Hiking Across Greenland's Nuussuaq Peninsula

In June 2013, IAT North Greenland Director René Christensen, Uummannaq Polar Institute (UPI) Research Fellow and IAT Maine Board Member Will Richard, four local adults and 12 children from the Uummannaq Children’s Home hiked across West Greenland's rugged Nuussuaq Peninsula, from Kussuaq on Disko Bay in the Arctic to Eqaluit on Uummannaq Fjord in the High Arctic, a distance of 50kms (30 miles). 
 
This is a brief account of their adventure, written and photographed by Will Richard.
 
 
The International Appalachian Trail, the “IAT”, begins in the far northeastern United States, in the State of Maine at Mt. Katahdin. Geographically, the trail tracks northeast into Canada by way of the Provinces of New Brunswick and Québec, then onto its next primary political feature, the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador. It then heads further north and east to Greenland, then onto the British Isles, and Scandinavia. 
 
Access by public transportation to IAT trails in Greenland is through Narsarsuaq Airport in Greenland’s south and through Nuuk and Kangerlussuaq to Qaarsut or Saqqaq in Greenland’s north.  Like Canada, Greenland has multiple locations of hiking activity. In Canada, provincial chapters represent these multiple trail locations. In Greenland given its size – better than three times the size of Texas - there are subchapters. Presently, hikers have their choice of Greenland south and Greenland north routes, that is between Viking settlements, ancient ruins of churches and monasteries, and fields of hay and potatoes and between glaciers, remote ice fields, and valleys with swift streams clawing at a hiker’s legs that characterize the north.
 
Access by public transportation to IAT trails in Greenland is through Narsarsuaq Airport in Greenland’s south and through Nuuk and Kangerlussuaq to Qaarsut or Saqqaq in Greenland’s north.  Like Canada, Greenland has multiple locations of hiking activity. In Canada, provincial chapters represent these multiple trail locations. In Greenland given its size – better than three times the size of Texas - there are subchapters. Presently, hikers have their choice of Greenland south and Greenland north routes, that is between Viking settlements, ancient ruins of churches and monasteries, and fields of hay and potatoes and between glaciers, remote ice fields, and valleys with swift streams clawing at a hiker’s legs that characterize the north.
 
With enhanced flight connections, Greenland continues to become increasingly accessible.  From Europe, air travel is by way of Air Greenland from Copenhagen to Kangerlussuaq. From North America, the primary departure point for Greenland is Boston to Iceland and from Iceland to Nuuk by way of Air Greenland.  From Canada, access in the summer is by way Air Greenland from Iqaluit, Nunavut, to Nuuk.
 
The South Greenland Chapter of the IAT tracks through ideal hiking terrain, passing by the historical sites from the Norse period (Eric the Red's land - Qassiarsuk/Bratthalid and Igaliku/Gardar). It connects gently rolling landscapes dominated by sheep farms and Viking ruins, tumbled down monasteries and roofless ancient churches with the mountainous and geological areas close to the towns of Qaqortoq and Narsaq. Parts of the trail are easy gravel roads and marked sheep tracks; accommodations are available at farms and hostels along the way. Other parts of the trail’s leg, though, are unmarked, and require navigation skills and hiking experience as well as a tent. The company, Blue Ice Explorers, represent IAT in South Greenland.
 
The North Greenland Chapter trail is located about 500 km above the Arctic Circle on Greenland’s west coast on the rugged Nuussuaq Peninsula just to the North of Disko Island. The Peninsula’s mountainous, rubble filled land, located between 700 and 710 North Latitude, separates Disko Bay from Uummannaq Fjord.  This area offers extreme hiking along the IAT’s northern-most trail. This is where René Christensen, four other adults, 12 children from the Uummannaq Children’s Home and, myself hiked from, south to north.  Most of the children had never done such a hike, carrying heavy oversize packs, trying every muscle in their bodies, their balance, and good humor.
 
The corridor on Nuussuaq is divided into two trails both connecting Disko Bay with Uummannaq fjord. The longest trail on Nuussuaq goes from the settlement of Qaarsut in the North to Saqqaq in the South via the coast from Qaarsut 45 km to the settlement of Niaqornat; it then crosses the Peninsula for about 30 km to the huge Marrait Delta.  Trail follows the big river 85 km upland to Saqqaq Lake. At Saqqaq Lake is a crossing of the river that requires backpacking a small boat. After the river crossing, the trail continues through the Saqqaq Valley 45 km down to the Settlement of Saqqaq, a total distance of about 205 km.
 
This article focuses on the other trail of 50 km, which crosses the peninsula from Kussuaq on Disko Bay in the Arctic to Eqaluit on Uummannaq Fjord in the High Arctic. “High” Arctic means colder temperatures and a more austere, less vegetated land, one with annual ice formations through more of the year.
 
In 2008, the Uummannaq Children’s Home became involved with the International Appalachian Trail in North Greenland. Both developing and using hiking trails is one strategy used by the Home to build, through experience, confidence among its young wards.  A long, arduous hike can, in every sense of the word, be a rite-of-passage from childhood to adolescence or adulthood.  The Children’s Home is both an educational and a protective institution for children and young people at risk. This strategy of challenging young people physically and emotionally has proven to be extremely successful for developing their sense of responsibility and care for others.
 
On this trek, hikers are not seasoned travelers from the Children’s Home in Uummannaq.  Our young hikers range in age from 9 and 10 to upper teenage years. Many of these hikers, have never worn a backpack nor gone on a long hike, much less one of 50 km.  Moving that rugged distance on 9-year-old legs and while carrying a heavy load is actually something to write home about. Starting with long boat ride, we began our adventure in June 2013.
 
Hiking Log
 
After a daylong boat ride on June 24 with body jarring open speedboats, we unloaded, shouldered our packs, took in a deep breath, and began the 50 km trek over the Nuussuaq Peninsula. Hiking begins on June 25 in Kussuaq and ends on June 30 in Eqaluit, taking a full week.   This Kussuaq/Eqaluit trail section is one portion of IAT North Greenland trail corridor. There is still a gap in the trail between what we traveled in a cross-peninsula course and remainder of trail, which runs the length of the peninsula. Once that gap is filled, the trail will be about 300 km, which is a demanding hike in this type of terraine, marked by tortuous routes around large boulders, high moraines of shifting small rocks which must be ascended or descended, and myriad streams of glacial melt water wherever there is a depression in the land’s topography. 
 
June 24 Monday
 
Today we leave on backpacking trip over the Nuussuaq Peninsula to start the hike on the south side of peninsula and then to turn northwards. Viewed by map (Figure 1- Goggle map -or supplied by Suluk), six, mostly-open speedboats transport our hiking party through heavily glaciated waters of the Nuussuaq Peninsula, around its point jutting to the northwest, and then to drop us off on the south side of the peninsula. 
 
In late afternoon, we reach the fishing settlement of Niaqornat on the north side of peninsula, located just before peninsula’s tip. In early evening, we finally reach settlement of Nussuaq. Abandoned in the 1940s, this settlement is the location of the “Bear Trap” (at about 70 degrees 45 minutes latitude), known in Danish as the Bjørnefoeldein ruin.  It was here during the early first millennium that Vikings sailed from South Greenland each spring to hunt walrus, polar bear, and narwhal with which to pay crown and church tithing.
 
Native Bear Trap

Leaving Nuussuaq and the Bear Trap behind, we cruise south and then east along the south side of the Nuussuaq Peninsula.  We spend our first night in Saqqaq, sleeping on floor of the community building. By water, it has taken about 10 hours to transit over the ice congested Arctic waters. The hikers have now ridden the 225 km from Uummannaq. Qaarsut and Saqqaq are the two points on the trail where both scheduled Air Greenland transportation and local boats are available from their owners, with knowledge of these treacherous shores as well as how to navigate among local “fast” shore ice and icebergs floating from as far away as Russia.

June 25 Tuesday

This morning, our convoy motors further south and east to the trailhead at the mouth of the “Kussuaq” (Big River) finally.  Our first steps mark the first time that the IAT – Greenland chapter has hiked from south to north. From Uummannaq to trail starting point at Kussuaq is a total of boat travel of 260 km.

Along with René, three Greenlandic hikers who had hiked the IAT in Maine in 2012 also walked, stumbled, and made this hike. At 73, I am the oldest and the only person neither Greenlandic nor Danish to do so; Malik, René’s son, at age 9, is the youngest.  René muses that our party has set three firsts for crossing the Nuussuaq Peninsula: the youngest person, the oldest person, and the largest hiking party. Another first is an organized group hike of an IAT trail above the Arctic Circle.  

After following the Kussuaq River, the trail then turns eastward.  There are absolutely no trees, only an herbaceous landscape decorated with rocks small, large, and huge.  René laid down the course of this trail in 2008. At the end of today’s hike, we establish our first campsite.

Factors for choosing a campsite are few: enough flat space for our tents, perhaps a view, but most critical is the availability of water.

Camp art - Reindeer antlers with water bag counter-weighted

With no trees for fuel, cooking is done by way of backpacking stoves using gas canisters to boil water, which is then mixed with a packaged, dehydrated meal in an aluminum bag.

June 26 Wednesday

Joas Korneliussen, a hunter with us from the Uummannaq Children’s Home, works with René to keep us all moving - assisting each as needed. On the pathway, worn down by the collective footprints of reindeer and hunter, we follow an often-hollowed out trail. We come, unexpectedly, upon a snowfield.  During a rest break, several hikers make snowballs and begin a friendly fight.  We cross two glacial streams and many smaller ones, all just as frigid.  Later, another friendly snowball fight breaks out by a glacier stream.

 

We stop for the night and, as is our standard practice, mark the camp with the Greenland flag.

 

Thursday June 27

This morning we must cross a major glacial river.  René sets up a fixed line with “D” ring attached to a figure 8 sling into which hiker places legs.

 

Joas Korneliussen anchors one-end, and Children Home’s Bolethe Skade steadies and anchors the other end. Each hiker then awaits turn to snap D ring onto fixed line and to inch his/her way across the frigid stream. As the D ring slides along the fixed line, René steadies the smaller children and catches the stumbling ones.

On other side of stream, a mammoth stonewall faces us.  We struggle and slab diagonally upwards over moraines, which abut this towering wall. There is a series of moraines - as many as nine or ten – which we must ascend.  As winter held on longer this year, snowfields mark each moraine.  The air is much cooler, and land  – just rocks, both rounded and fractured, knife sharp and smoothly curved.  In the distance, a cabin perches on a ridge. At this point, we are so conditioned that mindlessly one foot goes down in front of the other. We head towards two cabins that have come into view. 

 

Cabins, both quite small, are about 695 m above sea level. The original cabin was built for the postal service when mail delivery was by dog sledge.  It is said that Knud Rasmussen used this shelter as part of his run to train his dogs for the Fifth Thule Expedition (1921 - 1924). Today that shelter, with one wall missing, is a disaster looking as if it is now used as outhouse.  The other, a newer shelter, was built conjointly by the kommunes of Uummannaq and Ilulissat, right on the line.   With a sleeping platform occupying about one-third of space, all 18 of us are able to sleep and eat inside, fortunately we sleep dry as a rain-snow storm takes over outside.

June 28 Friday

Very low clouds, rain, snow dominate the weather. Thankfully, we are inside.  If the weather keeps us holed up, we have enough food to last for six days, enough cooking gas for five days, and miraculously everyone remained upbeat. As some of our young hikers had already eaten much of their high-energy food bars, René communicates his displeasure at this wrongful action.

Kids checking their food supplies

Hiking in dangerous landscapes is always a mater of thinking ahead, especially for food and water. On a satellite phone, René regularly calls Uummannaq to report on our status.  He learns that in Uummannaq, it had started to rain; here it is snow.  On average, this kind of weather lasts about 18 hours.  But, neither Joas nor René is familiar enough with weather here to make any forecast.  Unexpectedly, the weather starts to clear; by noon we are back onto an often snow-buried trail – slipping and sliding, sometimes sinking into drifts.

 

We descend to a valley marked by an abandoned dog sledge and five glaciers. Weather continues to clear as wind sweeps the stubborn clouds away. These glaciers are part of the Nuussuaq Peninsula’s Ice Cap.  With snow not melting until late June, this may be a good year for glacier gain and a bad year for feasting mosquitoes.

Dog sledge with glacier in background

June 29 Saturday

The sky becomes blue before us. We have hiked from a campsite up a small mountain and are now at the end of a lake whose treacherous rocky shoreline is out to make our lives a misery.   Now with warm sun and thick ground vegetation, the first mosquitoes burst out and attack when we take a break before struggling over the shoreline.  Soon, the sky begins to cloud over so we must push to reach that day’s campsite. Back on the trail along the lake’s edge, we continue  our now-conditioned practice of thinking before jumping to the next rock.  We arrive at a height-of-land from which we see Uummannaq Fjord.  It is then a short hike to a flat place for our last night on the IAT – North Greenland.  As we begin to set up, the rain catches us.

June 30 Sunday

Rain and snow continue from Saturday night.  With still a heavy overcast, we break camp.  Along lake, a patch of turf has been upturned to reveal permafrost about a foot thick. We arrive at the beach in Eqaluit where boats from Uummannaq wait to pick us up.  All of us are bushed, flat out tired. After a barbecue to celebrate “we made it”, we depart for Uummannaq in, once again, small open boats. The return takes a rather roundabout course, as the passage is so thick with ice that we think that we are in the Jakobshavn glacier-fed waters of Ilulissat.

“Hiking is good for you!" group at the end of the trail

  (L-R) Will Richard and René Christensen congratulate each other

Each child absorbs his/her pain, each one learning that they can accomplish more than they thought.  The trip back ends as it began but with a much shorter boat trip back to Uummannaq.   Added to boat travel from Uummannaq to Kussuaq of 225 km is an additional 50 km from Eqaluit to Uummannaq. This is a grand total of water travel of about 300 km for a 50 km hike.

 

Thoughts on hiking IAT North Greenland

This was a long, tough hike for these Greenlandic children. As we started out, I was concerned with the size of backpack that each child carried.   At the outset, some of the smaller kids actually toppled over!  But, Greenlandic resilience took over as each child absorbed/banished the pain of living/walking in a harsh terrain. As I dragged myself from rest stop to rest stop, each child steadily rose to the task – even one 10-year-old boy whose pack simply did not have enough adjustments to make it fit him.  With this adventure, his life will never be the same.

The young people played, had snow ball fights, or went for water for the rest of us.  There were no complaints about wet weather or keeping up the pace. Small and untried legs continued to move forward, cross streams, and scale the next moraine.  Throughout hike, the young women continue to float along like butterflies on a hot summer afternoon.

 

Trip leader René Kristensen, whom I have gotten to know over the years in Greenland and in Maine, is a “can do” person who passes on that same intensity to those with whom he comes in contact.  René, a par excellence organizer, leaves nothing to chance.  Growing up in Europe where he was a Boy Scout, he continues to personify the Scout motto: “Be Prepared”. With staff assistance by Joas Korneliussen and Boleth Skade, we all made it to trail’s end, and without any debilitating incident.  All three were always there when circumstances required   compassion, a supporting hand.

High latitude hiking is, almost by definition, more challenging than is hiking at temperate latitudes but still within capability of the young and the old. Simply put – “think ahead, be careful”.  As long as valleys are followed, it is almost impossible to become lost.  With many stream and snowfield crossings, perspiration, and the occasional snow or rain, avoiding hypothermia can be a major problem.  Wear wool and the various new poly fiber clothing.

Twisted ankles and broken bones from stumbling over a rock-strewn landscape are other situations for which to be prepared.  Best preparation is always – every step of the way – to remain alert as to where you are placing each foot, each time.  Then, of course, there are blisters; carry a small roll of duct tape for your hiking party.

For equipment, ensure plenty of petrol for boats.  With copious glacial melt, carry a rope. With map and GPS, remain aware of where you are going.  Carry a satellite phone and a rifle, the latter as there is the rare possibility of a polar bear coming ashore from drift ice. This occasionally happens further south in the Canadian Province of Newfoundland and Labrador where there is a chapter of the IAT. To ensure that all of these situation and equipment contingencies are met, hire a local guide out of Uummannaq that can be located through either the Uummannaq Children’s Home or the Uummannaq Polar Institute (Bhjumq@greennet.gl). A guide will also provide the boat, which you will need to access the trail. 

Finally, this is the trip to what I consider the last remaining frontier of North America. Geologists classify Greenland as part of North America. Where else can you still see people living on the land and ice, driving dogs, and hunting seal?  Rockwell Kent, a modern American artist who once lived and painted here (as well as in Maine), would still recognize this place known as Greenland. 

Wilfred E. Richard, Phd
IAT Maine Chapter

info@wilfredrichard.com