Greenland – my story…

Thanks for visiting my site. If hiking and camping in Greenland might appeal to you, I hope you find something interesting here.

This site is mainly to share something of my passion for spending time in West Greenland…a place not on most people’s holiday destinations lists!  At this point in time, I’m not intending to create and publish an A to Z of everything you need to know to go out there or to provide a hiker’s blueprint for a visit. There are plenty of first-time experience Arctic Circle Trail (ACT) blogs and other sources available for taking that trail on…I’m not sure there’s much point in my adding yet another! This site is more for sharing something of my personal experiences out there in that arctic wilderness and why it calls me back time and again. It’s partly for myself, to properly document my visits and do them some justice on record but maybe there’s something more than facts and metrics here for people thinking of going out there, for people just interested in getting some sense of what it would be like to hike in West Greenland…and maybe for folks who would love to do this but simply never will for various reasons? Several of my Twitter friends have encouraged me to document more context and depth to go with the more than a thousand photographs I have shared on Twitter over the years. So this site is my attempt to do that. It is a work in progress…!

Beautiful, pristine, silent and huge…West Greenland.

More people than ever are now completing the official 100 mile Arctic Circle Trail (ACT) in West Greenland. I have done that trail and I still use some of it these days but the ACT would by now be a ‘routine’ Greenland hike to me. Having become very familiar with the region over so many visits, I much prefer something more challenging than a marked, well used trail and I spend much of my time wandering much further afield over a fairly large area. I have now hiked alone several times from Sisimiut at the coast towards the ice sheet in the east on a route of my own plotting and far from everyone else. That has been a very special solitary experience over a number of years that has seen me develop an extremely deep and personal fondness for that landscape.

In 2018 I could only manage 3 weeks off work for my 9th visit…but to spend 17 days and nights completely alone out here, without seeing another human anywhere…and to stand here that evening in the still of the night, looking at the midnight sun just sitting atop those hills was another precious and magical personal moment…

My Greenland content is based on several visits I have made out there starting in 2006, so here’s…

A brief history of my visits to Western Greenland:

The story starts in Scotland!  In 2005 I kept ‘leapfrogging’ with a Danish couple along the West Highland Way and during one of our passing meetings, they mentioned to me that the year before, they had walked this long-distance route in West Greenland which they had found tough but rewarding.  My ears pricked up at this as I had always loved tales of the north and wondered about Greenland.  I knew it was a huge island, that it was mostly covered by a thick sheet of ice, that Inuit people lived there and so forth…but it wasn’t a familiar place. It didn’t feel like a knowable place to me, it felt more like a distant land, somehow just out of reach of everyday consciousness. You never heard of much anything happening in Greenland back then.  (Things have changed a lot since then with figureheads and science creating greater awareness of global warming and its much faster impacts in the Arctic). So this random and unexpected snippet of conversation lit a flame inside me…and I knew it straight away. It was there and then that I resolved to make a visit to Greenland a reality. This Danish couple had suddenly made it real, right there on my map of visitable places.

Over the next 11 months, as this stubborn flame took hold, I researched as much as I could about this hike.  I knew it was called the Arctic Circle Trail (ACT) but back then, it wasn’t easy to find out much else.  Today there are guidebooks, numerous online personal blogs, an official visitgreenland.com set of pages about it and also a Facebook page for the Trail (which in recent years I joined and was later made an Admin on).

In 2005 however there was precious little easily accessible information but I managed to make a contact in Sisimiut, and by e-mail, gathered as much information as I could. Still, in many kinds of detail, committing to it in July 2006 was going to be a bit of a leap into the dark (…well actually into 24hr daylight!).

Unfortunately, despite all this research, planning and expenditure, 2006 didn’t work out.  I decided to abort walking the ACT from Sisimiut (on Greenland’s west coast) to Kangerlussuaq, (a small town about a 100 miles to the east at the head of a large fjord called Sondre Stromfjord).  My hiking partner had become unwell and his progress painfully slow so I called it on day 4 and turned us around.  I felt it would be irresponsible of me to push on any further…he did also have some spectacular blisters to add to his woes! (This was a bitter pill to swallow given that I had held not insignificant reservations about allowing an old friend to tag along but had relented, against my better judgment. It was a lesson I learned well and since then all my long distance hikes and much of my other activities out there, except for the goose-catching, are done alone!). Later that month, after we had returned to Kangerlussuaq, I spent about a week exploring by myself before flying home bearing a massive pall of disappointment. I was firmly resolved to return in 2007 to do the ACT…alone!

The edge of an ice sheet…snout of the Russell Glacier…

The ACT is a few tens of kilometres north of the Arctic Circle.  It is now a fairly popular hiking route and is so much busier with people traffic (of all kinds of abilities, prior experience and hiking ethics!) than it was back then.

In 2007, I returned to Greenland alone and walked the Arctic Circle Trail (ACT) from Kangerlussuaq to Sisimiut.  It had felt like unfinished business for a year and simply had to be done.  I had thought that would be it, the ACT ticked off on my list as it is for so many bloggers these days, onwards to new places…but that wasn’t to be as you will see later! After reaching Sisimiut, I also paid a brief visit to Ilulissat further north to see the spectacular fjord filled with the calved ice from the mighty Sermeq Kujalleq glacier.

On the ACT, with a view towards part of an enormously long lake called Tasersuaq…
The ice fjord at Ilulissat offers scenes of breathtaking beauty…2007.

My recent visits encouraged a professional colleague of mine to revive fieldwork associated with a long-standing ecological project out there.  After an 11 year hiatus in field work due to a heavy burden of professional commitments, he organised a GB + Rep. of Ireland team to go out there in 2008 to count, catch and ring a new batch of wild geese. Naturally, this gave me a new purpose for going out there and so I returned again as a member of that team. In 2009 we repeated the operation and also had team members from Denmark and the other side of the Atlantic!  So those years saw me out there for the month of July again with a team of people and I can genuinely say that I have literally been on many wild goose chases in the Arctic!

After a long day out on a wild goose chase, it’s time to make back for base camp in the warm evening glow…
After a month of field-work, the memory of a walk on the Greenland ice sheet is a nice reward to take home!

My 2010 visit was different.  The study group decided to have a presence in the field from the end of April through to later in the summer to collect data on the geese throughout the breeding period…as they arrived in their summer breeding grounds, nested, laid eggs and raised their goslings before departing for winter quarters.  So in small numbers our time out there slightly overlapped with other team members and it was observations and counting only. Additionally, a young American chap was coming over to see the birds in their breeding territory before starting his PhD on one of the species at a UK University.  Through an organisation connected with the study group and his PhD, I was asked to take him under my wing and show him around the breeding territory during the month of May that year.  So it was the two of us for several weeks until briefly there were three of us. Things were different in 2010 being there two months earlier than usual…

In May, the lakes were still mostly frozen and patches of snow clung on to the hills. Here’s a favourite basin of lakes in Spring clothing…

2012 was also to be a survey-only year, no goose catching, just a smaller group out counting and searching for marked birds to update their life histories.  So in the lead up to that visit, I decided to do something different to enable me to explore further afield.  I plotted for myself a route east from Sisimiut on the coast that would use only part of the official ACT, then I would come off the official trail and disappear alone into much more remote country that I had never been in before.  That was my second solo 100+ mile hike out there and when I reached my target location in the east, I then joined the small group to help carry out goose surveys/counts over a large number of lakes.

It’s not always sunny! Far from everyone else and the official trail, I make my way through 100 miles of arctic habitat and alone in this wild, remote terrain I find a deep inner peace…

I repeated that formula in 2014.  I flew to Sisimiut and again followed more or less my personal route east and after my third solo 100+ mile hike out there, joined the team for more goose-catching in that year. Fortunately for them, their hike-in to camp from a dirt track road was only about 6 miles but I took the long route again!

The classic view West from the western end of the Qerrortusup Majoriaa Pass on the ACT, 2014.

There was no study team presence in 2015, nor 2016 and it wasn’t until 2017 that I could personally get out there again.  That year I completed my fourth 100+ mile solo hike, again from the coast in an easterly direction, and was the only person out there looking for our birds that year.

At over 100 miles from Sisimiut, this is a remote and favourite camping spot…looking East you can see the ice sheet in the distance. It also has my personal ‘seat’ where I like to sit in utmost comfort and reflect…

In 2018, knowing that again I would be the only person going out there, I decided to spend all of my time in or around the study area and gather as much data as I could for the group.  A lot of lakes have to be surveyed for birds, we are talking about a study area of about 160 square miles though I’m very familiar with a far bigger area! I felt it was time to update the data as much as possible since 2014 so I would forego my 100+ mile jaunt that year. In 2018 I spent 17 days/nights alone in that wilderness without seeing another human being anywhere, not even in the distance and I absolutely loved it in better weather than the previous year!  I also visited somewhere I had been wanting to get to which was off the edge of the official map sheet.

Standing on high ground with the Greenland ice sheet in the background. Seventeen days/nights completely alone out here is a precious and happy memory.

In March of 2020, I decided to make my 10th visit and to make it something different and equally memorable. It seemed fitting to follow the Arctic Circle Trail one more time to commemorate that it was the ACT that first drew me to West Greenland…and began this love affair. Things are very different in winter conditions and rather than walk around the lakes for example, it is very convenient to travel along their frozen surfaces. I enjoyed eight and a half days alone on the trail before scary news from passing Greenlanders about Covid-19 border closure measures, (including by Denmark), and airlines cancelling flights required getting to Kangerlussuaq quickly to sort out any impacts on my travel plans to get home via Denmark and the Netherlands!

Looking back west in the Qerrortusup Majoriaa Pass, photograph taken on a Samsung phone camera.

Further posts will elaborate on these visits and hopefully bring being out there a bit more to life for those that are interested…but to date, that’s my Greenland time in a nutshell.