This year I would make my seventh visit to west Greenland in the last nine years. Plans were made to get a goose-catching team out there for July 2014 to continue a long-term study. The last catching year had been 2009 with survey counts only in 2010 and 2012. In another post I detail the full hike I made in 2012 from Sisimiut on Greenland’s west coast to the study area base camp for that year in the east. 2012’s full hike is here. That year I had used a few days of the official Arctic Circle Trail from Sisimiut and then departed from the trail and made my own way east along a route I plotted for myself at home. That route took me into even more remote terrain and gave me complete isolation and solitude. I enjoyed that so much that in 2014 I planned to do it again before I joined the team in the east to help with the goose research work. So I flew out ahead of their arrival schedule to get my hike in before they would be starting any significant activity.
In 2012, weather had been quite variable with mostly overcast and misty days and a few hot, sunny days. 2014 was entirely different, more like 2008 and 2009…2014 was a scorcher of a July and that lent itself to some far nicer photographs! Although I followed my own trail again, the experience was a different one. One key difference being that I now knew the route, knew what to expect and there were only a few sections where I would have to concentrate a little again to be sure to find the places I wanted to get to. So if hiking in west Greenland from your armchair interests you, I invite you to come with me on my 2014 visit…
Monday 30th of June and my 7th visit begins at Bristol airport where my 100 litre Berghaus Bioflex main pack weighs in at 24kgs and my day pack (as my cabin bag) weighs in at 9kgs. My day pack contains my hardware, batteries, camera etc as usual. Before I set off from Sisimiut I will have added stove fuel, 2 litres of water and no doubt some chocolate and other treats…so the total starting weight when I hit the trail will probably be about 35 or 36kgs because this year I will leave my 2Kg scope at Kangerlussuaq for colleagues to kindly take to camp for me. So good…a few kilos lighter than 2012’s pack!
At Bristol airport that morning, I was asked for my name at Starbucks and for some reason “Yoda” came to mind! The female barista had a sense of humour…and some talent…
However, the “Force” was not with me that day and I didn’t foresee the disaster that had struck earlier as I passed through security. I was asked to attend my bag and discovered that stupidly, I had my half a litre flask of Talisker in my cabin bag instead of in my checked-in pack! How did I do that?! It was heartbreaking to watch the girl pour it into the bin. I had no time to drink it there and then…and if I had, undoubtedly I wouldn’t have been allowed onto my flight! I have never made that mistake before and haven’t since.
Other than that medium disaster, my flight to Amsterdam that afternoon and then onward to Copenhagen that evening was pretty uneventful. I picked up my bags at Copenhagen and hung around the airport as usual until I could check in for my Air Greenland flight in the morning.
Tuesday 1st of July dawned and hanging about at Copenhagen airport overnight meant I checked in to my Air Greenland flight early and secured a window seat not over the wings. Air Greenland’s Airbus A330, called “Norsaq”, was late taking off today. We took off at 09:45 and by 10:30 were leaving the west coast of Norway behind. At 11:10 we passed north of the Shetland Islands, at 11:30 we were north of the Faroe Islands, at 12:00 we reached Iceland. We cleared Iceland at 12:20 and at 13:00 we were reaching Greenland’s east coast. Sadly despite eager anticipation, my window seat was of no avail on this occasion as the east coast and the ice sheet was hidden beneath continuous white cloud cover. At 13:30, about half-way across the ice sheet, the Captain announced that we were beginning our descent from 38,000 feet and we landed at 14:00…or 10:00 local time in Kangerlussuaq.
Aah, it’s so good to be back! I love that familiarity with what I see as the plane brings this area into view…I recognise the fjord, I recognise individual lakes, ridges, hilltops, valleys and the areas near the edge of the ice sheet. I can picture myself on the ground in most if not all of these places and can vividly recall how it feels to be standing there. If you read my 2012 hike account… “Yes my dear friend, it’s great to be back and so good to see you again!“.
Once on the ground and as pre-arranged, I dashed out of the airport and left my day pack and a few items elsewhere for my research colleagues to pick up later and take into camp. (Their hike would be only 8.8km (5.5 miles) from the dirt track road out of town, I would walk over 160km (100 miles) again to meet them!). Then, with my short flight to Sisimiut delayed by 90 minutes, I had time for my first muskox burger and fries of the year. As I enjoyed my burger at the familiar airport cafe and watched people coming and going, I thought about how over time I have witnessed the expansion and development of the airport. This year I noticed that since 2012, the phone booths were now downstairs, the hotel reception had now moved upstairs and the bar had been re-modelled.
Kangerlussuaq is a small town of around about 500 inhabitants with its origins being as an American WWII air base called Bluie West-8, constructed in 1941. In 1951 the Americans took over again and it was called Sondrestrom Air Base. During one of my visits I recall a late night’s drinking with a bunch of US air force personnel which continued until about 3am…they were great company, we had a very good evening but our flight to Copenhagen was that same day! As the main hub airport (for now!) and being close to the inland ice sheet, it makes a great base for tourists to visit the ice sheet and I like the town.
By 15:30 I had landed at Sisimiut and made an amusing observation in my notebook: “Where else are the [airport terminal] seats upholstered in caribou hide?” It was sunny at Sisimiut, there was a slight cold breeze and the mosquitoes were about in only low numbers.
I took a taxi to Hotel Sisimiut on the east side of town, checked in and then walked into town at about 16:05. In town I bought my stove fuel, a bag of pasta and some treats; and as it was such a glorious day, I also took some more photos of town even though this was my fifth visit.
Some more views of Sisimiut…including the reconstructed Umiak, a traditional timber and sealskin boat. The Umiaq came to Greenland with the Thule culture around 1,200 AD and this reconstruction was made in 1986.
On arrival at Sisimiut this year I noticed a lot more snow than usual on Nasaasaaq (also known as Kællingehætten)…the very distinctive peak towering over the town in the east. From town its shape reminds me of the sorting hat in the Harry Potter movies! I mentioned it to the taxi driver to check that my observations were correct and he confirmed it had been a late thaw this year.
That evening I dined at Hotel Sisimiut’s restaurant and had a shrimp cocktail to start, followed by lamb crown with vegetables, a rich creamy potato dish and that delicious dark gravy again (cost DKK365). The standard of food at Restaurant Nasaasaaq in Hotel Sisimiut is very good. I recognised the waiter from two years earlier and as we chatted, he also confirmed that it had been a hard winter and that “the thaw got serious only about 4 weeks ago”. Also interesting was that a thin and hungry polar bear had turned up outside town, near the airport, a month and a half ago. He said the whole town had turned out to see it before a local hunter shot it. The suspicion was that it had drifted down the coast on ice, like another one that turned up in the south.
By 20:00 that evening, the mosquitoes had come out in force. Any surface in the lee of the wind, like the sides of cars for example, had lots and lots of mosquitoes on and they were hefty this year with bodies about a centimetre long. I didn’t stay up too long though, as before in 2012, I looked forward to a decent night’s sleep in a bed after 2 days of travelling from the UK and only snatches of sleep at Copenhagen airport.
At 07:40 on Wednesday the 2nd of July (day 1 of my hike), the mist had rolled in. It was cooler, visibility would not be the best and disappointingly, yet again I thought I might miss out on the opportunity to get a nice sunny photo from the western end of the Qerrortusup Majoriaa Pass…a view I know to be impressive. Still at least I might not sweat as much on the very first day as yesterday’s weather suggested would be likely!
I took my last hot shower for the next twenty eight days and went down to breakfast. In the restaurant I met Ana, the waitress from 2012 and it was nice to see her again and catch-up. Over breakfast, I was struck again by the size of the mosquitoes this year as these guys were clinging to the outside of the window! At 08:24 I was finishing off my second coffee and thinking ok, so this is my last proper, decent breakfast for twenty eight days!
I will cut short some of the descriptions of the trail in this post because I described it in my 2012 post and if you read that, it may be tedious to read it all again? So at times, I will just jump ahead instead of describing all the sections of walking that day.
After breakfast, I finalised my pack and checked out. As I set off from Hotel Sisimiut at 09:05 that morning in the low cloud, I feared that it might be a sign of the weather turning but in fact it soon burned off and unfurled another beautiful day. There was an intermittent very light breeze and mosquito presence was maybe what I might describe as medium!
As I walked out of town, past the dogs, three young pups/dogs took an interest and decided they would quite like to walk along with me. Sometimes they followed and sometimes they went on ahead. This went on for quite a while and I began to wonder how far they were willing to come? I certainly didn’t want to be drawing somebody’s sled dogs off along the trail with me! As advised, I had to shout at them and throw stones in their direction…not my natural disposition towards dogs(!)…but still they came along.
The pups followed me along the dirt track road to the reservoir and when we crossed the footbridge I was thankful that they all went off together to explore on the other side of the small headland. So I made a dash for the trail…
By the time I had made a little progress and turned to look back towards Sisimiut, the weather was already rapidly improving and I could see the three pups in the little bay of the lake. As the sky turned from white/grey to blue, and after a while of steady climbing, I was back again at a point where I seem naturally to pause and welcome my impending entrance into ‘Dinosaur valley’! (See my 2012 hike account for explanation of that!). This year, conditions were such a lovely contrast to 2012’s start.
It was certainly getting warmer and I decided to drink and tank-up for the first time this year from one of Greenland’s countless rivers of pure water and then pressed on into the valley looking forward to seeing it not only in bright sunshine, but also with the smattering of late snow. It was boots off for the river crossing today and the water was freezing cold!
It is certainly exciting to discover what lies ahead as you advance along the trail for the first time but I find the pleasure is not diminished at all by knowing the landscape very well and knowing exactly what lies ahead. It’s a different kind of pleasure that comes from the very warm and comfortable feeling of familiarity. In conditions like this, the landscape views are spectacular but you can expect to sweat a lot! Part-way through the valley I paused to take a photo and noticed another little Lapland bunting observing me from a nearby boulder. They tend to follow for a little while making short hops ahead of you. This handsome little fellow obliged while I took a photo.
Unlike 2012, the entrance climb to the Qerrortusup Majoriaa Pass was in plain sight and at the top of the western side of it, I knew the view back along the valley floor would look fabulous today! My notebook records that it took 20 minutes and 450 paces from the base of the climb into the Pass to breaking the lip.
Given the harsh winter and late thaw this year, there was much more snow than usual for July in the Pass which made walking through it a little different! The visible trail would often disappear under extensive patches of snow beneath which, the terrain is quite rocky. At times I was walking through slush, sometimes there was a strong enough crust to walk upon and frequently the crust gave way and I sank up to my knees into snow. The late thaw also meant that the trail in places was much wetter than usual up here and quite muddy but the Pass remains one of my favourite sections of the official trail, the ACT, and it was yet another new experience to find it in these conditions.
At about 11.3 km (7 miles) from Sisimiut, I came to the eastern end of the Pass and Kangerluarsuk Tulleq fjord came into view looking so blue this day. In the distance today I could very clearly see the little red hut at about 20km and I estimated that I should get there at about 17:00?
As usual, it’s a long steady climb to the hut from the shore of the fjord but today I arrived at 16:55, (five minutes earlier than I had estimated at the top of the Pass…I must be losing my touch!), and unlike 2012, I found it unoccupied. There had been changes since 2012, there was a foam mat on the sleeping deck and it had been given bright new panelling inside. (The very nice work of my friend Malene Olsen from Sisimiut).
It was quite beautiful to be here this afternoon. Just me, so quiet, bathed in warm sunshine, surrounded by the unspoilt wilderness. At 18:15 there was still no sign of anyone else. There is a sitting bench on the western side of the hut and here I hung out my microfleece to air in the sunshine, poured enough water into my pans to cook and make coffee then went to the stream to re-fill. I put my boots out in the sun too to air and dry the outer surface off. Pottering about so relaxed in my Crocs I made my ‘pasta special’ tonight…pasta, a foil sachet of tuna in a sauce, stock cube and a garlic clove. I don’t usually bother with desserts but had brought a few and tonight I had one of the TravelLunch desserts…Vanilla and raspberries, just mix with cold water. It probably needed a few more mils of water but it was surprisingly good, like very thick vanilla mousse with hard raspberry bits!
My pack was still quite hefty given my ultimate intentions in the east but it was lighter than 2012’s monster. I was glad that I was not carrying the tripod, scope etc this year as it had been a waste of time in 2012. I didn’t find any geese that year until very close to the edge of our study area in the east. Today I noted that my moving speed while hiking was back up to 2.5mph whereas I was down to 2.2mph in 2012. At 19:54 I was happily enjoying the warmth of the sun while sitting on the bench, facing west and looking back towards the descent from Pass. It had been 20 degrees C at around 15:00 this afternoon. The sun was now at 10 o’clock high in relation to myself, there was not a cloud in the sky; the mozzies were out in low numbers now and on this side of the hut a light breeze kept them away apart from the odd brave soul who decided to make an attempt at sampling my blood.
These days, my notes record that year’s experience but also inevitable reflective comparisons with previous years. I noted that I had not seen another soul today and with the mozzies in low numbers it was quite perfect to sit here so far removed from my normal life and with just the buntings and wheatears checking me out. At 20:06, I was totally chilled listening to the brilliant album “Secret Story” by Pat Metheny when I was startled by a Snow bunting that flew fast and straight at me. I flinched seriously thinking it was going to collide with my face but it swerved to my right at the last second almost as if it had just noticed me! It landed on a rock about a metre and a half from my feet and looked me over for a good long while before moving off to join another one of its kind. I expect it was in full control all the time but it certainly came at me like a missile! Today I had been seeing Snows and Laplands in about equal numbers whereas usually the latter are far more numerous.
Thursday 3rd of July (day 2) dawned as another beautiful day. I noticed my arms were lumpy from yesterday’s mosquito assaults though my forehead was unscathed. It was 16 degrees C inside the hut at 06:41 but 21 degrees outside, in the sunshine. It was going to be a warm one!
I managed to get away at 08:00 to do the stretch to the Nerumaq hut today. It was a mile (1.6km) along the flat trail from Kangerluarsuk Tulleq hut to the cairn from where I was looking down on a familiar lake…
At the lake, which looked glorious in this weather, I saw two ravens and four mallards, a fox paw-print in the sand and there were far fewer mosquitoes and flies here than in previous years which made the walk even more pleasant. I continued lakeshore and around into the valley where the ACT for a while hugs the river channel…(forgive the mosquito photobomb but it’s almost impossible to avoid it)…
Two river crossings later I was heading through some willow and then a little further to the entrance to the valley when in the river I noticed three quite large birds. I knew they should be out here but not until my seventh visit have I seen Mergansers…and none have I seen again in later years! I was so pleased to have finally caught sight of them out here in west Greenland.
At 11:35 this morning I had met my first humans on the trail this year, four Greenlanders – two men and two women; and by 13:30 the temperature was 22 degrees C. A pretty warm day…lots of sweating and drinking! After the infamous stand of willow, I turned further into the Nerumaq valley and late in the afternoon, about half way along the valley floor towards the Nerumaq hut, I saw the door get closed so clearly, somebody was there.
When I arrived at the hut at 15:10 I found it was three Canadians, husband and wife and another guy that had left Kangerlussuaq on Saturday. They planned to have a sleep here this afternoon and then move on so at 15:58, they settled down to sleep. The door was closed to keep the insects out but it became a sweatbox inside with the temperature going up to 30 degrees! They slept until about 18:30 and then got ready to leave…obviously everyone has their own schedule but I tend to keep my hiking to traditional day times and I don’t mind making my objective early. After they had gone, I got my bedding organised, made dinner and browsed through the hikers book…I’m often intrigued to see which nationalities have been along the trail and what their experiences had been. This year my GPS recorded my distance from my start point at Sisimiut at 36.8km (22.9 miles) and it was 20 degrees C inside the hut at 21:23.
Friday the 4th of July (day 3). Last night it had been so hot inside the hut but I did eventually nod off, that was after spending a good while killing mosquitoes. This hut is notorious for strong mosquito presence and there were many more back inside by this morning.
I managed to get away at 07:59 today. It was a cooler start with some cloud cover and an occasional breeze in the valley…almost perfect conditions for hiking.
At 11:10 it was getting warmer rapidly, it was now 18 degrees C and when the breeze disappeared completely, which was much of the time, the slightest bit of climbing brought on a sweat. It was a bug-net on/off kind of day, mostly on until I topped off the climb out of the valley.
Once the climb was over and I was on the top section, I passed the lakes up there and at one of them found two mallard wings and a few other pieces of the unfortunate bird, still I suppose foxes need to eat too. By the time I reached ‘flat rock’ where I like to pause and enjoy the view towards the Innajuattoq huts, I noticed it now had an official ACT cairn on it, complete with red paint blob. Clearly the municipality has been doing some work for trail users since I was last here.
As I descended to the lake, a wind picked up and some lenticular clouds seemed to be forming in the west? By the time I had reached the lake the weather seemed to be getting back into a relatively good mood. From ‘flat rock’ it took just under an hour to reach the river at my walking pace, which is about 4km/hr or 2.5 mph; then another 14 minutes to get across the river and reach the first and main hut, Innajuattoq II. I was at the hut by 14:40.
At the hut I met the four Danes that the Canadians at the Nerumaq hut had told me about. The Danes said they thought a storm was coming so they had ducked in here yesterday and stayed over night. While we were in conversation about common interests, a Dutch couple also arrived, also heading for Sisimiut. The Dutch couple soon got their dinner on and at 17:30 the Danes departed in the direction of the Nerumaq.
I always feel a strong compulsion to observe the progress of others from this hut – whether they are departing or heading towards it. So I was occasionally watching the progress of the Danes and 40 minutes later, at 18:10, they hadn’t yet reached the base of the slope…meanwhile, the Dutch couple cleaned their teeth and turned in?! I turned my attention to my dinner. I had written that last night’s Mountain House “Chicken Tikka” was not great in flavour and following the instructions, it had too much water in it. Tonight I had Mountain House “Mediterranean Vegetables Pasta”. Again it was too wet and tasted fairly bland…I gave it 4/10!
At 19:15 I had been watching three Great Northern Divers on the lake when an older Greenlander arrived. He had very poor English…I had even worse Greenlandic or Danish! He looked pretty tired and soon went into the bunks room to sleep. So, the hut to myself in 2012 but four of us here tonight…then another Greenlander arrived! A young chap from Sisimiut now living in Nuuk. His English was good. He took the biscuit from the older Greenlander though for looking tired! He was staggering, and in his own words “could barely walk”! This was the end of his second day from Kangerlussuaq as he was aiming to do the trail in three days, as he did a few years ago! I was impressed to say the least. Though personally I want to enjoy the time I have out here and not rush it, I did admire this young Greenlander for what he was achieving…even if he did look as though his legs were seizing up under him.
So, end of day 3, 54.4km (33.8 miles) from Sisimiut and for reasons explained in my 2012 account, I settled to sleep in the main area while the Dutch couple and the two independent Greenlanders were sleeping in the bunks room.
Saturday the 5th of July (day 4). At some point in the early hours the Dutch girl had dragged her sleeping bag into this room and said she couldn’t sleep because of the older Greenlander’s snoring. (Something I listened to a German woman doing all night at the Nerumaq hut in 2017!). Then at 05:48 the young Greenlander was up and set off to reach Sisimiut today. I wished him luck and that he might still have the use of his legs when he got there! Later that morning, in the hikers’ book I saw that his name was Jonas Jensen.
Looking out of the windows this morning it was misty and drizzling but seemed to be easing rather than worsening. It didn’t look like a ‘hunker down’ kind of day but even if the drizzling rain stopped altogether, the vegetation would be wet so gaiters or maybe waterproof trousers would be needed or my trousers would soon be soaked.
The Dutch couple too seemed to be busy with their breakfast and getting ready for the day quite early! As I lay in my sleeping bag…awake!…and engaged in conversation with them, I remarked about their turning in so early last night and being up and at it so early this morning? It turned out they thought it was four hours later than it really was! They had no watches and so had bought a clock at an airport and set the time according to their camera. All week from Kangerlussuaq they have been working to a schedule four hours ahead of local time…and everyone else! They must have thought that everyone else was on a pretty laid back schedule but there is a little lesson here…I always adjust the time on my camera when we’re arriving at Kangerlussuaq.
I set off from the hut at 09:58 today. The cloud-base hung around all day and barely moved. That would be because there was practically no wind again. Despite the grey skies and cooler day, it was still warm enough to sweat plenty…on these days of no air movement, the sweat just hangs on you. Even on higher ground there was no breeze today but I was pleased to have seen another two mergansers this morning.
As in 2012, this is the day I left the ACT and I camped in the same place as I did at the end of day 4 in 2012. Nearby this year I found some shell casings and two discarded caribou hides evidencing some hunting activity in the area. While sat in my tent with a view of a lake outside…it was silent, there was no wind and I had the feeling that the weather was fooling me and was about to turn bad in the next day or so? I regarded the mesh of the tent door…draped liberally in mosquitoes just hanging there like desperately bloodthirsty predators anxious to assail me. I could almost hear each one repeating the mantra “You’re going to have to come out sooner or later…!” Well my little friends…you’re correct, it’s time to come out and get the stove on!
Tonight’s dinner was the first of the Adventure Food meals I had brought this year. Tonight I was in for Gulyas which I took to be beef goulash? It was pretty good, better than the two Mountain House meals…I gave it 8.5/10. No doubt I picked up some more mosquito hits while outside and last night I had counted 39 on my right hand, forearm and elbow and 40 on my left hand, forearm and elbow. Now I was back inside where it was 16 degrees C in the tent with the ends open (mozzie-mesh closed!). I was about two degrees of longitude west of my target. I had set out at 09:58 this morning and arrived here at 16:49, 70.6km (43.9 miles) from my start point. My moving average speed was 4km/hr (2.5mph). I settled down for the night under a gloomy and eerily still air mass.
Sunday the 6th of July (day 5). I had been awoken at 04:40 by the sound of rain on the flysheet and an evident wind from the south. It wasn’t heavy rain but enough to qualify as such! At 08:30 it seemed to have eased off and occasionally a little sunshine broke through the clouds. Breakfast today was Adventure Food “Knusper – Musli”. Very good, I gave it 9.5/10 and decided that a slightly bigger portion might well have scored a 10.
As in 2012, the first task of the day was a steep climb. It was hard but noticeably less demanding than in 2012 as I was bereft of the heavy optics this year. I set off at 10:00 this morning and came upon a muskox hoof on my way. Every year I come across caribou antlers, the remains of dead animals caribou, muskox, foxes and parts of such bodies…some hunted some passed of natural causes and then scavenged. I don’t record all of these but realised I have not mentioned this before.
As I progressed along my personal route, now known to me from my 2012 exploratory, I passed several lakes and saw a pair of Great Northern Divers flying east, four Divers on one lake, seven mallards on yet another lake and three more on another. It was good to see the wildlife on an overcast day, although not as misty as it was in 2012 so that my route ahead was clearer to see.
As I reached a point where I saw two little Red-necked phalaropes, I realised I was about thirty minutes ahead of my 2012 schedule and at 13:00 I was watching rain coming in from the west. It drifted as a large grey curtain towards the higher ground behind a distinctive mountain called Pingup Sallia. There was a bit of a south westerly breeze now and I hoped it would keep gently pushing the rain northwards and thankfully it did. I could smell the water in the air but luckily it missed me and a small prayer was answered!
As in 2012, I aimed for the clifftops above Tasersuaq but while the weather was a little brighter now than in 2012, I still missed out on standing here, a thousand feet above the lake on a sunny blue sky day. I’m clearly going to have to try again!
From here I could also see further west towards Ole’s Lakseelv where the official ACT crossed the valley floor and wondered again whether there was anyone there today, doing the trail?
By 14:00 I had reached the small lochan at which I camped for the night in 2012, so with the route known to me, I was making good progress and thought I should make the best of things while it was dry at least. I came to a river that was made up of several channels rushing between large boulders with deep dark pools largely obscured by thick willow growth. This is one of those river stretches where the water is in such dark channels it’s black and brown in colour and typically where lots of dangerous holes exist amongst the tumbled rocks and vegetation. After a while, I chose what looked like the best of a number of not very attractive options and dropped my pack. I was about to take my boots off when something made me decide that I didn’t like the look of the landing opposite. I would be straight into dense willow again and that might just be an island in the channels…it was very hard to tell here.
I backtracked carefully out of the willow and thought I would go up onto a higher bit of ground nearby that ran parallel to the river and then walk a bit further up stream until I could see much more of the river. If need be, I was prepared to return to this place and try it. I did quite suddenly lose my left leg down into an unseen pothole but eventually got out of there without injury and up onto the bank. Further upstream, closer to the lake I found a better place to cross, closer to where I had crossed in 2012. So it was boots off there and across I went with some items and then back for the pack as always.
I was quite pleased with my decision-making and instincts today. Earlier today I had also chosen a higher route than in 2012 which involved much less descending and climbing in the terrain. I was now 22.2km (13.8 miles) from last night’s camp but it was another 8km (5 miles) or so to the next of the 2012 camps so decided to stop for the night near the next lake and ended my day at 18:10, 92.8km (57.7 miles) from my start point on the edge of Sisimiut. I was now half a day ahead of 2012’s schedule.
Pleasingly, I had seen several more Great Northern Divers today and there were two more on this lake. At 19:00 the sun emerged and a little blue sky appeared…the Divers appeared to welcome it too and were making that beautiful and unmistakable chirping that they do. For me, the sound of Divers is just the most perfect signature sound in confirmation that I am in true West Greenland wilderness…closely followed by the sound of geese! It was 13 degrees C inside the tent at this time and from above me, in a line heading southwards, there were patches of blue sky which I hoped held promise for tomorrow…but if I looked north to the great slug of mountain towering above me, the sky was dark and brooding. As in 2012, I again felt a strange kind of dark presence from this mountain, almost as if it didn’t want to be disturbed…
The evenings are a time for reflection and curious personal observations! Tonight’s dinner was Mountain House “Chicken and Vegetables in Black Bean Sauce with Noodles”…their best yet, I gave it 8/10 and wished I had brought more of these from that brand! Hey, my socks were in good shape! I had been wearing them since I started at Sisimiut and I put this down to firstly, money well spent on good quality hiking socks (my Brashers), and secondly…good quality boots that fitted my feet well. I was very pleased with my Mammut Pacific Crest boots for fit, comfort and waterproof-edness! This was their first trek. They were wet all day yesterday in the boggy sections but got a chance to dry out today…I wondered how the Meindl pair I had rejected would have fared? (I know the wisdom is not to try a hike like this in new boots, and that’s what I would advise others but in my defence, I know what to expect out here, I am pretty good at knowing when boots are a good fit for me and my judgment is borne out by the fact that I have never suffered foot discomfort or blisters out here even when carrying a heavier pack than most).
I spent a little while looking at tomorrow’s route, did a snack bars stocktake…I had plenty. Then, before I turn in I have these little stretches that I normally do at the end of every day…whether they do any good I don’t know but given that I’m in pretty good shape when hiking out here I am reluctant to abandon them. Curiously, despite the walking and heavy pack on my back, they are significantly easier and I can stretch further when I’m out here than I can at home after sitting at a desk all day. Hiking is good!
I woke up on Monday the 7th of July (day 6 of my hike) to a beautiful sunny day. It was 20 degrees C inside my tent at 07:04. Outside it was blue sky, high altitude white clouds and a stiff breeze from the east. The pair of Divers were still on the lake, chirping away while I was breaking camp. I had a short stretch of land to cover before the next lake and then I noticed that two muskox had come into view at the next lake. By the time I was setting off at 08:30 there was no sign of them so I guessed that they must be on a lie-down. And so they were.
I had decided to walk on this particular side of the lake as my more direct route so as I approached and came into view I gently pushed them off and they went up the nearby hillside to my right where they stood and watched my progress. Normally my preference is to leave them be, I try to minimise any disturbance and certainly avoid surprising them which will cause them to expend energy getting into a sprint, often instinctively uphill. However, I have met muskox alone and in groups many times out here and was happy that I could let them gently amble aside on this occasion. I do love my meetings with the muskox, there have been many times when I have found a family group and been able to sit with them at a discreet distance for good long periods. I am grateful for their tolerance of me and the pleasure it gives me to be with these wonderful and hardy beasts of the wild arctic. After a brief pause for a quick photograph I left them alone and at the next lake found 1 Diver and 7 mallards.
Being ahead of my 2012 schedule, I reached my 2012 day 6 campsite at 11:00. I was 101km (63 miles) from my start point now and pushed on to maintain my gain. The breeze occasionally became quite a stiff or gusty wind from the east and given its origins, was wonderfully cooling in my face as I walked.
I didn’t sweat much today, even when climbing. I had my thigh zips open as there were no mosquitoes or flies and was even tempted to try shorts if I could have been bothered to undo my gaiters and boots! In all, it was a perfect hiking day which was marvellous because this area of plateau would be difficult to navigate accurately in bad weather.
In this terrain, I like to trust to my instinct…as I take in my immediate surroundings, I get a sort of feel for where I need to go and in these areas where there is no distinct line or feature to follow, I enjoy indulging my instinct. It comes down to deciding exactly which line to take amongst the variations in the terrain, deciding what feels right. I like to think that this is part of my bonding with this landscape that I so love to be in. Today it was so absolutely pleasing to keep discovering that my instinct was consistent from 2012 and that it was taking me to exactly the same places in this extensive wilderness. There are two lakes for example, about 3km (1.8 miles) apart that could easily be missed from sight in this open, undulating terrain but my instinct took me to both just as it did in 2012 and at the first of these today I found a solitary Long-tailed duck. I recall coming up one gentle slope and suddenly a small cluster of puddles came into view and I realised I had been exactly here in 2012…how lovely to know that my instinct serves me so faithfully out here.
At 16:00 tonight’s campsite came into view. I remembered this lovely tranquil spot right by a lake from 2012 and back then had decided that if I did this route again, I should very much like to spend another night here. I arrived at 16:10 and I was 21.8km (13.6 miles) from this morning’s camp. It was sunny and breezy as I pitched the tent and the wind was keeping the insects at bay which was very pleasant. At 17:25 it was 25 degrees C inside the tent and I got my dinner on! Tonight it was another Mountain House meal, “Potato and Salmon in a Dill Sauce”. It was quite nice though something had a bit of a rubbery texture to it, the potato I think…I gave it 6.5/10.
At 18:59 the wind died down and that coincided with odd clouds coming in from the west and at 19:38 I heard my first fox of this year. I was now a day ahead of my 2012 schedule which felt good. As it was a catch year in the east, I didn’t want my colleagues waiting too long for me while I indulged in my personal adventures. I was now 114.7km (71.3 miles) from my start point.
On Tuesday the 8th of July (day 7 of my hike) I was woken up at 03:00 by wind buffeting the tent, it died down at 04:00 then started up again at 05:00 and then finally subsided at 06:30. After that today turned out to be another hot and windless day. There were times when I would have welcomed that wind to cool me down but it resolutely stayed away, leaving me to another sweaty but beautiful day out here in the arctic wilderness.
I set off at 08:26 this morning, leaving behind a Diver on the lake and a short while later, scanning a lake a little further away I saw four more Divers. In total over the course of today, I would see fifteen Great Northern Divers….lovely!
My inclination today was to make some slight changes to the route I had followed in 2012. There is so much terrain to explore and so many places in the landscape that are appealing to walk in but I still got to my target points. As in 2012, I saw lots of Great Northern Divers today in this particular area. I suspect this very remote and undisturbed area is a favoured breeding area for these magnificent birds. I also stumbled upon three arctic hares this morning and felt as though I had rudely interrupted their conference. They each looked me over for a while before hopping it over the hilltop.
This morning I crossed a familiar 4km (2.5 mile) wide, flat valley floor and was looking forward in this heat to seeing my old friend, that deep, silent and gorgeous river channel from 2012…a chance for a cool dip. As I made my arduous way through the extensive willow that I had also been expecting I noticed some hunters nets…I do not recall seeing these in 2012 so it may be a new hunters camp set up in the last two years?
I had already been noticing significantly depressed water levels in lakes and rivers and it was evident also when I finally reached the channel. I was disappointed and saddened by this because this had been such a perfect channel, sculpted sinuously with gentle bends through the terrain when I found it in 2012 and there was a wonderful serenity about the sheer volume of water gently flowing by whilst making not a sound. Nearby, I saw a point where a crossing with my boots on looked potentially feasible and went to have a closer look. Sure enough, here was a place where I felt it was possible, so with my trekking poles to keep things steady, I found I could just manage to get across the river with the aid of a few rocks…some protruded above the water, a few were submerged by an inch or two so I had to be willing to dip the boots into the flowing water. These Mammut Pacific Crests had gained my trust in their waterproofing as well as great comfort and I was confident they would be just fine.
A short while later as I left the channel/river behind and continued on my way, I spotted that upstream there were places where the river bed was almost dry and crossing would have been even easier there. This is not something I welcome really. Firstly, crossing the rivers is good fun and adds to the flavour of adventure, especially the few deeper ones and secondly, I fear that this is connected to rapid change being driven in the arctic from anthropogenically-driven global warming. Already on the ice sheet, there are several studies concluding that precipitation is no longer keeping pace with staggering summer losses and when I come across lakes with significantly depressed margins that clearly haven’t been dry for many years, it bothers me. It bothers me a lot and makes me feel sad. For millennia this arctic world has functioned with a delicate balance of time spent either side of freezing/thawing…the difference between above or below zero is so small and so much more impactful here than a degree warmer or cooler further south. It doesn’t take much to change the beautiful world nature has made out here.
Not long after this point, and after plenty of driving forward through dense willow bush, I came to a lake which has a fair bit of dry, sandy/dusty areas near it. For some strange reason I am never inclined to dwell here and decided not to tank up but to push on, get through this significant expanse of willow bush and tank up at the river flowing down from a higher lake. Oddly, it was only as I reached that river bed that I recalled…it was dry in 2012…and it was certainly dry this year!
With the sweat pouring off me in hot and perfectly still air conditions like this, I like to keep well hydrated. It’s why I always carry a 2 litre bottle instead of the common 1 litre Nalgene’s for example…and it’s what I advise when asked by people about hiking the ACT. I had about a litre of water left so I had a short break, drank some water and decided to push on to another familiar lake to tank up properly.
As in 2012, the next lake had a significant amount of algal growth along much of its shallow margin and as I eventually approached the lake I had in mind, a hare spotted me. It hopped a short distance uphill where it turned around to face me…and just sat there, completely motionless. As we regarded each other, I slowly raised my camera and took a few photos. The hare seemed pretty unperturbed now so I walked slowly towards a large boulder, closer to the hare. When I reached the boulder, I leaned against it to steady myself and tried for a few more photos. I certainly find that having a heavy pack on my back makes taking steady photos with use of the zoom feature much more challenging but out here there is little to lean on and so little to hide behind in general that getting very close to the wildlife is difficult. (Most often, by the time you have dropped your pack and got your camera ready, the hares have departed…no doubt encouraged by the amount of movement involved in dropping a large pack). It’s not impossible though when conditions are right. I have for example, sat for a good long while with a hare that was about 3 metres away, I have walked past a muskox bull at fairly close quarters…probably no more than 10 metres away and I have sat with grazing muskox families no more than 100 metres away several times. As I moved on, the hare just continued to sit there motionless, watching me go. In my thoughts, I thanked it for our pleasant meeting, for entertaining my desire to photograph and record the pleasant memory of it and was happy to now leave it in pace.
By 15:00 I had reached one of my 2012 camp sites. Reaching the next 2012 campsite today wasn’t realistic but I thought I should make good use of another couple of hours maybe in this warm and dry weather. So I moved on intending to reach a place between two particular lakes. I was thinking, how cool…here I am in west Greenland’s wilderness, in terrain without trails. I am wandering out here completely alone and happy in nature, disconnected from whatever appalling things humanity is doing lately and making for places I know. So satisfying…
Soon, I came to a lake where in 2012, I opted to follow its northern shore so this year I decided to try the southern shore. This was a perfectly available option this year because the depressed water levels had exposed much of its shallow margin to a width in places of maybe up to 20 metres! For much of its more than 1.6km (1 mile) length, I walked along the shoreline where there were many scattered rocks and occasionally, soft muddy sections where a little dampness clung on in the substrate. Sometimes it was necessary to climb up onto the vegetated bank, about a metre or so above the lake bed and not always easy to find a step-up with this pack on and the soft grasses at the edge. The vegetation ashore was dense, wild and tussocky as I would expect, which served only to illustrate how much easier progress was by being able to walk along the flat lake bed. On one occasion whilst making my way back down to the lake bed, my notebook records that something caused me to trip up…I think it was treading onto soft grasses at the very edge and expecting there to be solid ground beneath. It was nothing serious but I ended up slamming my right knee into the damp mud. Near the end of the lake I had to finish off back in the dense vegetation which was far more demanding again and progress is slower. This is where ‘wild walking’ in Greenland as I call it is so different from trekking the ‘boots-polished’ surface of the ACT!
At 17:25, and at 23.9km (14.9 miles) from this morning’s camp, I called a halt at a very nice spot between two lakes. There was a young caribou here as I arrived but after checking me out, it moved off. Not long after pitching my tent this evening, a breeze got up and is now blowing through the tent to cool a little of the intensity of the sun. With both ends of the tent open and the breeze flowing through, it was 29 degrees C inside at 18:15. Even at 19:15, when sitting outside in the sun it was very hot. Where has this breeze been all day I thought, I have been sweating so much along the hike!
For dinner tonight I offered myself a choice of Adventure Food “Chicken Curry”, Mountain House “Chilli Con Carne” or Travellunch “Pasta with Napoli Tomato Sauce”. I opted for the Adventure Food pack and it was superb. The amount of water advised was perfect, I had left it for a good long period while I was having my soup, the rice was perfect and I gave it 10/10.
I figured that 23.9kms of sweating deserved a cigar…and while relaxing I took note of the damage Greenland’s wild terrain was doing to my brand new Mammut Pacific Crest boots. The brand name had been scraped off by the vegetation some while ago and some small pieces of the rubber rand had by now been taken off. Somehow I felt that despite their comfort and ‘waterproofness’, these would not last many tours out here. On the trail they would fare better but when you’re bashing through a lot of undisturbed bush…its different!
Tonight I regarded my map and as usual, considered my options. I reckoned it was about 11.2km (7 miles) to the next (and last of the) 2012 camps…and about the same again to my destination this year (where I should find members of the goose team). I could do another 24kms (15 miler) tomorrow, maybe with an early start, and reach the team’s camp? Or I could have a leisurely start and stop at the last of the 2012 camps? I had two more main evening meals on me and enough fuel for two more days at least. On balance, I was inclined to enjoy one more night alone out here which suggested a short day tomorrow.
I reflected on the fact that with the ‘wild walking’, this is a tougher hike than simply following the well-worn ACT, with no need to think about routing nor exact positioning. I wondered whether I would repeat this hike again? In 2012, I did not expect to do it again but here I was!
The sky this evening was divided along a fairly clear line running east-west above me…clouds to the south, sunny blue skies to the north. I was now 138.7km (86.2 miles) from my start point (average moving speed a consistent 4km/hour (2.5mph)…and I was camped at another place that has become a favourite spot (after staying here again in 2017) where I will very likely camp yet again should I be back this way….
Wednesday the 9th of July (day 8 of my hike) saw rain falling in the night though it wasn’t heavy rain. I felt no particular need to make an early start today. At 09:55 it was dry and cool outside and there were small patches of blue sky visible through the clouds which must have come up from the south last night as that front passed overhead. It turned out to be a windless day but a little cooler…despite that it was still warm enough to work up a sweat while hiking, however gently you chose to walk!
I finally set off at 11:08, passing several lakes on the opposite side to my 2012 passing and at which I saw three Divers, one caribou, two phalaropes and one Long-tailed duck. When I reached the larger lake, I decided not to use some of the valley floor and instead to stay on the higher ground…that choice was consistent with my 2012 decision and after some upping and downing, …and finding a predated ptarmigan nest…, I began the steady climb up the ridge in an easterly direction. The going was good on the harder exposed bits and as I climbed a cold wind arose from the east.
This line brought me out on high ground above the next large lake…a lake I know quite well. I was at about 320m and decided to skirt its southern side, making for a flat shelf of soft grass overlooking the lake. This meant traversing a very steeply sloping grassy hillside so I significantly extended the length of one of my trekking poles to keep me nice and steady. It proved awfully tempting to sit for a while in this lovely vegetation and just enjoy the view, and so I did. While enjoying a snack I watched some Canada geese on the lake…there were 16 about three quarters of the way to its western end and another 22 at its eastern end.
Eventually I set off knowing that I had several more familiar miles to go to reach my colleagues. From the end of the ridge I steadily dropped down to an expansive flat area with many lakes. Here I faced the prospect of yet another long push through thick willow bush to pass a particular lake at which I spotted four more Canada geese, five phalaropes and one Great Northern Diver.
The terrain in west Greenland is far form uniform and from a hiking/’wild walking’ point of view, the variety of habitats is something that adds hugely to the walking pleasure in my view. Sometimes it’s great walking, for example on the rocky ridge tops; at other times it can be very taxing, as it is when battling through dense willow bush. For a little more than 1.6km (1 mile) after this lake I knew the terrain was flat and comprised of very dry, spongy grass. This can be a little bit tiring because it’s like walking in sand. As with all this terrain, I can so vividly bring to mind how it feels to walk in this grassy habitat…there is that soft whisper and the upwelling of dusty particles of bone-dry grass as each boot-fall gently compresses the vegetation and sinks a few inches into it…
Having been here in previous years, at the end of this stretch I knew there would be some more dense willow to get through and then a fairly demanding c.5.5km (3.4 miles) of varied terrain along the lakeshore to reach my colleagues’ who would be camped this year in a different place from 2012. This is because for a catch year, you need a team of about ten people so you need a larger camp area.
Through the first willow patch I finally reached the western end of my target lake. My colleagues should be camped at a large bay at its eastern end, about 4.8km (3 miles) away in a straight line. Here I flushed a Diver out onto the water, I hadn’t seen it as I approached the lake. She was quickly followed by two tiny black fluff-balls. In protest, she repeatedly reared herself up in the water and splashed about. One of the incredibly cute and tiny chicks dived while the other stayed close to mum on the surface. Mother kept poking her head underwater to keep an eye on the submerged chick. Anxious not to stress the family further, I hastily took a few snapshots hoping they would be reasonably in focus(!) and quickly pushed hard through some thick willow bush to put distance between me and the birds. Shortly after, I noticed that her alarm calls had attracted father who duly arrived though I didn’t seen where from. Still, I was sure that his presence would quickly reassure the chicks and the family would calm down again.
Although last night I was inclined to enjoy one more night alone out here, I had made good progress today and feeling good, had decided to continue to the main camp. About half way along the lake shore, I crested a hillock and spotted some tents in the distance where I expected their camp to be. Through my bins I could make out four figures, so not all of the team was here yet. Then I could tell that one of them had spotted me. No sneaky surprise raid on their chocolate stash tonight then!
I reached the camp at 19:10. This camp being a little closer than the one I was aiming for in 2012. So this year, according to my GPS unit, it was 164.1 km (102 miles) in 8 days. A total of just under 40hrs of actual moving time at my normal average of 4km/h (2.5mph). With my personal route now familiar I had shaved a couple of days off my 2012 time and today’s hike was a total of 23.8km (14.8 miles).
I was greeted by my old friend who leads the goose fieldwork out here and three others I had not met before. It was a cold evening in camp, down jackets were needed so it was a bit of a drab end to my hike but I had loved it once again. In the next few days, the weather picked up again…
From the 10th of July to the 31st July, this was then our base from which the goose work was conducted…but that’s another story and and entirely different part of what I do out in west Greenland…