. On my last walk out of the wilderness, there’s a particular ridge where I feel that as I climb, I am reluctantly peeling this place off me with each step because I simply have no choice but to return to my dirty, noisy, polluted, artificial ‘world’. Normally, within a week or two of my return, I crave my solitude out here again!
Loneliness is not a good thing. Solitude however, in the arctic wilderness for me, is exhilarating, fulfilling and from a wellbeing and mental point of view is my “happy place”.
For all of the above reasons, I treasure my isolation out there because, there I feel a wholesome, meaningful and deeply personal reconnection with the natural world. I will be back…
7 thoughts on “2018 – My Greenland visit in a nutshell!”
You’re an incredible writer. I hope you’re working on a manuscript.
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Thanks Mel, you’re too kind and thanks for your interest. I’ll keep thinking about how to pull it al together! Huw.
Great stuff! I’m going to send a link to your blog to a guy who’s planning on going to Greenland next summer.
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Where’s the bloody book!!!
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Hello my friend…yes well, still not really sure how to package everything up into a book, not sure what kind of narrative it should have? But I do appreciate the occasional encouragement…keeps the idea on my mind. Thanks for your interest and the nudge for the White Walk.👍🏻 😊
Huw, I have to thank you for bringing this to my attention. A wonderful and apposite read, beautifully written and with gorgeous illustrations with your excellent photography. Thank you so much. I look forward to reading further in this blog. I echo Dermot’s call “Where is the bloody book?” Here’s to adventures to come!
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Thanks for that David. Delighted that you enjoyed it. I plan to write up the 2018 trip in full at some point along with all the others…maybe there’s a book there somewhere. My idea is to invite people to just feel like they’re spending time out there, somewhere unusual for most and different from their normal life, by reading my thoughts. The 2012 and 2014 write-ups on here already are more for those hard-core folks I suppose! Thanks again, encouraging…!