40 shades of Greenland: What does it take to hike the Arctic Circle Trail?
Epic wilderness, no phone signals and few fellow hikers greet David Flanagan as he walks the 160km Arctic Circle Trail…
Greenland isn't all that green.
That's the first thing that strikes me, looking out the plane window. The vast expanse of a dazzlingly white polar ice sheet, which covers 80pc of the country's surface, stretches as far as I can see. It takes nearly an hour to fly over it.
I'm flying with three friends into Kangerlussuaq, Greenland's main airport. Our plan is to walk the Arctic Circle Trail, a 165km hiking route through the pristine wilderness that lies between here and Sisimiut on the coast. Our oversized rucksacks weigh 20kg apiece. Packed with tents, warm clothes, stoves and freeze-dried food, they contain everything we need for 10 days.
We all have plenty of outdoor experience, but have never walked so far through such remote terrain. The Trail can be done by anyone with a reasonable level of fitness and backpacking experience - but you have to put in the preparation. Over the last six months, we've trained hard and planned forensically. With no roads or even tracks, the only way out is on foot or by rescue helicopter.
After some last-minute shopping and repacking, we shoulder our packs and set off down the dusty road... straight from the airport door. After 15km, the road ends and the Arctic Circle Trail starts in earnest. Following a narrow path, we soon spot the first of 400 stone cairns that will mark our way. They indicate the general direction rather than a specific path, so we still need to figure out the best route across the sometimes boggy ground.
The path weaves its way across tundra which, thanks to Greenland's harsh climate and permafrost, can sustain only the smallest, hardiest plants. One of the most common is the wild blueberry, and many a rest stop is spent picking the bitter berries from low bushes.
Over the next 10 days, we pass just a dozen wooden huts. The only man-made structures on the trail, they range from glorified sheds to large buildings capable of sleeping over two dozen. In this harsh, changeable climate, the distinctive red buildings play an important role, offering hikers shelter from the worst of the weather.
The first hut is very rundown, but when we step inside, we're greeted by a half-dozen other hikers. We stay for a while, chatting and gathering information about conditions on the trail. Before the trip, I was concerned that meeting other hikers would detract from the wilderness experience. However, the sense of camaraderie that comes from sharing the trail proves to be one of the highlights. From the French woman who had never camped before and was walking solo, to the American guy who ended up walking in Converse trainers after his boots fell apart on the first day, the trip proves full of colourful stories.
Keen to keep moving, we push on past the hut and pitch our tents on a rise overlooking a lake. After a very long day of travel and 24km of walking, we're soon asleep. At this latitude in mid-August, it never gets fully dark, but we have no problem sleeping for over 12 hours most nights.
After two days, we reach the vast Lake Amitsorsuaq. The trail follows the southern shore of the lake to a large hut that once served as an outdoor activity centre. A few of its canoes remain and hikers use them to travel the length of the lake and give their tired legs a break.
Halfway along the lake, we spot an upturned canoe by the shore. It's battered but seaworthy, so we load our packs and take turns paddling in pairs. I'm scared, conscious of its dented hull and the deep cold water, but we end up making good progress... despite the homemade paddles. At one point, we stop and let the boat drift to a halt on the mirror-like surface. It's so quiet, we can hear our blood flowing - like when you put a seashell to your ear.
After a few days, we settle into a good rhythm and each day feels a little easier as our bags get lighter and our bodies adapt. Out here, with no connection to the outside world to distract us, life is simple. All we have to do is walk and enjoy the spectacular views.
After five days, we reach the halfway point - officially the middle of nowhere. It's this remoteness that attracted us to Greenland in the first place, but being so far from civilisation isn't without risk; out here the smallest injury or problem could quickly become very serious. As there isn't any mobile phone signal, we carry a satellite device so we can contact the outside world in an emergency.
Before the trip, we read that many of the trail's rivers and lakes are full of fish, so we took a pair of rods in the hope of supplementing our rations. After a number of fruitless efforts, we pass a small pool and notice a number of large fish swimming in the gentle current. A few minutes later, we land a beautiful, speckled Arctic char which we eat that night. The fresh fish is delicious and makes a wonderful change from our freeze-dried rations.
On the second-last day, we reach a fisherman's hut on the shore of a vast fjord surrounded by huge snow-capped mountains. We share the hut with Arno, a 79-year-old German. A regular visitor to Greenland, he walked the trail last summer, but doesn't feel able for it this year so is spending some time in the hut doing a few shorter walks. We spend the night listening to his stories.
Our final full day takes us high into the mountains via the hardest climb on the trail. It's a warm day and a long sustained slog but, inspired by Arno's remarkable toughness, we put our heads down and just get on with it.
The next morning, we wake to another beautiful crisp day. We break camp for the last time and follow an easy path down a narrow valley for a few hours before the brightly coloured wooden houses of Sisimiut come into view.
After 10 days immersed in the deep silence and the simple daily rhythm of walking, the spell is broken as soon as we step on to the tarmac road that leads into town. As we walk along the road with the noise of the cars and buses assaulting our senses, the trip is consigned to memory and our thoughts turn to a shower and beer.
The only regular flight to Kangerlussuaq is from Copenhagen with Air Greenland (airgreenland.com). Flights leave early and arrive late, so you'll need to overnight in Copenhagen both ways. Ryanair and SAS fly non-stop from Dublin to Copenhagen. See also visitgreenland.com.
When to go
August is ideal, as mosquitoes have died down, temperatures are reasonable and days are still long. September brings fewer fellow hikers, but harsher weather.
What to pack
On the ACT, you must carry everything you need for over a week, so spend time planning your gear. The lighter your rucksack, the more you'll enjoy the walking. For a detailed discussion of what to bring, check out David's blog at threerockbooks.com.
Take Three: travel tips
Walking on rough ground with a heavy pack is a serious workout. Get the miles in on the ideal training ground - Ireland's 40 National Waymarked Trails, irishtrails.ie.
With no roads joining Greenland's towns and villages, there are two ways to get around: fly or sail. Air Greenland runs domestic flights and helicopter connections.
Get to Nuuk
Ferries link settlements on the coast. The Arctic Umiaq Line (aul.gl) runs a regular service along the west coast - this would be a great way to visit Greenland's capital, Nuuk.
Read more:Into the wild: Where is Ireland's most remote location?