The Beauty of Barren: Backcountry Greenland

The glaciers are melting, but that’s not the only compelling story unravelling in Greenland today. Adventure travelers recognize the urgency to see this sprawling, barrenly beautiful wilderness of iceberg laden fjords and glacier chiseled peaks. Backcountry adventure travel is in full throttle in many once pristine places, but remains in its infancy in Greenland. Tusker took its first private group into Greenland’s Southeast backcountry this past August and begins annual trips open to all in August 2020.

Mel Kaida, Tusker’s assistant operations director, guided the private group and was startled by the scenery around each mountain curve and the straight fjords that divide the snow-capped ridgelines. “We walked on the sides of mountains and it was tense navigating the tides when we walked along the shoreline. Other days we spent hiking on moraine which was really rocky. Another day we were partially hiking on a glacier and on its other side was a sand dune. We had everything in one place,” Mel said. “This is definitely the most rugged and wild trip we offer in terms of terrain and landscape. The camping set up is minimalist and the group needs to come together to set up camp and load the boats. This brings the group together.”

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Following a trailless path to nameless destinations

Tusker has scheduled nine-day trips August 12-20, 2020 and August 10-18, 2021 trekking Greenland that will test your backcountry skills. Seven days are spent in the wilderness where there are no established trails, villages or sounds other than calving glaciers. It’s also treeless with few signs of wildlife. You will trek over 30 miles on Ammassalik Island on a route that goes around and through coastal mountains but because of massive glaciers and fjords is connected by boats piloted by native Inuit. There are six different campsites all with diverse views and one was a player in world history.

It’s daylight for nearly 24 hours when we will be trekking Greenland, but you will sleep deeply after long days on your feet and in the boats. Weather last August was unusually warm with temperatures during the day often in the 60s with lows in the 40s at night. Sunshine was abundant with relatively dry hiking conditions other than the frequent stream crossings.

Unlike other Tusker trips that are supported by small teams of porters and guides, this trip has just two Greenland veteran guides, led by Rich Manterfield who is based in Kulusuk. Rich does the cooking and leads the group in collecting mussels from the fjords and also catches Arctic char for supper. He carries the rifle that is insurance against polar bears. Rich didn’t use the gun on Tusker’s first sojourn, but carries it just in case. The group’s biggest wildlife sighting came at the end of the trip when a pod of humpback whales came within ten feet of the small boats.

Kulusuk, veritable metropolis

After a two hour flight from Reykjavik, Iceland that showcases Greenland’s icy mountain typography, you will be greeted in Kulusuk by Rich who will lead you on a 30 minute walk to the lodge. This town of 200 has many more dogsleds than 4X4s. The village feels very ‘80s – 1880’s with its wooden cabin architecture and views of distant untouched mountain ranges rising from the Arctic sea. Mel’s group had no wifi connectivity the two nights spent there. There is a small museum run by a local teacher that is open intermittently. When you walk into the airport’s arrivals hall you are greeted with large photos of Arctic wolfs and sled dogs, not corporate advertising.

Kulusuk’s characters include Danes who fled Europe for the non-comprising outdoor life and weather toughened seal/whale hunters who have lived off the sea for centuries. Their kids want to be part of the 21stcentury wired world and may ask you about where you come from, but don’t oversell it. In some ways they have it as good as it gets, simple and spectacular. See Netflix’s, “Journey to Greenland,” a French production, to get a frosty flavour of what it’s it like to live in Kulusuk. Kulusuk means ‘the chest of the black guillemot (a pelagic bird)’ in Greenlandic.

North up Ammassalik Fjord

The backcountry trip begins in the boats heading north up Ammassalik Fjord that carries icebergs drifting down the coast and a variety of whales are often seen. The 90 minute ride brushes against the Schweizerland Mountains, a vast range of some of Greenland’s highest peaks (over 10,000 feet) and heaviest glaciation. Its Fox Jaw Cirque attracts very serious mountain climbers and many peaks in the Schweizerland Alps remain unnamed and unclimbed. Your trek begins hiking south down the fjord on a faint path that crosses a few streams that ends after eight kilometres at Camp Tasilaq Fjord.

The toughest day on the trek, although not the longest at nine kilometres is Day 6 according to Mel. You reach the highest point over 1000 feet on the journey, but the terrain is challenging and the descent is dizzying. “We hiked up through the mountains to a gorgeous spot where an alpine lake is now split into three sections by the Rafaelson Glacier. The views are amazing, but Day 6 is an incredible mental challenge because of the descent, ”Mel said adding that poles and waterproof/supportive foot wear are essentials on this trip.

The longest day trekking Greenland comes between the mountains surrounding Ammassalik Fjord and the Bay of Tuno. It starts with an easy climb into a surprisingly lush valley of dwarf willow and crowberry bushes with multiple stream crossings in between. It’s a 14 kilometer day with a spectacular campsite on the bay as the reward. Tuno Bay is shallow and calm so get up early to see the water reflecting off the far side mountains. It could make for some subtle yet great photos in this uniquely photogenic landscape.

Weather Wars, then and now

The third camp site is near Bluie East Two, a site you will not soon forget. During WW II, Uncle Sam built 30 military installations throughout Greenland including two air bases that included Bluie East Two. Greenland was a strategic war location because of its air routes leading to North America, but just as importantly, its sea routes. Ship routing for convoys was often determined by Arctic Sea weather and the Germans established five covert weather stations on Greenland. These were taken out after small battles, but it’s ironic that Greenland, the world’s largest island and second largest ice sheet, remains in the eye of the Weather Wars. It is front and center of global climate change monitoring and there are more climatologists visiting than adventure travellers. Greenland’s population is just 58,000.

Bluie East was among the largest installations and near the Ikateq campsite is a military ghost town of abandoned trucks, oil barrels and barracks. The air strip remains intact. Walk on it listening to today’s silence, but imagining the whine of engines, a shocking contrast to nature’s splendour enveloping you. The Danish government has pledged $27 million to remove all the USA military sites and clean-up began this past August.

Time Capsule adventure travel

On Day 8 when you cross the fjord by boat to the eastern shore of Kulusuk Island and walk to the calving face of the Knud Rasmussen glacier, it’s a chance to reflect on where you have been on this trip, but also where you have been in the past and where you want to go in the future.

Trekking into Greenland’s backcountry is time capsule travel for you and the world you inhabit. By seeing Greenland you journey back 11,700 years to get a sense of what the last ice age looked like at the end of its two million year grip on the planet. The glaciers were retreating, but their movements carved many of the peaks that have inspired you throughout your decades of travel. Meeting the Inuit you have gained a sense of what people of pre-industrial revolution hunter/gatherer cultures were like. More recently, world wars have reshaped the world into winners/losers with the environment often being sacrificed.

Greenland is a barometer of our future. Its melting glaciers feeding sea rise could divide us into environmental haves and have nots. To trek into Greenland’s backcountry is a light bulb, humbling moment. To appreciate and experience it’s grandeur juxtaposed with its warming conditions could put things into global prospective for you, or just simply be the journey of a lifetime.

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